A Taste of Real Rio

Mona au futbol - Rio street art in the Lapa district

Compared to my 6 weeks in Buenos Aires, spending 6 days in Rio was nothing… however, the quick trip was enhanced by several very authentic experiences. Put on your bullet-proof jacket, grab a takeaway Caipirinha cocktail and off we go!

Alright. I’m exaggerating a little. You can leave your bullet-proof vest at home (maybe?). I can safely say that nothing dangerous happened to me in Rio. On the other hand, I did hear several scary stories from locals detailing quite awful theft incidences, however, I had to remind myself that these things can happen in any big city, you just need to be careful and do your best to stay safe.

A Look at the Changing Face of Favelas

Of course, I don’t always listen to my own advice… I wanted to get to know the real Rio, more like real people, real customs, real atmosphere, not the local hospital or police station. First stop: the Favela Cantagalo.

When I was looking around for hotels in Rio I was surprised at how expensive they were, these highish prices being my first clues that Rio was indeed developing quickly… or merely evidence that they were adept at tourism. It seemed like the choices in my budget were too basic hostels or dreary old-school hotels with peeling wallpaper from the 1970s, or…  wait a second, what was this? The Pousada Cantagalo … in a favela. Hmmm, should I live on the wild side? Or rather … would I survive to talk about it?

Now, before you have visions of drug turf-warfare ricocheting through your head, Cantagalo is a “pacified” favela, stemming from a government-led initiative to clean up the shantytowns since 2008, particularly in preparation for the soccer World Cup, but hopefully with the ultimate goal of bettering the lives of the locals. Some favelas have even become quite hip with stars (Madonna, David Beckham…) buying up property and building ghetto-chic villas. The favela I was staying in was in between two of Rio’s fanciest districts, Copacabana and Ipanema, and as I discovered, there were several of those luxurious villas on my climb up, so I figured that this factor, in addition to the reviews à la “the best experience we had in Rio” which I’d scrutinized before clicking book helped push my keyboard trigger finger.

In general favela communities cling to the hillsides of the city, as the wealth Cariocas (Rio inhabitants) didn’t want to live up in the heights. I realized why quite quickly. I live on a hill in Paris! I should know better! Man, and this one was even worse than Montmartre. On the positive side with all my huffing and puffing, I’d at least be return to Paris ready to tackle my own hill with newly strengthened legs. Fitness aside, the biggest reward was the view. The reviews had boasted the incredible panorama and this didn’t fall short of expectations. Rio really is in a magical location. The Pousada inn itself was rather basic, but clean and the staff fantastic. That said, I wish I’d known there wasn’t any hot water for the shower… but I guess it was part of the favela experience. The first night, I did get out into the area a little thanks to the owner’s brother (who carried my heavy suitcase up the stairs!) who took me to a local pizza joint for a late dinner. I only regret that I didn’t wander around the favela a little more, yet I didn’t feel all that comfortable strolling through too deep into the streets on my own. It was brave enough on this first trip to stepping take the deserted steps down into town.

A Different Way to Experience Rio’s Carnival

The other tastes of authenticity I’d like to share were thanks to some new contacts in Rio, one of our docents and her boyfriend, two exceptionally fascinating people who took me under their wings two nights. I was initially supposed to be in Rio for around 10 days with the end being holiday time to enjoy carnival. I was rather disappointed when I had to change my plans,but I consoled myself knowing that I could always come back to Rio for carnival another year. With this in mind, you can imagine how excited I was when they invited me to attend one of the carnival dress rehearsals. Not only do very few visitors know about the event, it’s free and they give tourists special front-row seat access!

For the dress rehearsals, two samba schools do a full practice of their approximate 1 hour-long routine in the famous Sambadrome. The schools are each led in by King Momo, his queen and two princesses. Boy, was he charismatic! Smiling and waving to the public, stopping every 10 metres or so to do a little dance. The samba schools had different groups of dancers, from grannies to youthful amazing dancers, some in full or partial costume, others in their team t-shirts, all came with full enthusiasm and excitement for the event, singing along to their tune of the year. Sure I missed the feathers are over-the-top floats that only come out on the actually night during carnival, however, what we experienced was even more real… and as close as I’d get to the actual parade. Ok, there was one downside. It was raining at the beginning of the night. Yes, it rains even in sunny Rio, but we were all smiley and having a blast nonetheless. That’s the Rio spirit. I’ve uploaded a few videos, because the photos don’t do the event justice, below is one video but you can watch a few others at this link.

Street Party at Pedra do Sal

The other event they took me to was on the Monday night, normally a calm night, but apparently not in Rio. They were taking me to the historic Pedra do Sal, a very important site linked to the African heritage of Brazil. Normally there is live music, dancing and fun on Mondays… that is… when it isn’t raining… I can’t take credit for bringing the rain as I’d come from Buenos Aires, not Paris. It had been very hot lately so they needed the rain, however, it did dampen the festivities a tad and even though the rain had stopped in the early evening, there were far fewer people than normal. There was still something of a street party happening in a nearby square, full of locals, some drumming, others singing along, some chatting over a drink, others… sleeping (I don’t know how??).

Out in the Streets of Lapa

We seemed to be the only non-locals present, but nobody cared at all, they were all there to have fun and didn’t treat us any differently. We picked up a Caipirinha, the Brazilian cocktail made from cachaca alcohol and grooved to the drumming and vibrant energy. A little later on we moved on to the neighborhood of Lapa, a grungy-cool artsy area where there was a big concert happening. We wandered the backstreets, filled with fun-loving Carioca youth, taking in more of the ambience. Not bad for a cool Monday night.


This easygoing nature they had, plus the touching stories told by my evening hosts, helped remind me that we have to live in the moment, go with the flow and just sometimes take enough risks to live for real and get to know a destination for real, even if we are forced out of comfort zone, just a tad, leaving behind our bullet-proof jackets.

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