By our second week, it was time to explore further South. The fact that Rio is full of endless areas to explore can’t be expressed enough- even if the city itself were empty, the intricate natural layout creates infinite space to wander. Barra de Tijuca, the sprawling surburban area (where most of the 2016 Summer Olympics will take place), is the largest area south of where tourists think Rio de Janeiro ends. Behind the iconic Dois Irmaos mountains towering over Ipanema and Leblon are several continuations of Rio, including Sao Conrado, Rocinha and Barra de Tijuca and this week we were ready to explore it all.
Trying to find our way back to the Brazil we thought we knew, we headed back out into the heat. Because the spaces are so massive in Barra and everyone has cars it actually took a while to make it to the beach, walking alongside the major roadway like two people who were very out of place. We couldn’t even see which way the beach was through all the buildings, despite being just a few blocks away. Definitely different from Ipanema. The Praia de Barra is a whopping 10 miles (17 km) long…And when you finally get to it, you see that the size of Barra is very much in it’s favor. It stretches forever. That’s a beach that’s simply too big to get crowded and nothing puts you in beach mode better than nothing but beach for miles to each side.
Because it had taken us ages to get there (the main downside), we just had the afternoon on the slightly-cleaner and muchless-crowded-than-Ipanema sands. As the pre-sunset haze settled over the beach, we sat watching silhouettes moving along the 10 miles of sand in the mist. Kitesurfers embraced the open water, joggers ran by the shore, and a few people sat down to watch dusk begin to set. Our efforts weren’t completely unrewarded. With nothing blocking the sunlight, there was a candlelight glow on everything in sight that even made us forget about the impending doom of the evening traffic we would sit in on the way home.
We had been dismissive of Barra because it seemed nothing more than an affluent suburban area. As backpackers, it didn’t scream out as somewhere paticularly eye-opening. After a two hour bus journey in the heat, we got to see for ourselves. We exited the bus at Barra Shopping. You’ll notice it by the miniature Statue of Liberty outside. Yes, miniature Statue of Liberty. To say Barra felt like a mini-America is the simplest way to put it, and this statue was just the start. We entered the mall to indulge in their air conditioning before the beach, and walked past rows of American chain restaurants. TGIFriday’s, Applebees, Outback Steakhouse. Giant movie theaters and endless shopping. It was not what we had expected.
By getting off at Barra Shopping we were way past where we should have gone. Leaving, we passed the beginning of the beach cornered by the massive mountains of Pedra de Gavea and the Tijuca Forest, and packed with buzzing little restaurants and bars near the sand. Barraca do Pepe, on this part of the beach, is where you really want to go. Then you get a bit more of the vibrancy of the Zona Sul beaches, with the perks of expansive Barra.
So we had our first-world Brazil experience, and it was a stark contrast to our current Lapa existence. Happy to see yet happy to return to Zona Sul, it did open up these southern areas for us as we had a better idea of how to explore everywhere else.
When arriving at the base of Rocinha, you know when you are there. It is impossible to miss. Suddenly the bus is in even more congested traffic than before, and the minute you hop off you have the feeling of being at the center of an anthole: Wild activity buzzes insanely, rapidly moving in every direction. At the start is about a block of very cheap street vending stalls selling all the knockoff sunglasses, bedazzled iPhone cases and satin halter tops with gold chain straps that you could possibly want. Or not. But once you pass the stalls, you come upon the real buzz.
The roadways are madder than the infamously congested highways below. Motortaxis practically pile up waiting to take passengers up the incredible anthill. Electrical wires weave out of every window, stream below every door, and tangle in dangling knots the size of Amazonian vines as they reach to the nearest electrical pole. d flow from every smushed stack of buildings, powering the chaos below. Acai stands are countless, half the price of every else, and are just one of the many places kids coming home from school gather as they break up the hot journey up the hill. Everyone is outside. Any time of day.
So later that week, we decided to cross a very different southern spot off of our list: Rocinha. Rocinha is the largest favela in Rio de Janeiro, and despite being the main site for tourist “Favela Tours”, still has the favela pulse that some of the other Zona Sul favelas have begun to lose as gringos move in. Rocinha is very much it’s own world, and everyone who visits describes it as eye-opening: seasoned Rio travelers and newbies alike.
A friend of ours suggested visiting the mirante, a viewpoint at the top where we could see amazing views of Sao Conrado below, as well as the rest of Zona Sul over the other side of the nestle in the hill where Rocinha sits. Whenever exploring favelas in Rio, we always go with a purpose. It’s best not to wander aimlessly, but the favelas also have a lot of worthwhile spots to see (which is usually what sends us there in the first place). Having passed Rocinha on the way to Barra, we began our day the exact same way. But we ended it much, much differently.
We curved with the main road at first, then were sent through the homes for a shortcut to the lookout. We passed a tour group, a very obvious tour group, and admittedly felt grateful we were not part of the mini parade that every neck turned to look at- we can handle this, we blend.
We continued through the shortcuts. We wove through the clumps of brick homes where hundreds of lives intersect in less than fifty square feet. It is incredible to imagine how many different individual existences occur right on top of each other in the physical layers of the community. It is even dizzying when you start looking at all of your surroundings, you can almost forget which way is up. Out of every building the sounds of laughter, television, fighting, radios, screaming children and chatting old women waft through the narrow pathways.
I darted to look away as tried to register what I had seen. With bright red, lazy eyes, the kid registered us, then continue talking with his friend. No reaction. Even though the roads were wider here, there never is true space in the favelas- you are always in close proximity to whoever is in sight. His disinterest suddenly put me, falsely, at ease. Was that just the way it was here? Sixteen-year-olds with pistols sticking out of their pants? Not cool, but overreacting to what we had heard we might see seemed unnecessary, and quite possibly worse than doing nothing. Without space to mutter to each other without drawing unwanted attention, we continued upwards, heads bowed under the heat and me starting to wonder when I should mutter to Henry what I had seen. It was wrapped in that towel…He clearly was not prepared to whip it out any minute anyways.
Simply going upwards, we got to a point where we truly did not know which way was up. The ups and downs of every alley are inconsistent, so despite trying not to stand out more than we already did, we began to ask around. Bored teenagers on their smartphones would nod in one direction or another, older women selling pastries and balding old men running barber shops would kindly point us the right way, and finally we were able to figure out which way was up. With what had seemed like a strong consensus on where to go, we continue upwards as the alleys got narrower, more and more were dead ends,
Finally, it widened a bit. We saw a plaza. Through the buildings to the left we could see glimpses of the view we had come for. The streets had a few more people than the previous deserted ones. I looked up, relieved to know we were on the right track, and noticed than the teenager on the path just ahead of us had something tucked in his shorts that was not another smartphone. Wrapped in a sham-wow style, neon yellow, rag, was a gun. Shirtless, it was an unmistakable shape around his waist . The rule in favelas is never take photos of faces, and never look anyone in the eye too long.
In a moment that made my heart stop, the men at the top began yelling down at the men below, berating them for having let us pass. The old men who had been showering and seen us pass were being yelled at- Why did they not stop us? More yelling, us glaring with determination at the ground and trying to apologize without meeting anyones eye, but even more yelling. Yelling men and teenager, all armed, fighting around us. Walkie-talkies began beeping and buzzing as Henry tried to explain we were just stupid tourists, looking for the looking, but we are leaving, we are leaving. The young guy with the towel-covered gun came running up- A bulky guy above with a much bigger, not-covered gun shouted at him for letting us pass. Apparently he was suppod to serve as the first line of defense (and that is why you should always trust your first instinct).
We continued up. We were next to the plaza, where several older men stood under a public shower, and other sat around drinking beer. Street art surrounded the opening, welcoming us to the lookout. We could finally see that we were in the very top portion of the favela. Just a bit more to go. Walking with our heads down as we passed people, the standard, something else caught my eye a few people ahead. Another set of shirtless teenagers sitting and chatting. No fingers flicking away at cellphones. Their arms were folded over their laps, gently guarding AK47s. One each. I began sweating in double-time, even though we were already climbing a steep hill in near hundred degree weather. That, that was not normal. And even if it was, it was not a version of normal I could even pretend to be okay with. Panicked, I knew I had to get Henrys attention, but with as subtle of a strategy as possible. These high teengers now had serious guns, and if nobody had seemed alarmed by our presence so far, now seemed the absolute worse time to make them so.
I muttered under my breath to Henry, begging him to pick up my tone of voice before I even had to finish the sentence, I do not think we should be here, we are not supposed to be here, look but don’t look like you are, please…In one of our smoothest moments of joint thinking, Henry casually glanced up as I glanced back down at the ground an tried to keep my feet moving one in front of the other, casual. Nope, he muttered, just turn around, casually turn around. Without missing a beat, we both began to turn just as a man even higher up noticed us. We looked up like deer in headlights, trying not to but failing. Those two guns with AKs? Just the start. About 7 more stood up ahead, equally armed. I know, much worse happens, but seeing even police with these types of guns in Rio always made me uncomfortable. Completely out of place, standing on a road we couldnt name, surrounded by these guys with guns? Uncomfortable doesnt begin to describe it.
When we finally caught our breath, we hardly had words for each other. What now? was all we could ask. We couldnt even guess how to get down in this tanged network of buildings and strangers. Hurredly, decidedly and very grateful, we stayed as near the main roads as possible and markedly made our way out. No view was worth the feeling of walking with our backs to those men, guarding whatever was going on behind them, and just hoping, praying that it was more trouble to do anything to us than to to let us walk away, blissfully ignorant.
As we made it to the bottom, grabbed our cheap acai and caught the Barra bus that was heading back to Lapa, we reveled in our renewed appreciation for safety, being surrounded by strangers who didnt have guns, and the polar opposites of Rio that exist just 15 minutes apart from one another on the same bus line.
In a blur, the yelling stops, guns were put behind backs, and a man came from above and told us, calma, and pointed us down. We were turned away from the giant guns blocking the path upwards and felt them burning holes into our backs as we walked down the alley, just a few shouting between themselves now. We couldnt talk to each other, just walk and hope none of them were too high to understand that they were ordered to let us leave, unharmed. We turned corner after corner but didnt stop to look at each other, talk, or even breath until we hit a main road again. We should have taken the tour.
Rio de Janeiro has everything- every type of person, lifestyle and sights to see, but the sheer spectrum it all covers is what makes it most impressive. And scary. And unpredictable. And exhilerating, and even though we would never go seeking that type of moment like some do in the favelas (seriously, some of the TripAdvisor reviews on favela tours rave about the authenticity of having heard gunshots- seriously?!), it definitely was something we had yet to experience in Rio. From first-world, Americanized Barra to teenagers with guns in Rocinha, our week exploring south of Ipanema redefined the spectrum of Rio. No traveler folk stories, no rumors, but a spectrum based on our own, lived experience.
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