A Month in the Rio de Janeiro Marvelous City

Because the best should always be saved for last, as every other procastinator will tell you, we knocked off quite a bit in our last week in Rio de Janeiro- and discovered a lot of our new favorite spots in the city. We spent most of our time moving on up in the Marvelous City- on elevated surfaces from favelas to mountaintops to samba-watching perches, and our constant climbing was rewarded with new (and incredible) perspectives.

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We began with the Santa Marta favela. Most travelers know it as “the favela where Michael Jackson filmed his music video “They Don’t Care About Us”. It’s also the site of Dutch artists Haas & Hann’s Favela Painting Project, and the first favela in Rio de Janeiro to be pacified (and considered the model example of this process). We’ve visited it long ago, but didn’t have time to really wander, so we made it a priority to return and explore it more thoroughly.

When you visit Rio de Janeiro, everyone recommends a million hikes and lookouts to visit, you can’t possibly believe you need to do all of them…How different can twenty viewpoints in one city be? Well, very, and we should have trusted our local recommendations sooner. Here’s a glimpse at our week on top of Rio.

Just off the Botafogo metro stop, we walked up to where the road branches off and leads up to the hillside community. Even while on the main road, you can see all of the colorfully painted homes dotting the hill. As soon as we entered the neighborhood, we took the first left and were instantly at our first destination- the center of the Favela Painting Project. You can’t miss it.

The painted houses are unlike in other favelas where the walls are simply the uncovered brick and mortar structures, and add a whole new layer of liveliness. We read that the Favela Painting Project focused on integrating the community entirely, especially in terms of hiring local people to paint and buying all the supplies. And you can tell that impact has continued, home supply stores now display all of their colorful paint in front, and the project has continued way beyond just the one square. The Favela Painting Project tried to make the favela more than an undesirable place to live, and it certainly has.

We came and took our colorful photos, but loved seeing that it was actually a social center for the neighborhood rather than just full of tourists like us. We were the only visitors actually. Kids gather in the middle playing with soccer balls, older shirtless men with beer bellies sit around plastic tables of card games, windows open around the plaza offering peeks into hair salons, living rooms with soccer games blaring from the tvs and rooftops with loud funk music pouring down. And then, on top of the cluster of life that the plaza is on it’s own, every building is a different color (or several).

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After the main square, we headed up to the “Michael Jackson” square. Again, everyone who saw us pass would ask, “Michael Jackson?”, we would nod, “Sim!”, and they would point us through the tight narrow paths leading up. Upon reaching it, you’re welcomed to a small square with a bronze statue of the legend himself, a giant mosaic portrait, and wide views over the rest of Rio below. To the left you can see the Christ statue towering over a soccer field at the edge of the community, and just behind the square are cheap bars and a few local shops doing what they can to capitalize on the MJ fame.

Locals gladly guided us through, pointing where to go. They can spot anybody not from the community in a second, like in every other favela, but instead of sizing you up, they immediately list the places they assume you are coming for and steer you the right way. People seem to actually appreciate the visitors. They don’t just live in a favela- they live in the Michael Jackson, colorfully-painted favela, and that’s something people from all over the world want to come and see. I’m sure not everyone’s a fan, but we only encountered people who were and it made it such a great experience exploring on our own.

We hung out for over a hour, enjoying chea pcold beer and watching the activity around us. A house was being built a few doors down, and several teenagers hung out in the square kicking a soccer ball off of the mosaic wall. Below, a kid playing on his roof top kept bringing out different trikes and toys to show off for us, pausing and awaiting a thumbs up whenever he worried we had stopped watching.

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First we headed out to Sao Conrado, just before Barra da Tijuca, to tackle Pedra Bonita. We had heard it was one of the easier hikes but it took a good hour or so just to get to the start of it from Downtown Rio, so the journey began well before the trail did. We rode the tiny city bus up what seemed to be a dead-end road in a neighborhood, but swept us deep into the Tijuca National Forest and sped up and around the curvy road to the crest of the forest near the top.

Even though Santa Marta is the “model” favela for what the city is doing to “improve” them, once you’re halfway up you really remember that you’re in a slum. Santa Marta sees the most tour groups pass through, but Vidigal always has the most foreigners in it so that’s most peoples’ point of reference for a Rio de Janeiro favela. But the top half of Santa Marta feels much more impoverished than the bottom, or than any part of Vidigal, serving as an important reminder that this is still a slum where people have to live.

Our next journey upwards was a bit more of a marathon- with only so many days left in Rio, we decided to conquer too high points in one day. The Pedra Bonita trail and the Dois Irmaos hike are generally in the same area, so we challenged ourselves to get up early and finish both by the end of the day. Not impossible, but not the average relaxed Rio de Janeiro itinerary.

The driver waved us off once we reached our stop, but seeing no sign and being in the midst of the rainforest, we were a bit confused. But we trusted him, hopped off, and sure enough saw a tiny sign across the road confirming that we had reached that start of the Pedra Bonita trail. Feeling a world away from the rest of Rio that we knew so well, we simply followed the arrows up the steep road leading into the dense trees.

Some tourists detach from the reality of the favelas as they comfortably wander through with a guide and their giant cameras out, but you still cross bridges over open sewers, see mountains of garbage that will only shrink as stray dogs eat it, and people living around the edges who have never been able to afford to construct more than a shack. It maintains the ability to be authentically eye-opening, while also welcoming to foreigners- an incredibly rare combination and very worthwhile experience for understanding another of Rio’s sides. One we can’t recommend enough (just make sure to research on safety a bit before going on your own, and check out our Favela guide for how to get there).

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And then, a short and steep trail up later, we emerged…to this. To a completely open plateau with sweeping 300 degree views. Nothing and nobody else in our way.

The cloudy skies we had begun to clear out and all of Rio de Janeiro below became visible. Pedra Bonita, often touted as nothing more than the easier alternative to Pedro da Gavea, had incredible views. The views to the South of Barra da Tijuca; to the North over Zona Sul, all the way from the Two Brothers to the Christ statue; the infamous face on the massive monolith of Pedra da Gavea in front of us. Every direction offered striking panoramic views, and we had endless space atop the mountaintop to run in whichever directions we wanted to look and photograph next. The hike had been fun, but just when we were too hot and starting to tire it ended as perfectly as it could have. We spent as much time on top as we had climbing, just taking it all in.

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After breathing and picnicking about 600 meters above the rest of Rio de Janeiro, we put our hiking shoes back on and began our descent. Despite the heat and bright sun poking between the trees, we let the steep slopes carry us and ran all the way down the hill, hopping over tree roots and ducking below dangling vines and palm fronds. We made it down in thirty minutes, dripping in sweat but high on adrenaline and ready for our next peak.

The Two Brothers (Dois Irmaos) peak, which had been visible from our perch on the first hike, was also considered one of the “easier” hikes, so we were determined to finish before having to be back in Centro at 6pm. We rode our bus until the base of the Vidigal favela where we got off at the epicenter of Vidigal’s buzz. With buses, motorcycles and shared vans funneling in and out of the community, we threw ourselves into the congestion and squeezed into one of the old VW vans taking locals up the steep roads home.

We ambled down the windy road, waiting for the speeding bus to appear from nowhere and sweep us up like it had the first time. And like clockwork, we heard the rambling metal tearing down the hill, stuck out our arm like we were hailing a taxi and the bus stopped on the steep road in the middle of nowhere as if it had been coming for us all along. Bouncing and swaying with the bus, we headed towards Vidigal.

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Riding between a teenage girl in a public school uniform and a woman with an almost-newborn baby and mounds of groceries, we took the van up to the soccer field where one entrance to the hike is. The van would stop every other block, half the van would file out to let someone off, then everyone would slink back in as a newcomer or two off the street would take the newly open seat, and then we’d continue until the next person called out for it to stop.

We jumped out once we reached the soccer field, powerwalking past the kids playing after school sports. In a split second we went from crowded crazy street to soccer field to trail through the trees, and within minutes were entirely out of sight and earshot of the rest of the community. The trails crawls along the backbone of the mountain, bringing you to the perfect middle ground where you get glimpses over the right at the ocean and rooftops of Vidigal, or over to the left where you can see down to the Rocinha favela in it’s entirety. Each time the trees around the path clear for a moment, there’s a new view. Higher up and you can see over the tree-covered trail below to the high-rises of Sao Conrado and tops of Pedra da Gavea and where we had just come from: Pedra Bonita.

To use our muscles one last time before they turned to total rubber (and indulge in the caipirinha therapy we knew we would need to relax them), we headed that night to our favorite place to go out in Rio: Pedra do Sal. Which unfortunately also takes place on an elevated surface, but with much less effort required.

Pedra do Sal is a big rock in downtown Rio, just in between all of the buildings, that used to be where slaves would be traded for salt back in the day. Now a marked historic point of interest in the day, it turns into downtown Rio’s biggest street samba party every Monday and Friday night. Local samba bands take the initiative to set up at the base of the rock and the crowds stand and sit on its slope as they samba away, fueled by the cheap caipirinhas being made on the sidelines. Now it’s gotten so popular, full of locals, expats and travelers alike, that another band has set up camp on the intersecting side street below. Both are great and were playing simultaneously that night, so our tired legs luckily had an option of street level samba as a relief. As we soaked up the Carioca happiness and good vibes, our week of climbs ended perfectly on every level.

Thinking two easy hikes just meant one longer, but equally easy, hike was one of our rookie mistakes. As we stopped to admire the views along the way, we started noticing how much harder it was to pick up again. As in, very hard. Viewpoints became excuses to stop. Because even though each hike is relatively easy and quite short, they’re steep and so you’re just working the same muscles on repeat (and we were in a rush). But we powered through, somehow, knowing it would be worth it and it absolutely was. We were sitting directly on top of Rio.

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We were late to where we had to be by 6, but nonetheless we did our double hike challenge and crossed off another two bucket list items that became new highlights of our trip. The things about everyone recommending you climb endless peaks and check out a million viewpoints in Rio isn’t for nothing. The views are different. And as wonderful as the buzz of Rio down on ground level is, there’s something that makes you fall even more in love with it as you look on from the dramatic perches and see that it’s dramatically stunning from every single angle. As beautiful as it feels below, it’s endlessly impressive from up above. You can finally see how the city really works- whether it’s from a lookout of a favela you never noticed was right above you, or sitting on top of the peaks you see in all the postcards.

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