There's nothing closer to paradise on earth than the Ciudad Maravillosa. It's arguably the only major city in the world where you can find the urban landscape overpowered by the raw nature of granite peaks, lush rainforests, turquoise waters and white-sand shorelines. Rio de Janeiro is visually stunning from the get-go. And then there is the music. And the food. And the people. Composed of vastly different and multifaceted neighborhoods, it is a stunning tropical metropolis surrounded by national park-quality scenery. Rio simply has no equal, and she knows it.
While the dazzling beach playgrounds of the Zona Sur draw crowds of bum bronzers from all over the globe, the real heart and soul of Rio lies a bit further to the north in Lapa and other historic areas in the city center. This is where white suit-sporting malandros created samba just after the turn of the 20th century—the product of cultural fusion after a large influx of newly freed slaves relocated from the north to the then-capital of Latin America’s largest country. The result? An urban sound that now resonates with people around the world. Although originally scorned by the upper classes, samba was later designated the official national music of the country of Brazil, which was an act of poetic justice that's still unfolding. Recently, other sounds like Rio funk and pagode, have taken over the city streets.
Malandragem, the art of using another’s strength against them through clever tricks in order to win against staggering odds, influences all facets of carioca culture—from the favela to the soccer stadium to the Carnaval—and it’s also a key element of the martial art known as capoeira. Like David beating Goliath at his own game, it’s the ultimate underdog philosophy: a tropical version of Thug Life. After all, Brazil imported nearly 10 times more African slaves to the New World than the U.S. did, and it was the last country in the hemisphere to abolish slavery. Gross inequality is still an everyday fact of life here in Rio, so much so that it is often likened to apartheid, keeping the malandro as relevant and heroic a figure as ever.
Home Base: Where to Stay in Rio
Copacabana and Ipanema look like a dream come true to fresh-faced snowbirds who land in city that's all tiny bikinis and endless sun over a truly epic backdrop. But if you want a bit more out of your trip to Rio than just pretty tan lines and overpriced everything, head towards the Centro where both culture and nightlife are at their best and prices are tailored more for locals.
Consider planting yourself in Santa Teresa, an 18th-century neighborhood of winding streets, bohemian hangouts and rambling colonial mansions perched over Lapa and the city center. Santa Teresa, the only hilltop neighborhood in Rio that is not a favela, is home to incredible views around every corner and to the city’s last historic tram, a moving cultural heritage monument that connects the hood with the city center. The neighborhood rests in an artsy, alternative area of Rio, where locals mix freely with international travelers. It’s largely ganja friendly, especially in the evening around Largo do Neves, where chilling with a cerveja while bobbing your head to street music is a daily celebratory ritual.
Recover by the poolside over views of Guanabara Bay and the Rio de Janeiro skyline at Mama Ruisa, a lovingly restored guesthouse within walking distance of the bars and restaurants in Santa Teresa’s central gathering point and tram station, Largo dos Guimaraes. Nearby, locally owned boutique hostel Mambembe offers more budget-friendly options and a terraced deck overlooking the neighborhood where you can link up with other travelers to form a hunting party for braving the all-night action just down the steps. Lapa itself offers some interesting opportunities to base yourself right in ground zero: Check out the 19th-century royal palace turned samba-themed hotel Vila Galé where a bar dedicated to singer-legend Vinicius de Moraes is worth visiting even if you are not checked in.
Pro Tip: From the north side of town, visit the beaches of Zona Sur during the day via Rio's inexpensive metro. You're guaranteed to be back at home base in time for the parties. Staying at the beach, however, means you'll pay for expensive cross-town taxis to and from the parties at late hours of the night.
Wild in the City: Day
A regular day in Rio typically revolves around soaking up the sun in between refreshing dips in the perfectly cool Atlantic Ocean, but there are also ample opportunities for getting active. Even die-hard beach bums will be better off ditching the Zona Sur for a day and checking out Praia Vermelha, a picture-perfect cove located just south of the Sugarloaf Mountain. Calm protected waters turn crystal clear here, and the surrounding landscape is absolutely breathtaking. From here, it’s a nice half-hour hike up to the top of Morro da Urca, where the dizzying pinnacle of Pão de Açúcar awaits at the second stop of the cable car. If you spent the afternoon on the white sands of Ipanema or Copa, be sure to swing by Arpoador for the stunning sunset. This jagged rock juts out into the crashing surf and divides Rio's two most popular beaches from each other—and it always attracts the puff-and-pass crowd come sundown.
The best urban hike in Rio begins in Parque Lage, a 128-acre forested garden crowned by a 19th-century, Roman-style palace that now hosts art classes, public cultural programs and a classy café with poolside seating. After exploring the charming grounds here, head up the trail to the summit of Corcovado Mountain. A vibrant rainforest trek, complete with monkeys overhead and small rushing waterfalls to cool off in, leads into the open arms of the famous Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer). Another epic jaunt takes you up to the Yosemite style granite peak of Pedra Gavea, which at more than 2,700 feet is one of the highest oceanfront mountains in the world. Located on the south side of the city within the Tijuca National Forest, this awesome urban monolith offers incredible aerial views of the Rio cityscape.
Wilin' out in Rio simply wouldn’t be complete without a trip to a favela. Settled by newly freed slaves around 100 years ago, many of the city’s historic favelas occupy billion-dollar real estate locations in the verdant hills overlooking the city. In fact, several key original favelas like Vidigal—perched on the mountainside over the chic beach action of Ipanema—have been facing serious gentrification issues in recent years. While a daytime stroll through Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela, is an eye opening (and sometime pulse racing) experience, don’t miss swinging by the Santa Marta favela on the hillside above Botafogo. This peaceful community of around 8,000 is a maze of colorfully painted houses and crooked stairways that lead up to a plaza dedicated to Michael Jackson, who filmed part of his “They Don’t Care About Us” video here. By speaking up about the rabid social inequality in Brazil, Jackson is honored as a malandro, a role he fully embraced by suiting up in all white for “Smooth Criminal.”
Wild in the City: Night
As one of the definitive party capitals of the world, Rio has nearly endless enticing options for nocturnal animals to engage in. Lapa is, of course, the heart of this raging beast, where samba, funk and jazz clubs spill out into the streets like rivers flowing into a heaving sea of humanity. Open-air festivities are free and never fail to entertain around the Arcos do Lapa and up by the Escadaria Selarón, a masterpiece of street art where clouds of cannabis smoke permanently hover over acoustic guitarists and improvised hip-hop. If you can tear yourself away from the street scene in Lapa, several of the historic samba clubs, including the multi-level Rio Scenarium and the slightly more casual Carioca da Gema, serve up top local talent nightly. For authentic Brazilian Popular Music and Forro, pop into Clube dos Democraticos, or for more concert-style offerings check out Circo Voalador (the Flying Circus).
One of the most traditional Rio parties happens every Monday and Friday night at the Pedra do Sal, located in the historic Saude district just north of downtown. Once a huge slave market, this massive black rock now hosts impressive roda do samba concerts in the open air that are free to the public. Locals ring the musicians in the plaza’s center and sing along loudly as the nation’s bitter history is both remembered and transcended.
Another great place to hear live samba bands in the open air is historic Travessa do Comércio, a pedestrian-only district of cobblestone streets and outdoor cafes just off of Placa XV in the city center. You can also get a hearty sample of the dynamic sounds coming from Brazil’s heavily afro-influenced Northeastern region at the weekly Feira Nordestina. Running from Friday night to Sunday afternoon without stop, this enclosed "city within a city" hosts two large main stages and a half dozen smaller ones where musical acts rock around the clock.
Zona Sur also has its lion's share of nightlife, but expect inflated prices. LGBT travelers will find a hotspot of action in the Farme area of Ipanema, with O Bar do Beto offering great people watching on the sidewalk patio. It’s also worth heading over to Botafogo’s hipster style bar scene and checking out the live rock in Bar Bukowski, a two-story mansion that draws the alternative crowd nightly.
Fueling the Festa: How to Eat and Drink like a Carioca
Brazilian cuisine is surprisingly tame compared to other South American countries, which has a lot to do with an overly industrialized agricultural system akin to the U.S. But despite slim pickings on street food, delicious açaí bowls and bolinhos de bacalhau (fried codfish balls) notwithstanding, Rio is evolving a modern dining scene that will satisfy any foodie. Check out the lamb and fish specialties at Aprazível, a Santa Teresa institution with an outdoor deck overlooking the city, for a great introduction. Nearby Espiritu Santo has garnered international fame for its knockout Amazonian fusion plates, where the bounty of the most biodiverse ecosystem on Earth adds exotic flavor to carioca standards. Likewise, visit Lasai for farm-to-table Brazilian dishes at a spot currently ranked 16th on Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants list.
Ice cold chopp (draft beer) is a staple of life in Rio and there are dozens of classic Botecos all over the city where you can take the edge off a sweltering afternoon in a surprising old-world style pub setting. Try Bar do Mineiro in Santa Teresa for an artsy take on the institution, or Lapa's Bar Ernesto, which has been keeping it real (and distinctly German) for more than 80 years. Cachaça, a distilled sugar cane alcohol, also flows like water in Rio, and it is the base for the country’s national drink: the caipirinha. Grab one on the street under the Arcos da Lapa to get the night started; down the second and you will soon be samba-ing around with the best malandros in town; and the third will put you down for the count. If the bars mix caipirinhas with fresh fruit, ask for caju or caja fruit, if available. At finer bars and restaurants, try aged cachaça straight up.
The Rio Carnaval: A Dream Deferred
Carnaval itself is an ancient springtime fertility rite that goes back to the Bacchanalian festivities of pagan Europe and somehow survived all through the Middle Ages against sometimes serious persecution from the church until it was finally absorbed into the Catholic calendar. Giving the common folk a chance to dress up, take over the streets and mock the royalty, the celebration has always been both sexual and political. In Brazil, this European tradition collided with the African diaspora in an explosion that shook the earth. Rio's carnaval is quite possibly the largest and most famous festival in the world and is so much more than just the Disneyesque spectacle marketed to tourists at the gated off Sambadrome. As anthropologist Robin E. Sheriff explains, Rio de Janeiro’s massive carnaval is really nothing less than a century long “product of racialized struggles for public space.”
As an expression of pure malandragem, Carnaval is a full-on revolution, and it has been more effective and long lived than any protest in the history of the world. It's the Whos vs. the Grinches in real time, in real life. If you do visit during Carnaval season, make sure to join in on the nearly 500 real Rio Carnaval Bloco parties, where neighborhood samba groups fill city streets with music, dancing and communal joy. Stand-out blocos include Pimiento Sargento (a Beatles tribute) in Flamengo, the Carmelitas (originally started by nuns) in Santa Teresa, Planta Na Mente (a cannabis-advocacy bloco) in Lapa and the Bola Preta, which was founded in 1918 and completely takes over the city center, drawing more than a million people. The police limit the latter bloco to daylight hours only for no other reason than the fear of what the country might wake up to in the morning if the party was allowed to take its natural course all night long.
Ocean Malandra is a widely published journalist and travel writer who divides his time between Northern California and South America. Photo credits: Mama Ruisa Boutique Hotel, Flickr/Rodrigo Soldon, Flickr/Mathieu Marquer, Flickr/eflon, Flickr/Circuito Fora do Eixo, Rio Scenarium, Aprazivel, Pixabay/Daniel Reche and Planta Na Mente.