Monday, April 21, 2008

Rio 3: favelas, climbing, samba

Day 3 in Rio, and the weather thwarted some of the dynamite activities on the itinerary. We then opted to go on a tour of the favelas in Rio. Favelas are the shantytowns that grew all over the hills of Rio. It is estimated that some 25% of the population of Rio live in them, though the exact numbers are not known. The name favela comes from the plants that are grown in the hills, which were mostly used as goat food. (The plants that is). The reason for the location of the favelas is that it sucks so nobody else wanted to live there. Brazilian law states that one cannot legally be ejected from a dwelling after living there for five years, and the government was not really interested in removing people from the hills.

The favelas grew haphazardly and did not have basic amenities. The streets were not paved, so every time it rained the streets turned into rivers of mud and it became near impossible to reach the houses. In the 1990s the government started projects that provided paved streets and stairs -- in the favelas everything is stairs up, stairs down -- as well as water and electricity. True life in the favelas is nowhere close to the reputations of abject poverty and violent crime. Living conditions are certainly very basic and cheap, but the favelas have everything ranging from grocery stores to a few banks, post offices, and even internet cafes. Most people have normal day jobs in the city. The police maintains a token presence; actual rule is in the hands of armed drugs dealers. But those drug dealers do a better job of guarding the safety of the people -- especially the visitors and tourists -- simply because they don´t want the police to enter the favela with the excuse of investigating a robbery.

The electrical wiring system is astonishing.

In the afternoon the weather had cleared up, giving the green light to an activity I had been particularly looking forward to. The world famous Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf) rock is one of the most recognizable images of Rio. It draws countless tourists who take the cable car ride up to the top.

Which is, of course, the wussy way up. The Pão de Açucar is also one of the largest and best urban rock climbing areas in the world. I hired a guide named Eduardo to guide me up to the top. It´s about a 400m/1300ft climb. The view from the top of Sugarloaf is many times better if you´ve earned it.

On the way back we took the cable car to Morro da Urca, the peak next to it which is about half as high. The cable car continues to ground level from there, but we hiked down from Urca while it was getting dark. All in all a fantastic experience and a proud achievement for such a beginner climber as myself.

View from about ¾ of the way up. Copacabana beach is in the background.

View from the top of Morro da Urca.

No visit to Rio, of Brazil at large, is compelete without going out to a real samba house. Not the touristy Plataforma 1, but the real thing. We went to a place called Scenarium which has three storeys of good food, good caipirinhas, and above all, samba! Too bad I didn´t have my camera with me, for safety reasons. Some of the areas turn fairly shady at night, and indeed on the way back our cab driver kept running red lights because it is too dangerous to stop.

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