Alena Ricci is a student at the University of Pittsburgh and an ISA Photo Blogger. She studied abroad with ISA in Florianópolis, Brazil.
A Cidade Maravilhosa (The Marvelous City). The City for Carnaval. Latin America’s Top Tourist Destination. The 7th Most Dangerous City in the World.
And most recently: The Olympic City.
All of these labels fit the sprawling location known as Rio de Janeiro, and yet none of them can really do the city justice. It is all of these labels and so much more.
Do you want to go yet?
Admittedly, when my friend texted me at 11:00 at night on a Monday saying that round trip flights to Rio were under $100 and I said “yes,” I had a moment where I didn’t really know what I had just done.
I would venture into one of the world’s most notorious cities without a Brazilian or a guide or really any knowledge besides the pictures I’ve seen, and the words of the other ISA students telling me that it’s worth the risk.
It was hilarious leading up to going to Rio, because each brasileiro has their own experience with it. Our host parents told us it’s as dangerous as Florianopolis, our program Resident Director said it’s as dangerous and scary as its reputation leads us to believe and the others all had mixed reviews about the so-called marvelous city.
So we left early Friday morning, four young women with a lot of excitement and trepidation as we headed to the notorious Rio into an area we were told “turned dangerous as soon as the sun sets.”
Our flight was just like any other flight. Nothing spectacular had happened when we set foot on Rio ground, besides the immense fog and perspiration (it’s literally like walking into the jungle).
(Side note: before landing, the pilot went through a very long speech about Zika and symptoms and treatment, but wrapped it up by saying, “Zika is not stronger than Brazil. And being in Rio, you are Brazil, so you are stronger than Zika.” This left each of us in a moment of panic and sheer exhilaration before exiting the airport.)
We had no solid transportation plans or anything coming into Rio, just vague ideas of things we each wanted to do and a place to stay. So we walked out, jumped into a cab the guy at the information desk told us to get in, and we started the hour-long ride to our Airbnb through the Rio highways.
On the highway, Brazil has built a wall along the highway between the highway and the favelas. In an act of defiance, the favela residents have broken down a lot of this wall, leaving you with a solid look at how they live.
And I cannot describe it. Our cab driver made us put up our black-tinted windows as the stench was so bad and he didn’t want any of the favela dwellers to see us through the windows for safety.
As we drove through the city to Copacabana, we saw every aspect of Rio: from the poorest favela to the biggest mansion where the president stays on vacation. It was the craziest thing that all of these people inhabit the same place and walk the same streets but go home to lives so completely different.
The first night, we headed to the famous painted stairs in the notorious Lapa neighborhood, known for its nightlife and its historic neighborhood.
On Saturday, we decided to be true tourists and head to Cordova mountain (the Cristo Redentor statue), the Jardim Botanico (the botanical gardens) and Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf mountain).
Once again, we had no idea how we were getting from place to place, so we decided to try our hands at mastering the subway and public buses in Rio, which aren’t that much different than Florianopolis (except for the price).
We climbed up the seemingly endless stairs to the Jesus statue, and I can tell you that it’s everything I thought it would be. It is weirdly awe-inspiring and moving but at the same time ridiculously insane as hundreds of people are all squeezing together to try to get the best selfie (I think I did, but whatever.)
The botanical gardens were relaxing as we searched for monkeys (they’re common there, but not during the winter).
And Sugarloaf mountain? It was one of the most amazing things I have ever done. You take a swinging cable car up to the first mountain and then a second, smaller, more wobbly one up to Sugarloaf and the views are breathtaking. You see Rio for what it is: a mix of everything in the entire world. It is the rainforest and favelas and mansions and models and beaches and art and literature and sports and soccer. It is the Olympics and the World Cup and constant subject of news and novels. You realize that you could spend a lifetime in the same city and never explore all of it.
And the craziest? Just from going to one subway stop to the next is like entering into an entirely different world. That is Rio: worlds within worlds within worlds.
On Sunday, our last day, we went to the beach, nicknamed “The Great Equalizer” because the richest and the poorest lay in the same sand under the same sun.
And getting to lie around on a beach all day made me feel very brasileira. I was surrounded by the ocean, by forests, by sand, by mountains and by people.
After seeing Rio, I feel like I understand Brazil so much more. It is not just this little island right across the continent from my old home, Chile, but it is a million different worlds all coexisting together in the same space.
Rio is worth every penny to go to. Getting to see what makes it so marvelous fist hand is something I cannot describe.
It is by far the most intense place I have ever been.
When we landed and were in the taxi to our Airbnb, I had a moment of panic when I realized that this is possibly the stupidest, most insane thing I had ever done.
And it was.
But I am so glad I did it.
So will you be headed to Rio?
The world awaits…discover it.