You could come to Rio de Janeiro armed with Lonely Planet and do the Top 5 list – climb to the statue of Christ the Redeemer, drink caipirinhas in Copacabana, ride the waves at Ipanema. And the record numbers of Canadians bound for Brazil for the FIFA World Cup, which kicks off June 12, will do just that – and likely be aghast at the price of things, irritated by the snarled mess of the transit and traffic systems, and hard-pressed to find a desk clerk or a cab driver who speaks a word of English. But they will nevertheless have a smashing time and leave raving about the beaches and the mountains and the lovely people.
But here's the thing: With just a bit more effort, and some insider tips, you can plunge into the real Rio, the city where its denizens work a bit and play a lot. This is not a city that gives up its secrets reluctantly.
A heart-stopping view
For the past six years Rio has been undertaking a bold experiment called “pacification,” trying to reclaim the favela territory occupied by drug gangs whose criminal reign once terrorized the city and gave it among world’s highest rates of violent crime. Many favelas are now under (sometimes shaky) state control and a few are now visitor destinations. Head to Vidigal, which rises up from the seafront next to the posh neighbourhood of Leblon. At the entry to the favela, catch a kombi – a shared van taxi – that for $1 will take you up near the top. Ask for the trilha (pronounced treel-ya), the trail: although anyone who spots you will kindly point the way. The first few minutes are odd – you seem to be walking through someone’s yard, and over a wall, but yes, this is the trail. Follow it up to the top of Dois Irmaos, the green-cloaked mountain that frames one end of Rio’s famous beaches. There is a heart-stopping view of Rio’s unique topography, but also a rare window into the inner life of a favela. Don’t bring your life savings with you, but you can feel safe and comfortable here; on the way back you can stroll down through the neighbourhood, and Vidigal now has an array of small bars and even galleries welcoming tourists. You don’t need a guide, but you can get one from Trilha Dos Irmaos. trilhadoisirmaos.com.br
How to find a meal you’ll remember
There is a restaurant on every corner in Rio, but most will disappoint: This is not a great gourmet destination. To get a sense of the city’s history through its tables, take Tom Le Mesurier’s Eat Rio food tour: Le Mesurier is an affable English foodie who fell in love with a local gal and stayed – not an unfamiliar tale. He will lead you through quaint corners of the city and introduce you to feijoada, the national heavy Saturday lunch of black bean stew with pork, jerk beef and sausage, served with bitter greens, rice, farofa (ground cassava) and an orange. You will sample bolinhos, dried cod fritters, and soup made from an Amazonian leaf that numbs your lips – and along the way soak up Le Mesurier’s now vast knowledge of the cultural and historical origins of Brazilian cuisine. Book it on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, or by special request, for $75, which includes your meals. eatrio.net
Understand the fierce pride of a favela
If your curiosity about favela life has been whetted, you can take a quirky walking tour with Zezinho or one of his pals, through Rocinha, a vibrant community of 150,000 people that climbs up a ridge of hills in the heart of the city. Unlike some of the zoo-like jeep tours that whisk through so tourists can take quick pictures of the poor people, every guide at Favela Adventures is a local with a fierce pride of the neighbourhood. You may not get all of your historical questions answered, but you can tap into a deep vein of knowledge about Brazilian funk music or what it was like to live under the tyranny of the drug dealers. The view from the top at sunset, when Rio is bathed in gold, is unmissable. Children are welcome. Book at least a day before, $30 a person. favelatour.org
Splash, play, picnic
In a matter of minutes you can go from this quintessentially urban experience into the heart of the city’s rain forest, in Tijuca National Park. Grab a cab to the end of Rua Sara Vilela, in Jardim Botanico; the trail to the waterfall Cachoeira dos Primatas begins from the parking lot. It winds up for about 700 metres, past a natural pool, and ends at the cascade, where you can splash and lounge and picnic. You will almost certainly see monkeys; you might also be treated to toucans or parrots. The hike is better on a weekday than a weekend, and don’t stay past 3 p.m. when the sun doesn’t make it down through the trees. www.corcovado.org.br
Slaves and skeletons
Rio is predominantly an Afro-Brazilian city – as much as 75 per cent black, by some estimates – but you would have a hard time telling that in Ipanema. To be reminded of this country’s slave-era history, trek into the heart of downtown, where a rundown colonial-era neighbourhood is being transformed with a $4-billion (U.S.) redevelopment of the port that includes a Trump tower. But shreds of its past survive: On a narrow, cobbled street nearby is the tiny Museu dos Pretos Novos. Back in 1996, Merced Guimaraes began to renovate her house, which dates from the 1700s – and was horrified to find human remains beneath the floors. Further exploration revealed that the street had been built on top of the mass grave of young slaves who were shipped into the port but did not survive long enough to be sold. Brazil was the last country to outlaw slavery; the trade here didn’t end until the turn of the previous century and more than six million Africans (who survived the crossing to be counted) were transported here. Research at the site has found that tens of thousands of people were buried in the grave; some of the skeletons are visible through a glass pyramid built into Guimaraes’s floor. Tuesday to Friday, 1 to 7 p.m., and if you find the owner at home at other times she may let you in. pretosnovos.com.br
Where the best dancers are the waiters
This neighbourhood is also the home of Rio’s most charming bar (and that’s a hotly contested title). Trapiche Gamboa is an old warehouse in the port, three storeys high with ancient wood beams and mottled stained-glass windows. On Thursday nights there is an African-origin music called jongo, other nights it’s samba. The best dancers in the place are the waiters, so you may wait a while for your drinks, but it doesn’t matter: Sit and watch the musicians gathered around their table – samba de roda – grinning as they play. Open every night, in theory, but call to confirm; cover charge around $10. Rua Sacadura Cabral 155, trapichegamboa.com
For another magical musical experience, walk a half block down to Pedra do Sal: a giant rock at the site of a slave market, where slaves once unloaded cargoes of salt. When released from work they would dance there and musicologists call this the “cradle of samba.” Today, musicians gather to jam in one corner and an admiring crowd spreads up the rock, which was carved with nooks and steps back in the 1800s. Admission is free, although performers sometimes pass a hat. Strangers are welcome; strolling vendors have beer, caipirinha and snacks. The gathering happens every Monday and Friday night, and sometimes other days, too; for that, you’ll just have to get lucky – and that’s not rare, in Rio.
IF YOU GO
For now, Rio is oddly difficult to get to from Canada. The least problematic way to fly is on Air Canada from Toronto, with a transfer in Sao Paulo. In December, however, Air Canada begins non-stop flights to Rio three days a week. When you arrive, get a prepaid taxi from within the airport terminal using a credit card, and don’t use the ATMs in the arrival hall, which are a perennial cloning target.
Accommodation options are similarly challenging, with a high price tag and limited value: AirBnB might be a better bet than any hotel. A lovely choice in the boho hilltop neighbourhood of Santa Teresa is Castelinho 38, full of quirky art and sweeping views; its double rooms start around $120 a night – a bargain in Rio. castelinho38.com.br
Taxis are reasonably affordable in Rio, and the Metro is constantly expanding. If you’re not in a rush, the bus will take you anywhere you might want to go for $1.50.