A postcard from a friend visiting Rio de Janeiro started my longing to make my first visit to South America. But it was a promotional video by the city for its successful bid to win the 2016 Olympics that sealed the deal.
To the lilting strains of Rio’s official song, Ciudade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City), smiling natives, bikini-clad sunbathers, and exhilarated climbers scaling the side of Sugarloaf Mountain beckoned to me in a three-minute blur of non-stop enticement. I was sold; Rio it was.
Planning the trip, however, I didn’t know what to expect: I heard much negative feedback about this sprawling city of 6.3 million people. Some cited the crime –– the murder rate more than four times that of the U.S –– as a reason not to go, while and others pointed to the poverty-laden favelas or slums. Still, I was undaunted.
My first impressions lived up to the pretty postcard: Even in my jet-lagged state, I knew I was seeing a city unlike any other I had visited, when I took in the 360-degree views of Rio’s massive stone mountains and winding beaches from the cable car ride up Sugarloaf Mountain.
Rio was so visually stunning, in fact, that it made any little disappointments forgivable. Standing in what literally amounted to a rain cloud atop the 2,300-foot Corcovado Mountain with “The Christ” –– as the natives are prone to calling the statue of Cristo Redento (Christ the Redeemer) –– thrilled me; even though the intense humidity completely obscured the oft-photographed view of the city below. The 130-foot statue itself is so dramatic –– and so large it wouldn’t even fit in my camera view-finder –– that not being able to see the view, meant spending more time staring at this modern wonder.
The city also impressed me as a place where diversity is valued. In contrast to the more homogeneous Buenos Aires, Rio seems to respect its indigenous people and multiracial population. Indeed, a sense of tolerance prevails everywhere from the famed beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema to the weekly Sunday flea market where the haves and have-less haggle over everything from knock-off handbags to “cat hats” for their felines.
Still, it turns out the critics were partially right. Rio is a place where tremendous wealth lives side-by-side with devastating poverty –– and both extremes seem hardly to notice the other. My traveling companion and I had to take turns swimming in the ocean for fear that our cameras would disappear from the beach (we were advised to only bring our towels and room keys, but couldn’t imagine not taking photos of that magnificent view).
From my hotel room, I could see Christ the Redeemer staring down at a massive favela — shack upon shack upon shack completely covering a mountainside only yards away. My friend, distressed by this sad reality, opted to pay a little extra to move to a room with a seafront view of Copacabana.
Not wanting to lose sight of Rio’s contrasts, I decided to stay put –– and I opened that window curtain frequently as a reminder of the city’s other side.