Exploring Rio on foot

As all eyes turn to Brazil ahead of next week’s World Cup draw, Gavin McOwan walks the streets, beaches and mountains of Rio de Janeiro – and meets a football legend along the way

I’d spent all day walking in the heat and humidity of Rio, and my first beer didn’t touch the sides. I was about to dispatch my second when a greying, pot-bellied man appeared next to me at the bar. I froze. He no longer looked anything like the powerful Brazilian striker who had torn defences to shreds in the 1970 World Cup, one of the stars of the greatest football team of all time. But there was little doubt who he was.

“Is that Jairzinho?” I mouthed to the barman.

He nodded with a smile.

A member of the glorious, beautiful team that lit up the World Cup like none since, Jairzinho was its unstoppable goal machine – the “Hurricane”, the only player in history to score in every round of the tournament, a feat not even Pelé, his teammate, got close to.

And there he was – no longer looking much like a hurricane – but standing next to me at the bar. Starstruck, I blurted out the first thing that came into my head: “Hi! You’re a legend!”

“Yeah, I know that,” he replied, as if it was the most obvious thing he’d heard all day.

I composed myself enough to offer him a beer (he had one, but paid for his own) and ask him about the football coaching programmes he runs in the city’s favelas, but inside I was aglow. (If you’re not a football fan, this was like having a chat with Jean-Paul Sartre over a pastis in a Parisian cafe.)

I was looking forward to many things on my four-day walk across Rio de Janeiro. Thanks to its unique topography and gobsmacking natural beauty, it offers a city walk like nowhere else on earth, taking in a lake, mountains, two of the world’s most famous beaches and some of Brazil’s last remaining virgin Atlantic rainforest, not to mention colonial villages and the biggest favela in Latin America – all within the city limits. But I’d never dreamed of sharing a beer with a living legend in a scruffy little bar in the arse end of Copacabana.

I’d begun my walk eight hours earlier in the spot where Brazil itself had started, or at least came of age and shook off its colonial past. In 1889, at the Imperial Palace in Praça XV, the heart of old Rio, a group of army officers delivered a letter to Dom Pedro II, the Emperor of Brazil descended from Portuguese royalty, with words to the effect: “You know what, mate, I think we can manage our own country on our own from now on. Pack your bags and head back to Europe.”

Some of Rio’s most impressive architecture can still be found in and around Praça XV, but it has been throttled by modernity, its colonial charm obliterated by a concrete flyover, now black and decrepit, built directly over the top of it. In the morning rush hour, I got off a bus in a tunnel underneath the square with dozens of commuters, and within seconds was engulfed by thousands more pouring off the ferries from Niteroi, the satellite city across Guanabara Bay, as planes coming in to land at the domestic airport nearby grazed the tops of the boats in the harbour.

The only person I saw not rushing to work was a homeless man standing next to a old disused fountain in the middle of the square. When I asked him about the fountain’s history, he said: “It’s never worked; it’s just for tourists to come and take pictures.”

But there were no tourists around and the palace was yet to open, so instead I ducked under an arch, Arco do Teles, to a narrow cobblestone street, where, as a child, Carmen Miranda lived at number 13.

If I were true to the spirit of this series of megacity walks – which has included Mexico City, Shanghai and Tokyo – I should have headed north from here, through the endless gritty suburbs and poor favelas that are homes to millions in the urbanised and industrial stretch of Rio. (Actually, scratch that. If I were true to this series, I wouldn’t be here at all; I’d be 270 miles away in São Paulo, South America’s largest, most dynamic city – twice the size of Rio, but not nearly half as much fun.)

Which is why I headed south, through old Rio, towards the natural playgrounds of Copacabana and Ipanema, Pão de Açucar, Corcovado, Cristo and other places that slip off the tongue like a silky bossa nova melody.

I had to battle through the morning commuters, but one boy, asleep on the pavement outside a bank, was completely oblivious as passers-by stepped over him.

“Is he dead?” one guy asked. A hefty nudge from the bank’s security guard reassured him he wasn’t.

The air was already thick with the meaty, garlicky whiff of simmering feijão (black beans), the staple that would feed the army of office workers at lunchtime. And by 10am, it was soupy with humidity, too, so I headed for the cool and calm of the Metropolitan Cathedral. From the outside, it looks like an enormous upturned concrete bucket, an example of graceless 70s architecture. But this just made the spectacular interior, of stained-glass windows ascending to the heavens, all the more breathtaking. An effect as awe-inspiring as the grand medieval cathedrals of Europe.

Slipping out through the back door, I felt as though I’d walked into in a different city. The office workers had vanished, and the empty, ramshackle streets of Lapa, Rio’s bohemian quarter, were still asleep in the late morning.

Lapa has been the home of Brazilian artists for two centuries, but no one has contributed more to the area than Chilean-born Jorge Selarón, whose one-man project, the Escadaria Selarón, a flight of 215 mosaic steps, has become a focal point of the neighbourhood. The artist covered every inch of the steps in front of his house in tiles, ceramics and mirrors – originally in the green, yellow, blue and white of the Brazilian flag, later adding tiles in other colours brought by visitors.

At the top of the steps, I turned left and headed to Santa Teresa, a sleepy hillside village of cobblestone streets, colonial houses and artists’ studios that feels cut off from the rest of the city. This was the first of several occasions on the walk when I didn’t feel I was in a big city at all.

Heading back down the hill, I got my first “wow” moment as I gazed at Botafogo beach on the edge of Guanabara Bay, with Sugarloaf mountain beyond, like a granite spaceship ready for lift-off. This is where the Portuguese fleet arrived on 1 January 1502, hence Rio de Janeiro, (January River) – they mistook the huge bay for a river delta. Even laced with roads and buildings, it’s a jaw-dropping vista, but I tried to picture what it looked like 500 years ago, the mountains swathed in emerald forest, the beaches ringing to nothing but the sounds of the jungle. It must have been like sailing into Eden.

Five minutes later, all notions of tropical paradise vanished as I was confronted by a mash-up of flyovers, tunnels, deafening traffic and pollution – a natural bottleneck resulting from the granite morros that shoot into the sky all over Rio. There’s no easy way to walk from Botafogo to Zona Sul, the area of Rio with all the famous bits. Until the early 20th century, Rio ended here; Copacabana was an isolated Atlantic fishing village. But once the Túnel Engenheiro Coelho Cintra opened in 1906, the Brazilian middle class started moving south, followed by the rich and famous, who turned the Copacabana Palace into one of the world’s most glamorous hotels.

I took the narrow footpath through the six-lane tunnel and saw Copacabana beach beckoning at the other end, but I opted for that cooling beer with Jairzinho rather than a swim. I made my way to the beach afterwards, exhausted but ecstatic, my head full of beer and Brazilian football, and practically danced the two miles back to my hotel, cooling my sore feet in the crashing waves.

Copacabana’s star has long since faded; it is now one of the most densely populated neighbourhoods in the world, tightly packed high-rise blocks squeezed between the mountains and the sea, beer-bellied blokes drinking their pensions away and women with small dogs and bad facelifts. Yet the 4km arc of beach still has an irresistible shimmer, a crescent of white sand 100m deep from the water’s edge to the famous wave motif on the black-and-white mosaic pavement.

And it’s still where Brazil shows off to the world. When Usain Bolt ran an exhibition race earlier this year, when the Rolling Stones played a free gig, and the new Pope addressed the city, they did it on this beach in front of millions.

My hotel, the Sofitel, was at the far, western end of Copacabana, in front of the neighbourhood’s tiny fishing community, a vestige of when this was an isolated hamlet rather than the most famous beach in the world.

The next morning, I walked round the corner to the city’s second most famous beach, Ipanema, which was grey and moody, the pointed peaks of the Dois Irmãos mountains looming over the far end of the beach, shrouded in heavy cloud.

(I went back with friends a few days later, when the sun was out, and Rio was at its sultry best. Hundreds of people were meditating – legs crossed, eyes closed – on the rocks at Arpoador, at the eastern end of the beach. On the pavement nearby, a busker was playing the saxophone, his hat containing a not inconsiderable amount of cash. This might sound like an everyday scene for a hip city beach, but when I lived in Brazil 20 years ago, people in Rio seemed almost scared to blink lest their bags were snatched from their hands; and the busker’s hat would have been nicked by hoodlums, along with his sax.

It’s still not the safest city in the world – I was warned to stay away from Copacabana and Santa Teresa at night – but, boosted by the booming economy and double feelgood factor of hosting the World Cup Finals and the Olympics – Rio feels a far happier, more confident place. Admittedly, I was there before this summer’s riots, but I would argue that the demonstrations were a positive sign of a population confident enough to express its frustration.)

But I still had half the city to walk, so I tore myself away from watching locals playing the incredibly skilful hybrid of footvollei on Ipanema, and headed down Rua Vinicius de Moraes, named after the lyricist and bossa nova composer. On the left is Garota de Ipanema (the Girl from Ipanema), the bar where de Moraes wrote the classic song with Tom Jobim in 1962. Despite changing its name (it used to be called Bar Veloso) and being just one block back from the beach, the bar still attracts locals as well as visitors, and does a great steak (go for the picanha, rump cap: it’s the most expensive thing on the menu – around £25 – but will serve two or three people).

Down the end of the street is the Lagoa, simply “the Lake”, which will host the rowing in the 2016 Olympics. It seems unfair for a city with so many fantastic beaches to be blessed with a beautiful lake too, especially one ringed with imposing black mountains. From the tallest, the 710m Corcovado, straight ahead of me the statue of Christ the Redeemer surveyed the city.

After a mile, I turned west through the pleasant but uneventful middle-class suburbs of Leblon and Gávea. It was a quiet, easy day’s stroll which I cut short to plan the most challenging section of this walk, through Rocinha, one of the biggest favelas in Latin America. Many of the city’s favelas have been “pacified” in recent years and small companies have sprung up offering tours. But when I rang a couple to ask if they had a guide for for a whole day, to take me up the long and winding road through Rocinha, they reacted as if I was slightly mad. So I asked for help at the community centre on the main road at the bottom of the favela. There Dilmar Borges called her grandson Rogério, who came to meet me and agreed to be my guide the following day.

So, on day three, I started at sea level and walked back up to where I’d stopped the day before. “A favela is like a mountain: you need to climb it from the bottom,” said Rogério.

At the more desirable bottom of the favela, a two-bedroom house can go for R$80,000 (around £22,000). At first it felt like any other working-class Brazilian street, full of nail bars and mobile phone shops, banks and restaurants.

But as soon as we hit the dank alleyways off the main drag, the place felt Dickensian. Every thoroughfare was overhung with a black plastic spaghetti of hundreds of internet, telephone and electricity cables. This is how at least 12 million Brazilians live, most in far poorer favelas than Rocinha.

It felt otherworldly, but also welcoming and completely safe. This was partly thanks to Rogério, who seemed to know everyone we met on the long, slow climb to the top of the favela. Young children he knew came to say hello and insisted on having their pictures taken with us. Two policemen armed with huge machine guns also said hello, but declined the photo opportunity. The only time I felt in danger was when I was stung by a bee. “See, I told you favelas can be dangerous,” smiled Rogério. He proudly showed me the new, sadly underused, ecological park, and a pristine clay tennis court funded, with little fanfare, by Novak Djokovic.

At the top of the morro, we had a drink at Laje Carlinhos (terracetourist.com), a bar on the roof of a small house, with a sweeping view of the whole favela – a mountain dotted with tens of thousands of tiny houses made of cheap red bricks. Beyond lay the Atlantic, to the right was Pedra da Gávea, the imposing mountain I was planning to climb the following day. Up a floor, from another improvised rooftop, we looked in the opposite direction to where the Tijuca rainforest climbs up the hillside in a carpet of dark velvety green.

From here, the Cristo – who had watched over my entire walk – looks down over the city. These views are just as exhilarating as those from the top of Sugarloaf and Corcovado, but free – and more rewarding given the long slog it took to get here. And, instead of swarms of tourists, the only other person here was the friendly bar owner Senhor Carlinhos, on hand to point out the sights and crack open another cold beer.

I said farewell to Rogério at the summit of Rocinha, and in less than five minutes I was walking back down through Alto Gávea, Rio’s most salubrious suburb. Within touching distance of the favela is the Escola Americana, the most expensive school in town, landscaped into the hillside. Standing on top of a favela full of people living in poverty looking down on a school that charges day fees of over £2,000 a month, it felt like a mad world, but my God, what a beautiful one.

On the final day of my walk, I climbed another mountain, but unlike Rocinha, where every crevasse is crammed with humanity, the 844m Pedra da Gávea, two miles to the west, is stark, empty and covered in some of Brazil’s last remaining Atlantic rainforest, inside the Tijuca national park. I was accompanied by Rob, a Scottish friend who has lived in Rio for nearly 20 years. He says misses the Highlands but I reckon having mountains like this on your doorstep – which you can climb in the morning and then be back down on the beach in the afternoon – is ample compensation.

There are dozens of hiking trails in Rio but only in recent years, as a result of greater affluence and expanding horizons, have locals really started taking advantage of them. The ranger at the start of the trail told us, with some pride, that 200 people had come through already that day. Perhaps because it’s so close to the city, many were woefully unprepared for the hike, wearing cheap trainers and even flip-flops. The near-vertical rock faces were far more challening than I was expecting and – though it pains me to say it – I wouldn’t have made it to the top without Rob there to chivvy me along.

Luckily the mountain was covered in mist for much of the assent, protecting us from the sun. But as we reached the summit the clouds lifted, revealing the city below bathed in sunlight. To the west was the modern suburb of Barra da Tijuca, Rio’s future, full of shopping malls and Florida-style condos – and home to many of the venues for the 2016 Olympics – fringed with sand and sparkling blue sea. To the east, I looked back to the city I’d spent the last four days walking across: the white apartment blocks and favelas seemed tiny and insignificant next to the vast sweep of Copacabana, the ocean and the towering mountains swathed in tropical rainforest. There might be a megacity of 13 million people down there but, from up here at least, it seems that man, despite his best efforts, has barely made a dent on this incredible landscape.

• The trip was provided by British Airways Holidays (0844 493 0787, ba.com), which offers direct flights from Heathrow and five nights at Sofitel Rio de Janeiro on Copacabana from £1,449, or seven nights from £1,739

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