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Before we arrived in Rio, I the travel nerd, was busy reading up on all the things you can see and do in Rio.  One thing that caught my eye was a favela tour. Favela is the term used to refer to slums or shanty towns in Brazil.

It was a bit of a struggle to decide whether to partake in this type of tour.  On one hand we did not want to feel like we were on a “zoo” tour.  On the other I was curious to see what the favelas were like.  The movie Cidade de Dues (City of God) clearly portrays the violent side but I couldn’t help but wonder what daily life was like in Rio’s famous favelas.  So I called up Favela Tour (you save a few bucks if you call yourself instead of having your hotel do it for you) and booked us on a tour.

There are 800 favelas in Rio and 20% (about 1 million people) of Rio’s population live in them.  A new government project “Barrio” (neighbourhood) has received 550 million dollars from the Interamerican Bank to start providing basic infrastructure like water and sewage lines into these areas.  The goal is to integrate the favelas into the city.

A view of the favela

A view of a favela

Out of 800 favelas 4 are controlled by militia and the rest, all 796 are controlled by drug dealers.  From what we were told the only difference between the two is that the militia doesn’t sell drugs.  The drugs for sale tend to be marijuana, coke and crack cocaine.  For a potentially very violent area, favelas have a surprisingly low crime rate and robbery is a rare occurrence.  Why?  Well with crime comes the police and the drug dealers don’t take to kindly to having the police poke around in their shady business.  This does insinuate that drug dealers may take punishment into their own hands so those pondering performing criminal acts probably think twice knowing that consequences are much harsher coming from the dealers.

Rocinha is Rio’s largest favela and at 60,000 people its population is equal to that of Copacabana.  It has the most people per square meter in all of Rio.  According to our guide, living in Rocinha is like living in one of India’s slums.  That is not a very uplifting thought however, for some, it is not all bad, in fact, you might be surprised to know that all these people living in one place has actually created numerous jobs and 91% of all business in the favelas is informal business (local shops, video stores etc).  8% of the inhabitants of this favela are considered middle class earning 1000 to 2000 Reals ($550 to $1100 USD) per month.  Rocinha also has organized water, sewage (to some extent), health clinics and even a postal service without government assistance.  There are 3 large banks, local radio stations and even a community newspaper found within the favela’s limits.

Ummm power anyone?

Ummm power anyone?

So, should you take a tour?  For us, it was an eye-opening and interesting look at these neighbourhoods that envelope the city of Rio de Janiero.  They are only minutes from the famous beaches and wealth of Ipanema and Copacabana and are a huge part of Rio’s culture. You won’t go far without seeing some painting of colourful shanty homes stacked sky high.  The people who live in the favelas are like people anywhere – for the most part good, hard-working folk looking to create a better life.  However, there is serious drug dealing in the favelas, weapons are often visible and YOU don’t belong so don’t kid yourself into thinking that the favela is a safe place for any foreigner to walk into. Taking a tour is a safer way to explore this part of Rio.  Even better, the tours offered by Favela Tour help to support 80% of Para Ti a local organization that provides a place where kids from the Vila Canoas favela can go to learn, play and stay out of trouble.

Rio I think I love you

Rio is intoxicating.  The vibrancy of the city, the diversity of the people and the laid-back feeling have created a delicious energy that sinks into your veins making you crave more.  Its addictive quality has me seriously thinking about how we can spend more time there again… soon.

John and Nina, of the fabulous Rio Dolphin Inn, made us feel at home in their cozy bed and breakfast.  Not only do they run a great inn but they are both passionate about Rio and have tonnes of tips and ideas on what to do when you visit.

We took 5 days to explore some of what the city has to offer…really you could spend at least a month, perhaps a lifetime exploring Rio but here are a few of our highlights:

Hanging with the beautiful people on Ipanema
Ipanema is where it is at for sun-worshippers.

Thong time Break out your umbrella, grab a coconut water, your itty bittiest bikini (or teeny weeny shorts for the men) and settle in for some serious people watching (my fave activity anywhere).  Or, for the more active, jog along the boardwalk, play beach volleyball or surf. This is winter in Rio… it’s a rough life.

Ipanema in Winter

Visiting a Samba School
Carnaval is months away but for those involved behind the scenes it actually starts about 8 months earlier.  One of the first things that a samba school needs to do is choose a song for the upcoming Carnaval.  Songwriters have a chance to submit original works of music to their school.  The songs are then performed and a long process of choosing “the” song begins.  We went down to one of the biggest samba schools in Rio for their first night of song selection.  Being typical westerners we arrived around 11pm but the party didn’t really begin until 1am.  Insanely loud music, sassy samba dancers competing like preening peacocks and loads of drinking kept that party going all night long.

Samba school gets ready for Carnaval from Kels M on Vimeo.

Checking out the madness at Selaron’s steps
“The Great Madness”,  215 ever-changing tiled steps, is Chilean artist Selaron’s life’s work.  Starting in 1990, he began to tile the steps in Brazil’s national colours as a tribute to the country’s people. He kept on even when he couldn’t pay rent or utilities and now, 20 years since he started, numerous photoshoots, magazine interviews and thousands of tiles later Selaron is still working on his masterpiece.  Tiles have been sent from all over the world and you can find one from just about every country. We stopped by for a look and found Selaron hanging out on his steps, not much of a talker he did agree to have a photo taken with us.  He has said, “This crazy and unique dream will only end on the day of my death” and so he can usually be found working most days exchanging old tiles for new.

Selaron's steps

Partying with the locals in Lapa
On Friday nights the place to party is the Lapa district, close to the Rio’s old aqueducts.  Our taxi left us there around 10:30pm and the streets were packed with hundreds of people, all waiting for the night to begin.  After buying $2 caipirinhas from a street vendor we heard the seductive pounding beat of drums and headed over to investigate.

Lapa time!
A full bateria (the drum section, the beat behind the samba) was playing on the street, and they had everyone moving to the groove, before long the group turned and marched into a club with the lively crowd following.  Not wanting to miss out we joined them and busted some dance moves of our own though we were definitely put to shame by the Brazilians who seem born with an innate ability to move well.  We finished the evening off with maracuja (passionfruit) caipirinhas at a small club listening to sultry bossa nova .

Partying in Lapa from Kels M on Vimeo.

Seeing the classic “Rio” view from the Sugar Loaf
High at the top of the Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf) you can enjoy a drink and check out the view of Rio de Janeiro and the Christ statue.  Built in 1912 and rebuilt in the early 70s the cable car takes visitors high above the city. The awesome view is so iconic it is definitely a must-see.

Sugar Loaf

The largest salt flat in the world, the Salar de Uyuni in the southwest of Bolivia, stretches 10,000 square kilometers across the Altiplano to form one of the flattest areas on our planet. 12,000 feet above sea level the massive salt desert was created by the uplift and evaporation of the giant prehistoric Lake Minchin.  In Bolivian mythology the Salar is actually a collection of evaporated tears from nearby Mount Tunupa forever mourning the loss of her kidnapped son.

A vastness of salt, blindingly white and bloody cold at night the Salar de Uyuni is a formidable place and after hearing horror stories about drivers getting lost and people dying we decided to hire a local guide to show us around… apparently some of the minerals make compass readings unreliable.

Roberto was a sprightly, gap toothed ex-minor from Potosi and claimed to speak 7 languages, our tour was in Spanish. He told us that the Salar is believed to hold half of the world’s reserves of lithium but the only thing it yields right now is salt, about 25 thousand tonnes annually. He gave us a pretty good tour condensing a three day trip into a comfortable days drive. We ended the day giving Roberto an impromptu driving lesson …his first time driving and up to 80, not bad.

We had both been looking forward to driving into the Salar and after battling some of the worst roads so far, Bolivia finally offered up a salty smooth tarmac twenty five times the size of the Bonneville Salt Flats. See below for Kels’ celebratory kung fu rock kick.

Salty Kung Fu

al-and-tom

Clos … I like to give it a slightly Germanic drawl so it sounds like house. We first heard about Concha Y Toro wines from Luisa, a retired dancer from New York, who put us up in Mexico City – ‘you can get a decent bottle of red for six bucks’.

Living by the beach and watching our budget at Bob’s place in Costa Rica we found the Concha Y Toro line again, this time as Clos de Pirque and in a one-litre tetra pack … travel friendly! Clos also made a solid showing in Mancora, Peru when we hung out with Al for a few days waiting for the swell.

Al did get in touch with us after we left Mancora…  “By the way I met a German guy who told me Clos in German is slang for toilet (bog, shitter, dunnie) you get the picture. Still enjoying the odd glass though.” And while it’s not winning any wine awards it has to be said that Clos is a real backpacker favorite, this resealable, nonbreakable and fairly drinkable gem will only set you back about 3 dollars.

His name is Carlos Daviz but everyone calls him Lito, he’s a mechanic in Panama City and he knows six English words; Working, Today, Tomorrow, Bucks, Drinking, and Racing. He also knows and loves his VW’s.

We had a broken front shock and we were driving a punishing goat track in the forgotten back blocks of Panama’s Pacific coast – cringing and swearing as a multitude of unavoidable potholes battered our suspension. Sweating over some of the steeper inclines that demanded a preemptive reckless speed, there was no way back, we had to keep going.

That ‘road’ finally exited us onto a well paved, rolling country lane and we glided into Santa Catalina an hour and a half later, which softened the nightmare detour and gave us some hope of reaching Panama City where we could replace the part.

By chance, in Panama City, we ran into Slim Ferguson – an automatic transmission guy, who said he could replace our shock but that he knew a guy who would really enjoy working on our little VW … his name was Lito.

A slight man with a ready smile, Lito walked out of his shop, lifted the hood and whistled through his teeth. Shaking his head with an adoptive pride he looked at the dusty tangle of aging parts and smiled broadly… ‘What a warrior’ he said ‘what a warrior!’ which set Slim into fits of laughter.

lito_signature

Lito worked on our Volkswagen Golf for two days, only accepting payment for parts, ‘thirty-five bucks’. When he was finished he signed the engine and put a Panama flag next to his signature, then he took us on a guided tour of Panama City with his wife.

Cheers Lito, you’re a legend!

lito_salute

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