The Marvellous City has a sinister underbelly.
Rio is one of those places that has suffered so much from the barrage of tourist agency propaganda that it’s hard to see the city for all of the accumulated images of samba girls in sequin bikinis. Mention to anyone that you’re heading to Rio de Janeiro and they imagine you’re off to some beach/sex/football heaven. Alternatively, If they’ve seen City of God recently, they’ll most likely cross you off their Christmas list.
Brazilians call Rio de Janeiro a cidade de Maravilha, the Marvellous City and as far as the geography goes it’s hard to argue. The Portuguese must have been blown away when their ships first sailed up to this stunning panorama of beaches, jungle and bays. Everywhere you turn around you find a beach and behind them swell tropical hills, rising and falling out of nowhere.
When you look closer at these hills though the reality of modern day Rio de Janeiro hits you as you see clusters of wobbly concrete housing, accessible only by narrow, endless staircases that make being old a daily punishment. These are the favelas, the slums that the poor have built on the hillsides. Some of them are situated directly behind the wealthy neighbourhoods, reversing the natural rule that the rich get the views and the sea breeze.
The postcards would have you believe that Rio de Janeiro is no more than a few beaches and parades of girls in dental floss bikinis . In reality it’s an enormous city of x million people, most of whom don’t live anywhere near a beach. The classic images are all taken from the Zona Sul, the more affluent part of Rio where you find all the best beaches. Here’s where you find the classy areas and the hotel districts of Ipanema and Copacabana, as well as the backpacker neighbourhood of Catete and downtown party spots like Lapa.
The main part of the city is in zona norte and you’ll only be going here if you speak Portuguese and you know what you’re doing. It’s where the majority of the cariocas live and where they eke out a living amid the gun fights of the drug cartels and the military police.
Millions of people live in the zona sul and it’s unlikely that you’ll go much further in the time you’re in Rio de Janeiro. The beaches join up like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle and it takes ages to travel between them on account of the hills that get in the way. But no matter where you are you’ll look up and see Christ the Redemptor looking down on the city and wondering what ever happened to the Marvellous City.