A Riveting Night in Rio de Janeiro


Aaahhh….Brazil – the name itself conjures up daydreams of endless beaches, samba and caipirinhas.

Brazil had been on my travel radar for quite some time and in 2001 I was offered the chance to finally go.

My friend’s cousin was living there and invited us to stay with him – not going wasn’t even an option! Singing The Girl From Ipanema, I got busy packing my bikini (NOT an itsy bitsy Brazilian bikini) and my flip flops. I was ready to spend some time in la cidade mervilhosa taking in the sites but mostly just sunbathing on the world-renowned beaches. I went for a week in September knowing it was winter but still expecting the sun to be hot enough to take in some rays.

How wrong I was!

(This is part of my Early Travels Series hence the grainy photos – see more in The World)




Sadly, I actually only spent one day on the famous Copacabana beach. The rest of the week was cloudy, rainy and chilly (as far as Rio goes). But on the flip side, that left more time to go out and about exploring the sites Rio de Janeiro was famed for: the statue of Christ the Redeemer atop Mount Corcovado and Sugarloaf Mountain (Pao de Açucar). I also went shopping in Ipanema, had a drink at an Irish pub, danced in a discotheque suspiciously named HELP and hiked Pedra Bonita.

Topping the list of some of my favorite destinations are big cities bordered by beaches and Rio de Janeiro certainly didn’t disappoint in that respect. As for architecture, I can’t say it was the best-looking city but keep in mind that I only visited Copacabana and Ipanema. Both of these neighborhoods are riddled with rows of nondescript apartment buildings and high rises with very little architectural interest. All the credit goes to the beaches where cariocas (locals) from all walks of life spend most of their time anyway.


View of Copacabana Avenue from the apartment (see what I mean about the lack of architecture?)


A bit of Spanish colonial architecture in Ipanema


Atlantico Avenue – the main road in Copacabana dividing the strip of non-descript buildings from Copacabana beach. This boulevard is closed on Sundays making it a pedestrian street.


The modernist mosaic “Portuguese pavement” boardwalks designed by Brazilian architect Roberto Burle Marx are ubiquitous in Rio de Janeiro – adding some interesting visual design to the otherwise bland cityscape.


When I told people I was going to Brazil, most warned me of the dangers of Rio de Janeiro (although they hadn’t been). At the time, it was the highest ranking city in terms of (drug-related) crimes and murders. This was before police pacifications made it possible for tourists to roam around somewhat carefree in some of the favelas (shanty towns). I admit I was a little worried but not enough to stop me from going.


Check out the very compelling film City of God  recounting the start

of gang and drug violence in Rio de Janeiro.


Safety first – Ipanema Beach


Sign at Hard Rock Café


I’m happy to say I wasn’t mugged or robbed and that most cariocas were friendly while others didn’t even bother to give me a second glance (which was fine). However, I can’t write about my time in Rio de Janeiro without recounting my first night there. Here it goes.

My friend’s cousin was renting an apartment on Copacabana Avenue across the street from the luxurious five-star Copacabana Hotel – an indication of the upper class area. But like most upper class areas in Rio, the favelas are never too far away nestled in the surrounding mountains.


View of the five-star Copacabana Hotel and beach from our apartment


Rocinha – the biggest favela in Rio de Janeiro


After two flights and a layover (a total of 18 hours of traveling), I was looking forward to getting a good night’s sleep. My nocturnal plan was abruptly interrupted when, after just a few minutes trying to get comfortable in a bed that wasn’t my own, I heard gun shots. Let me clarify: I heard several, continuous heavy-duty machine gun shots being fired and it sounded like they were coming from just below my window. This continued for about 5 minutes – which is a long time as far as gun shots are involved. The shooting finally stopped and I managed to fall in and out of sleep trying not to think of what I had so clearly heard.

The next day I asked my friend’s cousin if he heard the gun shots. He casually answered that it happened often in Rio and I should get used to it. The gun shots echoed from the nearby mountain where the favela could be seen at the end of our street. It was probably a drug-related shoot out – not uncommon in Rio at the time (nor today). I never heard any gun shots after that – maybe it was just Rio’s way of welcoming me to its urban jungle.



The song “The Girl from Ipanema” was written in La Garota restaurant in Ipanema


Ipanema – These painted lines were to dissuade people from criss-crossing the street (please forgive the fanny pack)


Obelisk & footbridge marking the end of Leblon and the beginning of Ipanema


Pedra Bonita just outside Ipanema


My sweaty self – I wasn’t expecting to do any hiking in Rio (think beach people!) 


View of Dois Irmaos (Two Brothers) mountains from Pedra Bonita


Copacabana beach with Dois Irmaos (Two Brothers) mountains in the background


Pao de Açucar (Sugarloaf) accessible by cable car


Black-tufted Marmoset monkey on Pao de Açucar (Sugarloaf)


Statue of Christ the Redeemer on Mount Corcovado 


Statue of Christ the Redeemer on Mount Corcovado




View of Rio de Janeiro from the top of Mount Corcovado


Iconic view of Rio de Janeiro – still one of my favorite travel pictures


Postcard of Rio de Janeiro – illustration by Carlito Menezes de Souza


After a week in Brazil – it was off to Argentina! 





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Have you been to Rio de Janeiro? Do you have any interesting stories to tell? What did you like/dislike about this city?


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  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    I love hearing about places I visited years ago and how they’ve changed (good or bad). Rocinha favela was the most dangerous back when I went and now it’s become a “tourist attraction” – fascinating! Thanks for commenting!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Marina! So happy my post brought back such good memories of la cidade maravilhosa! It’s a great city and I would love to go back some day. As for gun shots, unfortunately it’s part of Brazil’s footprint. 🙁

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Clare! Glad you enjoyed Rio! Back when I went, we had to duck each time we came to a traffic light and there was no way we could go to a favela – it was way too dangerous. But I know things have changed a lot and favelas now attract loads of tourists. Thanks for commenting!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Sarj! I did pout a little because I couldn’t go to the beach but I was fascinated by Rio de Janeiro (would go back!). And yes it was and still is normal throughout Brazil to hear gun shots. Sadly, it’s a country with a lot of divide in terms of economical status. 🙁

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Rio is a fascinating country and I would love to visit the rest of Brazil! It took me a while to fall asleep but I managed – I guess jet lag got the best of me. 🙂

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Munchkin Treks! Glad you enjoyed this article. Rio de Janeiro was a rough place when I went but I would definitely go back (it’s become much safer though some areas should be avoided). Happy travels!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    I would love to go back to Rio de Janeiro – it got under my skin somehow! I hear it’s become a very popular travel destination but it wasn’t the case when I went all those years ago. haha….not sure the Hard Rock Café still exists! 😉

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    I was surprised also Sophie…..lol! Apparently it wasn’t normal to have so much rain that time of year but I made the best of it (and pouted each time I saw the beaches). 😉

  • I would be so scared to hear machine gun shots outside my window. I am actually going to spend 2 days in Sao Paolo this yeat, betweek flights, and to be honest I am not really looking forward to them because I know how dangerous the town is… Its great that you didn’t have any problems in Rio.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I didn’t go to Sao Paulo but there are some nice things to see like Liberdade (Japanese area) and Beco do Batman – an alley filled with street art. My friend lives in Sao Paulo and says these areas are pretty safe. Rio de Janeiro back then was really rough but I did walk alone during the day with no problems. 🙂