Mary Byker’s Top 5 Favourite Things To See And Do In Rio

After a decade and a half of life in Rio let me steer you away from the maddening crowds and towards the hidden gems...
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After a decade and a half of life in Rio let me steer you away from the maddening crowds and towards the hidden gems...

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After 15 years visiting and living in Rio, I've found that there's almost too much to do. Here, in no particular order are some of my favourite Brazilian activities:

1: Catch the Sunset at Arpoador/Ipanema beach

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Most people when I mention I live in Rio will say: “wow, Rio, I’d love to go to Copacabana beach!” My reply is always the same: “why?” Copacabana beach may be the most famous in Rio but it’s also the worst. It is usually full of tacky out of towners, geriatrics and American sex tourists.

The more discerning Carioca (native of Rio) is normally to be found on the next beach along which in fact is divided into 3. At the beginning is Arpoador, which segues into Ipanema and then, Leblon. It is on this stretch of beach, where you will find the great and the good of Rio. Arpoador is the spiritual home of Rio’s thriving surf scene. The best part of the beach, in my opinion, stretches from posto 9 all the way to the rocks of Arpoador. When I first started coming to Brazil over 15 years ago my wife would drag me down to Posto 9, named after the lifeguard towers that line each kilometer of the beach. Posto 9 is the “alternative” section of the beach, and was popularized by the young Caetano Veloso and the tropicalistas who opposed the dictatorship in the 60’s and to this day it retains the whiff of the underground. It’s there I would sit transfixed as the beautiful young Carioca’s would swim, surf, talk, drink and smoke their afternoons away.

15 years on and becoming parents, many of the younger crowd that I first met at posto 9, have now migrated to Arpoador and it’s there we head to when we have time to get to the beach. Here you can rub shoulders with people from the local favela as well as artists, actors, musicians and enlightened tourists. Every night during the summer, when the sun dips into the sea under the hills of the Dois Irmãos, the sound of clapping fills the air as everyone on the beach celebrates the sunset. This is the moment I say to myself: “that’s why I moved here”. On a hot summers night the beach here will still be buzzing way after dark. Lit by floodlights you can surf and swim into the early hours

2: Football; O Clássico - Flamengo vs. Fluminense - at the Maracanã

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Way back when I first visited Brazil my adopted team and current Champions of Brazil, Fluminense were in the 3rd division. They were my wife’s family team and everyone laughed at me for wanting to support them. The majority of Carioca’s (and Brazilians in general) seem to support Flamengo. They are the Manure of Brazil but without the consistent success.

It just so happened that on the night of the first day I moved to Rio I went to my first Clássico, unfortunately for me I went with a group of Flamengo fans and had to sit in the middle of their hardcore support. Unable to celebrate and in hostile territory, I have to admit I was overawed by the sight and sounds around me, the drums, flags and flares! Highbury, it wasn’t! I could quite easily have become a Flamengo fan that night as Fluminense lost the game…

So one of the highlights of my new life in Brazil, would be to go and watch Fluminense play football at the magnificent Maracanã stadium, this vast concrete bowl built for the 1950 world cup. Once it had a capacity of 200,000 people. In a country where the beautiful game is like a religion, this was its Sistine chapel.

You could catch a cab from zona sul and arrive at the stadium in 20 minutes, rock up to the ticket office pay R$15 (then about £3) for a seat in the arquibancada, where the loudest and most fanatical Torcidas (fans) sat. There, without having to move, we would be served cans of ice-cold beer for the duration of the game. Heaven! The Brazilian game was and still is much slower than I was used to, but the more than occasional flash of brilliance would make up for all the falling over trying to fool the referee nonsense.

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Lucky for me my arrival in Brazil coincided with an upturn in fortunes for Fluminense, back in the top tier we managed to win the Copa Brazil in 2007, the equivalent of the FA Cup, which in turn qualified us for the Copa Libertadores, the South American version of the champions league. I went to pretty much all the games as we rampaged our way into the final, beating São Paulo and Boca Juniors along the way. The final was to be played over 2 legs home and away. Our opponents were LDU Quito from Ecuador. The first match played at altitude in their stadium was a complete disaster. We lost 4-2 in the rarified air. The return match at the oversold Maracanã was a tight affair but with an amazing hat trick from Thiago Neves, the match ended 3-1 and was tied on aggregate and so the match went to penalties. We lost. I have never in my life seen so many people so quiet leaving a football match. It must have been like this when Alcides Ghiggia scored the winning goal for Uruguay 11 minutes from time in the final of the 1950 world cup, a defeat that stunned the whole of Brazil.

At the time of writing the refurbishment of the stadium has just finishe,remodeled for the 2014 world cup, the first official match will be a friendly against England on the 2nd of June. I’m not so sure the atmosphere at the new look stadium will be quite the same as I first experienced. Unfortunately the cost of refurbishment will inevitably price out those less well off fans, which will be a shame. The big question now is can Brazil win in 2014? With the final due to be played at the Maracanã, the pressure on big Phil Scolari and the seleção is immense. O clássico - still something worth checking out if you get the chance.

3. Party in Alto Vidigal

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A couple of years ago a friend of mine asked if I’d like to DJ at a friend’s leaving party in a hostel in Alto Vidigal, a beautiful spot halfway up the Dois Irmãos hillside. I was slightly skeptical as Alto Vidigal was at the very top of an as yet unpacified favela, meaning the party was in a place controlled by heavily armed drug dealers. My friends assured me that there would be no problem and not to worry about the drug gangs and machine guns! I agreed to play but decided not to take my normal computer set up (paranoia) so I took up a selection of old party tunes on vinyl that I had in my record bag.

A friendly taxi driver we know who lives in Vidigal agreed to drive us to the top of the hill, he duly dropped us off and pointed down some concrete steps to the venue. We got out and started walking. About halfway down we saw a group of teenagers at the bottom who had semi automatic weapons hanging over their shoulders. Our first thought was to walk back up when suddenly one of the kids shouted out to one of the girls with us “Tia, Tia”(auntie, auntie) “Don’t be frightened it’s OK, the party is here” and they pointed thier guns to the entrance of the venue. We walked in to behold one of the most spectacular views of Rio I have ever seen, and there are plenty of those to choose from (from the top of Christ Redentor or the sugarloaf) Stretched out below us were the twinkling lights of Vidigal, a view of Leblon, Ipanema and Arpaodor beaches, the Lagoa Rodrigo da freitas and the sugarloaf all visible from the not so small dance floor. Added to the view was a killer sound system provided by Rio’s premier sound system Digital dubs. The party was amazing with no trouble at all from the armed youths who kept a discreet distance outside, Playing Ganja Crew’s jungle classic Super Sharp Shooter over a bass heavy PA, to an up for it dance floor, on the top of a favela has to be one of my all time favorite DJ moments. The sunrise in the morning was spectacular.

3 months after the party the favela was pacified under the UPP (pacification) program which is currently being enforced by the state government. So after some ownership issues at the Hostel the parties are still going strong in Alto Vidigal. Now thankfully in an environment free of guns. An amazing spot highly recommended.

You can even stay at the venue! Check site for party listings.

4. Prainha Beach

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Drive to the south some 40kms from the centre of Rio through past Rochina, Rio’s largest favela which ironically is the backdrop to the exclusive Gavea golf club and São Conrado beach, further along the coast you’ll arrive in Barra which is Rio’s newest suburb stretching for about 25kms that look like you could be in Miami. This is the area where they are building most of the venues for the upcoming Olympics.

Drive on past seemingly endless condominiums, shopping malls and construction sites and you reach Recreio and Macumba beaches. The next beach you arrive at is the small but perfectly formed Prainha (little beach). Bordered by rocks, high cliffs and rainforest It’s hard to imagine that you are still in Rio.

Prainha is primarily a surfer beach where the waves come in fast with multiple breaks causing a strong current and undertow. Days with a low swell are best if you don’t surf . Thanks to the effort of the surfers association the land behind the beach is a protected nature reserve “Parque natural da Prainha” You can hike up through deep primary forest filled with orchids and bromelias, get to the top and you will be rewarded with impressive views of Recreio and Grumari. It’s best to visit Prainha during the week when there are not so many people around.

On the southwestern end of the beach is the bar restaurant Mirante de Prainha which overlooks the beach they serve delicious “pasties” filled with prawn or crab and freshly caught fish which is grilled on the outdoor “brasa” all washed down with Ice cold beer. If the surf is too rough or the beach is packed try the adjacent beach of Grumari, which is considerably bigger, Grumari boasts Rio’s only nudist beach. You can get to Prainha using the surf bus which follows the coast road.

5. A weekend night out in Lapa.

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Close to Centro and the commercial district of Rio is Lapa, known as the cradle of Bohemian life in the city and from the 50’s was known as: “Monmartre Carioca.” It is here at the weekend where kids of all ages go to have it large.

Home to the Iconic Arcos da Lapa this neighborhood is the best place to experience the richness of Brazilian music from Samba, Foro, Choro to Funk plus the international sounds of house, Rock & hip hop. There are some great venues from the enormous Fundição Progresso, which started life as an English owned factory producing train tracks, to the mid sized Circo Voador. There are also many venues where Samba rules the roost from the splendid Rio Scenearium and Clube dos Democráticos to smaller bars like Café musical Carioca da Gema, Teatro Odesséia, Asa Branca and Mofo. On Friday and Saturday nights the sidewalks swarm with crowds of revelers moving from bar to bar, it’s like being at a festival with vendors selling caipirinhas and cold beers on the streets. A good night out in Lapa ends with breakfast at sunrise and a headache!

More info: Familiar English guide to what’s going on in Rio

Written in Portuguese the definitive guide to what’s going on in Lapa

Mary Byker is the former singer of the Gaye Bykers On Acid, Pigface, Hyperhead, Apollo 440, Maximum Roach and is now with the new look Pop Will Eat Itself. He can be found on Soundcloud here, or at his bar Mekong in Leblon, Rio de Janeiro.