After a 9-1/2 hour trans-Atlantic flight from Johannesburg to Sao Paulo and an hour flight from Sao Paulo, we finally arrived in Rio, 5 time zones away. At the airport, we pre-purchased our taxi (Transcoopas) to our hotel on Copacabana Beach, and that’s where the fun started…
We told our taxi driver that we were headed to the Arena Hotel on Copacabana Beach which made him throw up his hands and say “No”. We knew that the Pope was going to be in town for World Youth Day, or JMJ2013 – Jornada Mundial da Juventude, but we weren’t quite prepared for the road closures and masses of people. WYD/JMJ is held every few years at different venues around the globe. This year, WYD was held in Rio and was made even larger by the fact that the newly elected Pope is Argentinian, attracting huge numbers from Brazil and neighboring Argentina. In all, about 3.5 million people came to Rio for World Youth Day, and we were in the thick of it. We just didn’t know it yet.
We were told that the streets were closed 3-4 blocks from the beach, so there was no way that our taxi could take us to our hotel. Our driver spoke little to no English, and he had us call the hotel for advice. As it turned out, the other taxi drivers at the airport were helpful in providing some suggestions about how to get there (or as close as possible), and our taxi driver did the best he could by zig-zagging through the detoured city, up over one of the many hills, and finally to within a 3-block straight shot of our hotel.
The short three-block walk across masses of World Youth Day pilgrims pulling our roll-a-boards behind us was a little exciting, but we arrived at our hotel safe and sound. We checked in and flopped into bed after a long day of traveling.
Good Morning, Rio!
The good thing about flying 5 time zones west is that everyone is up early. We met our guide Daniel Cabral at 8AM after a quick breakfast downstairs. We selected Daniel because of his high marks and reviews on TripAdvisor.
We hopped into his SUV and headed to the Corcovado Tram.
After winding our way out of the Copacabana area we passed through a towering cutout in a massive granite mountain. These huge hills of granite, called morros, divide and delineate Rio into neighborhoods. To get around Rio, you have to go around them or through them. Rio has over 25 tunnels, the longest of which is 2.8 kilometers (1.7 miles) and runs under Corcovado.
The 2.4 mile long Corcovado Tram dates back to 1884 and climbs to the summit, 2,300 feet above. By the time we got to the base of the tram around 8:30AM, the lines were already forming. The next available tickets were being sold for 6PM that day. Fortunately, Daniel had purchased our tickets in advance for the 9:20 train, so all we had to do was wait for our assigned train. The steep climb takes about 20 minutes through lush jungle-like trees.
Christ the Redeemer
At the summit sits one of the modern 7 Wonders of the World, Christ the Redeemer, or Cristo Redentor. Started in 1922 and completed in 1931, the 5th largest statue of Christ stands almost 100 feet tall on top of a 25 foot pedestal with arms outstretched to over 90 feet. The views of the statue are incredible.
Framed against the blue sky, Christ the Redeemer is awe-inspiring, towering sight.
The statue is actually covered by a mosaic of small tiles, making it the largest art deco statue in the world. The art deco tiles mimic the intricate sidewalks of Rio.
With JMJ2013 in town, it was already wall to wall people at the statue by 9:30AM.
The vistas of the city from the landing below the statue are equally impressive. Fog was trapped in the valley to the left, but we could still clearly see Sugarloaf Mountain, the city, cemetery and hills behind Copacabana Beach, Lagoa (lagoon) – which will be the Olympic Rowing venue, and Ipanema Beach.
We snapped a few more photos before heading back down on the tram.
Once we were back at sea level, we hopped back in the car and raced over to Sugarloaf Mountain on the other side of town. It’s called Sugarloaf because in the 16th Century, sugar was refined by boiling it and ultimately pouring it into conical sugar loaf molds. The mountain sits at the mouth of the bay, so it has a great vantage point out to sea.
In 1907, Augusto Ferreira Ramos hatched the idea to build a cable car to the top of the massive granite hill. It took 5 years to design and build the cable car to the 1,300 foot summit.
When we arrived at Sugarloaf, the line wrapped up and back and around, reminiscent of the lines at Disneyland’s Space Mountain. Yellow, blue, and green JMJ2013 backpacks dotted the crowd. Once again, Daniel had pre-purchased our tickets, so we zipped past 200+ people and got right onto the cable car.
There are actually two mountains and two cable cars. The first car takes you to the top of Morro da Urca, and the second to the top of Sugarloaf.
Here we are with Augusto and the first cable car (behind us)
Like Corcovado, the vistas from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain did not disappoint. With a panoramic view of Rio you can see Copacabana Beach and Christ the Redeemer as well as the inner bay and the airport.
We headed to the small and very private neighborhood of Urca at the base of Morro da Urca for some lunch before tackling more of lovely Rio.
We really wanted to see the Cathedral in the center of Rio, but with the Pope in town, we were told that the downtown was closed to traffic. We took a stab and headed towards downtown. As we expected, the streets around the Cathedral were closed to through traffic. But we had an ace up our sleeve – Daniel! Daniel rolled down the window and talked to the armed guard that was regulating traffic. He sweet talked them into letting us pull up along the access road to the Cathedral for 10 minutes while we ran in to look around. In the end, we were actually able to park directly outside the Cathedral.
The Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian goes by many names (Catedral Metropolitana do Rio de Janeiro or Catedral de São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro). The conical concrete structure is very unique, especially for being the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro. It looks like a cross between a sand castle and a Mayan temple. It’s gray, cold, and a little imposing.
Inside is something completely different and unexpected. The flat sides of the Cathedral are actually enormous floor to ceiling stained glass windows which cast blues, reds, greens, and yellows into the Cathedral, and it makes it come alive and seem very inviting.
The pews are arranged in a circular pattern around a central stage or pulpit.
After the Cathedral, we were pretty much done for the day, but Daniel had another surprise for us: The Sambadrome – the stadium and viewing stands and final stop during Carnival. We took this opportunity to dress up the girls in some Carnival costumes–something reserved for us tourists! They struck their best poses given the weight of the head gear:
Daniel dropped us off a few blocks from our hotel due to road closures and armed military guards. Then more excitement was in store for us: The field on the west side of town that they had planned to use for an all-night vigil and a speech by the Pope had been rained out. Plan B – the only other venue that could accommodate over 3 million pilgrims for an all-night vigil – was Copacabana Beach, and we had front row seats.
We swam upstream towards our hotel, flashed our room keys to the door man, and breathed a sigh of relief. Venturing out for dinner was not in the cards so we stayed in and watched as the crowds descended and filled the beach and sidewalks. The waves were crashing on the shore as the pilgrims enjoyed a day at the beach before the evening event began.
Just to recap, this is what the beach looked like last night when we arrived:
This is what the beach looked like this morning (note the wavy mosaic sidewalk along the beach):
By 12PM, it was starting to fill up – 60% full (from Sugarloaf)
By 4PM, the beach was probably 85% full:
By 8PM the streets were wall to wall people, angling for the best spot to see the Pope.
The beaches were just as crowded. Here’s what 3 million people look like on Copacabana Beach:
At 8:15PM, the Pope began his 45 minute drive from the west end of the beach to the stage at the east side.
The color changing stage gave this modern Pope a youthful edge.
The stage was pretty far away. My camera and zoom did the best they could to see the new Pontiff.
We expected the vigil to be over by 4AM, but by 6AM when we woke up, there was still a sea of sleepy pilgrims spread out on the beach and sidewalks:
We caught a taxi outside that whisked us to the airport in record time, and we caught a flight to Iguassu Falls (here’s a preview, previously posted).
Happy RTW Travels!