From Corcovado Mountain with the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer at its peak, I’m looking across one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Rio de Janeiro, like other urban beauties such as Sydney and New York, elicits a sharp intake of breath when viewed from a distance.
The ‘Cidade Maravilhosa’ stretches along the southern shore of Guanabara Bay, a 20-mile stretch wedged between indigo sea and rainforest-shrouded mountains, its sinuous streetscape moulded around the foothills. The city is secondary to the mountains, the Atlantic surf, the tropical lagoons, and the Tijuca Forest reclaimed from old plantations. I can see the rounded incline of Sugarloaf Mountain, past which departing jet planes make a dramatic fly-by as if to remind those leaving the city what they’re missing out on as they head out above the bay where rocky islands are fringed with white sand.
I can see it all: the João Batista cemetery, the largest in the city; the pyramid structure of Rio’s brutalist-styled cathedral; the vast port where the bones of thousands of slaves were uncovered in the 1990s; even the carnival stands of the samba schools. But there’s no hiding the visual reality of Rio’s deep inequality. Favelas sit cheek by jowl with the smarter parts of the city as it fans north into the distance.
The city — and all its myriad neighbourhoods — dwarf the famous beach enclaves of Copacabana and Ipanema in this context. Gazing down on Rio’s southern suburbs, my eye is drawn to Botafogo, where I’m staying. This under-the-tourist-radar neighbourhood is the next along from Copacabana, set between hills of Mundo Novo and Dona Marta and São João, the latter separating it from that famous beach. Its tree-lined streets end in the perfect crescent of Praia de Botafogo and the sailboat-speckled Guanabara Bay. No one swims in it, though, as the bayside waters are grubbier than the ocean waves of Copacabana, Ipanema or Leblon.
Botafogo looks out on to the rounded beauty of Sugarloaf Mountain and the Morro da Urca, with that glorious sea and sky vista, a richly textured workaday neighbourhood that has always had it all as far as its loyal residents are concerned: museums, cafes, art house cinemas, shopping, and a decent metro connection, plus one of Brazil’s most popular football clubs. But Botafogo has only lately begun to see much tourism or buzz.
As rents in Ipanema and Copacabana started to creep sky high, spiked by the Olympics, Botafogo has attracted the Carioca creative youth massive. A proliferation of new businesses, from restaurants and microbreweries to bars, coffee shops, galleries, recording studios and tiny boutiques has earned the suburb the moniker of BotaSoho. It’s one of the few places you can get a soy latte, or a vegan dish in Rio — and there’s plenty of places that you can get a traditional Brazilian feijoada, too, at old-man botecos (grocery bodegas) that remain very much alive and kicking. It’s not showy, but it supports an enormous amount of the city’s creative life, with many locals notable players in the fields of art, culture and music.
I’ve arranged to meet some of the area’s influencers, so after migrating back into the neighbourhood from my vertiginous vantage point, I meet up with local curator Ulisses Carrilho. To get the measure of Botafogo he takes me to — where else? — its best coffee and breakfast joint, famed for artisanal methods and local ingredients. The Slow Bakery takes bread fermentation and cold poured coffee to a whole new level. With the bakery’s preference for natural fermentation, some loaves take up to 30 hours to prepare. “That’s a bit over the top isn’t it?” I say, cutting the question short with an unbridled “mmmmmmmmmm,” as the sourdough literally melts into my mouth.
Next, I head to Cosme Velho, a district separated from Botafogo by the Rebouças tunnel. Together with his boyfriend, artist Matheus Rocha Pitta, this is where Ulisses Carrilho’s latest project is unfolding, on the slopes of the Corcovado Mountain. Solar dos Abacaxis is an exquisite derelict colonial mansion taken over by Ulisses and a collective of artists and curators to host exhibitions and cultural events. The mansion was the former family home to one of the collective’s great grandmothers, feminist poet Anna Amélia Carneiro de Mendonça: a renaissance type who also founded a hospital and went on a jaunt to Istanbul in a Zeppelin. Its ruined beauty is the canvas on to which the collective projects its exhibitions, which light up the building for one night every two weeks, followed by a party, which has to run with no electricity, water or bathrooms as the building is uninhabited.
Solar dos Abacaxis’s parties attract many Cariocas, who tend towards the wild and eccentric, and numbers can range from a few hundred to, once, 2,000 people dancing to electronic music in the lush gardens. Most won’t know about the intentions of the project, but that doesn’t matter: the sales of the drinks fund the artists. “We do not fetishise the state of the house,” says Ulisses, opening a shutter so that sunlight pours in through the stained glass of the window. “The aim is to renovate the building so it can be used for residencies, especially inviting artists who are keen to share their craft with local children.” Believing in social transformation through art, one of the collective’s social projects involves children from the local favelas.
Many artists in the city are resisting an increasingly conservative status quo, politically and spiritually, as Evangelical Christianity sweeps the country. The evangelicalisation of this historically licentious and expressive city is a concern for every person I encounter in Rio, and in Brazil at large. In autumn 2016 the anti-gay, anti-Catholic, anti-feminist, evangelical bishop Marcelo Crivella became mayor of Rio.
“Censorship is a massive issue now,” says Ulisses. “Children under the age of 18 are being banned from museums in case they’re exposed to ‘pornographic’ art.” The mayor has taken an axe to the carnival budget, threatening even Rio’s unstoppable samba. Many argue that this evangelism — seeping first and foremost into the favelas — seeks to divest a vibrant Afro-Brazilian culture of its song and dance. It also physically occupies spaces originally intended for cultural purposes, with churches in old cinemas and theatres, and preachers taking over television channels.
When Ulisses and Matheus found out that Rio’s exquisite Muncipal Theatre had no money to pay its orchestra and that it had begun hosting evangelical ‘shows’, Matheus responded with the installation Kingdom of Heaven, a fake evangelical church fashioned out of a derelict pizza parlour. His work has been shown internationally, including twice at the Sao Paulo Biennial, much of it making uses of the ‘poor’ material of the favelas
— concrete, stone, bricks, newspapers — to create art.
“I came back from a residency in Berlin last year to find a city hungover from the World Cup and the Olympics,” he says. “Enthusiasm seemed to have nosedived and [political and economic] problems had once again come to the surface.” He refers to the 2015 impeachment of the then Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff for accounting irregularities, and the narrow escape of the current incumbent Michel Temer from the same fate this year (though many argue there’s more evidence against him). Hospitals and universities were closing, Matheus said, and yet Botafogo seemed a bright spot in a city plagued by wider decline.
Food for thought
Although Brazil is emerging from the grip of recession, the previous boom years of economic success meant Brazilians migrated across the globe in record numbers. Many returned having soaked up new culinary ideas, creating casual but experimental places on their home turf. CoLAB is a case in point: a relaxed cafe that opens on to the street and serves locally brewed beers and a range of globally inspired foods, with live music on the weekends.
It’s good to meet one of CoLAB’s effervescently bright young things: singer and composer Mahmundi. Her dancefloor-happy electronic sound, which fuses 1980s pop, Brazilian roots influence and R’n’B, has been snapped up by Universal Music. She’s becoming the soundtrack to the lives of a diverse cross-section of the country’s younger generation.
In a city of inherited wealth, Mahmundi’s is a different story. Born in the northern suburb of Marechal Hermes, she was working at KFC aged 24 and dreaming of a different life, but once she wangled a job as a sound engineer at a venue called Flying Circus, she worked her way up from there, jumping on any opportunity. Music, to her, is not political — she describes it as ‘sacred’ — but she is drawn to the topic of what it means to be young, gifted, black — and female — in contemporary Brazil.
“I sing about what it was like growing up in the suburbs, being one of the Brazilian people who craved the hedonism of the beach but was obstructed by social issues. There was this beautiful city we couldn’t enjoy.” Living in Botafogo, she tells me, is her first ‘experiment’ in living in south Rio. She remains, it seems, acutely aware that this is not where she comes from — “I feel most at home in the samba school Portela in the northern suburb of Madureira” — but it’s significant that she has chosen this spot, instead of Copacabana, or Ipanema. “This neighbourhood epitomises the social disparities of Rio, because Santa Marta, one of the biggest favelas, is on the doorstep,” she says. “It’s democratic, and close to the action.”
Later that night, Guilherme Guedes, a CoLAB music journalist and TV presenter, takes me to one of Botafogo’s most buzzing streets, Voluntários da Pátria. We head for Void, one of a small chain of tiny fashion stores that doubles as a bar/restaurant, standing out among the old botecos and workaday restaurants that still populate street corners in this down-to-earth part of town.
Void, which started as a playful fanzine in Porto Alegre 12 years ago, with writing by surfers, skaters and sex columnists, has had resounding success with this new business idea. At this, their flagship outlet, chefs change on a daily basis for ambitious street food pop-up, House of Food. “Isn’t that a bit of a logistical nightmare?” I ask one of the Void crew, Deno Mendes. “No, we have a chef waiting list,” he smiles. “On Mondays it’s always vegan, on Tuesdays it’s burgers, on Thursdays it’s Asian and the other days it’s mixed.” The shop’s concept was to be a fancy 7-11 for picking up solvent hipster essentials such as baseball caps, condoms, global magazines and cigarettes; the bar/restaurant element happened by default to cater to customers who were hanging around.
Guilherme then takes me to Comuna, one of the area’s first collaborative spaces that started out as an obscure hipster hangout, but now gathers admirers from many walks of life. It combines a library and a restaurant with a dancefloor and DJ booth, and a garden but is somehow small enough to create the vibe of an intimate gathering, and is full of art with residencies rotating monthly. Here, though, the music is more experiential, based on artful sampling rather than dancing. And with that, Guilherme starts prepping me with names of the most notable Brazilian electronic artists. The list reveals endless creativity, all names previously unknown; all of which makes me want to learn more. Just like Botafogo itself.
Rio is vast but the areas of tourist interest are close to each other, so walking is a good way to get around. The metro system is reliable, but not comprehensive, and Ubers are ubiquitous and affordable.
When to go
December-March is summer beach season, with the mercury routinely hitting 40C, and the beaches packed from Christmas to Carnival. July-August (winter) is a respectable mid-20Cs, with plenty of sunny beach days. September-October (spring) and April-June (autumn) are also in the mid-20s, but with a bit more rain.
How to do it
Dehouche offers a five night ‘Beach & Culture’ package including two nights in the Fasano Ipanema, three nights in Yoo2 Botafogo, and return flights from Heathrow, from £2,156 per person.
Published in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)