There’s a strange mood in the air of Rio de Janeiro. I can’t quite shake the odd feeling as I spend a day jumping between some of Brazil’s most-famous landmarks. Even in the late afternoon, as I’m sitting and sipping cocktails on the beach, the uncomfortable aura persists. It gets worse that evening on the hunt for a restaurant for dinner.
It takes me a while to work out what’s wrong but eventually I hit upon the problem – it’s the paradox of Rio as a tourist destination. It’s a place that has the right to call itself one of the greatest cities in the world… but it’s also one of the most-dangerous and inconvenient ones for visitors.
The beauty of Rio becomes evident from the first moment you set eyes on it. Built around the water, with the striking mountains of green growing out of the metropolitan hub, it has merged nature with development in a way so natural that you can’t imagine it any other way. Rio is an urban jungle with an emphasis on the jungle.
From the golden sands of the beach, to the lagoon reflecting the surrounding mountains, to the tangles of green forests that hang from the stone cliffs in every direction. It should feel like a magical world with abundant opportunity for fun and relaxation. But it’s not.
Rio has a dark side and it hangs over the city and its visitors like a menacing grey cloud. Put simply, it’s the fear of crime. Put less succinctly, it’s the uneasiness that you can never let your guard down and relax completely because you never know if there’s a threat around the next corner.
People always warn you before going to Rio about the crime. It could be a pickpocketing or it could be a violent robbery. One person I met was mugged by two teenagers who, in place of a weapon, bit him aggressively on his arm until he handed over his wallet and camera. It’s not uncommon to hear tales of machetes and guns being pulled on tourists if they end up on the wrong street block at the wrong time of day.
It’s sad that in a city with so much beauty you feel afraid to carry a nice camera with you because it makes you a target for a robbery. But that’s the reality of Rio and it’s a reality that needs to be addressed very quickly before Brazil presents its jewel of a city to the rest of the world.
In the next few years, Rio de Janeiro will have the planet’s eyes affixed upon it. It will host the Catholic World Youth Day in 2013, the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016. Visitors, athletes, media, heads of state will all come to the city – but it doesn’t seem like the city is prepared.
The other big challenge for Rio, and an aspect of the city that also leaves you ill at ease, is the infrastructure for tourism. It’s chaotic, inefficient, and poorly-designed. It struggles badly under a busy summer day so who knows how it will cope during the influx of global gatherings?
Take, for example, the statue of Christ the Redeemer, high upon Corcovado mountain. It’s probably the most famous landmark and tourist attraction in Rio but the process of visiting it is feels almost as difficult as it would have been to build the forty metre high icon.
First, you must get a taxi to the base of the mountain. Then you could choose to take the skytrain to the top, although it leaves so infrequently you normally have to wait several hours for an available carriage and there’s no way to book in advance. The other option is to take a shuttle bus to a point halfway up the mountain where you have to queue for a few hours (during peak times) to get on another shuttle to the top of the peak. With either method you choose, you will end up on a crowded platform where you’ll be fighting with the hordes of other visitors to try to get a photo or a view from a decent angle.
I suppose that’s the problem with being a world city – infrastructure will strain under the demand from tourists, the poor and desperate elements of the population will look to take advantage of the wealthier, and everything will be judged in relation to global standards.
As I sat by the beach in Ipanema one afternoon, capriniha in hand, and looked out at the crowd of umbrellas and tanned scantily-clad bodies, I realised that the paradox of Rio isn’t stopping anyone from coming here. It’s not denting the tourist numbers – and they’re sure to increase over the coming years. But it does affect the mood for many visitors and, in some ways, Brazil should care more about its reputation than anything else.