The swarming crowds made the mild Autumn day seem heavy and warm as I made my way across a junction in Lapa, Rio de Janeiro. Boldly coloured graffiti covered crumbling walls on both sides of me as I slipped into a laneway – decorated letters in blue, red and green spelling out a story of many layers. The ring of voices and samba beats filled the street. As I danced my way left and right through the horde I began to have the sense of arriving at famous sites and being unable to see them for all the tourists. Then, as I neared the end of the lane there it was in front of me: Jorge Selaron’s famous mosaic staircase, Escadaria Selaron, reaching upward into the sky in its primary colours, covered with posing visitors snapping photos. This was Selaron’s unending labour of love for more than 20 years until his death at its foot in 2013.
I studied the brightly painted tiles as I ascended, ducking between fellow sightseers. It was difficult to take in the artwork among the thronging bodies, so after taking a few photos and sitting long enough to create a mental one I moved off from the top of the staircase and in the direction of the main thoroughfare. Having found the bus stop I wanted, I boarded the chugging vehicle, paid the conductor and passed through the turnstile to take my place on a plastic seat. I was headed for Corcovado, the mountain atop which stands Christ the Redeemer, Rio’s iconic statue with its outspread arms.
The train up the side of the mountain took 15 minutes and was a steep ride through lush forest with occasional spectacular views over pockets of Rio: golden beaches or sprawling favelas on the hillsides. Rio’s hillsides are characterised by distinctive slums (favelas), built out of necessity, building on building crawling up the green mountains.
At the top, I made my way to the lookout point to take in the view that was the whole reason I had come to Brazil. The iconic panorama sweeping from the top of Corcovado across the city and out into the blue bay dotted with distinctive islands and hills had long been high on my list of travel wishes. Unfortunately today was cloudy, and visibility was low.
On the train back down the mountain, I struck up a conversation with Claire from Canada, another woman travelling alone who, like me, had just arrived in South America. On arrival at the bottom we went for acai bowls together, a delicious and refreshing Brazilian snack of blended berries, seeds and flowers. You can practically feel the nutrients working in your body as you eat it. Rain soon began to clear the humid air, and we parted ways back toward our respective accommodation but arranged to meet at the upmarket Ipanema Beach the next morning.
The sky was grey and looked like more rain when I arrived there. Claire had brought along an Englishman she had met at the top of Corcovado the day before. He had hiked up the mountain instead of taking the train, and tried to hike back down but darkness fell before he made it to the bottom, and he lost the trail and spent seven hours waiting for a search and rescue team, who he enjoyed beers with afterward! Since it wasn’t exactly beach weather, we headed for the Sugar Loaf mountain and took the cable car ride to the top for more views of Rio. The sky was clearer this time and we could see Christ the Redeemer in the distance.
The rain was intermittent but heavy, so we headed back to Copacabana and ate a large Middle Eastern buffet lunch, but the weather didn’t clear up, so there was only one thing for it. “Let’s drink!”, we said. We ended up at a tiny dive bar on the side of a street where crowds stood and drank beer from large bottles, the bar becoming busier as afternoon turned to evening. We were joined by a talkative and well-educated Brazilian man and his very shy dog. He turned out to be a well-travelled lawyer, and told us stories of his trips to Europe and talked about the political situation in Brazil, with one corrupt leader having recently been impeached and replaced with a more corrupt one.
I was still struggling with jet lag, and as the evening pushed close to 8pm I found myself losing steam. I had just left behind the end of a broken relationship at home and was struggling to adjust to my new situation. The wet weather hadn’t helped, but that I hadn’t taken advantage of my short time in Rio to see the nightlife in Santa Teresa and Lapa, and I realised that I didn’t have the energy to now. The more time pushed on, and the more beer I drank, the more fatigued I became, until well before midnight I excused myself and trudged back to the sub-standard hostel I was staying at, with its iron-framed triple bunks, cold showers and broken lockers.
The following morning as I watched Rio fall away from my seat by the window of a plane to Foz Do Iguacu, the sun had come out and shone brightly over the city’s hills, valleys and beaches. I didn’t get to see any of it myself, but where I was going was beautiful. Foz Do Iguacu is the town at the Brazilian side of Iguassu Falls, one of the largest waterfalls in the world, straddling the border between Brazil and Argentina. After landing at midday, I easily found the bus from the airport to the town and hopped on for a 30 minute ride, followed by a 5 minute walk to the guesthouse I had chosen for its proximity to the bus station.
After freshening up I made my way back to the bus station and back via the airport to the national park. The park is very well set up, with a shuttle bus that takes visitors from the gate to the falls. I walked along the pathway cut into the cliff over the Iguassu River, taking in the panoramic view of the Argentinean side of the falls. The scene became progressively more impressive as I approached the bottom of the ‘devil’s throat’ – the mouth of the falls where white water thunders and spray rises like a cloud. I walked out over an iron bridge built over the river for the best view, getting soaked as I walked through the spray in the late afternoon sunshine. An elevator to a higher viewing platform offered a zoomed out view from above the water, where the setting sun glistened on the golden river and the thunder fell out below it.
The following day I was to visit the Argentinean side of the falls. Rather than take three buses to get there I booked onto a group tour for the day. The Argentinean side was even more impressive in many ways. The national park is much larger on this side, with numerous hiking trails available to see the falls from above and below. But first, we walked for a kilometre along another iron bridge out over the Iguassu River to the devil’s throat, this time standing immediately above it, up close enough to see every drop of white water raging down. While the Brazilian side offers panoramic views of the falls, the Argentinean side offers the chance to get up much closer. Both experiences are very different and I would recommend that any traveller sees both sides.
Last thing of the day, while most of my group took a boat ride into the mouth of the falls, I sat for 20 minutes on a rock along the bank of the lower part of the river. There was no one in sight and it felt remote and perfect. As I gazed at the falls thundering ahead of me, with the sun warming my back, this became one of the moments that makes up the mental collage of my trip to South America. Whether bouncing across freezing desert in a 4X4 at 5am, sharing a crowded bus with local people, staring at a starlit sky or sitting watching the falls, there are certain moments that feel the most real and present on a trip, and this was one of them. The tiredness that had plagued me in Rio fell away as I forgot about what I had left at home and anchored myself in the present. Iguassu Falls was truly one of the most impressive sights I had ever seen.
Later I finally managed a night out, joining others from my day tour for burgers and cocktails. As is typical of Irish people abroad, I ran into a couple who had recently bought a house in my parents’ home town, and who had coincidentally travelled up the East coast of Australia with my second cousin three years before. These encounters don’t seem to happen to anyone else, and a slack-jawed Englishman watched, astounded, as the conversation unfolded.
Lots of Irish and British people travel to South America to ‘find themselves’. I didn’t, but I found something anyway. At last I was ready for the month ahead, and looked forward to my flight to Bolivia the next day. Travel had begun to repair my broken sense of place.