14th and 15th July
We may have spent our first four nights in Rio slumming it in the Rocinha favela thanks to the hugely inflated World Cup accommodation prices, but thankfully right after the weekend of the final match Sam and I were able to switch to a more reasonably priced hostel in the very centre of the city. Lapa was a world apart from the hectic slums of Rocinha, and even more so from the glossy high-rises of Copacabana and Ipanema: a beautiful, colourful neighbourhood of old buildings, lively bars and amazing street art.
Lapa is also home to two of Rio’s most iconic sites, which we made sure to check out straight away. First up was the incredible Arcos de Lapa, an 18th century aqueduct which once carried water to the city centre from the Carioca river. Bizarrely, in between an ordinary office district of glass-clad high-rises and Lapa’s shabby-chic shuttered mansions, sits this huge construction of archways cutting across the road, eye-achingly white in the dazzling sunshine. From the guidebook descriptions, I hadn’t been expecting much more than a small cross-section of a crumbling aqueduct, but the Arcos de Lapa are enormous and tower above a multi-lane highway, looking wonderfully out of place in Rio’s city centre.
Not too far from the arches is Lapa’s main attraction, the popular Escadaria Selarón, or Selaron Steps. This ever-changing and colourful piece of street art was the work of work of Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón, and takes up an entire staircase – and the houses lining it – between Joaquim Silva street and Pinto Martins street. The whole staircase is covered in brightly coloured tiles, with the fronts of the steps clad in yellow, green and blue (the colours of the Brazilian flag) and the surrounding walls largely bright post-box red.
Selarón called the staircase his “tribute to the Brazilian people”, and with 250 steps covered in over 2000 tiles, it’s a pretty big tribute. And he still hasn’t finished; Selarón regularly updates and reworks sections of the staircase so that the artwork is constantly evolving. Mixed in with the coloured tiles which form the base of the work, are printed and hand-painted tiles from around the world; some painted by the artist himself, others shop bought, scavenged from construction sites or donated by visitors, so the overall result is delightfully eclectic and brings together little pieces of art and culture from all over the world.
We originally visited the steps in the afternoon, fighting a huge crowd for photos in the burning midday heat. But, wanting to get just one shot of the staircase itself without a bunch of people taking selfies, posing or buying expensive souvenirs from the vendors lining the steps, we decided to return a couple of days later before breakfast. At 8am, the shiny tiles were dazzling in the morning sun, and we had the whole area to ourselves (with the exception of a couple of cleaners and a few homeless guys sleeping under newspapers). As with most tourist attractions, if you want to get a good view or a crowd-free photo, you have to get up early!
One other place we visited in Lapa was the Parque Campo de Santana, the perfect place for a quiet walk just before sunset, where we could escape the hectic city traffic behind high fences. Inside, we found a huge, beautiful park with enormous willow trees and a pretty lake. Historically, the park is pretty significant, since it was the scene of the proclamation of Brazil’s independence from Portugal on 7th September 1822, but for us the highlight was the park’s inhabitants: huge, hamster-like rodents called agoutis. These cute animals, native to Brazil, were all over the park, crowding in big, scurrying circles around piles of food which had been left out for them, and the noise of their quick teeth clicking on the crunchy seed was a surprisingly loud, rapid tapping as they greedily wolfed down their meal. The agoutis were pretty tame, not only did they stay firmly put with their heads in their meals when we approached to take photos, but one even came right over to me and stared into my camera as if he was posing. It was very cute!
Lapa has a reputation as a party district, thanks to its heaving bars and late night street parties, but it also had loads to offer during the daytime. Although it did feel a little dodgy in some areas (the neighbourhood boasts quite a large community of prostitutes), it’s a really cool district with dilapidated but pretty antique mansions, great bars and restaurants, and so much amazing street art. An awesome place to spend the last few nights of our trip!