A few minutes without the rain, Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro (photo by Luis Bastardo)
On the way down through the streets of Rocinha it had miraculously stopped raining. As we boarded the minibus to return to our hostel, we noticed that the clouds were finally opening up and the sun was breaking through. Could this be? As we passed from one world into another, leaving behind the harsh favela life and driving past glamorous Ipanema Beach, bathed in sunshine for the first time on our trip, Luis and I both looked at each other, then at the driver and screamed frantically "Stop!!" The driver screeched to a stop, thinking that someone had severed an artery or was choking on an acaraje (Brazilian bean and shrimp fritter).
"Oh, um, sorry...we just want to get off here at the beach...first time we've seen the sun, you see, and, uh...yeah, here is good...thanks", as the driver shoved us out the minibus door and sped off, leaving tire marks in the sand.
Luis and Sim during our 15 minutes of sunshine at Ipanema Beach (photo by Luis Bastardo)
As we picked ourselves up and wiped the sand from our faces, we couldn't believe our luck as we looked up and down the white sand beach; only a few wisps of cloud in the sky and the beach all to ourselves, except for a few local beach goers and a few other stunned, blinking tourists. We changed our sneakers for Havaiana flip flops (which no doubt made us blend right in with the bronze, toned, bikinied Brazilians) and strolled down the beach, Luis as usual snapping photos every thirty seconds like he was recording a crime scene. Our plan was to walk down to one end of the beach, have a little lunch and a nice cold beer at a beach side cafe, then walk back to where we started. Except that five minutes after we started our stroll, clouds started to roll in from the ocean, in ten minutes, the sky was dark and in 15 minutes, we were soaked to the skin in the torrential downpour...sigh. We ran for the subway, dripping wet, and shivered our way back to our hostel in the hillside neighborhood of Santa Teresa. When we arrived, the power had gone out again. Luckily, the most important sustenance was still widely available: caipirinhas, a local mojito-type drink made from cachaça (local liquor made from fermented sugarcane), lime and sugar.
One of the many restored colonial-style houses in Petropolis (photo by Luis Bastardo)
The next day, at a suggestion of a friend, we decided to visit the town of Petropolis, aka The Imperial City of Brazil (that sounded promising), about a 65 km trip from Rio. Petropolis was the royal summer residence and was once the capital of the state of Rio de Janeiro. We boarded a bus from the main terminal in Rio, rode about an hour to Petropolis, then took a 20 minute ride on a connecting bus to the town center.
Petropolis is a lovely, well-manicured town filled with colonial houses, small museums, the Imperial Palace, flower gardens, bridges and horse-drawn carriages. We visited the palace first, where we had to slip on large flip flops with slippery lamb skin soles over our shoes to protect the floors, which enabled us to happily impersonate Hans Brinker, hands behind back, faux-ice-skating from room to room, much to the consternation of the security guards. The palace and grounds are impressive and the museum includes such pieces as the Brazilian Imperial Crown and the Imperial Carriage. The whole town is compact and well-maintained, so it is possible to easily tour it in a day, although it is pleasant enough to stay for several days. We wandered through the streets, crossed the bridges and visited the museums and the lovely cathedral until it started to get dark, then decided to return to Rio.
The São Pedro de Alcântara Catedral in Petropolis (photo by Luis Bastardo)
Although we didn't have time, there are also lots of outdoor adventures and excursions to book in the local area, mostly based in Parque Nacional da Serra dos Órgâos, a 118 square kilometer park filled with impressive mountains, rain forests and trails, including, according to Lonely Planet, the "peaks of Pedra do Sino (2263m), Pedra do Açu (2230m), Agulha do Diabo (2020m), Nariz do Frade (1919m), Dedo de Deus (1651m), Pedra da Ermitage (1485m) and Dedo de Nossa Senhora (1320m). Activities include trekking, rock-climbing, mountain climbing, swimming and picnicking. Guides can be hired at the park's entrance.