In retrospect: heritage and scam in Rio de Janeiro

Ah, Rio: From the mountains of Corcovado with the towering Jesus, and Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf), to the glorious beaches and Guanabara Bay that protects the city from the tempestuous Atlantic, and the jungle and rainforest in between.

All that is part of the world heritage site Rio de Janeiro: Carioca landscapes between the mountain and the sea. Tijuca National Park with its 1,021-metre-high Tijuca peak is also included in the site, as is Rio’s Botanical Garden (one of the best anywhere). The designed landscape of Copacabana Bay is in, so is Flamengo Park. UNESCO focuses on how humans have formed and used the dramatic landscape over time.

Almost anywhere you go in Rio, you will encounter the heritage site, one way or another. What is a bit mysterious, though, is why some parts of Rio are inscribed, while others are not. Why, for example, is the designed landscape of Copacabana in, but not other elements of this highly designed city?

Robbed in Rio

It is nearly impossible to talk about Rio and not mention crime, so here we go: I seem to have a guardian angel. Possibly more than one. During all my years of travelling, I can count on one hand the number of times I have been robbed or swindled or been the victim of anything even remotely criminal. Beijing is one exception. Rio is another. Almost predictable that one, isn’t it?

It is May 1997. I am at the tail end of a few weeks’ lazing through the eastern parts of South America: Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay. I have just arrived on the night bus from Foz do Iguaçu, and am walking along Copacabana beach, when I spot a pleasant-looking hotel across the street. Perfect. Or so I thought.

Do not go out appearing to be rich in Rio, every guidebook and sensible person say. No visible jewellery. Don’t carry large amounts of cash, and keep small change handy.

I listened.

Except for a bit of cash and one credit card stuffed in my bra, I leave everything else – credit cards, various left-over pesos and guarani, documents and other valuables – in a locked metal box in a locked safe in the hotel. I have my own lock for the box, and keep the key with me 24-7. Furthermore, to open the safe, two keys are needed simultaneously. I have one, also with me at all times. Reception has the other.

Yet, back home, I discover my credit cards have been swiped. The ones that had been left in the locked box in the locked safe, that is. Charges have been incurred. About 5,000 USD worth, spread out on three cards, all at the same shop. Seems rather stupid, doesn’t it? But perhaps Brazilian police doesn’t even bother to investigate. Maybe they have given up the small fry.

I had proper travel insurance, so I was not particularly worried. Just irritated, because I thought I would have to waste lots of time filling out forms and providing documentation. But when I rang the bank and told them this happened in Rio, they said ‘ah!’. No further questions appeared to be necessary; the charges were gone within days. Your reputation preceded you then, Rio. Still does. And not in a good way.

Despite the sordid reputation for crime and menace, people flock to this city on the Atlantic, seemingly not caring about the threats to their wallets, and more seriously, threats to their person. I think you would do well to care more about your reputation, Rio. Just imagine the paradise you would be without all this.

Apart from that, Rio is a fun city to explore, with all that outdoor living. Always full of life and music and dancing and friendly folks and caipirinhas and coconut juice. It is very walkable, along the golden sand beaches and elsewhere. And despite everything, I never felt unsafe.

Rio de Janeiro is dazzling, right up there with Cape Town and Sydney, the world’s most stunningly positioned cities, all built around water. So by all means, visit. Take the two funiculars up to Sugar Loaf Mountain for the sweeping vista of the city in front of you, and the tall mountains behind you. (Don’t miss the views from the halfway stop). Then, if you are up for it, walk back down through the jungle landscape. You might even see a monkey or two.

Hang out on the beach at Copacabana or Ipanema or Botafogo, and watch kids playing football (real football) or watch the sun set. Even better, watch the sun rise.

And when you are tired of the beach, take the cog train through rainforest terrain up to Corcovado for spectacular views from the feet of Jesus, the 30-metre-high Art Deco version of him. Cristo Redentor, Christ the Redeemer, is holding out his hands to, well… redeem. Redeem the local crims, maybe. Or perhaps all of us.

Do not let fear stop you from exploring this exciting, energetic city. But here, more than in most places, use your senses (especially the common one). Enjoy – and be aware! Always!