Rio. The name alone brings to mind images of jutting landscape interspersed between a rolling, seaside city. The music, the beaches, the caipirinhas, the teeny-tiny bikinis–Rio de Janeiro has it’s own vibrant pulse that you just can’t deny. I had preconceived notions of what Brazil would be like before even landing and after spending a month in the country I can honestly say that my expectations were met…and then some. While Rio is mostly known for Carnival and the Copacobana and Ipanema beaches, there are many neighborhoods across the city that offer more than just sea and sand. One of my favorite districts to visit was Lapa–a funky, historic neighborhood that has been the cultural underbelly of Rio for nearly 300 years.
It’s funky…and a little weird
Located near downtown Rio, Lapa is a short walk from the Cinelandia station and over the last century has become a bohemian hub for artists, street hawkers, musicians, and tourists. Walking the streets of Lapa is like going back in time; the juxtaposition of old and new Brazil is in your face at every turn. From the Roman-style aqueduct built in the late 1700s, the early 20th century buildings in complete disrepair, to the renovated and colorful buildings housing samba clubs–every street corner is a feast for the eyes.
The Escadario Selaron, or the “Selaron Steps”, are built on the border between Lapa and it’s neighboring district Santa Teresa. The mosaic masterpiece was done by Chilean artist Jorge Selaron, who lived in a house along the staircase. He spent years creating the walkway, collecting and receiving donated ceramic tiles from over the world. The stairs have become a landmark for the city of Rio and have been featured in music videos by U2 and Snoop Dog. The tiles also have hidden a mystery–the death of their maker. Selaron was found dead on the stairs in 2013 and his cause of death was not definitively determined.
It’s the home of Cachaca
(The Brazilian spirit that is either seriously amazing or absolutely terrible)
Cachaca (kah-SHAH-sah) is the Brazilian cousin to rum, a sugarcane distilled alcohol that brings you the country’s fabled caipirinha, or the mojito’s mint-less cousin. Brazil has been distilling cachaca since the 1500’s and the spirit comes in two types–white or gold, with gold usually signifying a higher quality. Most of the cachaca made in Brazil is made small batch for personal use or sale, and can be really bad (think moonshine). With the influx of tourists from Brazil hosting the recent World Cup and the upcoming Olympics, there is now a big push to bring cachaca to the mainstream spirit market.
We sought out the most famous cachaca shack in Lapa (and possibly all of Rio), the Casa da Cachaca on Avenida Mem da Sa in the heart of Lapa has been serving it up since 1960. The cachaca bottles fill every possible space on the walls and even hang from the ceiling, but don’t be overwhelmed! The owner is more than willing to pour a few tastes for you to try different flavors, from a traditional gold to even obscure flavor combos like anise and mango. Skip the caipirinha here, you can get that on the beach. Casa da Cachaca is for sipping outside and enjoying the view.
It has a long history of music…and debauchery
Lapa’s reputation for the cultural hub of Rio doesn’t mean that it doesn’t carry a reputation for a place to get your fix for the forbidden. The neighborhood housed the center of the samba music scene in the 1920’s and 30’s, and along with the music came bars, dance houses, gambling, and prostitution. Echos of this era are still apparent in Lapa–the neighborhood is the late-night hotspot, with restaurants and clubs not filling until well past dark. Music from every establishment overpowers the next and the crowds spill onto the sidewalks all night.
But Lapa is more than just samba and sex, it also has culture–from the cathedral built in the 1700’s to the art studios in warehouses with cars hanging from the ceiling (for real). One of the best nights we spent in Rio was grabbing drinks at a tiny, two table drink stall and then listening to the symphony at the Sala Cecilia Miereles Theatre. A combination of cheap thrill with refined culture, and embodies the heart of Lapa.
From the candy colored buildings to the samba bands in the street,
Rio’s Lapa district is not to be missed.
Have questions about Lapa, or traveling to Rio? Leave a comment and I’d love to answer!