Finding urban adventure in Rio: the story of Selaron, the streets and the bonde

The city of Rio de Janeiro is synonymous with its green, winding hills and peaks. Atop one such hill not far from downtown sits one of the more interesting neighbourhoods of the city.

A neighbourhood of history, charm and atmosphere, Santa Teresa overlooks the city, with downtown and Cristo Redentor coming intermittently into view between buildings like dolphins coming up for air.

Famous for its cobbled streets and aging mansions, Santa Teresa – bestride the hill of the same name – has a reputation for attracting a new generation of artists and bohemians and has a lively nightlife concentrated around Largo do Guimarães and Largo das Neves.

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While tourists and cariocas alike now navigate the steep alleyways and streets to the neighbourhood, once it was a much less tiresome journey.

In August 2011, the historic bonde (tram or streetcar) derailed in Santa Teresa, killing five people in what turned out to be its last journey. Up to that point, the ascent was spectacular.

Starting in the city centre, near Largo da Carioca, the tram crossed the Carioca Aqueduct (commonly called Lapa Arches) – a famous landmark in neighbouring Lapa, the aqueduct – built by the Portuguese to bring water to the centre of Rio – was converted into a viaduct for the Santa Teresa bonde in 1896 – then on through the picturesque streets of Santa Teresa.

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According to the Rio Times, businesses have suffered as a consequence of the closing of the bonde. Many businesses have reported a reduction of 30-50% in sales.

An upgraded bonde, costing 110 million reais, is expected to relaunch later this year. Only the World Cup, Olympics and carnival will come close to matching the fervour the relaunch will garner.

A top choice for many tourists visiting Santa Teresa is the Escadaria Selarón. Rio’s most famous staircase – scene of many a music video, from Snoop Dogg to U2 – is the legacy of eccentric Chilean artist Jorge Selarón, who died at its foot in 2012 under mysterious circumstances (police eventually rules he had dowsed himself in lighter fluid and set himself on fire. He reportedly suffered from depression and was being threatened by a former colleague connected to local drug gangs).

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Selarón’s “tribute to the Brazilian people”, as he put it, is a 215-step work of art with over 2000 tiles from 120 countries in mosaic like fashion.

Before descending the Escadaria Selarón, though, a visit to the Museu Chácara do Céu is mandatory.

Set in a grand mansion with beautiful gardens and great views, the museum’s exhibits include works by Matisse, Jean Metzinger, Eliseu Visconti, Di Cavalcanti and Candido Portinari. Many depict life in colonial Brazil. Art collector Raimundo Otoni Castro Maya – one of Santa Teresa’s most illustrious inhabitants – lived in the mansion before it was turned into the Chácara do Céu museum.

Santa Teresa is a neighbourhood bustling with charm, and idling a day wandering its streets is as good a day as any in Rio de Janeiro. It is certainly an urban adventure.

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