liveable loveable cities south of the rio grande

What makes a city liveable and loveable? This is the question Monocle magazine poses through its annual “quality of life” survey of cities around the world. Monocle describes itself as “a briefing on global affairs, business, culture & design” but the articles and ads are clearly aimed at a wealthy demographic with an interest in travel. Someone left one at our hostel in Panama City, and I’m leaving it in Costa Rica for the next traveller who passes this way.

The authors look at a variety of factors that contribute to city life: building and urban design, infrastructure, tolerance, opening hours, outdoor/green space, weather, international flights and how seamless the connections are for getting across or into/out of town, and even how many electric car charging points are located within city limits. The cities are then ranked; 25 make the main list, there are another five cities to watch that are “close to the editors’ hearts” and then a final five that warrant a “special mention” because they offer “simple living”. Vancouver checked in at number 20, up a spot from the 2011 survey (but down from 2010 when it was 16th).

Regular readers will know that over the past ten months we have sampled life in dozens of cities south of the Rio Grande; it breaks our heart to see that none made the top 25. Havana, which we’re on our way to later this week (and have visited in the past), did make it onto the cities to watch list, and Valparaiso deservedly earned a special mention – consolation prizes, yes, but maybe it will encourage their politicians and planners to try a little harder.

So Deborah and I have come up with our own list of five “liveable and loveable cities,” as we continue our live on the road.

1. Valparaiso – we agree with Monocle that this old port city has a lot of offer – ancient fish markets, old-school bars, fascinating hill-top neighbourhoods each with a different character, Pablo Neruda’s eclectic ocean view house La Sebastiana, numerous cultural facilities including a prison now cultural centre, and art-covered walls, houses, and schools. To make the top 25, Valparaiso will have to do something about the 80,000 stray dogs that are wandering the street. Sure, many are friendly or don’t pay passersby any mind, but many are visibly wretched and diseased, and more than a few are just plain angry and dangerous. Not to mention the amount of poop they are generate. The city also needs to fix the funiculars – the hillside escalators, some dating back to the 1890s, which make visiting the hills a much more exciting adventure than catching a cab. Two-thirds are closed or waiting repair, leaving only a handful serving the most touristic neighbourhoods.

2. Buenos Aires –the Monocle list is very Eurocentric – 11 of the 25 cities are within the European Union, so maybe there was simply no room for a new world city that at one time was 60 percent Italian. Just the same, it’s worth a second look with all its museums, art galleries, park spaces, murals, fascinating neighbourhoods, and an efficient although hot and crowded subway system (the first line dates from 1913 and features the original wooden rail cars). We also appreciate that there has been much effort to help citizens and visitors learn about human rights violations committed during the military dictatorship, through art exhibitions and turning former sites of detention into places for reflection and action. They just need to do something about garbage collection (every street corner is piled with garbage for days before pick-up) and all the old cars simply abandoned at street corners all over town.

3. Rio de Janeiro — it surprises us that the largest city in South America didn’t make the Monocle list – maybe the fact that a huge percentage of the city’s population continues to live with poverty, many in drug-lord controlled favelas, holds it back. It has lots of offer – and after all it is hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016, and there has been a concerted effort to kick out the drug lords with mixed results. The bus and subway system was easy to use and moved us quickly from unique area to unique area, and to and from a wide variety of art galleries and cultural spaces. And surely, Copacabana, the best beach in South America has to count for something!

4. Antigua – Guatemala is not without challenges, but tucked away in a low valley between volcanos is this earthquake decimated 400-year-old city. Once important for geo-political reasons, it is now a refuge for American ex-pats and peace corp do-gooders, a centre for Spanish language schools, and an escape from the country’s notoriously dangerous capital, none of which takes away from its charm. The cobblestone streets are labelled, a rarity in Latin America, and there are ancient ruins around every corner. There are also lots of services for tourists, our favourites included several rooftop bars that offered a view of distant but fiery lava flows that glow in the dark.

5. Puerto Viejo – admittedly, a town this small on the south Caribbean coast of Costa Rica would never make the Monocle list, but ”liveable and loveable” applies even if there is no nearby international airport, famous-architect-designed art galleries or opera houses, or places to plug in an electric car. Unpretentious, undeniably humid, and laid-back, Puerto Viejo and the beaches south of town, in many ways, offers the perfect antidote to the fast-paced pressure cookers that did make the Monocle list. Sure, there is only one paved road, there are bugs, and the water cuts out without notice, but what the heck, dos mojitos por favor!

On the subject of happy hour, we’ve had more family visitors over the past two weeks: Chris and Tiffany, and Jeremy and Jenine – it was a pleasure to share our jungle/beach house with them, and give them a small taste of life on the road, photos below.

return to the amazon

After a month on the beach in Rio, it was finally time for us to pull up stakes and head north, to the 400-year old city of Belem near the mouth of the Amazon River. We really loved Rio and have many, many more stories to tell, it wasn’t all just fun on the beach! We visited the official Carmen Miranda museum (ironically, for such a flamboyant actor, it is located in a virtually unmarked and non-descript concrete bunker, plunked in the middle of a desolate strip of old parkland, hardly visible to the three lanes of highway traffic zooming by on two sides). Fascinating historic information, film clips, and costumes inside.

We also visited several museums and art galleries, including the famous Oscar Niemeyer-designed “spaceship” art gallery in Niteroi (awesome building, less than awesome art inside), and we discovered a pedestrian-only souk (market) just north of the downtown core. We climbed small hills to look out from old forts, and took the train up to the top of Corcovado and stood in the shadow of Cristo Redentor. The concrete figure is perhaps the most well-known landmark in all of South America; it certainly enjoys the best view of the city one can imagine.

We also took in the national museum, the museum of modern art, a cultural centre downtown with a Salvador Dali exhibition (works based on the Divine Comedies) and an exhibition of illustrations and designs by Argentine cartoonist Linears, and another arts centre with several floors of photo-based exhibitions, and more – Rio is a big city with lots to do. We also did a one-day trip to Angra dos Reis for a boat cruise through coastal islands. It was not much of a cruise, too crowded, a lame itinerary, and a long bus ride there and back. Not recommended.

Of course we sampled more than a few bars and botequims – very small bars where most of the clientele is seated in plastic chairs on the sidewalk, or standing – glued to televised futbol matches, or talking loudly (we noticed the men and women here have BIG voices). We mostly avoided gringo bars – they often charge as much as the equivalent of $15 US just to enter – more than our entire beer budget for the night.

Having said that, one late afternoon we had been walking along the beach and stopped in at a gringo bar that not only did not charge admission, but was offering free happy hour snacks. We sat at a table away from the entrance, next to a table of young women, one of whom introduced the group as students. Later when I went to visit the restroom, they asked Deborah if we were interested in taking one of them home! Deborah gently turned down the offer, and they apologized for saying anything. When I returned and Deborah told me what happened, we then realized there were a lot of women in the bar, and we watched as men came in and the women would take turns offering their services – like you would see in the saloon in old westerns.

One last remembrance of Rio for now: we were lying on the beach, soaking up the 29 degree Celsius sunshine, when Deborah noticed something in the water about 100 feet out or so. We watched for a few minutes; others were also starting to take notice. Was it a shark? A sea turtle? It came closer, and then we could tell for sure – a penguin! We had travelled all the way to the very southern tip of South America to see penguins, and here one was splashing about at Copacabana Beach!

We scooted up the Brazilian coast to Belem on Friday, and on Saturday did a 6-hour boat cruise to get ourselves near the mouth of the Amazon River. The water was surprisingly warm (well, surprising to us, anyway), fast moving, and very green – no underwater visibility at all. After a dip in the river it was time for lunch – and just as we got into line the wind picked up, the clouds moved in, and within minutes there was a tropical thundershower that dumped more water on us in 15 or 20 minutes than a whole day of rain in Vancouver. It was quite amazing, the clouds moved on, there was a bit of sunshine, then the process repeated itself an hour later with another deluge. During the following break, we made a run for the boat (docked 20 minutes away) because sure enough, we were in for one more cycle of thunder and rain before getting back to the city.

Belem is a large city with a population approaching two million – and quite a skyline as you’ll see below. Oil tankers wait in a long row along the river opposite the city, it happened that a large group of fellow passengers were in the marine shipping business – we’ve never seen so many people get so excited every time we passed a tanker or other freighter. Oh by the way, the most common question we got from the Brazilians on board (there were no other non-Brazilians on the cruise, even though there were at least 100 passengers), was “what are you doing here?” – apparently not many foreign tourists bother visiting this isolated outpost. We were an oddity, and some fellow passengers even asked to have their pictures taken with us!

At the end of the day, we headed for a brewpub we discovered the night before, the Amazon Beer bar and restaurant. A brewpub overlooking the Amazon River – how amazing is that! The timing was also good; as the first round arrived, one more cloudburst soaked everything it sight so it was just as well we were under a very protective patio roof.

Last night we moved again, this time to Manaus, another isolated city of 2-million but 1500 km upriver. We’re here to do a six-day boat ride that takes in the junction of Rio Amazonas and Rio Negro, at the very heart of the Amazon as they say, complete with canoe excursions and rainforest walks, so we’ll be out of internet range for about a week.

A happy long weekend to our fellow Canadians!

dog days and favelas

Hello to all you wonderful people who are enjoying the dog days of summer.

We, here in the southern hemisphere, are just entering the third month of winter… 26 degrees, sun and surf… I love this kind of winter!!!

So now, a thought for you… a home with an incredible view of the beaches of Rio, you pay just a smidgeon for your home, no property taxes, great community feeling, no drugs in the community at all… that would be pretty good, wouldn’t it!… Welcome to the colourful community of Rocinha!!!

We did a tour with the Favela Tour Company to this favela and the Vila Canoas favela. We traveled in an air conditioned van with five other tourists… one originally from the Seattle area and her partner, originally from Montreal (now both graduate students in New York City) and three people from Brazil.

After we were picked up, we were driven through the posh neighbourhoods of Ipanema and Gavea (home to Rio’s most exclusive fashion mall), up the hill past incredible upscale mansions, past the American School (where only the children of the very rich and foreign ambassadors attend – there were SUV’s parked all along the road with drivers waiting to pick up the students after school… no moms or dads in sight). We stopped on the east slope of Rocinha for the view that looked down on this exclusive neighbourhood and across the bay. Truly a million dollar view!

Our guide, Brenda, was a great source of information about the favelas. We talked drug gangs, education, political life, and practical things like sewage.

Years ago there were reportedly 950 favelas in Rio, but somehow the number dropped to 450 in the most recent census. Brenda, bless her heart, was quite open with her opinions and suggested that this “reduction” is promoted because Rio will host the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016. This is a familiar strategy – whenever FIFA or the IOC decide to hold their events in a country where human rights are an issue, selected countries announce “progress” in the lead up to the games and are allowed to make empty promises about the future. My opinion… let me ask Don what he thinks… Don is nodding his head, and whispering “China”.

Drug Gangs – Eight months ago, there was a “pacification” in Rocinha (this is what they call clearing out the drug lords and implementing a number of programs so the community could take back control of their lives and neighbourhood). Prior to pacification, the drug lords looked after all “policing” in the favela. There was almost no crime reported (drug lords didn’t want the police to come into the favela, so made sure nothing would draw police attention). Now that the police are in charge, the crime rate is going up, although there are far fewer murders or people showing up at the hospitals with gunshot wounds. It was interesting to see small groups of heavily armed police all over the place – but mostly standing around chatting.

They have the power to go into anyone’s home to check for drugs (this wouldn’t work well in Canada) and often there are complaints of police taking items from people’s homes in the process. Unfortunately, there is a lot of police corruption in Brazil, and as such, a lot of people do not trust police or the system.

The pacification of Rocinha was the 20th such project; the number is now up to 28 favela pacifications. Time will tell how the drug lord evictions work.

Education – we were told that many of the 100,000 or more people living in Rocinha, (as in all other favelas) are poorly educated and many are illiterate. This of course, leads to much hardship, as you are not able to get good jobs. There are 3 kindergartens, 3 primary and 3 middle schools in this favela… not nearly enough to meet the needs of the populace. We were also told the colour of your skin is no longer an issue in Rio… it is education or the lack of it that draws a societal prejudice.

Political Life – There are city elections later this year and there are signs everywhere you go. On every sign there is a picture of the candidates, their names and a number. When you go to the polling booth you will punch in the number of your candidate, a picture appears which you confirm is the person you are voting for and then you push the button to vote.

Sewage and other concerns (for us) – The favela concept started in 1886, when a promise by the new Republic of Brazil to African Brazilians was reneged upon. African Brazilians (who had just been freed from slavery) were tasked with wiping out a city of 25,000 who were not in agreement with the new Republic and had started a community of their own. The Africa Brazilians completed this task with, unfortunately, great success and returned to Rio to get the land the new government promised them. The Republic turned their backs on the African Brazilians and told them to go find land themselves. As there was none in the city, they built on the hillsides around Rio, covered with fava plants – thus the nickname for their impromptu communities, now used to describe squatter settlements throughout Brazil.

There is a law in the Republic of Brazil that states if you find a piece of vacant land, build on it and improve it, and if no one contests this, after 5 years it is yours.

So, people started to build up the hillsides. They would make a dwelling and then sell their roof to someone else who would build a home on top of the first, they would sell their roof space, someone else would build, and so on… all this with no property taxes (no public services either, though).

There are few roads in the favelas… a lot of walkways to homes… some of it looks pretty dark to me. The folks who live close to the roads often pay for electricity, but the majority hook their own lines up to electrical lines and use the power without paying for it.

The concept of roads or non-roads is very important. When you are living on a road or street, you have an address and if you don’t, you don’t have an address… this can affect all kinds of aspects your life… you can only vote if you have an address, you can only get credit or bank loan if you have an address, you can only get ambulance help if you have an address, etc.

Speaking about ambulances… when ambulances were called to the favela, the ambulance driver would stop at the entrance as they were too scared to go inside the favela. This meant people had to be carried through the narrow passage ways to the ambulance. This favela is huge, so you would think people may not make it in time to medical attention, especially if they were having a heart attack or something else very serious.

Things have changed a bit in that area. The government built a hospital a few years ago, but before pacification they couldn’t get any doctors or nurses to work there. Now there is better health care for the folks living in Rocinha.

Sewage also is a problem. When people build their homes they stick a pipe out of the toilet to the outside of the building and it is connected to other pipes that seem to go into the ground (I couldn’t see the bottom of the building, so I am not sure where the pipe ended up).

Brenda was very encouraging about the life in a favela. She said, yes we saw poverty and people having to look after themselves, but… we don’t see misery. That was true, but often misery is hidden whether it is in the favelas of Rio or the comfortable homes of people in the lower mainland of Vancouver.

We also went to see Vila Canoas, which is a small favela that started as a place for golf course staff to live on a patch of land near the exclusive club, but eventually expanded right up to the edge of the upscale neighbourhood. It consists of 3,000 people and is a favela that has never been ruled by a drug gang. It is orderly and quiet, but I think I would find life more interesting in the vibrant community of Rocinha. It is all a matter of taste.

So, we were back in the van heading back to our hotels and in our case, apartment. I found it ironic that on the way home, just after coming face to face with poverty, our Brazilian passengers got off at the Gavea shopping centre… the one I mentioned that sells the most expensive clothes in Brazil…

Now back to the dog days of summer, here’s wishing all of you lots of sun, great sense of community and, as always, happiness.


heavy metal trombone trio

We’ve passed the one-week mark in Rio, with three weeks to go. We’re in a very small apartment just one block from Copacabana Beach, and with only one day of rain so far, we’ve been down at the beach almost every day. We’ve also done lots of walking around the area, and everywhere we looked we saw people in restaurants, bars, and on the sidewalks outside, watching the Olympics. We watched quite a few competitions ourselves, including the infamous women’s soccer match between Canada and the US and many other Canadian near-misses.

Brazil earned one less medal than Canada, but took three gold medals against our one. They finished with more medals than any other country in all of Central and South America, including the Caribbean. Rio hosts the 2016 summer Olympics, but we haven’t seen anything that celebrates that just yet, although we are aware that work has started on converting an old Formula 1 racetrack at the west end of the city into what will be the main Olympic site.

We fit in a visit to the National Museum, housed in what was originally home to the Portuguese royal family when they fled Portugal and established Rio as the capital of their empire early in the 19th century. Oddly, the museum features an extensive collection of Egyptian artifacts, and tucked into a small cabinet in the next room is a dubious gathering of First Nations artifacts from “Vancouver” – in the photos below. One of the other photos shows the massive cannon and bunker installed in 1914 at nearby Fort Copacabana, designed to fire 305mm shells at invaders, curiously now pointed at Copacabana Beach!

Oh, and the pink Beetle – as a child Deborah desperately wanted one of these, now if we could just figure out how to slap a FedEx sticker on it and sneak it home!

Last night we caught up with a young couple from Australia we first met in the Ecuadorian Amazon; they’re heading for Argentina and Chile before returning home in October. They are both health professionals and like us, took a year off to travel.

Together we went over to the Bourbon Street Festival, a free outdoor concert beside Ipanema Beach with musicians from New Orleans. After a late start a number of bands did very short sets before the main acts performed, including Bonerama, fronted by three wild trombone players – I swear they covered a Rage Against the Machine tune to give the phrase “heavy metal” a whole new meaning!

Speaking of sounds, after seven months of listening to Spanish and working hard to pick up key words and phrases, it’s quite a challenge for us to figure out Portuguese. In print the words look very similar to their counterparts in Spanish, but spoken it is a dramatically different language. When we’re laying on the beach, we try to figure out what the food sellers are offering as they wander by, and on one occasion I picked up the word ‘frango” which means chicken, but with this one translated word in mind, what I thought I heard, clear as a bell, was “buy my chicken you sons of bitches”. That got my attention!

hangin’ with the girl from ipanema

Happy long weekend to our Canadian readers!

After more than three months at high attitude (except for a few days in Lima and our time cruising the Galapagos Islands), we are firmly lodged at sea level for the month of August. And there may be no better place on earth to enjoy sea level than Copacabana Beach.  Blue sky, blazing sunshine, soft clean sand, and no high altitude sickness!

We’re in a small studio apartment about 100m from the south end of the beach, with a side view of the beach out our 11th floor window. We’re also just a few blocks from the west end of Ipanema Beach, so we have a huge decision to make every morning – will it be Copacabana or Ipanema today?

Copacabana Beach is about 4 km from one end to the other, so we’ve decided that a good way to start the day is with a walk along the water’s edge from one end to the other and back – followed by a few hours soaking up and sun and surf. Everything you’ve heard about sun-lovers here is true, men and women alike sport swimsuits manufactured from postage stamp-sized bits of fabric and string. But it’s a very democratic beach – people of every shape, size, and colour enjoying the sun and sand.

There are several kiosks along the side of the road overlooking the beach, offering glasses of ice cold chopp Brahma (draft beer) for about $2 each – the perfect way to cool down late afternoon.

Of course we’ll check out all the attractions Rio de Janeiro has to offer, museums, galleries, parks, interesting neigbourhoods and more – but they can wait for cloudy or rainy days!

Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro