Known for its beaches and tropical setting, Rio de Janeiro remains a sultry delight when the sun goes down, as this Cape Town couple discovers.
Rio is hot, but Cariocas know how to chill. For every drop of sunshine there is an air conditioner dripping on the city’s mosaicked pavements.
The beers are always served ice-cold, in communal 600ml bottles (garrafas) wrapped in foam jackets that keep them bem gelada. The locals, used to the heat and humidity, are just cool people.
Our First Night Out
Three days have passed on our trip, and we have trekked from the beach to Christ on Corcovado. As we prepare for our first night out in la cidade maravilhosa, we wonder if it is true that Rio’s citizens go straight from the sand to the dance floor. What do they wear when they trade footvolley for samba?
In our Copacabana Airbnb, after a day relaxing (read: pre-drinking) on Ipanema Beach, we swap our swimwear for “careful casual”.
The Uber arrives and we are off. As we emerge from the mountain tunnel that connects Copacabana with Botafogo, we see every other taxi in Brazil has arrived as well.
It is a racetrack as the drivers jostle for space, the sound of car horns an emphatic “no” to the notion of sleep. It seems that on a Saturday night everyone in Rio has somewhere to be.
Thirty minutes later, we arrive at Cachaça Social Club in Rio’s central Lapa district. It is the epicentre of the city’s Afro-Brazilian samba scene, and our driver wishes us a boa noite.
Lapping up Lapa
The guidebooks informed us that Lapa could be chaotic, so we decided to explore it as part of an organised pub crawl. We meet the crew: our guide, a Carioca called Daniel, and a disparate group of mainly European visitors.
Garrafas appear on the table, with our individual 200ml glasses. In Rio they really do go out of their way to minimise the opportunities for beer to get warm. Lauren opts for a caipirinha.
She has fallen in love with the local cocktail, of which cachaça is the alcoholic centrepiece. It is apt; after all, we are about to learn just how they distil this spirit from fermented sugar cane juice. It is a brilliant introduction to our tour and our taster shots go down well.
From there we head to Lapa’s main drag, Avenida Mem de Sá, rubbing shoulders with thousands of Cariocas socialising in sidewalk seating areas. We need not have worried about our attire.
The men wear T-shirts, shorts and sapatenis (tennis shoes), gripping beers as they laugh in the streets. The women are also simply styled, in light, colourful fabrics. Maxi skirts and tank tops are the order of the day. There are no sungas or bikinis here, and only a few collared shirts or high heels.
Finding The Beat
Feeling buzzed, we queue at Choperia Brazooka. The sound of live samba escapes the venue to feed the informal street parade. Always bring your ID; you will not get into a Lapa club without it.
Choperia Brazooka (entry R$20 or R75) is our introduction to the comanda. This is your paper or smart card bar tab, and you must hold onto it. You pay when you exit a club. “Do not lose yours,” warns Daniel, “or there will be a fine.”
The focal point of Choperia Brazooka is a roda de samba. Musicians sit around a table, strumming and drumming, and people gather to listen, chat and dance. We spend a couple of ours mimicking the samba steps of the locals, trying to lock in with the guitars and pandeiros.
Despite samba having African roots, we South Africans discover that it is harder for us to keep up than we had imagined. While Lauren soon finds the beat well enough to shake her shoulders, Brent finds his rhythm at the bar.
It takes a while to realise the bartenders will ignore your attempts to get their attention indefinitely. You must place your order with a roaming waiter instead.
To The Street
Rio really is all about the outdoors, even after dark. Eventually we make a beeline for the cooler night air and join the tide en route to the Arcos da Lapa. Technically called the Carioca Aqueduct, the arches that used to carry water to Rio citizens are now a bridge on the Santa Teresa Tram route.
We crossed it the day before after lunch in Santa Teresa. But it has a different vibe on a Saturday night, when it forms the dramatic backdrop of an impromptu street bacchanal.
Drinks are flowing and the food is sizzling, the samba mostly drowned out by the buzz of thousands of voices. It is like New Year’s Eve in Cape Town’s Long Street (although nothing like New Year’s Eve on Copacabana Beach, which we have heard hosts two million people).
The Last Stop
The final stop on our pub crawl is Café Cultural Sacrilégio, a converted mansion back on Avenida Mem de Sá. Carmen Miranda once frequented this spot, and you can tell that samba pulses through its veins.
The caipirinhas are strong too, like pretty much everywhere in Rio. You never have to drink a lot on a night out in this city, which is great for the pocket, and you can get on with the business of dancing.
We make it till 3am (not bad for a couple of 30-something), although Daniel and the rest of the Cariocas will be there until dawn. Then it is a snack at the arches and a cab home, our hearts still beating to the rhythm of Samba City.
If you want to join a pub crawl of Lapa, email firstname.lastname@example.org or WhatsApp +55 (81) 97904 3647.
Words byBrent Smith and Lauren Goldman