The girl from Ipanema

Fred has been visiting Rio for a few years now and always suggested I find a way to come along. When I was working it seemed crazy to give up my limited holiday allowance to explore Rio by myself while he worked, but while on maternity leave this is no longer an issue as I have all the time in the world and a companion (we are ignoring my unhealthy bank balance for the purposes of this post). But I had been avoiding it – Rio in my mind was a dangerous city full of druglords and thievery around every corner; how could I put myself and my baby into that environment? With four days of Fred working, I was worried we wouldn’t leave the hotel room. How wrong I was.


We were staying in Ipanema, a well to-do neighbourhood by the beach but which in theory had a favela rioting a few blocks away. Grandmama was excessively worried that we were going to get caught in the crossfire of some druglord / police / unhappy favela inhabitant gun fight, but there was absolutely no evidence of these riots happening and no one in Rio seemed to know anything about them. The only speculation was that the foreign press was exaggerating things to stir things up before the World Cup.

I was a bit worried about the days I would spend with Elphie by myself when Fred was at work, but having the Friday with him working and then the weekend and then Monday to Wednesday to our own devices again, gave me the opportunity to get a sense of the city and most importantly public transportation over the weekend so I felt a bit more comfortable about going it alone.

The thing that made visiting Rio so much easier was that having Elphie strapped to me in the Ergo brought out their complete obsession with babies. Men, women and children were equally obsessed whether in the street or in shops – kissing at her, touching her face, tickling her – this was not the city to go to if you didn’t like strangers getting into your baby’s personal space! I have no idea whether it was just that she is a baby or something about her that made her interesting – but the level of attention she got was similar to a celebrity. Another oddity was that whereas everywhere else I have been, the standard question for a stranger to ask is “How old is she” (or “he” given she’s mostly called he due to her lack of pink clothes); in Rio the equivalent question is “What is her name?”, which seems a very personal thing to ask but ask it they do.

Like Cath, we had issues with a lack of highchairs – few places had proper ones, some had bar stool / highchair hybrids but we then had to use a tablecloth or ergo to keep her strapped in, and many places had nothing at all. After a few days of searching I found a baby store in Copacabana that sold a pocket baby seat like the one Cath loves but sadly at about a third more expensive. Ah well.

So things to do by yourself with a baby? The visit to the Jardim Botânico was successful – we had a lovely afternoon wandering around and it really was spectacular with lots of hidden grottos and one of very few baby-friendly playgrounds. And to highlight the Brazilian obsession with Elphie, a tour group actually stopped their golf buggy to look at her, as if she was of equal attraction to the other wonders of nature.

Getting there was a bit more of an adventure – I managed to negotiate the bus but could not find the bus stop going back so walked for quite a while concerned that it was getting dark before happening on one that I hoped would bring me a bus with the word “Ipanema” somewhere on it. In general the buses are pretty easy, although why a driver is separate to the ticket person and why some seats are before the ticket counter I don’t know, but it would probably be worth understanding what goes where before setting out! Another favourite activity was the tour of the Theatro Municipal in the centre of Rio – a refurbished theatre which was extremely elegant and impressive – you have to know to get a white ticket from the security guard and then take that to the box office (who knows why), but it’s then pretty straightforward and as the only English speaker on the tour, I got my own personal tour guide.

Hours spent wandering and sitting on the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana were also good, if you ignore Elphie’s first wasp sting.

The whole thing was very bizarre – I never saw any other wasps on the beaches apart from this one that appeared out of nowhere on Elphie’s cheek when I was rummaging through the changing bag. I cannot tell if the sting was my fault for flapping at it or if the squawk that got my attention was due to being stung (or just having a huge wasp land on your face) – either way, panicking and flapping at it probably weren’t the best move. She reacted as you might expect – entirely unimpressed – and I messaged Fred for back-up on whether Brazilian wasps were especially treacherous (apparently not). He did send me off to a pharmacy to get some cream for it though, and by the time we’d got there, Elphie had been cheered up by a bit of boob and was generally looking happier with the world. But I tried to persevere and not for the first time, not being able to speak any Portuguese did not help – cue a helpless game of charades where I try to explain to the pharmacist what had happened – we got as far as insect repellent before a kindly customer took pity on me and provided translation services. I was given some anthisan equivalent and told to ignore the bit that said it was only for kids over two years and just “use a little bit”. Figuring the instruction might be to avoid babies eating it, I decided to trust his dubious advice and put a little on. No idea if it did anything!

Trips I was glad to have done with Fred included a guided tour of Sugar Loaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer – expensive but worth it for the queue jumping we got. The funicular railway up to Corcovardo was also fun, with Elphie loving the onboard Samba band buskers.

A guided hike starting from the pacified Vidigal favela and up to the top of the Morro Dois Irmãos (two brothers) was also necessary a deux so that Fred could be the one to carry Elphie to the top!

Wandering up the Escadaria Selarón (or Selarón Staircase) into Santa Teresa, an old Portuguese community that was very pretty with great views from the Parque das Ruinas (with its odd baby sculpture exhibition) and having amazing traditional food at an unassuming bar was also worth doing accompanied.

I am sure we would have been fine, but the area was more run down and I think I would have felt quite vulnerable and nervous had it just been the two of us. The way from the Metro station to Santa Teresa is through a neighbourhood called Lapa which is certainly more dodgy than the seaside neighbourhoods – the surreality of ending up there at the weekend as we failed to work out how to get to Santa Teresa (probably best not visited at night anyway) and passing by numerous lady boys with our family unit was quite special. As was Fred declaring that the trip to Santa Teresa and back through Lapa hadn’t been at all dodgy, immediately before stepping around a lady passed out on a mattress in the street with what one assumes was a crack pipe in her hands.

But to be fair to Rio, scenes like that were few and far between – there was little to no hassle from people, they tended to keep to themselves like we found in Peru, and I felt safer there than I have in Naples or even San Francisco.

Rio is fundamentally a city of distinct neighbourhoods, each with its own personal vibe and history. The European influence is obvious and that makes it feel oddly familiar despite the spectacular back drop. If you can get over the spectre of a 12 hour flight then this is a great place to go with a baby – and the Cariocas would be guaranteed to give you a great welcome!

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