The Santa Teresa tram has been rolling and squealing its way up the side of the hills South of Rio de Janeiro for over a hundred years. During our Carnival trip in 2009, we took our turn to jump on and explore.
As the tram stop at the bottom of the hill is right next to Rio’s new Cathedral, this is where we started our day.
The Metropolitan Cathedral of St Sebastian was finished in 1979. Rio’s Catholic cathedral was built for Rio’s patron saint, St Sebastian. It was designed to reflect the style of the Mayan pyramids. From afar its conical shape reminded me of a giant bee hive.
Ducking inside from the blinding midday sun, we found the interior very cool and dark. Light streamed in through the huge stained glass windows. They stretched all the way up the walls facing North, South, East and West. Amazingly, it can accommodate up to 20,000 worshippers and is free to visit until 17:00 everyday.
Rio got its first tram system in 1877 when it was pulled up the hill by unfortunate horses. Happily, in 1896 the horses got a break and the line was electrified. Since then, its famous yellow Bonde (streetcars) have been clanking up the rails to Santa Teresa taking a smaller percentage of locals, and an increasing amount of tourists.
The tram travels up, over the Lapa arches, an old aqueduct that was converted for the purpose and so the views are almost instantly wonderful. Local children started running after the tram and jumping aboard the running rails, which some people try to emulate themselves.
Santa Teresa had once been a suburb for the wealthy. As in many cities they took to the hills to avoid the Heath and deprivation down below. They built lovely large houses and had the space for lush gardens. However. over time, the favelas from the surrounding areas grew and began to encroach on their idyllic suburb. The rich retreated further South and left the area to its fate. Neglect reigned until people realised the potential of cheap, large spaces and, as always, the artist came.
Looking around the suburb of Santa Teresa we could see where it gets its bohemian reputation. Artists were selling their work on the curb and people walked with an easy air. The old houses had a real crumbling charm; it could have been a film set. Sitting in a cafe, overlooking the street, we watched as below us a bloco (street party) paraded past, headed by a samba band. The crowd was made up of people from every generation and had a very different feel from the huge ones we had attended. (To read about them, click here).
The cafe came to life as families poured in. Then, to our delight, the children had a samba competition. There was a real feeling of community and we felt included which was wonderful.
Things took a turn for the weird when we got chatting to a fellow gringo. He was from the UK and told us he was living in Rio. We discussed the city and especially the favelas (Rio’s shanty towns). He invited us up to his place for a barbecue party, in a nearby favela. We deliberated for a long time. Was it a set up? Who was this guy? Are we massive wimps?
The favelas line the hills of Rio de Janiero. They started as temporary accommodation for homeless soldiers but soon took on a life of their own. What started as small makeshift residences slowly evolved into proper brick buildings some with sanitation, most with water and electricity. Through the 1950s-70s there was an influx of people from the countryside and smaller towns, Rio couldn’t cope and so the favelas grew and grew. They were dangerous places to be. Drug lords ran their neighbourhoods, crime and violence were common. The government struggled to keep them under control and so they tried to move the slums, eradicate them, it was war.
Opinion shifted in the 1990s and the government began to help improve the situation of those living in the favelas. They provided building materials and organised more access to basic services. The year before we visited they began to pacify the favelas bringing law and order to some, and more violence to others. Those favelas where the scheme has worked are now peaceful enough for tourism to flourish. You can go on tours, take a cable car up for a nice view and stay the night in the guesthouses. However, where it hasn’t worked, violence is still common and there are armed shootouts between the gangs and the police.
With all this in mind, we had to decline the invitation of the kind gringo. We hopped aboard a tram heading back down into the city.
In 2011, tragedy struck as a tram was taking a turn on its way down the hill. The car derailed and overturned. It was full of people and so the horrendous accident left 5 people dead and 57 injured. The service was immediately suspended and remained shut for the next four years over safety concerns. Rio invested in brand new trams (replicas of the original yellow cars) and a new track system. It has been slowly reopening since 2015 and they hope to have the whole thing up and running again by the end of 2017.
If you make it Rio, the tram is wonderful way to see the city, and the area of Santa Teresa. Especially as the tram is free to ride one way and only £1.60/$2.00/€1.80 return.