A Sight Over Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro

ArticleIzabel FontesComment

Beyond the worldwide famous beach of Copacabana, with its golden sands and views of forest-covered mountains, lies a completely different side of Rio de Janeiro. In one of the city’s stone hills, surrounded by the chaos of downtown and commercial districts, there is a neighborhood with colorful 19th century mansions, where the calm of a village lives together with a bohemian and artistic atmosphere. Santa, as Santa Teresa is called for those who have fallen in love with the place, has plenty of bars, cafés, restaurants and art studios hidden in the sinuous cobblestone streets. It is the kind of place where just wandering the streets is an aesthetic and historic experience.

To guide us through the charming borough, we went to Renan Cepeda @ Ateliê Oriente. Renan was born in Santa Teresa, has lived his entire life there and now has an open photo studio, where he received us to talk about his beloved neighborhood. But Renan’s relationship with Santa Teresa began even before he was born. With proud voice, he told us how his family ancestors are related to Saint Teresa D’Ávila. Two brothers of the intense poet and Carmelite nun were adventurers that traveled around Europe and Africa chasing fortune and ended up in Portugal, before being sent to Brazil, and ultimately forming Renan’s family.  In more recent times, it was on the steep streets of Santa, with the romantic views of Rio de Janeiro, where his parents fell in love and started dating, choosing the neighborhood to live after they got married. Having lived there since he was a child, Renan mixes his story with the place’s history and its changes, speaking with a passion that comes from years of intimacy.

Santa Teresa remained largely isolated until the 1850s, when the higher classes began to climb the mountains to escape from the epidemics ravaging Rio. It was the time of the explosion of the coffee industry, and the capital of Brazil was undergoing a building boom. With most of its people living in narrow and dirty streets, Rio was the perfect incubator for bubonic plague, cholera, tuberculosis and rubella, epidemics that killed thousands of people across the city in the 19th century.

Santa Teresa, with its calm forest and clean water, was close enough to downtown to be the ideal place for those who could pay to live there and build huge and beautiful mansions. Many of those fabulous houses are still standing, recalling the times of Brazilian’s belle époque and making the walk through the historical streets a special treat. In 1896 the area took off when the Arcos da Lapa, an aqueduct in the roman style that used to bring water to that part of the city, was transformed into tracks for the new electric tram. Connecting the heart of the neighborhood to the city center, the charming yellow bondinho provided easy and quick access to Santa Teresa, making the place less exclusive and attracting artists, poets and bohemians to the neighborhood, bringing the artistic vibe that persists today.

In the early 20th century, the mayor Pereira Passos began to rebuild the city, widening streets and adapting the city to European standards. At this time, a tunnel was built connecting Copacabana to downtown, attracting the rich people to the beaches and leaving Santa’s hills behind. When the slums spread into the hillsides, the district became an infamously violent place, with high crime rates, and was forgotten by the locals.

This neglect started to change in the 1970s and ´80s, when more and more artists moved to the neighborhood and began to restore the old houses, giving new life to the ancient mansions and demanding that the government provide security. As part of the revitalization process, painters, writers and musicians started to organize cultural events, slowly attracting the local population back to the hills of the district. A tipping point of the urban renewal process came in 1996, with Arte de Portas Abertas (Art with Open Doors), an open studio that attracted many people and helped break prejudices about the district. It also acted as a vote of confidence for the district’s re-development. The event still happens every year.

Another event that brings cariocas, the city’s inhabitants, to Santa Teresa, is the Carnival. Unlike the world-renowned and expensive samba school parade, the carnival of Santa Teresa happens on the streets. Carmelitas Descalças (Barefoot Carmelites) turned to be one of the best examples of Rio’s street carnival blocks, which is organized by the locals. According to tradition, costumes are filled with humor and irony. The parade, with hundreds of people dressed like nuns, plays off the monastery that is the neighborhood’s namesake. The legend tells that on carnival’s first day one of the nuns always runs away from the enclosure, jumping over the tall walls to join the parade. Renan is the headmaster of Carmelitas tambourines, one of the drum sections of the parade. Every year has new rhythms and lyrics related to a neighborhood subject.

Today there are many cultural events occurring in Santa Teresa.  Strolling through Santa on a normal day one finds quaint bohemian-loving eating and drinking spots with street musicians, small rodas de samba and the always crowded botecos.

On the other hand, Renan tells us that Santa Teresa still feels like a small town in the middle of a chaotic metropolis: you hear no traffic noise, the streets are green and filled with trees, and you can see and hear the birds. People still know their neighbors, speaking with each other on the streets and putting chairs outside to spend time chatting and people-watching.  To go shopping in Santa is like meeting a friend: the seller knows you, knows your family and shows a genuine interest in what you have to say. Maybe, between all the beautiful architecture and bohemian vibe, it’s this atmosphere of kind neighborliness that makes a walk into the district so special.

Our walking tour begins at Largo dos Guimarães, a small square in the heart of the bohemian area. The first impression when you arrive is that something is missing and what is missing is printed everywhere in posters, graffitis and paintings. Largo dos Guimarães was the main station of Santa Teresa’s bondinho, which used to be the oldest tram still running in Latin America. One of the most famous symbols of Rio de Janeiro, the tram was used to make the connection between Largo da Carioca, in downtown, to the district. Besides carrying tourists, it was also the main daily public transportation for the inhabitants of Santa Teresa. The service was suspended a year ago after an accident in which five people were killed. Caused by system’s lack of maintenance, the disaster left deep scars in the neighborhood: there is a strong movement asking for explanations and the return of the trams, but also remembering the victims and the tram’s driver.

After a ten-minute walk from Largo dos Guimarães you can find the Parque das Ruínas, a place with a 360° view of Rio de Janeiro. The park is in the burned out shell of the mansion that used to belong to Laurinda Santos Lobo, a local heiress who threw dazzling parties between 1920 and 1930. Laurinda’s salon was visited by artists and intellectuals and became a symbol of Brazilian’s belle époque. Left abandoned for decades, the area was a soccer camp when Renan was a child, used by all the local kids. Now the place has been transformed into  a touristic location leaving the ruins of the old house and adding metal walkways that ascend to a cupola: from there you can see Guanabara Bay, Corcovado, Sugar Loaf and downtown Rio. Just next door is the Museu Chácara do Céu, with a small but well-chosen collection of art, including pieces by the celebrated Brazilian artist Di Cavalcanti and international classics by Matisse and Miró.

After leaving Parque das Ruínas, it will be almost lunch time. To choose where to eat in Santa Teresa can be challenging. There are many options for food, from traditional Brazilian feijoada to fresh oysters and sushi, from German food to a sophisticated French restaurant. Renan took us to Espírito Santa, a small restaurant with a breezy terrace and another amazing view overlooking the hills. The Brazilian-Peruvian chef, Natacha Fink, serves food from the Amazon Forest, mixing recipes from both countries. With ingredients such as coconut milk, Amazonian fishes, aromatic roots and Brazilian nuts, Natacha creates an original and contemporary cuisine. The cocktails made with exotic Brazilian fruits like cupuaçu, cajá and graviola are the perfect starter to the fish wrapped in a collard leaf with nuts, rice and a gingery banana sauce that was our main course.

Shortly after leaving Espírito Santa we found ourselves at Rua Almirante Alexandrino, the street full of bars, restaurants, cafés and souvenirs stores. A few blocks further we found Bar do Mineiro, one of the oldests and most famous botecos in Santa Teresa, known for its bolinhos de bacalhau (a croquette made with codfish and potato) and feijoada (the Brazilian typical meal). Outside of the bar, on the streets, hundreds of young people gather every evening to drink beer and play music.

A short distance from the most crowded and touristy part of Santa Teresa, you will find the pretty square of Largo das Neves. The small plaza sits at the last stop of the old bondinho and is surrounded by a tiny white church and a couple of open-sided bars. During the day, the benches are full with families and children playing, and serves as the meeting point of the area’s students.

At night, the square comes alive again with bohemians. It’s the perfect place to end the day eating a pizza at the Goya Beira, a small bar peddling amazing pizza. Baked on a stone, the Goya Beira’s eggplant pizza is for sure one of the best kept secrets in Santa Teresa. Even with the instructions from Renan, it was a little hard to find.  We asked people on the streets but nobody seemed to know. The menu, with Renan’s photo illustrating the eatery, was our only help. The amazing pizzas with nice music, cold beer and a calm atmosphere made the effort worthwhile. At the end, we decided that one day was not enough to get to know Santa Teresa, so we went back home already thinking about coming back soon.

Photos by Renan Cepeda and Camila Valdeavellano.