I suffer from an ailment common to a large number of cariocas: cultural tedium. This is what you get when you feel like there are no more interesting places to go. We have that feeling that "I've seen everything" and "there's nothing to do." Then when there’s actually something really worth doing, we run into that common Brazilian problem common - lack of funds.
But we can still turn up new and creative ways to amuse ourselves, not just cutting through that tedium, but broadening our awareness and our pleasure. All at very reasonable prices.
It's a big help to have a slightly crazy gringo boyfriend. He will give that push necessary to look at your new options, will have a map of the state of Rio and will know where the trains go, when they leave and what it costs to get there.
(Before I go any further, please note: the gringo in question is taken. Please find your own.)
In this spirit of adventure, we embarked on a delicious trek. Destination: Vila Inhomirim.
We planned our journey with a brief visit to the web site of Supervia, the company responsible for rejuvenating the suburban trains in Rio de Janeiro. We picked line 5, departing from Central Station (Central do Brasil), located on Avenida Presidente Vargas in downtown Rio.
We weighed anchor in Botafogo in late morning, heading to the station by subway. We waited there for about 20 minutes and caught the train, which on its journey passes through Bonsucesso, Olaria, Ramos, Penha, etc., not to mention Vigário Geral, Duque de Caxias, Gramacho e Campos Elíseos. I confess that I felt a certain trepidation at the itinerary, since in my imagination, filled with phantoms of what I had heard and read in the news, I could visualize riding through a series of real-life shootouts. Readers, please forgive my prejudices and preconceived notions, but I had notions of bandits, nasty-looking characters, dark and dangerous looking places. Not at all! The train was full of working-class folks, people going home, many going to visit friends and family. We were certainly the only tourists on the train, but that didn't seem to be a problem.
If you are not used to train travel, the trip is worth it all by itself. The train is lively, with people conversing, complaining, telling stories, an infinite number of vendors walking from car to car, so that you can buy practically anything: yogurt, jujubes (very tasty!), paçoquinhas (peanut candy, R$ 0,10 each!), filled chocolates, batteries, coffee filters, envelopes, nail files, sweet popcorn (the sort that comes in a pink package, Pipocas Come Come, R$ 0,50 a bag!!), water, beer, popsicles, ten lollipops for a real... not a dull moment on the long trip.
The train makes its way through places where you see people crossing the tracks, children flying kites, riding bicycles, playing ball, clothes hung out to dry, horses grazing in the tall grass by the train line. They are places that are quite poor, by and large, but they radiate a liveliness, an apparent cheerfulness and tranquility, which makes us rethink our notions about life.
The electric train from Central Station only goes as far as Saracuruna. There you change to a smaller one with a diesel locomotive, giving you the sensation that you are leaving modern civilization behind little by little. The Saracuruna-Vila Inhomirim-Saracuruna stretch is free, even if you didn't pay to come from Rio. The stations beyond Saracuruna are all open, and anyone can get on without paying a cent.
As we moved closer to our final destination, we noticed a significant change in the scenery and climate. We were approaching the mountains of the Serra (we had left the city of Rio far behind), houses were starting to be few, we were in the country side, and the temperature had dropped quite a bit. As you take in the mountain scenery you are likely to see waterfalls cascading down the rocks in the distance. You can also see people flying by parachute, and landing in the fields by the train line.
What you see when you get to Vila Inhomirim, about two hours after leaving Central Station, is surprising. Vila Inhomirim is surrounded by mountains (it was formerly known as Raiz da Serra (Root of the Mountains) for obvious reasons; it sits at the bottom of the mountain where Petrópolis is at the top). One can see a typical back-country church (Nossa Senhora da Imaculada Conceição), a colorful little bridge over a babbling brook with a stony bed, and a wall from the old railroad station. And you are only 17 kilometers from Petrópolis. You can get all this way from the center of Rio for only R$ 1,65 (less than a dollar) - the cost of your ticket!
Before we explored any further, we chatted with the engineer and conductor of the train, so we would be certain to get back for the last train, which, it turned out, was leaving at 5:20 p.m. That gave us about three hours for wandering.
By this time our stomachs were making their desires known, asking for something healthy and palatable. We did a brief reconnoiter, which didn't take long, since the town is quite small, with only one main street and a few secondary ones. We went by a few “botecos” but were intrigued by the sign directing us to the Pensão da Vovó Dui. Five minutes was enough to bring us to this simple but honest-looking establishment, with impeccably white walls, and extremely reasonable prices (R$ 3,50 per “prato feito”) with items on the menu like roast beef with mashed potatoes, chicken stroganoff, macaroni, etc.
We opted for the “comida mineira” (traditional food from Minas Gerais state) and were treated to two plates with enormous helpings of rice, black beans, sausage with onions, a boiled egg, couve à mineira (collard greens minas style), torresmo (pork rinds), and fried bananas! To wash it all down we asked for lime soda (Convenção brand). Total for two: R$ 7,50! (Roughly $3.) Amazingly little! And 600 ml of soda for only 50 cents!
As we took a break at Pensão da Vovó Dui we had a chance to chat with Monica, the cook responsible for the ample and tasty meal, and with Reinaldo, the owner of the establishment. They gave us some valuable tips about local sights. He told us that we could catch a bus or a combi right at the corner and go up the mountain to Petrópolis in about 40 minutes. We also heard about the colonial highway, built by slaves that the Emperor Dom Pedro would take by carriage to his city (Petrópolis). The road is still there, intact, and can only be traversed on foot, since it is not paved with asphalt, and the paving stones are too irregular and slippery for automobiles. It heads up the mountain through the Atlantic forest. We didn’t have time on this visit, but we plan to return - an expedition not to be missed.
There was time, and we couldn't resist, with Petrópolis right next door, to catch a bus (R$ 3,00, or R$ 1,50 if you are only going as far as Meio da Serra, a hamlet literally in the middle of the mountain on the way to the city above) up the hill. We went up the narrow road, paved with stones, with such tight curves that often cars had to stop to let the bus get by). On the edge of drops, the sights take your breath away: huge rock walls, with exuberant vegetation, and a view down the valley past Vila Inhomirim to the Baixada Fluminense, ever more distant and open, giving an impressive notion of breadth. Our eyes were glued to the vistas. As we continued upwards, the temperature dropped gradually. We were definitely in the mountains.
We reached downtown Petrópolis in approximately 45 minutes, and learned at the bus station that the return bus left every 20 minutes. That didn’t give us much time, since we didn't want to miss the last train. We took a quick stroll down the main drag, passing by the lovely Post Office, the Teatro Municipal Grande Otelo, several statues, horse-drawn carriages that recalled the imperial age, tree-lined streets, and romantic bridges. It was a pity we didn't have more time, since Petrópolis is a city to be enjoyed with leisure, getting to know its ins and outs, talking to people on the street. But we didn't want to miss this unique way of getting up the mountain.
We caught the bus back and returned in about 25 minutes, with our descent much quicker than the ascent, since as the saying goes "pra baixo todo santo ajuda e até o diabo empurra" (going downhill all the saints lend a hand, and even the devil gives a push). We had a few minutes before the train left, enough to manage to find the beginning of the colonial road in preparation for our next journey.
The trip back to Saracuruna was calm and sleepy. We were tired, and the train was in no hurry. We paid for our Rio-Saracuruna ticket, and hopped on the train back to Central Station. Our fellow travelers included a group of Supervia employees who had finished their shifts and were heading home. They were joking, chatting, talking in animated tones. A vendor, a figure of fun, known to all, passed by, selling his wares at the top of his lungs. He was welcomed by the group in chorus, imitating his spiel, something that happened every time he appeared (at least four times!). Always good for a laugh. According to my favorite gringo, only in Brazil. People in the train smiling, laughing, talking with each other, the train full of life, warm, lively. Coisas de Brasil. Coisas de Rio de Janeiro. Ô, coisa boa!
Brazil Train: Notes on the Trip from Rio de Janeiro to Vila Inhomirim and Beyond (to Petrópolis)
Leaving from the Zona Sul in Rio you can buy the combined metro-train ticket (integração metrô-trem) for only R$3,30 each way. The bus to Petrópolis leaving from Vila Inhomirim is only R$3,00 each way. The whole thing rings in at only R$12,60! (About $5.)
To get to Petrópolis via Vila Inhomirim will take around 3 hours. If you are in a hurry it would be quicker to catch a bus at the Novo Rio bus station, which takes an hour or so. But you will pay three times as much, and won't get to see the little-known landscape on this side of the mountains.
You can find an enormous variety of clothing stores, with all sorts of items at unbeatable prices in Rua Teresa near the center of Petrópolis. A must!
The lunch at the Pensão da Vovó Dui is honest and inexpensive. The portions are ample. Only R$ 3,50 a plate. Depending on how hungry you are, you could certainly share a dish between two people. We were invited to visit the kitchen, which was simple, functional and quite clean. It got our stamp of approval. The soda (600 ml) is only fifty cents, and even comes in Tubaína flavor, which was out of stock when we visited, but is worth trying.
Note the unusual names of some of the stops on the train line: Campos Elíseos (Elysian Fields), Manoel Belo (Handsome Manuel), Jardim Primavera (Spring Garden), Parada Angélica (Angelic Stop) ... aren't they romantic?
Be sure to try the yogurt jujubes sold by the vendors on the train: four for R$1. They really taste like yogurt!
I was very interested to find out what "Inhomirim" meant, and came up with a theory which seemed quite coherent: “inho” is a corruption of “senhor,” sometimes pronounced as “sinhô,” and "mirim" was the Tupi-Guarani for little, small. So “inho-mirim” would be little master - namely Emperor D. Pedro II, who was crowned while still a child. So upon our return I went to take a look at the morphology f the word, taking a look at indigenous suffixes and prefixes. I was disappointed to learn that my theory didn't hold water, and that Inhomirim really means "little field." I liked my theory much better.....it seemed so logical, and yet so romantic! The reader can choose whichever seems more fitting.
Rio For Partiers - a guidebook with attitude.