Rio’s Lapa by night: The Lady is a tramp

Revellers as far as the eye can see under Lapa’s famous Arcos

 

With its iconic white arches and red-tiled Selarón stairs, Rio’s Lapa is where it’s at for local and foreign revellers alike. Small wonder that the area is attracting the interest of investors.

An edited version of this story appeared in The Rio Times on 7 January 2014

If the girl from Ipanema is tall and tan, young and lovely, Lapa is a whisky-voiced, ageing good-time girl well past her prime – a dangerous enchantress who parties until sunrise and may well try to steal your wallet while you sleep.

Yes, the bairro underneath the famous white Arcos – originally an aquaeduct – has its problems. It’s beset by homelessness, suffers from endemic petty crime and drug offences. Much of its historic architecture is in a state of decay. But despite it all, due to its sheer excitement, Brazilian-ness and raw energy, the area’s appeal shows no sign of waning. Quite the reverse: due to its central location and character, Lapa is attracting increasing interest and investment from locals and foreigners alike. In fact, join the nocturnal throng, and you may well spot a celebrity or two soaking up the vibe: Spike Lee, Morgan Freeman, Gaetano Veloso and Alicia Keys have all been sighted here. No doubt about it: Lapa is a happening place.

Once, Lapa's arches served as an aqueduct. Now, water is the furthest thing from the revellers' minds

 

At heart, Lapa is all about the music and the nightlife: most of Rio’s best venues are concentrated here.

The many antiques shops in the area provide ample opportunity to while away the afternoon browsing for quirky finds or stylish bric-a-brac. But at heart, Lapa is all about the music and the nightlife: most of Rio’s best venues are concentrated here.

Those for whom money is no object sample some of the finest performers at the iconic Scenarium in the Rua do Lavradio 20, de rigueur for visiting showbiz dignitaries. Voted one of the top ten bars of the world by Britain’s Guardian newspaper (in 2006, the place is still dining out on the accolade), Scenarium represents the top-end of Rio’s live music bars. But venturing a little more off the beaten track, local botequins such as the Vaca Atolada (literally, “The Bogged-down Cow” – a popular Brazilian beef stew) in the Avenida Gomes Freira 533 (see map below) surprise and delight the visitor with and intimate and inclusive vibe in an authentic Carioca setting.

Down-to-earth and electrifying: handmade samba at the Vaca Atolada

For those seeking refuge from the ever-present popular Brazilian music, there’s Lapa’s Irish Pub in then Rua Everisto da Veiga 147 directly next to the Arches. Here, party-goers oil their vocal chords with imported beers such as Guinness or Pilsener Urquell on karaoke nights (Wednesdays), or listen to live rock acts on the weekends. Best of all, the Bohemia Hostel is located directly on top, so that drinking, music and sleeping off the booze are all combined in one handy package.

African drumming has its home at Cultura Afro-Brasileira on Avenida Mem de Sá 69 – impossible to miss, it provides an acoustic signature to this part of the bairro. Right next door is FEBARJ – Rio’s top spot for hip-hop beats and thugged-out fashion. The music and crowd are an incongruous match with the crumbling historic façade, but this is what makes Lapa so fascinating. Particularly rewarding is a visit to the balcony. With an atmospheric view of the bustling pavement below, it’s the perfect place to take a weed-break before rejoining the throng to work those moves.

Every first Saturday of the month, Rua do Rezende is blocked off for one almighty party 

There’s a Lapa for everyone

With so many different scenes mixing cheek by jowl, there’s a Lapa for everyone. Part of the fun is diving in, exploring and creating a map of one’s own. For Thiago Dornelas, who was born and bred here, it’s about discovering new beats: “I love going out here with my hippie friends to listen to reggae, but I’m just as much into the hip-hop and all the other rhythms here, as well as watching people milling about. One of my favourite things to do is hanging out under the Arches when there are capoeira performances and jongo [an Afro-Brazilian dance].”

Heather Watson, a Canadian teacher dividing her time between Brazil and Argentina, sees parallels to Buenos Aires: “I like Lapa’s decadent vibe – the ancient and the modern, the excessive and the minimalist, the sublime and the debauched.  It reminds me of San Telmo in Buenos Aires, a formerly very wealthy enclave that has become a bohemian haven.”

“This side belongs to us.”

Rafael Virgílio de Santos is another fan. He’s young, he’s gay, he knows how to dress, he wants to be a model. “Here in Lapa, no one cares what you do, you can kiss another guy right here on the pavement if that’s your thang.”  “The gringoes hang out on the other side of the Arcos, all around the more fashionable Rua do Lavradio. And this side here”, he says with some satisfaction, “belongs to us.”

Depending on who you speak to, Lapa faces two challenges: high levels of crime on the one hand, and gentrification and disneyfication on the other. To address the former, the authorities have initiated Operação Lapa Presente (Operation Presence in Lapa), with 123 dedicated officers patroling the area on foot, on bikes and by cars. It’s an operation which needs to be visible and effective without being heavy-handed and killjoy. But perhaps the most important ingredientios of Lapa’s continued vibrancy is the determination of residents and visitors alike not to be deterred, but to party on regardless.

Cops are highly visible, fighting a daily battle against Lapa’s crime