By Georgia Grimond, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The two favela neighborhoods of Babilônia and Chapéu Mangueira occupy a privileged position along Copacabana’s coastline. Nestling at the top of the steep sides of the Morro da Babilônia (Babylon Hill), the communities look down over Leme at the north end of Copacabana beach, behind to Botafogo and out to Urca, Sugar Loaf and Guanabara Bay.
The area was first occupied by the Brazilian army who built a look-out post high up on the hill at the end of the nineteenth century. Soldiers built makeshift houses nearby and so the informal construction of the community started. The army was later joined by construction and railway workers and now close to 4,000 people live in the favela, the majority of whom have been there for over twenty years.
The area was formerly under the control of the Terceiro Comando (Third Command) but underwent a peaceful pacification process in 2009 and since then has had an ongoing police presence. As a result the area has become increasingly popular with tourists and has gained a reputation as something of a culinary destination. New openings and events continue to bring new visitors to the area.
For many years, people have made the pilgrimage to Bar do David. A walk up the hill from Leme is worth it for a seat at David Bispo’s restaurant. With no pretension, the former fisherman serves innovative and expertly cooked takes on Brazilian favorites. The seafood feijoada is particularly recommended as well the caipirinhas which have been voted the best in the city.
Not far away is Bar do Alto. Opened in 2014, the bar and restaurant is run by Rubens Zerbinato, a long-term resident of the favela and chef who learnt his trade in the hotels of Zona Sul (South Zone). He too cooks Brazilian fare but with imaginative twists, like, for example, his bestselling feijoada-filled spring rolls. The cocktails are equally interesting too, with the Carioca (sparkling wine and açaí) nominated for the Best Drink in Rio by Veja magazine.
On some nights the restaurant is cleared to make room for revelers who can party while taking in the breathtaking vista. Local French expats Félix Degruson, Antoine Clauzel and Matthieu Ti Bodo run a night there called La Bagarre. On again from 8pm this Saturday, January 23rd, they will be playing an uplifting mix of house, disco and techno music.
“Bar do Alto is kind of gem in Rio’s panorama, it offers one of the best views in town and attracts regularly a diverse group of people. From the English-speaking tourist to locals coming to practice samba. It’s a very diverse crowd,” explains Degruson. “I discovered it with a group of friends and we liked the view, the cocktails and the food so much that we had to come back! The work they did to get the place like it is today is simply amazing. The owners can be proud of it.”
Also nearby and highly recommended is the bar and hostel at Estrelas da Babilonia. It has a large decked terrace tucked under the edge of the jungle and that looks out over the city. It is ideal for a sunset drink and snack. For those wanting to stay in the community Estrelas, Babilônia Rio Hostel and Lisetonga are good options for the budget traveller.
To get the best view from the favela, however, hike the short and relatively easy trail into the jungle on the top of the hill. It is just over a kilometer long with an incline of only two hundred meters. Yet at the top it is possible to see vast swathes of the city and sea laid out below. The area is protected and has been reforested since 2001. It is now home to many diverse species native to the Mata Atlântica (rainforest).
The neighborhood is accessed from Ladeira Ary Barroso in Leme. From the bottom, either walk, take a taxi or a mototaxi. Most locals know the bars and restaurants and will be happy to point you in the right direction.