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Exploring Historic Lapa

By Fiona Hurrell, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – As one of the City’s oldest, most renowned and exotic districts, Lapa continues to live off its forbidden reputation, perhaps as much today as it did seventy years ago. Its defining landmark, the Arcos da Lapa has sheltered a hive of activity throughout history. Street hawkers to musicians, artists to an ever increasing number of tourists have all gathered here in combined revelry.

Lapa in 1896, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil News
Lapa in 1896, image provided by Marc Ferrez/Wikimedia Creative Commons License.

During the 1920’s and 1930’s, Lapa was a saucy neighborhood of ill repute, yet with an aura of decadence and glamor as you would expect at Montmartre in Paris or London’s Soho. Streets were inundated with lively cabarets, casinos and brothels creating a seething hotbed of debauchery where Cachaça was drunk in large quantities and samba was played until dawn.

The beautiful two story colonial buildings which in the modern world portray a hedonistic sense of faded splendor were once home to the cities free spirited and felonious. With so much charm and frivolity it is little wonder that this was the childhood home of international star Carmen Miranda. Her invigorating stage presence and cabaret style costumes can be attributed to her early life submerged in the artsy community.  

Carmen Miranda in The Gang's All Here trailer, Lapa, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil News
Carmen Miranda in The Gang's All Here trailer, image Public Domain/Wikimedia Creative Commons License.

Despite undergoing a huge crack down in the 1940’s under the dictatorship of Getulio Vargas, Lapa was restored to its former wild and sinful heritage by the 1960’s. Throughout the changes though, one thing in particular has remained constant – samba.

It is one of the few elements to have withstood the test of time and acts as an inextricable link between the past and modern day Lapa. Many samba tunes today in fact refer to Lapa in the lyrics and a strain of samba known as the “Samba de Raiz” meaning the “root samba” affirms its origins with the area.

Over the years various artists have worked to create and maintain the “spirit of Lapa” in unique public features such as the Lapa steps, started in the nineties by Jorge Selarón.  This modern day attraction perfectly captures the bohemian vibe of the artists, musicians’ and freethinkers who have traditionally formed the bulk of the areas residential population.

By day throngs of tourists and Cariocas tread the steps and sample the local restaurants of which there are many to choose. Dining Al fresco is common here and all the better to take in the surroundings. Rua Lavradio contains the bulk of Lapa’s restaurants and bars, mostly serving traditional Brazilian cuisine. From here residents can make their way back to the Arcos de Lapa and catch the tram to neighboring Santa Teresa.

Lapa’s fusion of excitement and danger create an allure that grips people just as fervently today as it did in the past.  A fascinating place for foreigners and Carioca’s both young and old who want to lose themselves in the swirling samba and lively atmosphere that remains unchanged despite the ravages of time.

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