In the whitewashed bohemian outpost of Santa Teresa, far from the Rio de Janeiro of tourist mythology, the beach hedonism of Zona Sul neighborhoods like Ipanema and Copacabana seems almost irrelevant. Here, local artists have claimed 19th-century hilltop villas that are sandwiched between squatter slums and offer stunning views of the coast.
At lunch in unpretentious Bar do Mineiro, a grizzled artist offered advice on how to spend an evening out in Rio. "There is no soul in the Zona Sul," he said. "If you are going out, you must only go to Lapa."
He was talking about Santa Teresa's neighbor, which shares the same historic architecture and still-dubious reputation as Santa Teresa. The two are linked by the bonde, a precarious but unforgettable tram that passes over Lapa's aqueduct, and by the stairs connecting the Convento de Santa Teresa to Rua Joaquim Silva in Lapa.
Lapa offers an alternative to the slick, soulless clubs of the Zona Sul (or South Zone), whose anxiousness to convey international-style exclusivity cannot allay the nagging feeling that Rio's real action lies elsewhere. Revitalization has begun to take place farther afield, in places like Lapa, the scene of a rebirth of samba, where spontaneity and history commingle.
"The moment we're living in will be remembered as a historical one in the history of Rio samba, and a great part of that is because of Lapa," the samba musician and singer Nilze Carvalho, 37, told me.
The exodus of middle-class nightlife — even concerts and bars — to glittering shopping malls in Rio probably reflects security concerns as much as it does creeping Americanization. But for the traveler, this isn't just boring, it's depressing.
Luckily, not all Cariocas, as residents of Rio are called, are into fortress socializing. Considering the options, Cristiano Nogueira, the 31-year-old author of the guidebook Rio for Partiers, said: "I want the fear. I want the drama. I want the sweat."
Lapa offers all three in spades.
Getting to Lapa — 20 minutes and a 25-reais cab ride (about US$12) from the Zona Sul — can seem like a trek, but if it were any closer to shore, it would doubtless be spoiled, as Copacabana has long been, beset by overexposure, seediness and Disney-like garishness. As it is, Lapa's charm exists in the gentle mildewing of its colonial-era architecture, in its sense of unfolding transformation.
At the neighborhood's heart is the Arcos da Lapa aqueduct, which, despite having been built in 1723 by slaves, is curiously modernist in its starkness. At night, it is surrounded by blithe, raucous activity. On one side of the aqueduct, fans line up for the sweeping tents of Circo Voador, a semi-outdoor music club; on the other, the square is jammed with revelers and vendors selling bottles of Skol beer. Cobblestones and sidewalks receive the scuttle and strut of impromptu samba. Gaggles of musicians swing cavaquinhos, the diminutive guitars that give samba music its characteristic tink, sidling up to drinkers slumped in plastic chairs in the street.
In the early decades of the 20th century, Lapa was a rowdy neighborhood of ill repute, of the best sort. Known as the Montmartre of South America, its streets were studded with cabarets, brothels and casinos, until the dictator Getulio Vargas put his foot down in the 1940s.