South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
The once-grotty waterfront is being transformed into a new cultural quarter, says Samantha Pearson.
Photographs by Lara Ciarabellini
Brazilians’ apparent disregard for the past often bemuses foreigners. Historic buildings lie abandoned in the country’s city centres while history museums generally attract little interest. The nation is also said to have a short memory when it comes to politics. In one of the most bizarre incidents, ex-president Fernando Collor de Mello was impeached in 1992 for corruption but recently made a comeback as a senator, only to be accused in a separate corruption scandal.
Porto Maravilha (Marvellous Port) is testimony to these idiosyncrasies. The port has played a fundamental role in some of the country’s most formative events – as the entry point for almost two million African slaves as well as the Portuguese royal family fleeing from Napoleon. However, after being left to fall into disrepair, the port is finally being revamped. Fittingly, the museum at the centre of the redevelopment project does not concentrate on the history of the region but is instead a science museum housed in a stunning spaceship-like building called the Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow), designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
Through the country’s largest public-private partnership, R$8bn ($2.4bn) is being spent on infrastructure and transport networks in the 5 million sq metre port area. Within 10 years, its population is expected to more than triple, from 30,000 to 100,000, and attract everyone from wealthy business people to middle-class families.
The most visible progress has been made on Mauá Square, jutting out into Rio’s Guanabara Bay. After ripping out an elevated motorway that ran across the square and blocked the view of the sea, the city completely repaved the area and brought in extra police officers, turning it into a rare spot of calm in central Rio. The area now has a giant Olympics sign that has become the go-to photo-op for foreigners and Brazilians alike. Designed to turn the city’s grotty port region into a tropical Canary Wharf or Brazilian Barcelona, Porto Maravilha is still a work in progress, but one that offers a fascinating insight into the type of city Rio wants to be.
Trucks offer a range of dining options in Mauá Square
Where to go
When it opened at the end of 2015, the Museu do Amanhã was barely visible for the crowds. Visitors queued for hours just to get a glimpse inside the futuristic building while security guards had to stop people sneaking in through the side entrances. On rainy days, the crowds were even larger as Rio’s beaches – the city’s top attraction – emptied out.
Built in partnership with Brazil’s Roberto Marinho Foundation, the museum looks at eternal questions such as “where do we come from?” and “who are we?” The idea is that “tomorrow is built, starting today, right now – the choices we make today lead to a range of possible tomorrows”. Using interactive displays, the museum addresses six main themes: climate change, biodiversity, population growth and ageing, greater cultural integration, advances in technology and knowledge.
Before heading across Mauá Square to the Museu de Arte do Rio (MAR), completed in 2013, take in the 22-storey A Noite building, Rio’s first skyscraper, built in 1929 from reinforced concrete and Latin America’s tallest building during the 1930s. For a snack, stop at one of the many trendy food trucks lined up on the western side of the square.
MAR comprises two interconnected buildings: the Dom João VI Mansion and a modernist building next door that used to be a bus terminal. Its exhibitions largely focus on local artists or the city itself. The museum shop, Novo Desenho, features products by emerging and more established regional designers and includes small items of furniture.
For great views of the area, head up to the museum’s rooftop Mauá Restaurant, which serves well-presented Brazilian dishes. For equally impressive views but simpler food, try Uno Café.