Few leave Rio de Janeiro without a wild story or a night in Lapa, because more often than not they are one in the same.
The white arches of Lapa stand proud and elegant during the day, with a trolly that traces back and forth along the top. They are an icon, a flashbulb of Portuguese imperialism, and at night light up like the pearly white gates, yet this time the angels are not on the other side.
Beckoning passersby, it’s happening any night of the week, Friday being the main event. It can be a drumbeat to a thumping funk (not the United States funk), a samba tambourine, or a guy with a gold tooth and a proposition. Lapa is a wild card, so it’s best to be there with something in mind. All types of people are hang out looking for some nighttime action, and little blue and white stands scatter over the walkways and out from under the arches, selling eats and drinks.
Now to play the choose-your-vendor game to find out who’s going to give you that little, extra snake bite. Before you can take it all in and make up your mind you’ll be handed a 500 ml cup of the infamous Capirinha by your partner in crime. Caipirinhas are filled with cachaça (caSHaSa), the sugarcane distilled rum (aka the national firewater), muddled lime and sugar. It will be a bitter and sweet refreshment your tongue was craving in the tropical heat. It may not seem like your first rodeo, but go easy on the sauce. There’s a fine line between indulgence and excess, and Lapa has a little bit of both. In today’s market, domestic beers are 6 reais and Caipirinhas range on cup size, but the big gulp sized cup (500 ml) goes for 10 reais.
Once you pass through the arches, caipirinha in hand, you come to Lapa’s central nervous system — a fork in the street. To your right, you have something that looks like the thunder-dome from Mad Max; the best venue in town, Circo Voador and the famous three story wall of street art. To your left, a double-decker bar, with a range from dubbed out Reggae to Salsa nights, and out in front packed tables and chairs with beer towers and cachaça bottles.
Lapa is the wild west, anything goes. It’s OK to be dressed down. It’s OK to take your shirt off. It’s OK to party in the street with the locals. It’s OK if you don’t go inside the club right away because you make a new friend first. The more the merrier. Lapa is treasured for being Rio’s melting pot, where white-collar, blue-collar, and no collar, come together in shabby streets ready for anything, because anything goes.
The sidewalks are overrun with people, vendors selling gum and cigarettes, and musicians ranging from professional to hobbyists. You can go into an old mansion for traditional samba (Carioca da Gema, Rio Scenarium, or Clube dos Democráticos), order some pizza and cold beers from any of the venders, or keep walking down the street for some fruit infused cachaça outside and to lollygag before something hooks you. Come prepared!