Have you ever seen someone’s photos from their trip to Brazil and wondered what those amazingly colourful steps were in Rio? I know I did a few years ago. That was before they were made yet more famous by Snoop Dogg and Pharrell in the video for their hit song ‘Beautiful’.
Lapa steps is lazy English speak for the ‘Escadlaria Selaron’ – so called because they were designed and constructed by Chilean artist Jorge Selaron, who, it turned out, had been found dead, just one week before I arrived in Rio, on the steps of his creation with burn marks on his body.
The circumstances of his death remain unknown. I heard rumours he’d committed suicide, while others said it was murder. There was also talk that the police had been investigating death threats. To this day, it seems the mystery has not been resolved.
Selaron had been a resident of one of the apartments on the steps and, in 1990, he decided to renovate them as his ‘tribute to the Brazilian people’. He funded his work by selling paintings and collecting over 2000 tiles – mostly in red, green and yellow (the colours of the national flag) – from scrap heaps and the streets of Rio. In later years, tiles donated from more than 60 countries around the world were incorporated. There is even one depicting the artist himself sitting on his masterpiece looking rather pleased with his handlebar moustache and worker’s tan.
Although some of his neighbours originally scorned him for the project, the Lapa steps have come to be an iconic landmark for Rio and attract hundreds of tourists every day. When he was still alive, Selaron could often be spotted working hard on his project or mingling with street party goers in the evening.
I spent ages searching for something representative of home, finally spotting this London phone box.
I also found a touch of Paris:
And a colourful message of peace from Israel, with what looks like kebab juice dribbling over it:
But I think this one has to be my favourite for its sheer randomness…
Apparently Selaron viewed his project as never complete and was quoted as having said ‘This crazy and unique dream will only end on the day of my death’. It’s a dream that lasted over 20 years and that will undoubtedly live on in the people of Brazil.
Where to stay in Rio
I tried out a few hostels in Rio and my favourite, by a long shot, was Books Hostel in Lapa. In fact, it was one of my favourite hostels in South America. I went back to it twice after visiting other parts of Brazil, and I visited it in the evenings when I made the mistake of trying out a hostel near Copacabana Beach for a few nights. The guy who runs is – Felipe – is awesome, and there is a sense of homeliness to it that makes almost every backpacker extend their stay. Decorated with quirky graffiti murals and left-behind shoes, and with a small bar serving cachaca and beers every evening, it’s the perfect place to socialise with new friends before checking out the famous street parties of Lapa.