Just north of the center of the city of Rio de Janeiro lies a huge, round renovated stadium decorated with flags and banners, a marvel to any passerby who arrives at Galeão International Airport and heads down the expressway to Zona Sul. In my few trips back and forth from Rio’s airport, I’d always seen this huge alien-looking edifice, but never had the chance to figure out what it was. It wasn’t until my friend, Marie, told me about this amazing fair with food, music, and crafts from the Northeast region of Brazil, that I put 2 and 2 together and resolved to explore it for myself.
After a week of insane exams (in Portuguese!), a couple of friends and I hopped on the metro and decided to grab lunch there one Saturday afternoon. It was actually kind of a trek to get there – a walk, two metro lines, and a cab brought us to the gates of the fair over the course of about an hour. Passing through the neighborhood of São Cristovão was an adventure in itself because it was a side of Rio de Janeiro that I’d never seen before. We passed by Quinta da Boa Vista, Parque Zoológico, and rows of shops and apartment buildings. It definitely seemed more tranquil than hectic Zona Sul, but perhaps only because we visited on a Saturday afternoon.
Finally we arrived at the gates of the fair, greeted by tiny bandeirinhas and kiddie rides, with music drifting in the air. We grumbled at the sight of having to pay to get in – it is, after all, a shopping and eating fair, so why pay to pay again? But at just a mere 3 reais (~$1.50 USD), we decided that it was worth the price.
We were welcomed into the fair by dessert stands, hot sauce shops, clothing racks, and what looked like a jumbled mess of souvenirs, crafts, home accessories, and toys. Rows upon rows of these tiny shops lined the maze-like interior of the building. It seemed like no matter how far we walked, there was still something new to see. The shops were organized in a series of alleys stemming off from a main entryway. If you walked long enough, you’d eventually run into some live samba or forró music, too (for the not-so-lucky wanderer, poorly-sung karaoke in one of the smoky side bars).
You ate a what?!
Like I said, we’d come to try out the ever-so-famous nordeste cuisine, offered almost exclusively at this fair. Our noses took us towards the restaurant area, seeking fine and spicy foods for a fair price. Before we were able to find a restaurant, we were approached by close to a dozen restaurant employees, all saying “oferecemos uma promoção especial para vocês” (we have a special deal for you), offering us small papers. At last, after scouring the place for a calm, reasonably-priced restaurant, we settled on an all-you-can-eat buffet called Jerimum do Nordeste. They had a varied selection of vegetables, meat dishes, and rodízio style churrasco.
While there, on a whim, I decided to taste capybara meat. If you don’t know what a cabybara is, it’s basically a large rodent that lives in Brazil. When the waiter was placing it on my plate, I caught a whiff of what smelled like sour meat…but I decided to dig in anyway. BAD MOVE! Capybara meat has a very strong and rather unfamiliar taste, to which my palate reacted poorly. It’s okay though. After that painful bite I hid the rest of the capybara underneath another slice of meat and continued eating like nothing happened.
Sometimes, you’ve got to roll with the punches.
The good news is that there were a lot of lanchonete style restaurants too for those not looking for an all-you-can-eat buffet or something of the like. These are cheaper and quite possibly better. Noted to try next time I’m at the fair.
Flavored Cachaça, Galaxy Pants, and Coconut Snacks
After our stomach-numbing lunch, we decided to walk off some of those excess calories. We watched as cheerful Brazilians danced forró oh-so-romantically to a live band in a huge stage area. We walked past shops selling antiques, souvenirs, and what looked like just straight up junk. And finally, we stumbled upon a tiny little shop with a glass window displaying – you guessed it – all different kinds of cachaça. Of course, my friends and I couldn’t resist going in and getting some wonderful FREE SAMPLES! (Don’t you love it when stores give free samples?) We tasted some amazing cachaça that almost resembled wine, and some fruit flavors I’d never heard of in my life.
Afterward, we went for some real dessert – coconut treats. For some reason there are actually a huge amount of stores that sell these coconut desserts, so we entered the first one we saw and bought them. Ironically, they also sell coconut snacks inside of the hot sauce store…and trust me, hot sauce and coconut desserts aren’t such a pleasant mix. I think this fair is the only place where you can actually find an entire section of a store dedicated to hot sauce – a rare commodity in the mild-food-loving Rio de Janeiro.
When we were literally stuffed to the brim, we resolved to head back to Copacabana, making out way out of the cluttered alleys of the market. On the way out, however, I saw something that caught my eye – a pair of galaxy printed pants. I couldn’t get them out of my mind, arguing with myself and my friends until I finally decided to buy them. Vale a pena, I thought to myself. Looking back on them, I’m glad I bought these crazy pants. They’re definitely a fashion statement, plus they’re really comfy and perfect for traveling.
Although my capybara experience was less-than-rewarding, this is a market that definitely fascinating me with its variety of offerings and open atmosphere. Frankly, it was nice to “get out of Rio” for a few hours and explore a slightly different culture! As they say here, vale a pena.
Have you ever gotten lost at a market? What unexpected things did you run into? Share your story in the comments!
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