The Carioca Aqueduct, or better known as Arcos de Lapa (the arches of Lapa) are famous nowadays in Rio de Janeiro for being an easy meeting point before a night out in Lapa, a hotspot for late night street after-parties, and for an awesome touristy photo in Rio. Yet the history of these arches dates back to the 17th century and served a very different purpose to what they do today.
Although hard to imagine now with its tarmacked streets and rows of solid buildings, in the past the city center of Rio de Janeiro was surrounded by swamps with bad quality water that wasn’t suitable for drinking. Drinking water had to be manually carried from streams far away from the city which would have been even more troublesome during the sweltering hot summer months.
From around 1602, plans were made to build a series of canals to bring water from the Carioca river on Santa Teresa hill straight into the city center. However, these plans never materialized in full due to technical and financial difficulties. By the end of the 17th century, nearly 100 years later, only a few hundred meters of canal system had been constructed.
Yet in 1706, a new plan brought resources and the technical labor required, and the construction of the aqueduct began. 17 years later in 1723, the works were finally completed and fresh water could finally be delivered to the city center, much to the relief of residents.
A couple of decades later though, in 1744, the structure of the aqueduct was already in bad shape. Military engineer, Jose Fernandes Pinto Alpoim, was called in and placed in charge of refurbishing the construction. Inspired by the aqueduct in Lisbon, he began working on making it stronger and more efficient and it was later reopened in 1750.
The aqueduct served an important role in supplying the city with fresh water, with its main water supply coming from the Carioca river. By the end of the 19th century, the waters in the river were insufficient to supply Rio with water and alternative water supplies came to replace the aqueduct. Soon after, the aqueduct was shut down.
However, it was repurposed in 1896 to support the tramway that connected the city center to Santa Teresa, a neighborhood built on a hill. This made daily commutes much easier for residents in Santa Teresa and the tram (or bonde as it is known in Portuguese) became as much a practicality for transport as a tourist attraction and a symbol of Santa Teresa.
However in 2011 the tram was shut down after a serious accident where the brakes of the tram stopped working. As a result, the tram derailed and killed five people. In July 2015, it was finally reopened after years of passive protests and now it serves a limited service between the center and Santa Teresa again.
The carioca aqueduct starts in the city center and continues up to Santa Teresa. The arches in Lapa remain the most famous section of it, standing at 64 meters and 240 meters long. They cross over the main strip of Lapa called Avenida Mem da Sa which is the main street for bars, restaurants and nightclubs. Nearby are the famous steps of Lapa (Escadaria Selarón) and each weekend the arches overlook hundreds of people as they gather to enjoy the many street parties that happen under the arches, with music and dancing until the sun comes up.