Rio is one of those places – you’ve seen it so many times in photos, on TV and in the movies that it has an air of familiarity about it. However, actually being there is exceptionally cool, and we were there at the best time of the year – Carnival!!
The locals like to say that ‘God made the Earth in 6 days, the 7th he devoted to Rio’. It’s particularly famous for it’s huge annual party; this celebration of Mardi Gras 6 weeks before Easter is a great Brazilian tradition, and the whole city goes wild for a full 7 days in a whirlwind of music and colour. Samba schools compete in the Sambadrome, there are street parties all over the city, and everyone goes to the beach.
It was dull and raining as we drove into Rio. I was starting to take it personally – the weather hadn’t exactly been our friend on the trip. Somehow it always let us down when it really mattered (Inca Trail, anyone??), and the norm for Rio in February is blue sky and baking hot. Bloody typical. Not ideal, but there was nothing to be done. As the bus approached the city we crowded the windows, scanning for the famous landmarks that we’d seen so many times but never in person. The road signs flew past – Ipanema, Flamengo, Copacabana – omg, we’re actually here!!
Our hotel for the night (officially the last night of the Quito to Rio adventure) was happily situated one block from Copacabana beach. We barely had time to dump our gear before we were out the door again on a city tour – a full-on afternoon taking in all the main sights. Today was Tuesday, and with Carnival officially starting on Friday, the city was starting to get busy. First stop – Corcovado and the statue of Christ the Redeemer. The views of the city are absolutely amazing. Unfortunately we didn’t get blue sky backgrounds for our photos, but it wasn’t the end of the world. We had an interesting time trying to take pictures of each other in the standard ‘arms spread’ pose – trying to get you and Christ’s head in the same frame means the photographer lying on the floor!! Efforts were also hampered by the numbers of people there – i wondered what on earth it would be like in 5 days’ time when Carnival was in full swing and the city was groaning with people. Shudder.
400 photos later we were moving on, next up were Santa Teresa, and the colourful Escadaria Selaron. The stairs are absolutely beautiful – a big streak of colour in the middle of an area that looks and feels ‘a bit dodge’. The stairs and surrounding walls are completely covered in brightly coloured tiles, which have all been donated by different countries – art on a global scale! The steps are a big tourist attraction, made famous by movies and music videos, but that doesn’t take away from their charm. We did the typical tourist thing – look for a tile donated by your country and get your photo taken with it. You have to!
Onwards to Sugar Loaf Mountain, where you catch two separate cable cars to get to the top. The views from the top are stunning – i took another 400 photos, and we took the opportunity to get a shot of the ‘old guard’ – the 6 of us who had been travelling together since Quito. People had come and gone over that time, but we were the constant, bonded together by great memories and a chronic dose of the shits.
Top if my wish list for Rio was to go paragliding, and i was about to get lucky. As we exited the cable car, we met some guys handing out flyers for hang gliding experiences. If we did it before Friday it would cost us R340 (a shade over £100) or R320 each given that there were 9 of us. Plus an additional R150 for the video and photos (which is essential). If we waited until Friday when Carnival was in swing, it would cost us R540 plus video. We signed up for the 10am slot on Thursday. A number of us had booked a package for carnival week that included accommodation and a couple of other activities, but since this didn’t start until Friday we had a couple of days to kill. On Tuesday night we had our last meal as a group, at another ‘pay and weigh’ joint. This one was particularly good, and had an amazing dessert section. It was very hard not to be a complete pig … so i stopped trying and loaded my plate. It didn’t feel like the end of the adventure, as much as the beginning of another one – we were all staying for Carnival after all!
On Wednesday morning it was time for another tour. This time we weren’t going to a big shiny tourist hotspot, we were going into the favelas. The favelas are the shanti towns we’ve all seen in movies like ‘City of God’ – poor housing, poor sanitation, high crime rate, you get the picture. The favelas are a lot safer than they used to be as the pacification process is well under way – there are lots of police on the streets, but you still wouldn’t go wandering around there on your own! Rocinha favela is the largest favela in South America, home to 69,000 people. In the state of Rio, there are 1025 favelas, inhabited by an estimated 1.4 million people. This was a real eye-opener – the conditions here are pretty tough with thousands of people packed in on top of each other, scraping by as best they can. We walked through alleyways strewn with trash, past walls riddled with bullet holes. Some of the houses are barely standing and look like they’ll blow away in the next big wind. It’s really quite incredible – a city within a city, and although these people are technically ‘outside the system’ they seem to have access to most of the things they need. We visited an art project, where we had the chance to buy pictures by local artists, all depicting the favelas against the backdrop of Rio de Janeiro as we think of it – Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf etc. most of us left with at least one painting, which hopefully would make it home in one piece! We also visited a daycare centre, and a local bakery where i ate the best cake I’ve had on the trip. We got our pictures taken with some of the local children who put on a song and dance performance for us – i bet those kids are some of the highest earners in the favelas! If you go to Rio I’d highly recommend taking a tour of the favelas. It’s a great way to see the other side of Rio, away from the glamour of Ipanema and the glitz of Carnival. You catch the odd hostile stare from one of the locals, but i think they’re entitled. For them, this is real life and it’s hard. For us, it’s a tourist attraction and an exercise in voyeurism.
Wednesday was also ‘check out’ day and we scattered to our different hotels. As the Rio package didn’t start until Friday, we had to arrange our own accommodation for the two nights in between packages. I was booked in a hostel, but since Emma had 2 beds in her room it would be more fun to stay with her illegally for 2 nights. A great deal of sneaking around ensued, as i had to make sure that there were no traces of me for the maids to find – hotels are really hot on extra guests during carnival time. A more perfectly-made bed, you never did see. I was very proud of my skills in deception!
When the moves had been completed, it was time to hit the beach – Copacabana beach, no less. The sun still hadn’t made an appearance, but it was warm. The first thing that struck me about Copa was the sheer size of it – it is HUGE! 5km long, and wide with it. It wasn’t particularly busy, in fact it seemed almost deserted compared to what it would look like a couple of days later! The second thing we noticed was that it wasn’t particularly swim-friendly – it was quite rough and you could tell where the rip tides were from the cloudy and fizzy patches at the surface. We wouldn’t be doing much swimming! The third thing that amazed me about Copa is that you can buy just about anything without having to get up. Food? You got it. Beer? Soft drinks? Ditto. You can buy souvenirs, sarongs, clothes, bags, bikinis – anything you might need – without having to move from your towell. You can also get your hair braided and wrapped – again, touristy, but essential. And hilarious to watch Matt get his done too. It was down to his shoulder and looked utterly ridiculous. Needless to say, it didn’t last long!
Thursday morning arrived, and i was cacking myself. I don’t know when taking a running jump off a mountain with a kite strapped to my back seemed like a good idea, but suddenly it really, really didn’t. Paragliding had been different – you take off from a standing position and you stay upright. No nose-dives, no lying down head first. Also it’s slow. Hang gliding is a whole different ball game.
When we arrived at the launch zone it was shrouded in cloud. There was a large wooden launch platform, sloping downwards, and at the end of the platform … nothing. Just cloud. An endless expanse of white. Holy shitballs. While we waited for the cloud to clear, we had to practice take-off and landing techniques. I was strapped into my harness, and shown what I had to do to get us in the air safely – basically just match my stride to my instructor’s and run. Do not cling to him like a drowning person. Do NOT stop running one we start. Straighten your back, chin up, you’re British. My instructor was very camera-conscious, and we had to put on a good show. In the time we’d been rehearsing, the clouds had cleared. Rio de Janeiro was stretched out below us – a long way below us! Suddenly it was my turn, and i was attached to the glider where i dangled briefly before my instructor was attached next to me. Stand up, arm across his shoulder, back straight, chin up, smile for the camera, run and … wow.
The brief drop that i had expected never came; by the time we reached the end of the platform all our weight was being borne by the glider. The platform disappeared and i was running on air. I had a fantastic view of the city, the beaches, the mountains, the favelas, and i chastised myself for not buying a GoPro. Between this, the ranch in Uruguay and Bolivia’s Death Road i could have justified the cost. I’ll put it on the list for next time I’m in the US. It certainly felt a lot faster than paragliding, and whilst i felt a little more vulnerable it was definitely more of a buzz. However, the main difference between the two experiences is that paragliders climb – they ride the rising air currents, and could stay up there all day if they were so inclined. Hang gliding is effectively ‘controlled falling’ – once you leave the platform there’s no place to go but down. So after 8 or so minutes of pure adrenaline, we were looping around to make our approach on the landing site (the beach). All i had to do was raise one knee so the harness could be removed from that leg, and keep my legs straight when we hit the ground. Since my instructor was well over 6 feet tall, he hit the ground first. I hit the ground knees into the sand. Not the most precise landing, but nowhere near as spectacular as Ms Gale’s faceplant either 😉
Back on Terra Firma we got to watch the last of our group come in to land, and then our individual videos. Then it was all over, and it was time to hit the beach again! Of course, in the crazy of Rio it’s good to squeeze in a little bit of normal, so we went to the movies to see Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained’. I think I’ve been to the movies 3 times now in 4 months, which is more often than I go at home! Didn’t really know what to expect from this one, but there was plenty of blood, black humour and gratuitous violence, so naturally we all loved it.
Friday arrived, the start of our ‘Rio Carnival package’. Time to move to a different hotel and meet our new groups. Transpired that i was in a different hotel to the others, on account of having booked a slightly enhanced package which had some of the major sights included. I was amazed by how many people there were on the programme – about 140 in my hotel alone, and there were 2 other hotels. The welcome meeting was scheduled for that evening, and i attended with Angie, my new roomie. First impressions … Oh my good God, Club 18-30 hits Rio. A lot of them were young, some of the girls were dressed like streetwalkers and covered in makeup, and i saw some seriously questionable tattoo decisions. Half the group were there to get drunk and hook up, and frankly they could have done that in Spain. The other half were a really mixed bag, couples and solo travellers ranging from 18 to 70-odd. It certainly wasn’t going to be dull! After a couple of caipirinhas it was time to hit the hay – tomorrow my group was going to Corcovado, and we were going early!!
I’d already done Corcovado, but the weather had been improving and i was hoping to get a photo of Christ the Redeemer set against a blue sky background. Also, our group were going to be the only people there for half an hour of so. Last time we climbed the mountain by bus – this time it was by tram. Slower, but smoother! On arrival at the top, i was thrilled to discover that i could indeed get my shot of ‘Christ on blue’. However instead of a wonderful view of Rio on a bright sunny day, we looked down to discover that we were above the low cloud bank, so the view below was completely obscured. However, the sunlight bouncing off the clouds was really beautiful, almost otherworldly, and made for some really interesting photos.
Rio is set to host both the World Cup and the Olympics over the next few years, and both are expected to bring more people into the city than Carnival. One of the issues which they need to sort out is availability of cash. To be fair, this is a Brazil problem rather than a Rio problem, but the cash machines really struggle with chip cards and foreigners can be really limited on where they can draw cash. This is compounded by the fact that during Carnival the demand for cash is greater than the supply. The machines run out, and are usually not topped-up until half way through the following week. It’s not unusual to have to try 10 different machines before you get lucky. Naturally, there are risks associated with this, and card fraud is rife …
A prominent feature of carnival week are the ‘blocos’ or street parties. There’s something going on somewhere pretty much constantly, and as we had a free evening we thought a bloco visit was in order. We jumped on a train and headed over to the centre, where we initially struggled to find the party, but as we got closer we could hear it. Suddenly it was right in front of us so we grabbed some drinks and immersed ourselves. This was the real Rio, in all its sweaty glory, and it was awesome. It took a while for us to notice that we seemed to be the only foreigners there – 6 white chicks in a sea of locals. We wouldn’t find out until later that groups who go there are usually escorted – apart from a little unwanted attention we didn’t have any issues, although the couple of us still vaguely sober at the end left feeling that we’d played our luck a little! However, it’s an experience we’d never have had in a tour group.
The big event, of course, is the Sambadrome. Every year the different samba schools compete in the Sambadrome to a packed crowd of thousands, with millions more watching on TV. No sooner does carnival finish than the costumes are being discarded and it’s time to start work on the next one. And they take it VERY seriously. The top 12 samba schools compete on Sunday and Monday night – 6 each night. The best school is chosen by a panel of judges based on a number of factors such as percussion, the theme song, song and dance, choreography, costumes, floats and decorations. Our tickets were for Sunday night, sector 13. Sector 13 is located right at the end of the Sambadrome runway, and has the best atmosphere of all the stands. It’s full of local Cariocas who really support their samba schools with lots of flag-waving, singing and dancing. There are no fixed seats – just concrete bleachers, and it gets horribly busy with people climbing all over each other. A bit like a really unruly football crowd! To get in the spirit, we decided that a little fancy dress was in order. At Carnival time the streets are full of vendors selling all manner of fancy dress items. We decided to keep it simple, and bought grass skirts and feather ‘bras’. At least we’d be cool …!
Sunday night came and we packed into the Sambadrome. We did our best to get seats within easy strike distance of the exits – when the place filled up, moving around was going to get really tough! We had a couple of hours to kill since we’d gone early to get seats. This gave us plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere which was alive with anticipation, drink half a litre of pre-mixed vodka and sprite, and put away a surprisingly good double cheeseburger from ‘Bob’s Burgers’, the Brazilian competition to Maccas.
The one slight issue with being all the way down at the end of the runway is that the party starts and takes over half an hour to get to you! We were able to watch the action on big screens initially, but when the first of the floats became visible over the the bleachers to our right i was pretty much stunned to silence at the scale of it. Two enormous blue animatronic dragons were in the front of the float, heads moving from side to side. The scale of production here is pure Vegas – it’s in a different league. The level of detail in everything, the lights, the colours, the costumes and particularly the floats is just astounding, and i think i spent most of the hours that followed with my mouth hanging open in awe, mechanically waving the plastic flag i was clutching. If you’ve never been to Rio Carnival, put it on your bucket list. It’s truly spectacular, and nothing beats being there in person. The procession continued, each float just as spectacular as the last, and it was about 90 minutes before there was a break. And I realised that everything we had seen was from one samba school. 5 more to go!! Only the die-hard make it to the end however, and we crashed into our beds at around 3.30am. I went to sleep with colours and sparkles flashing behind my eyes; i woke up with a vodka-based headache.
The other big event on the slate was the Scala Gay Ball, which is kind of the ‘closing party’ for Carnival. Angie already had a ticket and needed an outfit; i was tempted to join in! We spent a day doing the great outfit hunt, and happened upon a small stall on Copacabana beach selling samba costumes – basically beaded bras and thongs (g-bangers!!) with accessories – out of a car boot. Angie fell in love with a black and silver sequinned set, and an outrageous red rhinestone and feather headdress – it looked absolutely awesome. I was coveting a blue and silver set as a souvenir – you can’t get more ‘Rio’ than that! Anyway, we walked away R550 lighter between us, and i was starting to think “I’ve got the outfit, i should really go to the party …” As luck would have it, there were still tickets available. I was going to the Gay Ball … wearing only a few sparkles and a smile. When we got back to the hotel we got in the lift with a guy we recognised from the programme – good body, good looking, really knew it, bit of a twat. He was dressed in a Carnival costume – he was going to be in the parade that night. We were curious about whether he was stinking hot under that huge costume; the answer we got was “I’m always hot”. Tool. I think Angie got stuck next to him all the way from Santiago to Sydney – he’s a hair stylist. Shocker.
The next day we hit the beach, and i dragged out the dental floss bikini. If i was going to get my arse out for the ball i was going to get a tan on it!! A couple of hours on Copacabana were just the ticket, and afterwards i took some of the other girls back to where i bought my costume. They left fully kitted out – now we were all going to the Gay Ball!! A mad rush for accessories and glitter ensued, before it was back to the hotels to start glamming-up.
Oh my f*#€^&g God, am i really going to go out in public dressed like this?! To be fair, it was a really cool outfit. Despite my initial concerns about nuclear fallout, the bras are very sturdy, solid in fact. You bend them to your shape and they keep a pretty firm grip on everything. Thankfully. So off we went, covered in glitter, to make the short walk to the other hotel to collect the girls. By this time Matt had also decided he wanted to come, so dressed in a little pair of his (female) cousin’s shorts, a tutu, a pair of fairy wings and a set of deely boppers he looked perfect – 100% screaming queen. Especially after he shaved his chest and covered himself in glitter. Priceless.
We attracted a lot of attention in the street – seems that, even in Rio, it’s possible to stand out. I was glad to get to the venue, where the drag queens were out in full regalia. These were some of the most elaborate costumes and headdresses I’d ever seen – how they didn’t melt under all that i have no idea! Once inside the caipirinhas started to flow, and i started to get in the spirit. I don’t think I’ve ever had my picture taken so many times, and i dread to think where they all are now! The event is also broadcast on Brazilian TV. It was probably the best party night of the trip, and we had an amazing time. Fell into bed at 6am, wondering how bad the hangover would be!
Turns out it wasn’t too dreadful, although it was probably 3pm before we were up and doing anything! This was unfortunate, as it didn’t leave us long to grab food and get back to the hotel for 4.30, for the last event of the programme – a sunset cruise around Guanabara Bay. Sailing with a hangover – my least favourite thing in the world (next to bananas). Still, it was pleasantly cool at the front of the boat and we got to see the city from a whole different angle. There was a bit of a split – everyone had partied last night, either at the Gay Ball or elsewhere, but today half the people were on the caipirinhas again, and the other half were sipping their waters delicately. Guess which half i was in?! Yes, the latter. I’m too old for all this shit. We watched the sun set over Rio for the last time, and it hit me that it was time to say goodbye to the people who’d been my constant companions the last few months. Although I’m sure it isn’t really goodbye. After all the thousands of miles I’ve covered on busses and planes, the world feels very small … so I’m sure I’ll see them all again, whenever, wherever …
Valentine’s Day. Today we’re leaving Rio bound for Santiago, where I’ll spend a couple of nights before heading off to Easter Island. There’s just time for a quick trip to Ipanema beach, where we haven’t been yet. During Carnival, Ipanema and Copacabana were heaving – I’ve never seen anything like it. Copa is where the tourists go, whereas Ipanema is for the locals. Today Ipanema is still busy, although Copa is now quiet. Ipanema is the better of the two for swimming, and we set out to hunt for a spot in the sea of sun loungers and sarongs. Ipanema is a heaving mass of sweat and butt cheeks, and that’s just the girls. And no – they don’t all look like Giselle either! That’s one of the things i love about Brazil actually – the women here have such a positive body-image, and they celebrate their bodies, regardless of what size or shape they are. Back home we cover up if we’re less than perfect, and we judge every dimple anyone else dares to bare. It’s a much healthier environment, and i think our teenagers get a really bum deal – the pressure to be perfect shouldn’t exist, but i know that it does. Thankfully I’m too old to be bothered by all that shit, and paraded my dental floss bikini with impunity – one last time before it gets home and goes in a frame.
So it’s goodbye Rio, and goodbye to the Intrepid group – It’s been awesome, but now it’s time for the next phase …!!