Rio de Janeiro. Where do we begin? It would be difficult to describe Rio under normal circumstances but during Carnival it is pretty much beyond our vocabulary. Beautiful, ugly, calm, hectic, rich, poor, friendly, hostile, the list of opposites is endless. Did we like Rio? Yes. Did we dislike Rio? Yes. From our personal perspective we had no direct negative experiences only positive ones but we saw things that were negative and there is always something close by that reminds you of the darker side of the city. Would we go back to Rio? Probably not. Would we discourage anyone from going to Rio? Absolutely NOT, it is definitely an experience to have, and during Carnival this is multiplied many times.
Rio Carnival lasts for 4 days, from Friday evening to Tuesday night. We arrived on Thursday afternoon having driven from Paraty. As you get within 100km of the city it starts to get very built up. Then within the city limits it starts to become very run down, almost derelict (but still inhabited) buildings line the main highway. We have seen much poorer areas in the world, especially in the Indian subcontinent, so we were not shocked by the sight but for some reason we didn’t expect it here to the extent it was. I suppose we naively thought it may be contained more in the so called ‘favelas’. People were living in makeshift villages along the way with homes constructed of corrugated metal and tarpaulin, dozens of people were lying in the streets by the side of the road and many obviously suffering from alcohol and drug abuse. The outskirts of most major cities often show them in their worst light and Rio was no exception.
Because this was the end of the line for our trip on Didingo, and our group were flying out on various days over the coming week, we were scattered all over the city in various hotels. Copacabana, Ipanema, Catate and Lapa were the main areas of choice. We had booked three nights in Copacabana and one night in Lapa. There were, however, no big goodbyes as many of us had organised a city tour on the Friday and a night at the Sambadrome (explanation to come later) on the Sunday.
On Friday morning we met in Catate for our city tour. Nikki had organised a minibus and tour guide to take us around the major sights. This is something we have never done before, usually we take to the streets and explore by walking everywhere like we did in Buenos Aires and Santiago. However, Rio is spread out with relatively big distances between the major sights. Also we were constantly being warned about the dangers of the City and looking back now this was starting to give many of us a negative perception of the place. Anyway, off we went. Our guide was knowledgeable and enthusiastic and obviously loved Carnival …. especially it’s darker side! Some of his stories were developed for his audience but it was good entertainment. We felt he would have been quite at home giving vampire tours in Transylvania or voodoo tours in French Quarter of New Orleans! First he took us to the statue of Christ the Redeemer.
This is probably the most iconic of Rio landmarks. Perched high on a mountain, in the rainforest above the city, it can be seen from many areas below. We took the opportunity to grab a few snaps, looking for the perfect photograph among the hoards of people doing the same thing, before moving on to a neighborhood called Santa Teresa. This is one of the oldest and poorest neighbourhoods in the city, (outside of the favelas). We found Santa Teresa to be indicative of many of the neighbourhoods in Rio with cobbled streets and once fabulous typical Portuguese style buildings which have been left to decay. The pastel brickwork is still there but is now faded, covered in graffiti, crumbling and dirty with trees and plants growing through and up them. After this we moved onto the famous aqueduct in Lapa. We had seen photographs of this pristine white aqueduct before we arrived and were disappointed to see a dirty, graffiti covered structure providing shelter for many of the homeless with human excrement lying around. The next stop was at the cathedral. Now we are trying not to be negative here but this has to be a contender for the ugliest cathedral in any major city, a grey concrete structure which is really showing its age. The penultimate stop was Selaron Steps……We had never heard of them either! In fact while we were there Steve asked a few people the name of the steps and no one knew their name or fully the story behind them. Even our guide seemed to be making bits of it up. We were starting to think Rio didn’t have much to offer in the way of tourist sights until we arrived at our final stop….. Sugarloaf Mountain. This was, in our opinion, by far the best part of the tour. You could say it’s just a cable car ride up a big hill but the hill itself is quite an unusual sight and the view from the top is just outstanding. You get to see the whole of the city, from the bay to the ocean, the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema and a great view of Christ the Redeemer in the distance. This one stop made the tour worthwhile, but the tour also helped us with the layout of the city which would help later in our stay.
That evening Steve went out for a run. He suffered an injury in late October and didn’t start running again until about 6 weeks ago. He has gradually been building up with the aim of doing a 10 mile run along the Rio beaches. He planned a route which would take him through the streets around our hotel, onto Leme beach and then Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon beaches before turning around and coming back the same way. There is a cycle lane which runs between the 10 metre wide promenade and the 6 lane road that runs most of the way along the beaches (3 lanes north and 3 lanes south with a wide reservation separating the two). Steve hit Copacabana, running well, 30 minutes before sunset and it was busy, very busy. There were dozens of other runners all using the cycle lane so Steve joined in. After a couple of minutes he saw a young guy running fast, almost sprinting along the promenade coming towards him. “Why is this guy not using the cycle lane?” was his initial thought. Then he saw a bag fly across the street to the central reservation, another young guy picked it up and ran off. People started to point and it soon became obvious the young guy was running through the crowd snatching bags from pedestrians, then throwing them to accomplices waiting in the central reservation who collected them and disappeared into the side streets. One of the bag owners gave chase and the young guy ran into the traffic dodging cars and sliding across bonnets. The bag owner stopped a passing Police car which joined in the chase and they all disappeared into the city. Minutes later 3 Police 4x4s turned up at the scene and Police with automatic rifles jumped out and went in pursuit of the gang. “I don’t get that on my normal run in the UK” thought Steve as he continued on. As this was the first evening of Carnival the fancy dress was starting to appear and the drinking was in full flow. By the time he reached his turn around at Leblon, Steve had seen at least 15 Wonder Women, every member of The Village People at least five times, innumerable Police and convicts (fancy dress, not real), Charlie Chaplin, a dozen forms of the devil, a roman legion, an African tribal leader and so many more it would be impossible to list. At least 80% of the people on the street were in fancy dress and that is probably an underestimation. The default outfit seemed to be a tutu, for both men and women! There were parties at beach bars, some with literally thousands of people. On the return run the sun had set and Rio was lit for the night not just by the street lights and buildings but by the flashes of lightning from the impending storm. By the time Steve hit the last km a clap of thunder ruptured the clouds and the rain came down in buckets. It was like Iguazu Falls all over again. He said it was one of his 10 best runs ever… amazing.
The rain continued well into the night with scenes that made national news. Some of the group had gone out into Lapa, which suffered particularly badly, and ended up walking back in thigh deep water from the rain and the overflowing drains. Not good!
Now we had our bearings and were starting to understand the city a little more. We spent a couple of days walking around the different neighbourhoods experiencing what Rio in Carnival has to offer. We walked together along the beaches following the route Steve had run, however we didn’t carry a bag for this one…. Just in case!
We caught the subway and explored Catate, Lapa and Centro and stumbled across several “Bloco’s”. These are effectively music street parties which go off at all times of the day and night and many of them have themes. Besides the obvious Samba we encountered Reggae and Heavy Metal but by far and away the best one we saw was a huge Bloco which had a Beatles tribute band playing with a Samba band backing. We tried to estimate how many people were there and we agreed on around 30,000 as a conservative number. It was fantastic, everyone singing along to Beatles tracks at 10.30 am, most people drunk, some on their way home from the night before and some on their way out for the day and as is normal for Carnival most in fancy dress.
We also spent an afternoon on Copacabana beach. It’s one of the world’s most famous beaches and to spend an afternoon sitting in the sun was what had to be done. Copacabana had its heyday many years ago and is showing signs of dating. It’s a little bit tacky, it’s very busy but it’s an iconic beach and we loved it! On our way back to the hotel we used the subway and an incident happened which sort of summed a few things up for us. As we boarded a carriage we were confronted by two men in dreadlocks, their hair and bodies were covered in some sort of dry clay, they were wearing only dirty old trousers and they were both playing wooden flutes. They weren’t busking and didn’t want money it was just their thing. At the next station a couple in their 60’s dressed as aliens with blue heads and well put together costumes (characters from Megamind I think) got into the carriage. They squeezed between the clown, wonder woman and a couple of what looked like stereotypical prostitutes (I think they were in fancy dress) and sat down opposite us and absolutely no one in the carriage battered an eyelid. It’s 4 pm and this is Carnival!
On the Sunday evening we went to the Sambadrome. This is essentially what Carnival is all about. The Samba schools of Brasil take part in a competition of dance, costume, lights and unbelievable floats in a parade along a permanent concrete track about a hundred metres wide and a half mile long (The Sambadrome) to an audience of 90,000 sitting in concrete stands listening to deafening samba music. Just seven Samba schools parade each night, “That should be over quite quickly” said Steve, “only seven schools, I wonder why the tickets are so expensive?”. Then we found out each school parades thousands of dancers and it takes them one hour to travel the length of the Sambadrome.
We were all meeting in Catate to have something to eat. Our first hurdle was the heavy traffic. After 25 minutes in a taxi, covering less than 2 miles, we agreed with the taxi driver we would be better off walking the last mile, so off we went. For the first time in our lives we were walking through the streets of a major city wearing matching bright orange outfits of sparkly tutus and feather head dresses. Sarah had an orange boob tube and Steve had no top but wore orange glitter and body jewels. “Exactly who’s idea was this” we both thought.
After about 30 seconds all inhibitions were gone, we were just one of a cast of thousands! We all met up and set off to eat and another biblical storm hit. In seconds the whole of Rio was soaked and the rain cape sellers were making ak fortune. The water was flowing through the streets like rivers. It was going to be a night to remember! After a couple of hours the rain subsided and we made our way into the subway with what felt like everyone else in Brasil. So many people and for a few minutes it was quite concerning as the potential for a crush was definitely real. Somehow Nikki (dressed in an excellent home made sequined outfit with headdress, tutu and top) got the whole group into the same subway carriage. We made it to within a mile of the venue after which we had to walk the last mile through an avenue of locals selling beer and everything that anyone wanted and was willing to buy and many things they didn’t. “No I don’t want a pair of odd sized shoes or a second hand Samsung remote control, but have you got a pair of size 52 inch waist dirty denim shorts with the backside missing and a large blood stain on the left leg?” “Oh you have, brilliant” The atmosphere was buzzing and we arrived at the Sambadrome, bought our beers, and waited in the rain.
The parade started. We have never seen anything like it in our entire lives. We were blown away. To try and describe it would not do it justice as the whole experience was phenomenal. We couldn’t take it in as it was a sensory over load. The costumes, the routines, the colour, the floats, the imagination taken to dream up the ideas and the work put into creating and implementing the finished product must have been immense. The first school started the parade at 10.30 pm and the last one apparently finished at 6 am. I say apparently because, unsurprisingly, we didn’t make the end!! We’re getting on a bit now, well at least Steve is and he had to retire for bed well before then.
The Sambadrome transformed our experience of Rio and left us with positive feelings about the city. Without it Rio in our opinion would be a famous city which has been left to go a little rough around the edges and has developed a reputation of having a darker side. The Sambadrome goes some way to counter that. Is that reputation deserved? We feel that would be an individual assessment and would come from personal experiences. From our view point every local we met was friendly, courteous and helpful, from the taxi drivers to the beach sellers. But wherever you look there seemed to be a reminder of the potential for things to go wrong and someone in authority obviously sees the need for Police to ride motorcycles around in groups of six, two on a bike, carrying some serious automatic firearms.
So as Bugs Bunny says “ That’s all folks”. We’re on our way home and the first trip is finished, and what a trip. We are still struggling to comprehend what a fabulous trip it has been, so many experiences in so many different ways, so many highs and virtually no lows. We are slightly worried we have done our best trip first and may never be able to beat it. It really has been outstanding. What was the highlight? Pretty impossible to say, climbing Villarica Volcano, trekking to the three towers in Torres del Paine, Perito Merino Glacier, Buenos Aires, Snorkelling in Bonito, Iguazu Falls and The Sambadrome were all incredible, amazing unforgettable experiences but they were strung together with memories of a great bunch of people who we are sure we will stay in touch with and hopefully see again soon somewhere in the world.
We will sign off for now as we head back to the UK to catch up with family and friends for a few weeks. A couple of weeks of this will be in The New Forest looking after Rupert, Steve’s secret best friend, a lovely little working Cocker Spaniel.
If you have enjoyed the blog please check back for our next trip, we have loved reading your comments. We are leaving to explore Europe for 10 weeks or so. We are not sure of the exact dates, or the route, but we’ll be starting in France sometime in the second half of April 2019.
Bye for now.
P.S. from Sarah. My favourite bit of the trip is still Steve, lying on the floor, pants around his ankles, clinging onto toilet paper in a windy Patagonia bush camp!