We arrived in Rio de Janerio with big expectations. Aside from all the famous sites, I was looking forward to learning about its world-famous Carnival and Dale wanted to get a little of the World Cup fever that had hold of the city just a few months before our visit.
We kicked off our few days in Brazil’s “Marvellous City” with the obligatory visit to Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer), perched on top of Corcovado Mountain and overlooking the city.
There are several different ways to get up the mountain, including a long walk, a scenic train ride, an expensive taxi or a shuttle bus from several different points around the city. For us, the cheapest and easiest way to get up there before the rush was the shuttle bus. Although we caught the first bus of the day (before the train had even started running) it was busier than we expected at the top of the mountain – showing just how popular the attraction is.
Because of pictures I’d seen, I’d expected the statue to be smooth – like cement – but on closer inspection I could see it was actually made from hundreds of pieces of pale pink mosaic, which made him look quite fragile up-close.
From this point on the mountain, in amongst the high-rises and shiny offices, you can clearly see pockets of ramshackle houses dotted around the city. These are the city’s Favelas (slums) and you can take tours into them should you want to – although there are some that tourists are warned against visiting because of high crime rates.
We thought about doing a tour into one of the safer ones, but the more we thought about it the more we felt it would be weird to be guided around people’s homes, gawking and taking pictures of them because their circumstances are so different from our own. Instead, we spent the rest of the day rambling along the coast of the city – checking out the picturesque Ipanema beach and the infamous Copacabana.
All along the Copacabana beach walk, there were fantastic sand creations carefully crafted by locals hoping for tips in exchange for a photo.
To finish off our first day, we took a cable car to Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) to watch the sunset.
Although the sun was already hidden behind a blanket of cloud we were treated to a fantastic view of the city at twilight, sparkling with life as its lights winked into existence.
We had intended to head back to our hostel for the night at that point, but before we left Sugarloaf we ran into some fellow travellers we’d met in Bonito who suggested that we should check out Rio’s famous nightlife scene in the Lapa district.
We were told that Carioca (Rio’s locals) flock to Lapa every Friday for a boozy night of music and dance on the streets until the early hours. Thinking this might be our taste of Carnival, we decided to have a quick look and maybe have a drink or two while we were there.
The party tends to start late (after 11pm) so we headed out into the night as late as we dared, but when we arrived at the famous Lapa Arches, we were a little disappointed. The night must be a little slower to get going than we’d hoped – we couldn’t find any of the dancing happy people we’d be promised. Instead, we were confronted with the occasional early drunk teetering along or throwing up beside greasy food stalls flogging unsavoury-looking snacks.
Thinking that sleep was more important than waiting for the street party to start, we headed back to the hostel. This would be one Rio experience we’d have to pass up.
The next day, we were up early to get across town so that Dale could take a tour of the Maracana – the national football stadium of Brazil and home of the World Cup 2014.
Because I decided not to take the tour in favour of watching energetic locals doing their morning cycles, runs or rollerblading around the outside of the stadium, Dale will take over for this bit…
I was about to join a group for the guided tour but then realised it was in Portuguese – not the best start. It turned out the next English speaking tour started too late, so I ended up doing a self-guided tour with a headset instead. This was actually a huge plus for me because everyone else was waiting for the guided tour so I got the whole stadium to myself, which felt really surreal!
The stadium was huge. I could only imagine how good the atmosphere must have been for the World Cup final. The changing rooms were a lot more luxurious than my old cricket team’s ones (which were really just a bench). These ones even had jacuzzis and a mini indoor football pitch to warm up on. Every peg had a different country’s football kit hanging up – shame there was no Welsh jersey.
Walking down the tunnel to the pitch was going to be my favourite part of the whole tour, but I went down the tunnel the wrong way and ended up in the practice pitch again. After I’d backtracked, I got to walk out into the stadium to the roar of… the lawnmower!
To finish, I sat in the manager’s seat for a bit and then went to the VIP boxes and the commentator seats.
When I went back downstairs I saw the tour group starting their circuit. There was more than 50 people jostling to take pictures and I was relieved to have finished my own personal walk around the Maracana before them…
Hmmm. I think he should take over more often.
After Dale had found me outside the stadium, we dashed back across town for a walking tour of several famous sites; including a bakery that was visited by the Queen, Catedral Metropolitana De Sao Sebastiao – a weird cone-shaped Cathedral, Escadaria Selaron (Lapa Steps) with tiles representing countries all over the world, and the Palace.
All the walking around was making us hungry, so we decided to sample a Brazilian Churrascaria. Churrasco is like a barbecue buffet – a delicious selection of grilled meats is brought to your table until you tell your waiter to stop (repeatedly). Even before we’d properly sat down, the waiters had begun to offer us barbecued delights that we couldn’t say no to. It took us both a while to escape to the salad bar because delicious meat-dishes kept being brought out to us!
After a quick afternoon nap, we caught a bus to our next destination – the Salgueiro Samba School. Although we weren’t in Rio during Carnival, I’d heard that some of the samba schools open their doors from September so you can watch them practice for the big event. During Carnival, all of the schools (which represent different districts in Rio) compete in the Sambadrome to win a huge cash-prize for their school and community. What we hadn’t realised is that there’s more to Samba than just the dance. There are comissao de frente (people who lead the parade and get the crowd going), the bateria (percussionists who keep the beat) and singers that sing new songs for the school each year – and every single component is judged.
When we entered the school, the party was already in full swing and we were hit by a wall of sound that reverberated from our feet to our tummies as the samba beat kicked in. The venue, which looked a bit like a community hall, was packed full of people dancing furiously.
We stood on the side-lines, mesmerised by the joyful dancing around us until an area in the centre started clearing ready for the professionals to appear. The ladies in their sparkling (and rather skimpy) practice costumes swirled, shimmied and swayed to the music – their feet a blur of movement. The men spun, kicked and flicked their feet just as quickly. The crowd belted out the songs along with the singers – clapping and dancing with the beat and waving flags around their heads. It was an amazing party atmosphere – and it was only a practice!
Carnival is serious business. Apparently the seats in the Sambadrome can range up to thousands of dollars. It’s also considered a huge honour to be a dancer for the school and people train for years to win a place.
When the dancers were done, we clapped and cheered along with the crowd and the real party began. Both of us were pulled on to the floor and taught some Samba moves while the drums and the singers carried on pumping out the music.
By the end of the night we were exhausted, but buzzing from the atmosphere of the place. We reluctantly went home, taking a quick look at the huge darkened Sambadrome as we passed.
The school was an amazing end to our stay in Rio. The city itself is sprawling and modern, with lots for visitors to see. Like any city, it has its pockets of poverty, but the people here have an amazing community spirit and every district buzzes with energy. Far from being a one off for the World Cup or Carnival, the city lives and breathes a party atmosphere – the coming Olympics will be one hell of a show.