Rio de Janeiro

By John H

We had planned our trip in South America around getting to Brazil for Carnival and now we had finally arrived in Rio de Janeiro! Everyone knows Brazil loves to party and Carnival didn’t disappoint. It’s basically like Paddy’s day in Dublin for a full week. That’s some peoples idea of heaven and some others idea of hell but I think we reached a happy medium of partying and relaxing.

We got a taste for the pageantry of Carnival in Curitba where we saw some of the street dancing, floats and costumes but in Rio this was only part of Carnival. What’s really important are the Blocos which happen all over the city from early in the morning till late at night. Some are organised by communities who line up behind a big brass band, march the streets of the neighbourhood and have a big party at the end. Other Blocos follow a theme, like the Bloco Sargento Pimenta where they only play Beatles songs but in a samba style. Some start very early in the morning and there is a new one starting in a different part of the city nearly on the hour until dark.

As we arrived by plane in Rio, it was obvious how varied the landscape was. The airport was right on the coast and the runway seemed to appear from nowhere as the plane descended. From the plane you could see that Rio was a city of hills and gorgeous beaches. We arrived on a Sunday and you could really feel that the city was in party mode.

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We booked an Airbnb apartment for 5 nights and were lucky to get somewhere as a lot of places were booked out. The pictures of the view from the apartment were of the Sugar Loaf mountain but this meant we were up one of the hills. We got a taxi as instructed by the apartment host but the taxi man couldn’t find the apartment for ages and had to ring the owner for directions. Turns out we were on the edge of a favella and not somewhere where the taxi man usually drove! The hill was pretty steep and it was something we would come to hate walking up! He charged us extra for the longer drive but we were happy just to find it. The street seemed decent and quiet but there was a national guard station (police!) at the end of the road complete with an armed officer standing guard outside!

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The taxi man left us and we waited for the owner’s agent to arrive to give us the keys. She finally turned up about 15 minutes later, wet, covered in glitter and drunk. She was a Dutch girl called Maria who managed the apartment block for the American owner who also lived on the street. She apologised because she thought we were arriving on Tuesday and had been at a Bloco Carnival party. We laughed it off and got into the apartment. She told us that the area was safe, the police were there as a security measure and that it’s only 10 minutes walk up the hill. If needed there were motorbike taxis at the bottom to get you up.

The apartment was cool with an amazing view over the bay to the Sugar Loaf. We were happy with the choice even if it was a bit of a struggle to get there! We ventured down the hill to the supermarket to get some lunch and beer supplies and saw Maria still hanging around the street which was a bit odd. Down at the shops it was full on street party with beer sellers everywhere selling cans of Antartica Pilsen for about 80 cent a can. It was only 4pm but everyone was hammered.

The walk back was steep but not too bad if taken slow. The area around was a bit run down but was very residential and quiet.

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We were making lunch when all of a sudden we heard the door open and in walked 2 middle aged Hungarian men in speedos and tshirts! WTF! They looked as shocked as we were and after the ‘who the hell are you’ and ‘what are doing in our apartment’ questions it turned out they had rented the apartment the previous few days and had checked out earlier but were told by Maria they could leave their stuff in the apartment, head to the beach and freshen up before heading to the airport. Their stuff was not there and they were a bit pissed off since they had left all their passports and money in their bags. We got in contact with Maria who was still in the area and tried to get them out as quick as possible but then one disappeared and next we heard the shower running. The absolute cheek. We didn’t know what to say but after realising they weren’t there to kidnap us, we had to just laugh about it and ask them about things to do in Rio. Maria was full of apologies and explained that she got her days mixed up and had moved their stuff across the road to another apartment. When they went we double locked the door and had a beer to relax!

After wandering around that night and seeing some of the after-Bloco parties, we looked up a Bloco that was starting at 4pm the following day in the neighbourhood beside ours called Santa Theresa. It was the next neighbourhood over but getting there involved going up one side of the mountain and winding our way down the other. There is a tram to Santa Theresa but it’s out of order for the past year due to a fatal accident! When we got back down the hill, lots of people had started to converge in the centre square for the start of the Bloco. Everyone was in costumes and masks, feather boas and face paint. The band all had special tshirts marking them out from the rest of the crowd. There were lots of beer and food sellers set up along the street with wheels on their stalls, ready to set off with the crowd when they parade started.

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The band began playing and led the crowd, that had grown to a few hundred people, down the narrow street. As we passed houses, windows were open and resident who were not in the Bloco waved and cheered the crowd. The beer sellers weaved through the crowd selling cans and everyone was in a great party mood. The parade ended at a crossroads about 3km from where it started and everyone surrounded the band who continued to play their samba drums, trumpets and trombones for the next few hours.

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We left the Santa Theresa Bloco as the sun was setting and made our way back through the winding roads and down the hill to the Lapa district. Restaurants and bars were spilling out onto the paths all the way along the road as well as lots of locals selling food from makeshift bbqs. Lapa is near the financial centre of the city and the Rio Cathedral with a big white arched aqueduct to one side of square. The main plaza was set up with a big stage and surrounded again with beer and food sellers. This seemed to be where everyone who hadn’t partied enough during the day ended up. We ran into a few Irish people who stood out with their green leprechaun hats, left over from paddys day. We had arranged to meet up with Alex and Andre from our Inca trip but lack of phone signal and wifi meant we missed them this time.

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The next day we decided to actually see one of the sights that Rio is famous for and made the trip up to the Christ the Redeemer statue that overlooks the city. This massive (38 metres) statue is on top of Mount Corovado – one of the highest in Rio. The easiest way to get to it is by shuttle bus from the Largo do Mechado metro stop that brings you nearly all the way to the top.

The area around the summit is quite small and full of tourists taking selfies and lying on the ground and taking pictures of the statue. I was asked by an American guy if I would take his photo. He showed me exactly how he wanted the camera tilted to get the perfect pic of him at an angle and the statue straight. After a few attempts, I still didn’t get it right so he went off in a huff and pestered someone else. Gratitude! The views from the top are amazing with Copacabana and Ipanema beaches to the right and the city centre, airport and hills stretching all the way along the long coast to the left. The statue is amazing and well worth a visit, even with the crowds. There is even free wifi at the summit so that you can do a Facebook check in!

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The parties continued until Pancake Tuesday (Mardi Gras) which was the last night of celebrations and the eve of Lent. We headed down to the Ipanema and Copacabana areas where the beaches were full of locals getting a bit of sun and having their last party. Copacabana is a beautiful beach as expected and right in the city with expensive hotels and shops all along the street facing the promenade. There were beach volley ball and frisbee games happening amongst the glistening tanned Brazilians who would put the pasty Irish to shame! The parties seemed to be getting a bit more manic at this stage, not dangerous, but after a week of festivities there was a few street scuffles and people falling all over the place.

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The next day, the streets were cleared, the costumes put away and Rio returned to normal. It was like a different city. Shops opened up at the end of our street that we didn’t know were there and people went to and from work and about their normal day to day activities. We got to see a bit of the real Rio which was a nice change from the Carnival.

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That night we finally managed to meet up with Alex and Andre and their Carnival Crew (Thanks for the pics Alex) and even though the whole city was quieter we managed to continue on with a few really strong Caipirinha cocktails in their hostel bar. The next day, I was still feeling the effects as we left Rio and travelled onto our next destination, Paratay. Rio, you ruined me but I’ll  definitely be back!

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