I don’t even know how to begin explaining Rio, which is probably why it has taken me over a week to write this blog post. That, and recovering from Rio itself. So we eventually arrived at our hostel, Buena Vida Hostel in Botafogo – just north of Copacabana – where we were paying £30 a night EACH (almost my entire daily budget gone on accommodation as there is a massive inflation in prices during Carnaval, but this wasn’t actually that bad compared to other places), at around 3pm. It is a relatively new hostel and fairly basic – no real kitchen to speak of plus we were on a 10 bed dorm with little floor space – but the guy running the place, Eduardo, was super helpful and kind from the word go. In fact, we ended up spending the afternoon with him as he took us round the local streets of Botafogo, near the metro station, so we could pick up some carnaval accessories and a few bottles of Catuaba (one of the country’s oldest and most consumed liquors, it looks like wine but is stronger and with a fruitier taste) to be better equipped for the next few days.
We then decided to head to Pao de Acucar (literally translated as sugar loaf) teaming up with Thomas, a French guy from our hostel, and paying R$16 (£5) to get an Uber to the bottom. Now, there are two mountains, and you can get the cable car up both mountains for R$76 return (£23) or you can climb up through the jungle to the first one and then get a cable car to the second for R$38 (£11). Not one for paying more than I have to and also enjoying the satisfaction of a climb we opted for the latter, slowly making our way across the path below the mountains (where we passed a marmoset – a type of monkey, very fluffy with a super long tail) before climbing up. We finally got to the cable car entrance at 6:10pm to discover that, despite the last cable car from the top being at 8pm, the entry to the cable cars from the second mountain closed at 6pm. Brilliant.
So we walked back down and considered paying the full amount to go all the way up in the cable cars but, having been told the views at night are nowhere near as good as those in the day, we decided to walk back to our hostel instead. Being new to the city and it being dark it took us some time to navigate the streets, plus we were told by a local cyclist to avoid one route as it wasn’t safe at this time (oh, that familiar phrase again!) but we passed a few food stalls on our way and I was particularly enticed by a man selling a variety of soups. After getting into a very basic, broken conversation with the man – with me not speaking any Portuguese, this was mainly achieved through pointing at things and using facial expressions, as well as using our arms to create wings and mimic the motion of a chicken (I’m 30 now, do you know) – he kindly let me taste a few of the soups. I don’t know how I do it, but I always seem to manage to wangle free food samples; I think it was my chicken impression that won him over. I was sold on the name of Angu Baiano – more of a beef stew than a soup – and I went Grande for R$9 (£2.80), which came with rice, and I devoured it whilst sat on the wooden stool beside his stall.
One of the best things about staying at a Buena Vida was that they had put together a bloco itinerary for the next few days. Blocos are basically Street carnivals lead by a band of drums, most of which move through the streets taht you follow on foot but some are stagnant, and there are at least a dozen different ones scattered across various neighbourhoods in Rio throughout each day. Pretty overwhelming to choose from and navigate, especially if you’re completely new to Rio. So, whilst it wasn’t obligatory to follow their schedule we had no idea which ones would be good or safe whereas Eduardo had been going to carnaval for years, plus we would have a group to go with from our hostel, so we quickly decided to join in. And the first one the following morning would require us to get up at 6am (EUGH) so we headed to bed at a reasonable hour.
Pretty much as soon as I was settled in bed I shot up and had to run to the toilet for a sudden and unexpected case of diarrhoea. Just days before I had been bragging about my stomach of steel – having only had gut problems during my 10 months of travelling as a side-effect of malaria tablets – to then spend every hour getting up to go to the loo the night before my first day of Rio Carnival. I couldn’t believe it. I barely slept a wink and then was woken at 6am to dress and put on makeup for a day of drinking and dancing to still be dashing to the toilet every 15 minutes. Knowing there would only be portaloos, some without paper and probably with enormous queues, I took an Imodium, had a dry breakfast of toast, avoided caffeine, and prayed.
By 7:30am we had left the hostel to walk to Botafogo station and catch the metro to Gloria for R$4.10 (£1.20) – the same price no matter your distance – to then walk uphill to Santa Teresa, where a moving bloco would be taking place. Dressed in my bikini and orange tutu, with a flower headband in my hair and paint adorning my face, bottle of catuaba in hand, we squeezed into the crowd and soaked up the incredible carnaval atmosphere – everyone dressed up, singing, dancing and drinking. It’s kind of a sobering moment when you happen to turn around, mid delight, to come face-to-face with a machine gun poking out of the window of a police car, pointed directly at you. 5 minutes later, though, and Katie and I were stood up on the railings, overlooking the moving bloco and cheering along. I can’t really put the atmosphere into words, but electric and full of energy is a good start.
After a couple of hours we decided to move on to either follow the bloco that had passed or find a new one, but first we all had to go to the toilet. Everyone else in the whole of Rio obviously had the same idea as the portaloos were packed, so Eduardo instructed us all to find a car along this side street to squat behind and go, warning us to look out for the Wee Police whom would fine you on the spot. Katie and I teamed up to guard each other, selecting a jeep as our vehicle of squatting choice, to then have the owners of the jeep come up just as a Katie was lifting up her tutu. Amazingly, not only did they let us continue in an “of course, go for it” gesture, the woman even joined me in blocking the view of passers by. Then it was my turn and, as is standard, I peed for a shockingly long time; moments after I had pulled up my bikini bottoms and rearranged my tutu did a Wee Policeman appear at the other side of the road. Im sorry, Brazilian police force – is it a sufficient defence to plead peer pressure as everyone else was doing it??
We spent the next couple of hours walking (well, walking, dancing, talking, drinking, consuming alcoholic ice poles) through Santa Teresa, where I engaged in a “conversation” with a Brazilian guy in a tutu whom barely spoke a word of English and whom I could barely speak a word of Portuguese to. We basically spoke AT each other for a few sentences, before we gave up and did the only thing we could do to communicate coherently; kiss (sorry rents, if you’re reading this). Turns out Brazilian guys are pretty hot and I’m not about to say no to them. His name was Carlos (such a cliche) but unfortunately our relationship didn’t last long as about half an hour later we were both kissing other people. *sigh* I really thought it could have worked…
We later ran into a male Beyonce impersonator, with Katie and I immediately breaking into a Single Ladies rendition with him down the hill, before grabbing an acai break. It was around this point, just before we split into two food groups (one for subway, one for a local jaunt – Katie and I opting for the latter) that we think we lost both Ian and Matty, but not realising we were men down because of split. So we consumed our burgers before making it to Escadaria Selaron; Rio’s most famous staircase created by Chilean artist Selaron, covering the 200 or so steps with over 2,000 tiles from 120 countries in a mosaic fashion. It is ridiculously pretty.
We then continued wandering/dancing through the streets of Rio, watching the blocos as they passed and stopping off for a bite to eat. It was on one of our meanders that I turned back and walked away from the group to go get Katie, whom had broken away from the group while taking a photo. On my solo walk over to her, a group of Brazilian men walked past me when one of them suddenly grabbing my face as he got close to me and shoving his tongue down my throat. I literally had no time to stop him but managed to push him off and away from me as they slumped away laughing. I don’t want to speak badly of Brazil – or of Brazilian men – as all areas have their good and bad parts, their good and bad people, but this was my first experience of how women are seen as inferior and as the man’s possession. I was fine, just furious that such male chauvinist behaviour still exists.
We slowly made our way back to the hostel – being squished on a metro with fellow carnaval-goers chanting songs – at around 4pm. Ian made it back later in one piece whereas Matty arrived much more battered and bruised. He’d been mugged for his phone and then getting into a fight over his wallet with some Brazilian guys, to have a local woman put him into a cab to the hospital. He was fine and still in good spirits, thank god – crazy how quickly you form friendships and care about the people you meet whilst travelling.
That evening we went to an all-you-can-eat pizza place for R$28 (£8) before Katie and I walked back via Botafogo station to join in with a stationery bloco for a bit. But, feeling beat and knowing we were due to be up at the same time the following morning, we went back not too late to try to get some rest, which is, of course, when my Imodium decided to wear off. Maybe it wasn’t the soup after all.
We awoke at a similar times the following morning to have breakfast, get dressed and head out to another early bloco, this time in Lapa and this time with me taking a bottle of a cheap brand of Martini blanco along for the ride. I can’t really tell you the details of how we got there or where we went to as we just followed our hostel crowd, but it was again via metro. We arrived in a busy street while we waited for the bloco to pass through, before we followed behind it and made our way to the Carioca Aqueduct in Lapa.
One of my highlights – we witnessed a woman sat on the edge of the pavement with friends, casually peeing as she chatted with them, not changing her demeanour or position in the slightest. We congratulated her efforts afterwards but I’m not convinced she appreciated the acknowledgement.
This was the wettest day of carnival with it raining intermittently throughout the day but, considering the humidity, it was mainly refreshing and your feet tend to get filthy anyway. Getting in the carnival spirit, Katie and I took it upon ourselves to push some of the food carts that were moving through (and probably annoying the vendors), I grabbed a huge sausage on a stick for R$5 (£1.50), and we all danced in the square and chatted to locals.
At some point amongst the madness I lost Katie and also got separated from Eduardo, Matty and Lucy to then somehow miraculously and randomly managing to get reunited with them an hour later, us all jumping and squealing with delight. I then turned around minutes later to realise we had again lost Matty and Lucy; this is how busy and heck it is. Katie, Eduardo and I spent the next few hours wandering the streets of Lapa in the rain and stumbling across various blocos, buying iced alcohol sticks, me nabbing free popcorn from a Brazilian street vendor in exchange for a kiss (have I mentioned I like Brazilian men??) and finding “discreet” places to squat and pee.
My memory gets hazy after this point but I am ashamed to admit that I grabbed a KFC that evening – the first time I have purchased food from any western chain since travelling, which I think is a good indication of the state Rio Carnaval leaves you in. Sadly it wasn’t even that good, the chicken for too dry and having to pay extra for sauces.
The following morning we were able to wake up later, having breakfast and getting ready before walking to Copacabana for a bloco along the beach front. This was probably my favourite bloco because we got to dance to samba music in the sun and then head to the beach to dip in the sea, although the waves were so treacherous it was a bit of a battle to achieve cooling off without getting pummelled from head to toe with water, plus I’m pretty sure everyone was peeing in the sea. We picked up street food to keep the stomach lined, having both kibe (deep fried croquettes of beef and bulgar wheat, a Lebanese style snack popular in Brazil) and pastel (thin crust savoury pastry pockets often filled with queso, most traditionally, or carne) for R$5 (£1.50) each.
After the bloco we then walked the whole stretch of Copacabana beach front, passing copious street vendors selling souvenirs, food and drink, before making it to Ipanema beach. Another popular area, Ipanema beach has rocks that you can jump off of and has beautiful views of the mountains at the other end of the beach. Tomer and I decided to go for a swim but this ended up being more of an adventure and a challenge; the waves were absolutely huge that you were almost thrown up into the air, out of the water, plus there is a slope in the sand to get into the sea so the most mind boggling thing happens.
Once the wave has past you and reached the shore, if it was a particularly big one that it comes back in on itself, causing a wave to come at you FROM the shore. At one point we had a wave coming at us from both directions, reminding me of films where brick walls close in on people and they have nowhere to escape their sinister fate. I didn’t know which way to look and we were smooshed by both waves at once; everything I thought I knew about the ocean – about the moon and waves – was suddenly thrown into question. But it was a hoot.
That evening all the hostel went out together in search of another bloco Eduardo had heard of, but by the time we got there the bloco had finished. Not wanting to lose out on a night out we then circled back round to Lapa, where we returned to the plaza in front of the Viaduct where there was a street bloco taking place. Eduardo knew one of the women running one of the Caipirinha stalls so we each managed to nab a free shot with out lethally-strong Caipirinha.
We then danced our way down the street, enthusiastically joining in with other groups of people and making friends as we threw our bodies all over the place to the Brazilian music.
Our last stop of the evening was a bar Eduardo knew of that served a million different varieties of Cachaca, my favourites being pistachio and coconut. However it was very much a “shot in, shot out” experience for Katie and I, with me still suffering from diarrhoea and her having a sudden bout of sickness. Not that it stopped me necking the shots, of course.
On our fourth full day in Rio, Katie and i decided to do some classic tourist stuff, with Joey joining us on a trip to Cristo Redentor. Voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, this iconic Rio Christ the Redeemer statue offers views across the city atop a 710m high peak. Once you are at the base of the mountain you can hike up to the top (but it is not patrolled and people in our hostel had been mugged at gunpoint on the hike) or you can get the cable car up. We planned to do the cable car option, ordering an uber to take us to the base, however there was some confusion and he ended up taking us halfway up the hill where there is another option to then get a minibus up to the top, which is around R$40 return rather than R$70 so I wasn’t about to complain.
Christ the Redeemer is a bit of an odd one for me. My own sense of spiritually is more in tune with the feel and atmosphere of somewhere rather than statues or monuments, plus there are so many tourists there, lying on the floor or standing in the centre to achieve the best photo or selfie, that it kind of loses something along the way. However the views over the city are really cool and it was interesting to get a different perspective of the city.
After getting the minibus back down to the halfway point we then jumped in a cab with another female wanting to cab share and took it to Botafogo station where the three of us walked to the base of Pao de Acucar. It was a ridiculously hot day and all of us were tired/hangover so we cooled off at the nearby beach. Katie and I thenopted to pay R$76 to go all the way up in a cable car rather than walk, with Joey deciding at the last minute to not go up but wait for us at the bottom. As you ascend the cable car and make your way up both hills you gradually get better and better views of Cristo Redentor, which had mist circling it the day we went up.
At the very top, with the sun slowly beginning to set, it really is an incredible view. I honestly never expected Rio to be so beautiful, with the copious mountains, shimmering waters, long stretches of beach and city buildings. It is such a diverse landscape and so peaceful to watch the changing colours at sunset. I would definitely recommend heading up at around 5pm.
I don’t know quite how it happened but Katie and I managed to lose each other while enjoying the views from the second hill so, unable to find her and as the sun had almost set completely, I decided to head back down assuming she must already be there. You first have to get the cable car down to the first hill, for which there was a long queue, before then getting a second cable car down to the very bottom, so I eventually made it down just before 7 to find Joey waiting there but no sign of Katie. We ended up waiting around 40 minutes – flitting to being convinced she wouldn’t have just left without us to being certain she couldn’t still be up there as it got darker and darker and more and more cable cars came down without her in them – before I spoke to security to see a if they could communicate with someone up top and try to locate her. It was just after I finished my attempt to communicate my issue that I heard her wonderful voice calling me from outside the cable car – thank goodness!
On our last day in Rio, with us both getting flights in the evening to different places (Katie to India and me to Colombia) we decided to hike up Dois Irmaos (2 brothers). Katie, Tomer, Eduardo and I took an uber to the base of Vidigal favela and from there we each caught a motortaxi up the hill to the base of the mountain. For R$5 you sit on the back of a motorbike and are driven up steep, winding roads right through the middle of this favela. It was so much fun and so interesting – having heard that favelas are the most dangerous places to be, I actually felt really safe, and apparently they are not allowed to mug or harm you in a favela anyway; it is against their rules.
At the top of the favela you then start the ascent up through the jungle-sequel path up the hill, clambering up rocks and navigating slippery slopes. Having completely destroyed my body through my bug and the Rio carnaval I felt incredibly weak and dehydrated so I found this hike much more difficult than I normally would, especially with the intense head and humidity.
However the views of Rocinha favela on the way up and then the views from the top made it absolutely worth it; offering one of the widest and most dynamic panoramic views I have ever seen, covering Pao de Acucar, Cristo Redentor, a colourful favela to the side of us, Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, vast expanses of ocean and scattered city buildings, whilst standing on the edge of a mountain with the wind keeping you cool, it was one of the highlights of Rio for me. I thought Rio would be all city but it is so much more diverse and stunning than that. You really must go.
After walking back down the hill and then getting a motortaxi back down through the favela – where I this time noticed the various spots offering views of the city below – we took an uber back to our hostel, with Katie and I making a pit stop at Copacabana beach on the way to pick up shawls we had been eyeing up for days. We then had to pack and say a very tearful farewell as Katie left before me, before I later took an uber to the airport for my flight to São Paulo and then my connecting flight to Bogota, Colombia. One of the more interesting flights of my travels, still clearly being ill I threw up in the toilet on the plane going to São Paulo before it even took off. I then had a 7 hour layover at São Paulo during the night where my diarrhoea came back with a vengeance so I only managed to get broken sleep there, before passing out with exhaustion on my flight to Bogota in the morning. Ah the glamorous life of travelling.
Rio was crazy and wonderful and surprising. My impatience with the buses in the rest of Brazil was projected onto the staff at supermarket tills whom would take 5 minutes to give you your change back, counting it at least three times and chatting to colleagues at the same time. My lack of ability to speak Portuguese resulted in Eduardo becoming my personal life translator throughout my time in Rio, me constantly asking him to ask questions to vendors on my behalf and then asking him to tell me what people said in response. The issue of safety and danger was always on the periphery, hearing harrowing first-hand accounts from people and personally being at the checkout in a supermercado to have a local man barge his way in by punching one of the staff members as he wouldn’t accept the fact it was closing, for them to lock the doors with us inside so he couldn’t leave and they could call the police – although I was mainly oblivious as I was distracted by the lack of speed at the checkout process. My diarrhoea and exhaustion, hand in hand with energy and music and excitement and dance and people – HOARDS of people. And, most surprisingly, the beauty and peace of Rio when you see it from the opposite perspective to the carnage of carnaval. Rio, I liked you so much more than I ever expected and you were a perfect way to end my time in Brazil.