Rio Carnival

After a hot, colorful and eye-opening two weeks in Rio we couldn't have asked for a more fitting end to our stay than Carnival. The 5-day festivities ranged from large and small blocos throughout the day, to the parade at the Sambadrome beating on to the early hours of the morning; it was a great way to experience Rio at it's most vibrant.

Carnival Blocos

One of our first experiences of Carnival was the traditional 'Carmelitas' bloco, held in the Santa Teresa neighbourhood. It was themed around an anecdote about a nun who apparently fled from a nearby church to party during Carnival. It wound through the cobbled streets led by large nun puppets, hanging streamers and spontaneous musicians all moving to one theme tune that didn't seem to get old for the entire procession. We fully enjoyed the bustling atmosphere of the Santa Teresa neighbourhood, and ended up in Bar Do Gomez (Armazém São Thiago) for a few street beers with the locals in the evening.

Our lovely friend Max introduced us to some resident Cariocas who knew Rio well, meaning we were able to experience Carnival (almost) like locals. Lia and Fernando and their friends showed us a great time, hoping from bloco to bloco and fuelling up on beer, Caipirinhas and amazing Brazilian food at Cafe Lamas.

The biggest and most lively bloco we went to was called 'Boi Tolo' (which translates to Foolish Ox), with pounding drums, bright costumes and an incredible atmosphere as the crowds danced through the streets of Gloria and central Rio. It peaked in volume when we travelled under the bridges, with traditional Carnival chants sung loudly by the crowds:

The Sambadrome

The Sambradrome during Rio Carnival was something we'd always wanted to experience. Having booked tickets for Mondays parade we arrived early to get some decent seats in Sector 8 before the 90,000 arena filled close to capacity. The parade itself was a visual feast for the eyes, with large fantastically-themed floats and loud beating music unique to each Samba school. The processions of dancers were equally impressive, with bold yet intricate costumes that helped tell the story of each schools parade through Samba dancing.

The main observation from our two weeks in Rio was how inclusive Carnival was. Divides in wealth, gender, race and age seemed to totally diminish, bringing everyone in the city closer together; whether in small local blocos or full-blown lavish parades. We really felt that Carnival was the perfect way to end our trip in Rio, and begin our trip around South America.

Rio Redemption — Part 2

Into the favelas

'Rochina,' Rio's largest favela

After visiting three of Rio's many favelas, including the largest (Rochina) and most well-known (Santa Marta) we were able to see the complexity of the political issues of Rio first-hand. Five star hotels and mansions often marked borders between the rich city-dwellers and the favela residents, offering a cruel social contrast both visually and emotionally within various neighbourhoods of the city. Our tour guides we're very informative about the political history of Rio, explaining in detail how the favelas came to be through both racial oppression and geographic circumstances. 

It's a common misconception that all favelas are dangerous, violent, drug-run places solely for the underprivileged. The favelas we visited we're 'pacified' - meaning that the police and governments had taken back control of the area - and were therefore 'safe' to visit. This didn't detract from the very visible problems that the people faced, such as drug abuse, open sewage and lack of other amenities. However, what was clear was the enormous sense of pride the community shared for their homes. Brightly painted walls have been commissioned by artists, colourful tiles and local artwork and hand-written signage filled the streets. We left feeling a sense of admiration for the people who lived there, who against all odds, had managed to build a strong and tightly knitted community both architecturally and socially.

Favela Santa Marta

It was noted by the guides that the pacification of these more popular favelas could be for visual effect, a mask that the government has provided to hide the real problems of less supported favelas in Rio; problems that lie much further afield from the rich southern neighbourhoods that seem all too convenient to 'fix'. Having only been in Rio for two weeks we could only hope to scrape the surface of understanding such complex issues, but walking around the favelas and speaking to locals we began to have a better understanding of what it's like to live inside a pacified favela in Rio.

Hippie Market

Every Sunday the Hippie Market (Feira Hippie) fills the square near General Osório in Ipanema. With various stalls selling colourful and exotic hand-crafted items we loved wandering around looking at the painted ornaments, vibrant rugs and taxidermied pirañas - we only wish that we had enough space in our bags to buy everything!

Bloco on Ilha de Paquetá

We were told by our airbnb host Rafael that there was a 'Bloco' (a Brazilian street party) on a nearby island and that we could join him, although it started 'very early'. After cracking the first beer at 8:30am, followed by possibly the craziest queue we've ever faced, we managed to squeeze onto the boat that took us to Ilha Paqueta in a last-minute gringo costume. Once we arrived we realised that the early morning doesn't seem to prevent the Brazilian crowd from partying, with brass bands and beating drums becoming the center point for the carnage.

Fuelled with plenty of strong Caipirinhas, we managed to keep the dancing going throughout the heat into the evening before getting the boat back to Rio for some final drinks (randomly crashing some wedding shoot!?) and grabbing much needed Brazilian tapas before bed.

Jardim Botânico & Parque Lage

Jardim Botanico is located in the 'Zona Sun' region of Rio, and hosts a wide variety of Brazilian plants and wildlife. Although little underwhelming at first - as some of the areas were relatively barren due to the heat - there were many interesting things to see including giant Amazonian water-lillies in the main lake and tiny Marmoset monkeys jumping though the branches of exotic trees. 

A mile away from the gardens is the more architecturally impressive 'Parque Lage', an estate and public park built in the 1920s. We spent a morning wandering around the intriguing nature-filled subtropical forest that surrounded the mansion before stopping at the picturesque cafe in the central courtyard for a drink. Apparently the Snoop Dog music video 'Beautiful' was filmed here.

Dinner at Quitéria

One of the few things we had booked before leaving the UK, besides the fight, was a meal at Quiteria. It's a smart, upscale restaurant located around the corner from Ipenama beach, allowing us just enough time to see the sun go down before we made our way there. We did feel a little guilty about splashing out in such a lavish place in Rio, but seeing as the meal was a Christmas present (à la Stef!) we thought we'd see what the great reviews were all about.

The menu and wines we're delicious - a solid balance of French-style cuisine with traditional Brazilian ingredients, paired wines from all around South America and exquisite presentation. The restaurant itself felt minimal, almost Scandinavian, which is unusual for Rio, but we loved it. At the end of the meal we got to say hi to the chefs and get a cheeky photo as well!

Sugarloaf Mountain

Sugarloaf mountain was one of the key things we wanted to do in Rio, and leaving it relatively close to the end felt like a nice way to round off our visit. There were two separate cable cars to get to the top. The first stop gave a great view of the mountain, then once at the top the 360° views were arguably more breath-taking than from Corcovado. We aimed to see Rio from as many different perspectives as possible, but seeing it from Sugarloaf mountain confirmed that Rio really is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Rio Redemption — Part 1

After a tiring 23 hour journey we finally arrived at our first stop, Rio de janeiro, or 'Cidade Maravilhosa' (The Marvellous City). We were greeted with glorious 33° heat as we made our way to our apartment by coach. Located in the Botafogo district of Rio and situated on the 12th floor of a beach-side apartment block, the flat had great local Brazilian charm. The location was ideal, equidistant between the northern Centro and the southern beaches of Ipanema and Copacobana, making it easy to get to both via the metro a short walk away.

Beach Life

Local cooking 'Queijo de Coalho' (Chargrilled Cheese) on Copacobana

Naturally as brits the first port of call was the beach (and yes, we sunburned in the first 2 hours). The beaches in Rio are just as you'd expect - golden sands, palm trees, and packed with people wearing skimpy beachwear. Once we got a spot the first thing we noticed was the massive amount of 'hawkers' selling you everything from beach sarongs and sunglasses to shrimp-clad skewers ('CAAMMAARROES') or full blocks of grilled cheese, but we actually quite enjoyed the constant flow of sellers wandering through the umbrellas - especially when they offered fresh 'Caipirinha' cocktails.

Cosme Velho & Cristo

We've heard a lot of mixed reviews about the Cristo Redentor due to the 'touristy' nature of the visit. Despite there being a fair amount of people at the top, (complete with ipads and 'selfy sticks' and sporting the 'Christ pose') for us it didn't detract from the experience. Even close up this fairly small statue has an iconic sense of place, and after the visit we were strangely comforted by the peaceful, watchful nature of Cristo Redentor. The train ride there and back through the rainforest of the Corcovado was also a lot of fun, if not a little hot and sticky.

After getting the small train back down the mountain, we were recommended by our host Rafael to visit a small group of neo-colonial houses called 'Largo do Boticário'. We were blown away by the beauty of these old, decrepit buildings. The colours, intricacy of the architecture and contrast of the forest backdrop made for some great shots.

Urca

We ended one of our first nights by talking a stroll along the seafront at Urca to one of the few restaurants near the cove. With views of the docks and kids playing beach football, it felt like there could be worse places to enjoy a Caipirinha and Brazilian steak cooked in front of you. Garota da Urca came well recommended, and although the food was quite simple, it was very tasty, and like most Brazilian food left little room for more than meat.

Santa Teresa & Lapa

We'd heard a lot of stories about mugging in Santa Teresa, especially at quieter times in the week, but we found that being sensible with valuables and sticking to the main street there were no problems at all. A traditional tram takes you right up the hilltop from the city centre through Santa Teresa (after a bit of a queue), giving great views of Rio. Walking back down along the tram route takes you to the 'Escadaria Selarón' tiled steps - a landmark of Rio and popular tourist spot created by late artist Jorge Selarón. Heading down the steps led us to the Lapa neighbourhood where we stumbled into a 'kilo restaurant', a simple canteen style place where you pay by weight.