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A Long Weekend at Rio Carnival

Published 21 April 2016

Chris Steel

Chris Steel

I’ve never travelled to South America before. Although the exotic appeal of the Latin continent has long been a temptation, for some reason I’ve never had a catalyst to actually get me there. One day I found myself questioning what exactly it was that I was waiting for; I didn’t have an answer. And so, to make amends, I planned an intense long weekend in Brazil’s soon-to-be-Olympic city of Rio de Janeiro. Luckily for me, I timed my visit perfectly for the Rio Carnival.

When I travel I love to see and do as much as I can (after all I only have 4 weeks annual leave each year) so with just a few days to play with, they had to be loaded with the very best that Rio had to offer. After all, this flying visit would be plunging me head-first into the deep end of South America’s most significant cultural event. So, here’s a breakdown of what turned out to be one of the best days of my life.

Sugarloaf Mountain Cable Car

Ascending Sugarloaf Mountain

Rio’s unique scenery (think urban jungle meets actual jungle with incredible beaches thrown in for good measure) means that any opportunity to get up high and snatch a view out over the city should be seized with both hands. In one weekend you can easily get yourself to both of Rio’s most inspiring and iconic viewpoints – Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer. And so, on my first morning in the city, I headed up two cable cars to the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain. Despite the fact it was carnival weekend it was pretty quiet at the top when I got up there at about 10:30am. While the crowds were absent, the sun was not, so when you visit make sure you pack sun cream as well as your camera because you will definitely need both.

Dancer at Rio Carnival

Image: Chris Steel

Eating, drinking & dancing

Of course Rio has its ‘must see’ attractions but I wanted to get a complete Rio experience rather than just the tourist hotspots. This meant doing some serious eating, drinking and dancing. In Rio, this means churrasco (grilled meat), caipirinha (a cocktail made with cachaça, sugar and lime), and samba (an energetic dance).

Churrasco

Churrasco

To tick off the first one, I visited Churrascaria Palace for lunch, a 60 year old Rio dining institution that’s set just off Copacabana beach; I have never tasted meat so delicious. Churrasco is traditional Brazilian barbequed meat that is carved from giant skewers by waiters at your table. One other important fact is that it is usually ‘all you can eat’. They’ll bring out different types, cuts and differently seasoned meats for you to try and they’ll keep it coming so my decision to avoid the dangerously tempting buffet cart turned out to be a wise move.

Ipanema Beach, Brazil

image:Chris Steel

People watching at Ipanema Beach

At 9pm, I was due to be collected from my hotel and taken to the famous Sambadrome to see the renowned carnival parades, which meant I had a few hours to fill. My hotel was about 15 minutes’ walk from Leblon and Ipanema beaches, so I decided to do the local thing and run along the beachfront to work off the tonne of meat I had consumed at lunch. Of course, I’m not used to the heat so my pace was fairly slow, but this made it easier to people watch. And it seemed that that day was a perfect day for people watching.

Rio Carnival performer

image:Chris Steel

Carnival time

At about 5pm and the main street that runs alongside Ipanema Beach was rapidly filling up with revellers in fancy dress. Opportunistic drink vendors had set up temporary stands with large cold boxes, and were trying to sell me beer as I ran along the footpath. Before long, the volume of people made it too hard to keep running so I turned back, only to realise that the way I came was now crawling with people high on the carnival air. Some of the fancy dress was amazing – I passed by a man covered in soap-suds and surrounded by a makeshift shower cubical, including a shower curtain that he hid behind in mock embarrassment. If there is one thing I’ve learned about the people of Rio, it’s that embarrassment is not an emotion they are familiar with.

Rio Carnival parade

image:Chris Steel

Watching the parade

Our minibus pulled up outside the Sambadrome at about 11pm. We stepped out to the beating of drums and into an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation. Our guide led us through various security gates before we walked out into the arena where the music was ringing out, and immediately a samba-influenced shuffle appeared in my step. For the next six hours I was closer than I could ever imagine to the greatest show on earth and I loved every minute. I couldn’t keep still as the rhythmic drum beat seemed to infect my body. Another side effect of being there was the permanent smile that fixed itself across my face. Each procession that passed by was more elaborate than the last. Thousands of brightly costumed participants streamed past me singing their hearts out and, hopping from one foot to the other in my own interpretation of samba, I grinned back at them.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The next morning

I didn’t make it home until 8:30am the following morning when, aching from all the ‘dancing’, I estimated that I could get five hours sleep and still make it for lunch before being collected from my hotel for the next stage of my Rio adventure. Today’s plan: the Tijuca Rainforest, Christ the Redeemer and dinner in a local bar. And this was only day two…


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