Where to begin…Rio, more specifically Carnival, was CRAZY!!! If there is anything our little blog won’t be able to do justice it would be Carnival, but we will give it a shot anyway.
Carnival is a festive season celebrated all over South America which occurs just before lent, but few do it quite like Brazil, with the biggest of all celebrations happening in Rio. People flock here from all corners of the globe; over 2 million people a day descend on the streets to dance, drink and party for days on end. The main event takes place at the Sambadrome, where the biggest samba schools in Rio parade down a half mile run way in front of huge crowds, competing for 1st place.
However as this is a ticketed event the majority of the action actually happens on the streets and beaches. Rio pretty much turns into the world’s biggest fancy dress party, with no theme other than the crazier the better. Blocos (street parties/band parades) whether planned or spontaneous seem to pop up all across the city at any given hour, with the largest of these attracting crowds of over 50,000 people. Following one of these bloco’s is a must do and is a great chance to make new friends and learn samba from the friendly locals. With street vendors selling everything you could possibly want; beer, corn on the cob, chicken kebabs and tequila shots there is no need to even leave the streets, in fact many don’t.
We (the two of us and Alice) kick started our time in Rio with some caipirinha’s on Copacabana beach. Caipi’s are a deadly concoction of crushed ice, lime, sugar and cachaça (a distilled spirit made from sugar cane juice). The effects are pretty instant and after our second plastic cup full we were ready for some samba. We stumbled across our first bloco parading along the streets close to Copa beach, it was a fairly small affair but we followed the marching band for a couple of hours, drinking and dancing along the way. From here it only seemed like the blocos got bigger and better, however we did end up missing a lot of the early morning parties during our rather quick transformation into nocturnal beings – although typically the best ones are in the afternoon or evening anyway.
One of our favourite blocas was a Beatle themed bloca that took place in the centre of town. We all arrived painfully sober and seriously hung-over (it was the day after our Sambadrome experience- see below) and to make matters worse we had lost half the group we were going with and ended up with two arseholes that tried to snog every girl they came across. However when we had shimmied our way to the front of the park where the band was playing the refreshing change from samba music along with a few shots of cachaça got us back in the game. Even a 2 hour trip to the ladies porter loos that were being so overused there was a slip’n’slide in front of them did not ruin the experience. We met some sassy local women and their boyfriends who did not take well to ‘pusher iners’ and danced them out of the que.
Another bloca to note was the famous Banda de Ipanema, one of the oldest marching bands in Rio. We managed to miss these guys the first time around, we got distracted by the bright lights of a beach party, but we caught them the second time round. It was mental. Probably one of the busiest marching blocas we were involved in, we were instantly swept away by the huge crowds in a sweaty frenzy of samba and booze. Like sardines in a can we followed the bloco for an hour or so before breaking off and heading for the nightly beach parties held on Ipanema- by a stroke of pure luck the 8 or so of us that were together managed to stay together (ish).
The nightly parties at the famous Ipanema beach or Lapa are where most people head when the blocas are all finished. The beach also provides an opportunity to have a little down time, to top up on alcohol and recuperate before getting back to the dancing. The people watching is also second to none, heated dance offs get underway, women and men alike party with only the tiniest of pants on and couples often get a little too familiar for a public setting. Huge speakers are set up and food and drinks stalls are never more than a few metres away – perfect. During our time on the beach Grace got Samba lessons from a huge man angel, Mike was wowed by a German magician and we met Abi and Sinead, two English girls who definitely added to the fun of carnival.
One of our highlights has to be the evening we spent in the Sambadrome, as mentioned earlier this is where the country’s top samba schools compete with extravagant costumes and floats in order to be crowned the samba king. To Brazilians this is a big deal! Much like everyone in the UK has a favourite football team, most Brazilians have a favourite samba school. Preparation begins nearly a year in advance and details of costumes and themes are kept tightly under wraps for maximum ‘WOW’ value. We were expecting big things and weren’t disappointed…
We turned up an hour or so early to claim our spot amongst the crowds in the huge concrete grandstands and were instantly greeted by a buzz of excitement in the air and a party atmosphere. We took our ‘seats’, donned our flower headbands and settled into our bottle of Fanta Vodka. We had tickets to sector 10, one of the best spots due to its close proximity to the runway and view over the drummer’s area, it’s also known to be one of the liveliest spots and home to the most passionate of Carnival lovers. This is when we met our new Brazilian friends, a group of 6 or so guys and girls who every year make the journey from Sao Paulo to spend Carnival in Rio – they bloody loved it!! We were soon taking samba lessons and happily chatting away in some of the worst drunk Portu-Spanglish you have ever heard or are likely to hear. We were repeatedly told by one of the guys that there is only ‘one word in the whole of Brazil….SAMBA!!!!’ We are pretty sure it was the poor guys only phrase as he kept repeating this every 30 minutes without fail, still he possessed 7x as much Portuguese as us. It was amazing to see just how mad they were about carnival- one of the girls actually started crying when her favourite school started to parade.
The floats were epic. There were bright colours, giant lizards, huge pianos, moving two headed dragons, huge dresses, tiny costumes, boobies on display and people being catapulted out of canons (our personal fav). And this was all done with remarkable precision; with everyone keeping to just the right pace and just the right position. Thankfully there were few moments where the senses were not being overloaded as this helped keep us going until 6am or so. (Although we were getting used to partying till the wee hours of the morning the night before we were drunkenly eating Maccyd’s thinking it was about bed time when we found out it was only half 8…drinking before midday can really mess up your sense of time.) We felt pretty hardcore when we were getting the tube home at 7.30am and people were on the way to work- it did feel like the longest train ride in the world though. On the walk to the station we saw some of the floats being driven on the highways which was a rather surreal experience.
On the days we could not face the morning drinking we spent our time chilling out on Ipanema or Copacabana beach playing in the waves and catching some rays trying to wear off the hangover.
Carnival drew to a close on Shrove Tuesday with the last of the blocas and street parties going on until the wee hours of Wednesday morning. With only 2 full days left in Rio we decided it was about time to actually do some sight seeing. With Grace still heavily intoxicated it was proving rather difficult to persuade her that playing the tourist was a good hangover cure. Grace, preferring to stay inside, tried to convince me that Christ the Redeemer did not like people visiting on a Wednesday, or on any day in fact, as he gets shy because of his rather large chin…I wasn’t buying this crap and instead emptied a bottle of freezing cold water over her…problem solved…
We were dressed (smudged neon facepaint and all) and ready to head out before midday (a minor miracle), and set off in search of Christ, one of the Wonders of the World or as we like to call him JC for short. The big man was very impressive and so were the 360’ degree views of the city that accompanied him. Although we had planned to see a lot more of the city than JC, horrendous hangovers along with a cash machine swallowing our credit card cut our day short.
The next day was a bit more successful; we visited Esacaderia Selaron, Rhocina Favela and watched the sunset on Copa all before catching a flight to our next destination. Esacaderia Selaron are a set of colourful steps in the now piss stained Lapa neighbourhood. The steps are the work of Jorge Selarón a famous Chilean artist who settled in the area after working all around the world. He used tiles from over 60 different countries to create this Brazilian flag themed master piece which he started on a whim in the 1990s and was still working on when he died in 2013. Although the cause of his death is still unconfirmed it is commonly believed the painter committed suicide by setting himself alight- his body was found charred on the steps he was so famous for creating.
Rhocina Favela is the largest favela in the whole of Brazil, with over 72,000 people living there. Although slightly dangerous, tours of the area are now offered, on the pretence of increasing legitimate trade for the favela dwellers. The favela started as little more than a shanty town but has now developed into an urbanised slum, with extremely narrow streets lined with concrete buildings, some on very questionable foundations. We had not expected the area to be so developed (with their own shops, banks and numerous hairdressers), expecting more corrugated iron sheds but the conditions were shocking all the same. Rats were running through the open sewers that carved their way through the hillside Rhocina is built on; there were remnants of houses that had been built on such thin concrete stilts they had fallen down; and so many exposed electrical wires anyone above 5ft10 should walk with serious precaution. On our tour we sampled some yummy baked goods, admired local art and were taught samba by some local children- all in all a good experience.
We got back in time for sunset and a wander along Copa before grabbing some beers at a beach bar, a perfect way to end our time with Alice and Rio.
Next stop Cumbuco…………..