I like it hot. I like it wet. And I like it loud. Very very loud. Welcome to Rio De Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro can,will and most certainly does fulfil such desires at any time of the year but come Carnival time on the first week in February, you enter the big leagues.
Few would disagree that South America’s most famous city is also the most thrilling within the region. Having been immortalised in song more than a few times, the warm tropical climate, spectacular scenery, pumping nightlife and Samba soundtrack make for a sensory rollercoaster like no other.
‘January River’ as it’s translated, was first encountered by the Portuguese explorer Gaspar de Lemos with it soon becoming a main export route for gold and precious stones and later with the relocation of the Portuguese Royal family became the economic, artistic, and political centre of Brazil.
Brazil and specifically Carnival, for me has been a bucket list item since before I knew what a bucket was. It’s one of my first memories from about 4 years of age watching a tv show in Australia called ‘The World around us’ where hour long documentaries such as the one on Brazil would have us glued to the television every sunday evening, marvelling at the unbelievable things going on around the world.
With 10 days here, I decided to break it into themes per day: a food day, music day, museum day and a beach day with the remaining days to do anything I’ve jotted down in my notebook when not recovering from the nightly activities.
Food is a central part of the Rio experience and is a great opportunity to observe the locals and their zest for life. Cariocas, as Rio locals are called – are known for their friendly and welcoming disposition.
Pé sujo is the name given to the innumerous ‘hole-in-the-wall’ bars found throughout Rio and it translates as ‘Dirty Foot’ and as standard fare in all of them is a simple Cerveza and fried shrimp pastel. In terms of atmosphere, I was advised by my concierge that a visit to Bar do Gomez should be passed up. Located in the Saint Teresa neighbourhood, this was great advice. Bar Garota de Ipanema (Girl from Ipanema) – if you are a Bossa Nova fan, this is was where the song was written.
Much like any city that is awarded the honour of hosting an Olympics, Brazil’s gastro scene has perked up a little more than usual in the lead up to the games with a new breed of chefs are bringing a more diverse yet affordable spirit of adventure to the city’s tastebuds most notably in the offbeat gastro-hub on the edge of Botafogo and Humaitá. Dining al fresco dominates here and Irajá Gastrô and Oui Oui are among the most highly recommended in terms of Brazilian Fine cuisine.
Brazil is one of the world largest beef exporters so naturally, there is a steakhouse od some kind in almost every neighbourhood though Fogo de Chão is among the more scenic being located on the harbour. Even if you are a vegetarian, make a stop here, grab a cocktail and laze about on the sundeck. ‘Churrascaria rodízio’ is the Brazilian term for steakhouse meaning all-you-can-eat steakhouse with the accompanying the ethos being ‘tirando a barriga da miseria’: releasing the belly from misery.
Getting around to the various neighbourhoods of Rio can be overwhelming or exciting depending on your perspective. Some of Rio’s bus drivers are known to display a kind of driving style akin to Japanese Kamikaze pilots while others are chilled as a bus driver can be in an environment such as Rio and as a rule, ride the buses during the day and you’re fine but in the evening maybe not. At all time there’s the potential for petty theft but… well, the well-off don’t ride buses much.
Downtown Rio is where you’ll find all the main public buildings here including institutions, museums and private offices while Zona Sul or the South Zone holds all the main tourist attractions such as Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, Sugar Loaf, Christ the Redeemer. Many free local events in Rio take place on the beaches, even protests.
While you are ‘bussing’ it around, you are guaranteed to see some striking architecture throughout Rio of which much of the credit goes to Oscar Niemeyer and the Brazilian influence shows in all his work, lots of curves, lots of movement. Of all his buildings, the Sambadome built in 1984 is by far the most visited during carnival and is set to be used as a venue for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Carnival is celebrated in many parts of Central and South America during the week leading up to Easter, specifically Ash Wednesday though it’s expressed in varying ways across Brazil. Most popular after Rio is Salvador in the north and is less elaborate than Rio but a far more inclusive affair being more of a big street party than a parade but still over 2 million people follow the many floats through the city officially making it the world’s biggest street party. (Yes, officially) though for a more traditional Carnival experience, many also head to Recife and nearby Olinda.
Around 700,000 tourists flock to the Sambadrome every year to witness the outrageously elaborate parade the city’s top Samba schools step, shout, bump and grind their way around a 700m track. With foreigners regularly frequently participating in the parade of which I was gleefully one of them. But it involves a bit of work.
Joining a parade requires getting in touch with one of the samba schools of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and this is the only way. It generally costs nothing to participate but you have to buy or rent your costume from the school and depending on the school can be pricey. Learning the lyrics to the song of your school by heart is a must and although being able to dance the “samba” is not mandatory for most schools, why would you not?
Oh and one other crucially important thing, be in good shape. Both for your own ego as you will find yourself bouncing alongside some fairly toned and buffed dancers and also for the parade as a whole as it stops for no-one. Tick all those boxes and you’re in for the ride of your life.
The Samba schools exist within a hierarchy where the special groups occupy the upper echelons and costumes for the special groups go from BRL 800,00 to BRL 1500,00 and are usually sold out by the last week of December while a costume from a samba school that has not reached the special group yet costs from BRL 80,00 to BRL 250,00.
It’s hard to come up with the right words to describe the experience of taking part in Carnival as it’s a sensory experience unlike any other.
Do you remember the first time you went to the circus as a child or the fair where you first laid eyes on a ferris wheel? There’s that short but blissful period where you aren’t thinking about the future or the past and you just let yourself get completely lost in the lights,sounds, the laughter and the music?
It’s like that. With more flesh.
Mel Parkes is a recent business graduate taking a trip around the world, or as much as is possible and maybe have a ‘Eureka’moment along the way which will pave her way to riches either literally or philosophically.