Coming to Rio for Carnaval was one of our top priorities for the South American tour. We booked months ago, to get a hotel in the city centre near all the action, and to reserve seats for the main spectacle, the Sambadromo Parade. We were expecting fun, excitement and, of course, sun.
Our first few days in Rio showed how much expectations and reality can differ. For a start, although hot, it was very wet. There was constant cloud and a steady drizzle, with the occasional downpour. The streets were crowded with fun-seekers in outrageous costumes, drinking and dancing to very loud music. (For Kiwi readers, think Wellington Sevens without the restraint and decorum.) To start with, we went out seeking the action and followed the crowds surging along the main street in pursuit of a loud band on the back of a bus. However, after a little while the constant noise became a bit wearing.
One thing we had not anticipated was that everywhere closes for the four days of Carnaval – in fact, most shops, restaurants and bars have shutters firmly in place for the whole period. This meant that we could not escape the rain and noise by visiting a church or a museum, because they were all closed. It made eating and drinking difficult: the city centre was like a ghost town in the short breaks between street parties, and we ate three times at the only restaurant which appeared to be open.
A consequence of the constant street parties is that the streets themselves become disgustingly filthy, as well as wet from the rain and other fluids produced by the many men who can’t be bothered to use the portable toilets provided. Definitely not a place to walk round in sandals!
Another problem we encountered was due to our extremely limited Portuguese. Naively, we assumed that we would be able to get by in a combination of Spanish and English, but in many cases this just didn’t work. It was particularly a problem ordering food and making sure it was vegetarian.
We made a trip by cog railway up Corcovado Mountain, which is topped by the giant art deco statue of Christ the Redeemer, seen in all the classic photos of Rio. Unfortunately, when we reached the top it was surrounded by cloud, so we saw the statue only intermittently, and had no view over the city at all.
Having spelt out some of the disappointments, we should also mention the positives. The people are lively and friendly, and there are some beautiful buildings scattered around, including some ancient churches such as Sao Bento (third oldest in the Americas) with some magnificent baroque carvings.
The major positive, to outshine all others, was the Sambadromo parade, where the best samba ‘schools’ compete for the title. This goes on all night, and is held in a special long alley lined with stands. We had booked tickets for Sector 7, and arrived early to get the best positions (there are no allocated seats, in fact no seats at all, just concrete steps to sit on). The gates opened (in theory) at 5 pm, and when we arrived at 3.30 there was already a crowd waiting. The gates actually opened at 5.15, and we made a successful dash for the front row of our sector. These are the best seats in the house, as you can sit on the steps behind but also stand up to get an uninterrupted view of the parade. We were surrounded by locals, all cheering for their teams, and the atmosphere was electric. The actual parades didn’t start till 9, so we had more waiting to do, mollified by cans of beer or Smirnoff Ice. But all the hassle and waiting was worthwhile, because the event itself is unique and amazing.
How to describe it? Each samba school marches for 80 minutes, and has a theme, illustrated by elaborate floats and thousands of dancers in different costumes. There are scantily-clad dancers with feathers who appear at regular intervals, on the ground or on the floats. Each parade has many ‘alas’ (groups of 100 or more dancers) in matching elaborate and often bizarre costumes; the successive waves fill the arena in a blaze of colour.
The floats are incredible contraptions, each one seeming to be more ‘over the top’ than the last. Sometimes the themes were hard to make out (for those unfamiliar with Brazilian culture). Our favourite parade was the first, telling the story of Darwin’s theory of natural selection with costumes and floats illustrating different organisms, from amoeba up to man. We saw six parades altogether, and staggered back to our hotel at 7 am.
From central Rio we shifted our base to Copacabana, which was like going to a different city or even country. By then Carnaval was over, and Copacabana was happening, lively, (relatively) clean and more geared up for tourists. On the day we arrived there was actually some sun, the first we’d seen since arriving in Rio. However, it didn’t last; most of the time it was cloudy, with occasional downpours. In total we had nine days in Rio, but only one day completely without rain.
Due to the weather, we did not spend a lot of time on the beach at Copacabana. However, we went for long walks along the seashore, to several neighbouring beaches including Ipanema (where the famous Girl came from). We also explored the Rio lagoon, and took a swan-shaped pedalo out for a short paddle. We saw lots of interesting birds, and some fish which jumped amazingly high out of the water.
One morning we went up to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain, which involves taking two cablecars (although we did not see James Bond fighting on the roof). Sugar Loaf is not as high as Corcovado, but there was still a lot of cloud and mist swilling around. In this case we did manage to get some views, but they were ‘atmospheric’ rather than out of this world.