Rio de Janeiro and Carnival ( Carnaval in Brazilian Portuguese) –
Rio de Janeiro, often simply called ‘Rio’ is one the best known and most exciting cities in the world.
Rio is a stunning city with a backdrop of mountains and a string of famous beaches along its coastline – including Copacabana and Ipanema, with Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer statue standing tall above the city all creating a fantastic panorama. It is not just the landscape, it is also the vivid greens of the trees, the ocean blues and sky and the light as it changes from dawn to dusk. If you are lucky you might well see some brilliant sunrises and sunsets, particularly if you are on one of the high points in the city – such as on top of Sugarloaf Mountain (Pᾶo de Açύcar).
Just the name ‘Copacabana’ conjures up images of an exotic tropical oasis and the beach lives up to its image – with a 4 kilometre stretch of white sand and sun tanned bodies enjoying their time in the sun. This is also the home of Beach Volleyball and there is always something happening on the beach or esplanade both day and night.
While there is definitely the vibrancy and thrill of being in Rio, if you look skywards you will also see the ‘favelas’ – the shanty town houses that run up the mountain sides. There are around 700 favelas in Rio and they may well have the best views of Rio. In most cities in the world, their location high on the sides of the mountains would be prime real estate, but here is Rio, this is where the poor people live with issues like lighting, water, sewerage, drainage and electricity supply always an issue.
There are many other parts of Rio where there are expensive apartments, palatial houses and historic suburbs too, with history dating back centuries. It is important to recognize that while the ‘favelas’ have gained worldwide notoriety, there are many other parts of Rio that have high quality houses and buildings.
The Favelas have gained a worldwide reputation as the home of Rio’s drugs, muggings, shootings and crime and everyone coming to Rio should be aware that crime is one of the city’s biggest problems. The city is not a place for you to flaunt your wealth, jewellery, watch or even a mobile phone.
There are of course many hard working families who live and have grown up in the favelas, but for you as a tourist traveller, this is their world, not yours – and while ‘yes’ there are tours to see inside some of the favelas, but be careful as to who you go there with. In Rio there will also be people who will offer to sell you drugs, and again, this is a sure way to be robbed or worse still, arrested or forced to pay a bribe.
In the first 6 months of 2017 there were 3755 murders in Rio. These were mostly shootouts between gangs, but also the police were involved in shooting some 581 people. There are also those killed or maimed by stray bullets including an unborn baby – so safety is always a concern for everyone coming to the city. The Army was also in September 2017 also called in due to this high level of murders and crimes.
In 2016 the Olympic Games were held in Rio, and massive money was spent in the city to provide the infrastructure for the Games. Many people saw the Olympics as a bonus to the city’s amenities, but others saw the massive expenditure as a disgrace given the amount of poverty and lack of health services and jobs in the city. There was also rampant graft and corruption involved too.
Petty theft is also rife – so you need to be aware of this. A teenager on a bike can easily rip a necklace from your neck and then stop a few metres away and laugh at your misfortune. This happened to a friend of mine in 2017.
When I was in Rio, my watch was ripped off my wrist, the thief fell over, but then he yelled a few words in Portuguese and suddenly I was the ‘bad guy’ and chased after! When I reported the crime to the police, I then had to pay for a ‘form’ to fill out and make the report in Portuguese! Needless to say, it wasn’t worth it.
So, given the rampant crime is Rio worth visiting?
The answer is certainly ‘yes’!
For all its bad points, there are many reasons why Rio is worth seeing and if you stick to the main city sights, stay in a good hotel, are conscious of your own safety, careful about where you go, conscious of the time of day and stay out of places where you could be a target, you will no doubt fall in love with this beautiful city.
There are the must see destinations in the city – the most essential ones being the Christ the Redeemer Statue (Cristo Redentor), Sugarloaf Mountain and the beaches - the most famous beaches being Copacabana and Ipanema.
Copacabana Beach with its long wide sandy beach is famous not just for the beach but also for all the activities that happen here – from football to Beach Volleyball with beach vendors selling everything from ice cream to suntan lotions, hats and a whole lot more. This is the perfect place to just ‘people watch’, so find a good place to settle down and watch as the world passes by. The beach is not the place to leave you valuables while you go swim either – it is better to keep your things safe back in your hotel.
There is a long wide sweeping promenade running along beside the beach, with high rise luxury hotels and apartments also overlooking the promenade and beach with many places to sit and grab a beer (Chopp), an ice cream or something to eat. The old Forte Duque de Caxias, built in 1779 is here too near Posto 1 at the very north end of Copacabana Beach with the Forte Copacabana on the very southern end – near Posto 6.
The promenade is used by runners, cyclists and skateboarders with market stalls set up at different times, all adding to the atmosphere and vibrancy of the beach. Just being here and people watching will fill your day.
There are also many other beaches too, and is equally famous to Copacabana is Ipanema – its name synonymous with the song ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, first recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1962 and covered by many other artists since. This is further away from the centre of Rio, just south of Copacabana.
Even further away is the small beach of Leblon – and as you would probably suspect, the further away, but not a long way from the main action on Copacabana, the smaller the crowds of people and activity. By ‘smaller’ I mean less crowds, but that really depends on the day and time!
Greater Rio city spreads up and down the coastline, a whole series of beaches (Praia) both long and smaller ones too. In central Rio there are many beaches along the shoreline of the Baie de Guanabara and one of the smallest and quaint beaches is Praia Vermelha facing the Atlantic Ocean (not the Bay), close to the Cable Car entrance taking you to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain.
Travelling south from Leblon the Avenue Sernambetiba runs right along a long strip of sandy land with a lake on one side and the long Barra Beach facing the Atlantic Ocean on the other side, with the Avenue das Américas running almost parallel to Avenue Sernambetiba, but on the inland side of the lake and a little back from the coastline. This part of Rio is called Barra da Tijuca and you will find a great long beach and also the Avenida da Américas Shopping Mall here too.
Along both Copacabana and Ipanema beaches you will see the word ‘Posto’ with a number beside it. Both beaches have long stretches of sand, so the Posto number helps to define the section of the beach where different groups of people head to. Ask a local for a recommendation as to the best ‘Posto’ place to head to.
Just inland from Ipanema and Copacabana is the large lake called Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, and you will have seen the lake during the Olympic Games – when the rowing and sailing competitions were being held here. The lake has a ring road and walking/cyclist trail around it, many high rise apartments overlooking the lake and areas set aside as parkland. You can hire a bike here too and there are a number of kiosks and places to eat and drink. The Botanical Garden (Jardin Botânico) is here too, and with Rio having a hot tropical climate, this is a great place to see everything from palms to orchids and a whole more. There are around 8000 different types of plants here in the garden. The Jardin Botânico was first established in 1822, so has many older plantings and trees.
Rio is surrounded by mountains and rainforests so with its hot tropical climate, plants and trees grow fast, so you are never far from nature. Certainly the highlight of Rio are heading up Sugarloaf Mountain (Pᾶo de Açύcar) on the cable cars that take you to the top of the mountain. It is 395 metres above sea level and gives you a panorama across the city and the coastline. Most tourists will come here too, but even with crowds of people, it is worth seeing for the views.
The equally famous and amazing Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) is back from the coast and is even higher than Sugarloaf Mountain at 710 metres above sea level, the statue itself being 38 metres high. Again most tourists will come to see the Christ statue and take photos here. A small cog-railway takes you to the top of the mountain where there are escalators and stairs that lead to the base of the statue. The statue itself with its outstretched arms – creates the shape of a Christian cross, and it took some 9 years to be built, with the construction starting in 1922. The shape and image of the statue was created by the Polish-French sculptor, Paul Landowski, working with both French and Brazilian engineers on the technical challenges. It is a stunning spectacle to see both in the day and especially night too when it is lit up to shine over the top of Rio.
Being an historic Portuguese city, Rio has many churches, museums, art galleries and Colonial architecture dating back to the 17th century as well as a couple of historic islands just off the coastline.
Some of the places I would recommend that you see are the suburb of Santa Teresa – with its tram cars, small winding streets, art galleries, historic buildings and great ambience and also see the Candelária Church with its central cupola roof flanked by towers on either side. This is Rio’s first church and dates back to 1630.
Just off the coast in the Baie de Guanabara, relatively close to the Airport is the Palacete da Ilha Fiscal (Palace of Ilha Fiscal). It is just a short ferry ride from Praca Quinzy wharf in Rio Centro or from Praca XV wharf, the ferry also taking you to another island called, Paqueta Island – which has no cars, just bicycles to hire and ride around the island. Ilha Fiscal is where you will see the Palace built between 1881 and 1889, the year that it hosted a great party that celebrated the end of Portuguese Imperial Rule and the start of the Republic of Brazil. The Palace has a number of conical turrets on top and inside there is a museum housing the Imperial Galley (boat) built for Dom Pedro II (1825-1891) – the Magnanimous Emperor of Brazil and the Perpetual Defender of Brazil to set sail to the Palace. From the Islands you will get great views over the Baie and Rio, with the 13.3 kilometre (8.3 miles) long Rio-Niterόi bridge as a backdrop too.
As much as Rio is a historic city, it is also a city with great designer style too and you can pick up on this in the design of shops, shop windows, the clothes and shoes that people are wearing, music and dance and some of the new city architecture. If you love clothes shopping, then Brazil is a great place to see innovative styles and fashion.
Two of the really stunning new buildings are the Niterόi Contemporary Art Gallery which looks like a floating Martian spaceship in Niterόi – the small city opposite side of the Baie from Rio. You can get there via Bus or car crossing over the Rio- Niterόi Bridge or via ferry from Praca Quinzy. This is a nice place to visit with great views looking back to Rio.
Another, even more dramatic building is the Museum of Tomorrow (Science Museum) (Museu do Amanhᾶ - which looks like a starship taking off to a distant galaxy. The museum is located in Rio Centro on the Praca Mauá wharf where the International Cruise Boats are located too. The building opened in 2015 and is as dramatic inside as it is from outside – a MUST SEE museum to see in Rio.
Sport, and particularly football (Futebol) is huge in Brazil and one of the best ways to get a real feel for the game and for the passionate enthusiasm for life that Brazilians have is to go to a game. In Rio there are four big teams – Flamengo, Fluminense, Botofogo and Vasco – the biggest fan base being for Flamengo. In 2014 the FIFA World Cup came to Brazil, and the main stadium, Maracana Stadium that dates back to 1950 was the main stadium used for games. Millions were spent to bring it up to standard, but as of 2017, disputes over its costs and management, break ins and other issues mean that it may or may not be operating when you are here in Rio. It is therefore best and safest too, to ask at your hotel as to where and when you might be able to get a ticket to a game. Again keep mindful of your safety at all times and ideally go with a local if you can.
PARTY TIME – it’s time to sleep the day and live the night. Carnaval is fantastic!
Most people will have been to a street parade where they live or possibly somewhere on their travels, but nothing quite prepares you for Carnaval in Rio.
I am sure you will have seen a street parade in the city where you live or one that you have visited. They most likely had some floats, cars, people wearing costumes or uniforms, fireworks or bands playing and no doubt started at an early hour, so kids wouldn’t be up too late or fall asleep!
Now picture this – a parade that starts at 9 pm at night and runs until 4am in the morning, not just on one night, but every night for 5 nights. This is Carnaval in Rio and the parades are not just in one location but are staged on a number of streets (Blocos de Rua) with the biggest Samba schools staging their extravaganzas at the big Sambadromo Stadium every night in a massive competition to be awarded the best Samba School for the year. Each of the big name Samba Schools have 80 minutes to perform, parade and present themselves in front of the judges. This is Big with a capital B!
Samba is a special dance movement and there are hundreds of Samba Schools with thousands of members – who spend their whole year preparing for Carnaval – practicing their Samba dances, creating costumes, themes and planning their parade floats and how they will stand out against all the other Samba Schools. The costumes created are the work of genius, stunning in their colours and vibrancy. Every costume can be considered a work of art – displaying fashion, style, flair and colour in a swirl of fun, joy, music and dance.
Watching a parade is exhausting as you see wave after wave of Samba dancers and spectacular floats, either being pushed along or motorised and just as you see one that has a WOW factor, another comes past that is even more WOW.
If it sounds like I am going on a bit. I am, but truly Carnaval in Rio is I think the best festival event in the world.
By way of information, Carnaval is a festival celebrated in the Christian faith, running in February each year in the week leading up to Ash Wednesday. In 2018 it is celebrated from the 9th to the 14th of February in Rio, but these dates move in line with Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. The word ‘Carnaval’ is derived from the Spanish words ‘Carne Vale’ (farewell to meat) and Carnaval becomes the last goodbye to a wild time.
The first Carnaval in Rio was celebrated in 1840, but it was the introduction of the Samba in 1917 that heralded in the unique Brazilian way to celebrate Carnaval.
What makes Carnaval in Brazil and particularly Rio and Salvador in the north of Brazil in Bahia (almost as famous as Rio for Carnaval) are the Samba schools and the fusion of African and Portuguese cultures expressed in the samba school’s dance, dress, drums, music, costumes and the vibrancy and passion that is something uniquely ‘Brazilian’. Carnaval is also celebrated in many cities in Brazil, but the biggest celebrations are in Rio.
During Carnaval week there are formal Balls – the most glamourous and expensive one being the Magic Ball held in the Copacabana Palace Hotel where tickets are around US$ 1500 per person, but there are also other balls too in the city with different themes and costs, including Gay Balls too.
The whole city is alive during Carnaval Week, with the biggest Carnaval parade being at Sambadromo, but there are many other parades in streets set aside for the parades with tiered seating to each side. Ideally plan well ahead with booking a hotel to stay in and also check out www.riocarnaval.org and www.bookersinternational.com for more information too.
What amazed me during Carnaval were the parades and the costumes as well as the sheer number of samba school floats and dancers that are involved, but equally during the days there was also the fun of street theatre and music. Rio is definitely a fun place to be during Carnaval and if you are lucky to go to Carnival, I am sure that it will become one of the best times ever.
During Carnaval, my best advice is to sleep the day and live the night and learn the Samba dance steps and movement before you head to Rio!