Woh-ho-oh-oh, when my baby; when my baby goes to..

Trip Start Aug 17, 2010
Trip End Sep 16, 2011

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Flag of Brazil  , State of Rio de Janeiro,
Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Rio De Janerio. Our final South American city – and what a city to complete our tour of South America with ! Mad, bad, crazy, intoxicating Rio – it lived up to all the hype and reputation – not a place for the faint hearted or quiet living, but if you like to live your experiences to the max and beyond, don't miss out on checking out Rio for yourself ! Or if you’ve been there – remember, you want to go back !

Choosing where to stay in Rio is, like everything else you do there, not something done light heartedly. The decision making process was not aided by the fact that all of the backpackers we had met on our travels to date had been, basically, petrified of the city – and had tended to hide in their hostel ! Yes, it is a dangerous city, but travelling can be dangerous anywhere. So, as we had been good in staying In cheaper, hostel accommodation to date, we thought it wise to spend a little more in Rio De Janerio, given the steep ratio of accommodation cost to neighbourhood riskiness ! Besides, we had not come all this way NOT to stay – yes, near the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches ! Which actually offer a range of accommodation to suite budget, while the neighbourhood, still demanding common sense and awareness, is much improved following police initiatives to work with the favelas ( shanty villages ) on a social level, instead of the pseudo- military approach !

Our ever reliable reference – TripAdvisor – led us to the Dolphin Rio Hostel. A small hostel run by a wonderfully welcoming and accommodating couple – John and Nina – in their terrace house, located in a small housing block. A fantastic, confidence building introduction to Rio, as 1) no security worries, given your room is in the couple’s house, within a gated block; 2) John takes you on a personal tour of the immediate Ipanema area, pointing out where to go ( and not go ), to eat, and the beach of course ! and; 3) presenting you with the impression John & Nina are local friends, who themselves are unselfconsciously confident with cruising around the area, enjoying the lifestyle it has to offer, rather than looking over one’s shoulder for trouble the whole time ! If you go to Rio – stay with John and Nina!!!

We were hungry, so John introduced us to several restaurants, of which we plumped for the "churrasco" – the “all you can eat” meat on skewers the waiters bring around incessantly, until you turn over a small coaster on your table from “green” to “red” ! Lauren is rather fond of the “churrasco” leading to struggles over the turning of the “meat eating coaster” ! Delicious – much better than the one we visited in Sao Paulo, and the salad bar was way more extensive.

Mmm, great meal, one requiring a stroll along the streets of Ipanema, where we meet up with John, a mate of his, and another backpacking couple at the microbrewery Devessa, for a refreshing Brasilian ale and swapping of war stories.

That’s just the day we arrived in Rio ! Told you, everything is to the Max in this crazy city !

Day 2:

Up we get to survey our surroundings and where else to head but Copacabana beach – or Copa as all the locals call it. It looks just like all the postcards and the sunny day is shaping up nicely for our first full day here. It’s a hot day so Jim and I grab breakfast – fresh coconut milk anyone – slice open a coconut and here is your straw.

We chose our Hostel because it was between Copa and Ipanema beaches, so with the weather telling us it’s a beach day we head to Ipanema. We walk past various “posto” where there are different beach stalls that will set you up with your beach position and all your needs- they all have different feels and their own territories. We pick a likely candidate and go the whole hog renting out deck chairs and umbrella as well as a prime spot…. $6 well spent!

The beach – well unfortunately you are strongly advised by all not to carry anything valuable so no camera and no pictures but….it was magnificent. The sky was blue, a light breeze blowing, low 30 degrees, a light, teasing swell washing in – tempting swimmers to try their hand at body surfing, before putting them back in their place with a playful dumping. The “posto” operators highly attentive to your every need – coming back in from just been dumped by the surf – “beer sir ?” Beach vendors wandering around offering everything from peanuts to sunscreen – not hassling as in South-East Asia, but offering in that friendly, casual, “life is a beach, to be enjoyed, relax man” Brasilian way.

There are guys and girls selling hot food, cold food, drinks, toys even dresses… cause that’s what you feel like buying when you head to beach.

A man comes along selling handrolled cigars – can’t resist – cold can of beer at my feet, cigar in hand, warm breeze, surf rolling in – ( not to mention the sort of swimming costumes favoured by the locals ) - sigh….

That night we head back to Copa and get a grilled chicken dinner – a local Brasilian specialty - then we check out a small little jazz bar called Bip Bip that we had read about. Small isn’t the word - there is only a bar and one table for the musicians – everyone else is outside on the pavement – including the owner! It’s a hot night so a couple of beers and some jazz cools off the night nicely.

Day 3:

The next day Jim is enthusiastic and joins the fitness throng with a run along Copa beach – has to be done, he says, dream on St Kilda beach joggers ! Lauren stays in bed, joining the “weekend sleeping in” scene ! But we just had a phone call – the weather is perfect for ….. hang gliding. That’s right, Jim and I have been on standby and today’s it. We are being picked up at noon.

We drive through town past the largest favela in Rio, which is oddly situated next to the most expensive suburb in Rio. The side by side irony is not lost on anyone and it really highlights social the issues that Rio face. Driving on we get to another beach with a mountain looming in the background. Turns out we are jumping off THAT mountain and sailing down to the beach… Gulp.

We could not have picked a better company to go with – SuperFly – John organized this for us, and it turns out that the owner and operator - Ruy Marra – is twice Brazilian champion and the world record holder in tandem flights – 19000 and counting. In fact, Jim scored Ruy as his instructor and tandem pilot, while Lauren had to make do with the world record holder for the longest continuous hang glider flight ! Ruy takes a very personal and detailed approach to preparing you for the experience of hang gliding. From the moment you get into his car to drive up the mountain to the launch site he is working on building your confidence. We had a safety briefing and a training run for about half an hour and then it was jump time. GULP again. No backing out, you have to run at full speed over the edge…. And then you look around you and you are an eagle, so high you can see for miles and miles over the sea, back across Rio De Janerio, across all the beaches. Ruy asked Jim during his flight if he had seen the movie “Avatar”, then proceeded to re-enact swooping down over the forests covering the mountain sides. One of the most hair raising, scary, amazing, life affirming, scenic and fantastic things that either of us have ever done. When you finally land on the beach you are torn between never wanting to leave the ground again to asking if you can do another flight right now. The photos show that wonderful view and just how stunning the whole thing was. The experience itself is burned into our memories.

Being left on such an amazing high, what else could one do but head into the center of crazy Rio – the neighbourhood of Lapa to be exact – famous for its many restaurants, bars and clubs - where they close the street on weekends for all the patrons to spill out into one throng of nightlife lovers. We go to an amazing bar come restaurant, come night club, come antique shop called 'Rio Scenarium', and felt we had walked onto the set of some avant garde, surreal movie – think Moulin Rouge meets Casablanca, with a live folk samba band on one level, a jazz bar on the top, and in the back a cheesy top 40s disco, complete with mirror ball. Getting the idea ? We had to queue to get in, but were much amused to see the enterprising nature of the carioca (Rio De Janerio locals) rise to the fore in selling cans of beer from eskys to the people queuing ! And a lot cheaper than inside the venue too !

Finally winding down from the day’s excitement, we leave the bar to experience Rio’s firm but friendly (and upon reflection much appreciated) approach to stopping visitors getting into trouble. One is handed off from the bouncer at the exit to a yellow bibbed usher who shepherds you straight to a waiting line of taxis and safe trip back to hotel. Herein lies Jim & Lauren’s tip for going out in Rio – trust the taxis, they understand it is in their interests to have a reputation of looking after visitors in such a dangerous city. Do not wander away from the usher upon leaving a venue – you do NOT want to be walking the streets, get that taxi ! To us looking out the car window, it looked like a riot had just past, no place for anyone out there ! And you can trust the driver, this is one city where you are not going to get ripped off on the fare – just take a business card from your hostel / hotel so you can give that to the driver and avoid any “misunderstandings” ! Lecture over, back to the fun !

Day 4:

We wake up to an overcast day – still warm but very overcast – good thing we got our hang gliding in. Unfortunately we have to move out of the Rio Dolphin as we could only book 3 nights. Not to worry, we book into the nearby Atlantis Copacabana Hotel (again a recommendation from John and Nina) – staying in the same neighbourhood we now feel we know, thanks to John’s efforts.

We head to Fort Copacabana - a working fort on the end on the beach with a café open to the public recommended to us for its great view back towards Copa and its brekkie. It was good and as Jim and I look to work it off we get caught in the rain. We decide to head to the 'Garôta de Ipanema Café’ the actual café that the famous “Girl from Ipanema” song was written. It’s a bit touristy but you have to have a Capi in the bar – we are in Rio after all. The rain is not letting up so its back for a snooze before tonight’s entertainment.

We meet up with another couple and head back to Lapa for dinner – the street is still closed off and we have a great meal under an awning in the street with the rain still falling – which the locals ignore still lining up to get into the clubs and bars. After dinner we take a cab to Samba School !!!

Samba Schools are not, despite their name, teaching institutions. Don’t go expecting a session of dance lessons followed by general practice a la the tango school we attended in Buenos Aires. A samba school is more akin to a community club  – in Rio’s case, the communities are the favelas, and the samba schools play an important  role in bringing a sense of community and belonging to the favelas. There are over 70 samba schools in Rio and they all parade during the 4 days of Carnival. They pick themes, write music and lyrics, make costumes and floats and practice all year to succeed in their parades. The best get to compete at the Sambodromo ( it is called that – honest ! ) a purpose built samba competition arena. And so we get to what a samba school really is – the practice space for the musicians and dancers who are going to parade and hope to win !

Everyone is welcome to come and join in – the Brasilian sense of “joie de vivre” extending past any thought of keeping the samba school restricted to those rehearsing for the parade. The samba school ends-up resembling a nightclub, but not like any nightclub we’d been to !

We have 2 recommendations for samba schools and resolve the decision by falling back on my earlier “surviving in Rio” tip by simply asking the taxi driver where we should go, who responds very firmly with – we go to Salgueiro ! Don’t know what was happening elsewhere in Rio, but we are happy with this, as Salgueiro is one of the top samba schools, very much in the elite. As I mentioned, the samba schools are favela social clubs, they are located at the foot of the favela, so you don’t mess around getting in and out. Having said that, the security checks at the door were no different than any nightclub in a big city. We pay the cover and walk into – complete madness !

First up – the place resembles a giant school hall, brightly neon lit – no dark corners and disco lights here – plastic tables and chairs around the edge with a few counters selling food and beer. A stage takes up one side of the room, on which are singers, guitarists and brass musicians. Opposite the stage, up a level – reminding me of where a church choir would be - is the percussion section, about 50 people, armed with drums big and small, whistles, tambourines and those sticks festooned with metal chimes ( chocalhos ). As we walk in, the crowd cheers and claps, snapping photos – we hadn’t realised they knew we were coming ! Ah – Miss Brasil has appeared on the balcony above us, okay – and now is joined by actor Vin Diesel and Akon the rapper to more acclaim – seems we’re at THE place to be tonight !

Enough of the adoration – the musicians on stage start singing and playing– “de da, tre, tra oy oy oy” the Portuguese sounds to me, guitars strum, brass blares, then “BAM BAM BAM – DIG DIG – BAM BAM BAM – SHAKA SHAKA SHAKA SHAKA” the percussion section explodes into action. The walls of the hall bulge out, and everyone around us is seized with samba fever and start shimmy shaking samba’ng. This goes for about 10 mins, then the percussion section quiet down, the singers run over a couple of verses of their samba song, then the percussionists explode once again and everyone samba shimmies. That’s the drill for the night ! Wow. The energy and passion of the crowd is unbelievable and infectious, we get drawn into attempting to dance samba – with encouragement and good humour from those around us. We sense a change in atmosphere, turn around, and find a contingent of parade dancers, in full costume, have made their way into the crowd, people parting the way and creating a corridor for the dancers to use.

The guys are dressed in glittering, brightly coloured suits, complete with top hats and facial make-up. The girls are – well – barely dressed ! – in spangly G-strings and brassiers and magnificent, towering feathered head pieces. They take turns, individually and in couples, to show off their samba dancing, working their way up and down the corridor to much loud encouragement. Amazing how fast and how fluid they can dance, smiling effortlessly all the time !

Next, the girls make their way up onto the stage to engage in a competition to see who can raise the most crowd reaction from their dance and costume. This is how the samba school hones its presentation for Carnival !

Rehearsals over, the crowd is motivated to get into some serious samba dancing, and the percussion section starts to fire. We notice there’s a conductor, who strikes the percussion into action following the song verses. We finally click they are practicing their “samba song” over and over, which is the backing for their entry in the Carnaval parade. The percussionists are streaming with sweat, and the pace is clearing wearing some down, but they are all smiling and having the time of their lives.

The atmosphere in the school continues to build and build, everyone dancing, sweating as it gets hotter and hotter, all united in dancing to the primal rhythms of the samba, forgetting the hardships and trials of living in the favelas. We’re swept up with it all, people are taking photos of us, not being used to seeing tourists taking part in the middle of a samba school ! The percussionists have come down from their perch and are now playing in the middle of the crowd – there are samba drums and tambourines next to my elbow, the musicians smiling and nodding to me.

With a final “BAM BAM BAM, SHAKA” its over. The dancing stops, people shake their heads slowly, and make for the cool early morning air outside.  We look at each other wonderingly in the back seat of the taxi we have been ushered to, trying to understand, then giving up and just savouring what we have just been part of – samba - the essence of Rio De Janerio.

Day 5:

After a well deserved and BIG sleep-in Jim and I wake up starving – we danced off a few calories so we reward ourselves with a Huge Brazilian breakfast – this is something that the Brasilian's so well in fact I think they do the best breakfast in the world. Yogurt and homemade museli, followed by fresh bread with eggs and bacon, followed by light pastries all the lashings of good hot coffee and big orange juices – heaven. Time to work off breakfast and we head to the hippy market for some souvenir shopping and great atmosphere. After the market we head to Copa. The road is closed to traffic on Sundays and we mix with all the locals promenading along the beachfront, people watching, seeing the volleyball and looking at the sand sculptures. Phew time for a Capi and watching the sunset. Its great people watching and the beach vendors and buskers are all endlessly plying their trade. No Thanks! we really don’t want a sarong and some peanuts (from the same vendor ??, covering all bases I suppose) despite being asked about 10 times in the space of 30 mins. Some of the buskers have more enthusiasm then talent but some are really good. We have caught the eye of one such group of musicians…next thing you know Jim has been asked to join the band. Video Evidence. Despite his new calling, Jim resisted the temptation to follow the buskers Pied Piper style down the beach and we enjoyed watching the sun sink into the sea.

We also see the fisherman come to cast their nets. Copa still has a traditional fishing fleet – about 30 or so small boats, they fish in the morning and bring their catch into a fish vendor on the beach about midday. Then they spend the afternoon mending their nets. At sunset the head into the water and cast the nets by hand. Very beautiful and peaceful to watch this traditional vocation still happening in such a glitzy fast paced place. For dinner we head to a Kilo restaurant… (which is kind of like a bistro with lots of different foods to choose and they weight your plate – you pay by the kilo!) an early night for us – the Samba is still taking its toll.

Day 6:

Wake up and walk the entire length of Copa beach till we hit Leme - next beach along. Then we head to the famous Sugar Loaf Mountain – Pao De Sucre ! Before that we go the base of the mountain and a beach called Zona Del Sul where we are told we have to have lunch at the old fort on the beach, it has a great view looking up the Sugar Loaf.  Great idea but it turns out its closed !!! So we get a taxi back to Copa for a beachside bite. Totally at random we end up choosing a place that turns out to be a Japanese bar! That’s right spring rolls and teriyaki chicken on the beach!

Right back to watch the sunset on top of Sugar Loaf – we head up the mountain by way of two cable cars.  James Bond fans will know these from the movie ‘Moonraker’ when the henchman ‘Jaws’ cut one of the cables with his teeth. Luckily he was not there and we made it up to the top. Sugar Loaf is actually a national park with various walks and climbs, so before we settle down we have a walk around some of the upper levels and see some of the native Sagui monkeys. These are some of the smallest monkeys in the world and only grow to the size of your palm… very cute, and native to the mountain. We snaffle some prime positions and grab a couple of beers as settle in to watch the sun setting. It’s a bit overcast but this actually makes for a bit of an ethereal experience as the sun sets behind the Redeemer.

Our last night in Rio and we head to a little candle light BBQ place in set up in the middle of the square in Ipanema – very tasty meat dishes and very strong caprianas… we only had a couple.. but our quiet night was a bit sozzlely.

Day 7:

We have our last breakfast at Copa Fort – the view is simply unbeatable. A big yummy breakfast Brazilian style to recover from the excesses of the night before and prepare us for our last big tourist sight – Christ the Redeemer.

A long funicular railway takes to you up to the top of the Redeemer and as we climb you really get a sense of how the city of Rio is perched on a series of cliffs. Once at the top there are still some steps to climb… or you can take the escalator. This was one of the oddest things that Jim and I have seen – turns out you can take the easy way to Jesus !!!!  While the Redeemer is a must see tourist site for any visit, I didn’t expect the actual statue to be such an amazing piece of artwork. It is really just as beautiful as it is impressive and imposing. The whole effect is quite stunning as we look over the city and get out last look at Rio.

Back to Copa and we just have time for a last beer and to watch the sun set behind the mountains on Ipanema beach – really one of the best sunsets we have ever seen…… time to head to the airport - we have an 11pm flight - sunny London here we come.

South America has simply taken our breath away. It’s everything and nothing like we were expecting and we would go back in a heartbeat. Rio was the icing on this crazy cake and we are already talking about coming for the Olympics in 2016 or even the World Cup in 2014….. might have to look into lottery tickets.
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