After a couple of days in Sao Paolo, we headed eastwards to Rio de Janeiro or as the locals nicknamed it with incredible self-confidence, A Cidade Maravilhosa, or “The Marvellous City”! We arrived at a hostel in Botofogo that was determined to make obscene profits out of New Year’s revellers; trebling its normal rates. Botofogo is in the centre of Rio, and from here, one can see the famous Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) and, high above the city, the immense mountain-top statue of Christo Redentor or Christ the Redeemer; it‟s also only a short bus ride to the iconic beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana.
Rio is an unbelievable place that defies comprehension. It is a place of sharp contrasts; such as the gaping chasm between rich and poor; from the extreme beauty of the landscapes to the ugliness of the favelas (the shanty towns around Rio); from the absolutely delicious caipirinhas to the surprising blandness of its food. (Caipirinhas are Brazil’s national cocktail, made with cachaça, sugar and lime. Cachaça is similar to rum and is the distillation of the fermentation product of sugarcane juice. It‟s a bit like a mojito and is prepared by putting lime and sugar into a glass and mashing the ingredients. Add crushed ice and the cachaça.)
However, Rio is also a place of exciting fusion; from the wide ethnic variety of the people (meaning that it‟s difficult to describe a typically Brazilian face) to the music (samba, reggae, bossa nova) to the ever-present feeling that absolutely anything goes. Rio is a place whose reputation is airmailed before it: a mercurial city of violence, of beaches, of favelas, of classic views, of the beautiful people and the desperately poor. It‟s a melting pot of influences as vibrantly displayed in its people, its music and its food. It‟s a place of beauty and a place of menace: it‟s utterly unpredictable, and perhaps because of this, it‟s impossible to feel 100% at ease.
One of the first things we did in Rio was to head straight for the beach. The main beaches in Rio, Copacabana and Ipanema, stretch for around 12km and are divided into sections (postos). We followed the guide book and headed for Posto 9 on Ipanema, supposedly the spot for the beautiful people; well of course! Normally, I‟m not really one for the beach (I get bored) but, in Rio at least, it‟s a good time. The views were spellbinding; just another occasion where we were sitting in a place that we had previously only known from pictures, and yet here we were – just sitting here; to our right were forest clad mountains (Dos Hermanos – the Two Brothers), to our left was Copacabana Beach, in front was the tropical Atlantic Ocean with small forested islands not far from the coast and above was a merciless sun, who had become our god. We later found out that it hit 36 degrees that day, and the six hours I foolishly spent without sun protection meant that I burned for the first time in my life (I didn’t think that I could burn! I didn’t stop peeling for weeks! It was disgusting! I’d be in the shower and suddenly I‟d peel a huge single sheet of skin from my chest; horrific). On Rio‟s beaches, you just pick a refreshment stall that you like the look of and, with a nod, a guy will pull up two lounge chairs and a large parasol. He takes your drinks order and you start a tab. So for hours you just sit in a chair drinking from icy coconuts, gulping cold lager (Skol – which was discontinued in the UK for being rubbish; but somehow, amazingly, it‟s the most popular lager here!), going for a cooling swim and, mostly, looking at everyone around you! The internationally famed Brazilian women seem to have a certain look; I think over here, they look for a certain amount of booty, and big „Shake it! Shake it!‟ asses are highly prized. In the spirit of Rio beaches, I had my eye on buying a pair of sungas; these are the miniscule trunks that the men wear here which, to be honest, are nothing short of obscene. When in Rio and all that…! They are, however, eye-wateringly tiny! I shrank from the challenge!
New Year‟s Eve in Rio is a huge deal – apparently 2 million people were expected to descend onto Copacabana that night. We were expecting great things; after all, Rio is supposed to be one of the greatest New Year‟s celebrations in the world. This was one of the things we were most looking forward to; a big, spectacular fiesta. Families and friends set up their camps on the beach with chairs, tents, makeshift bars and barbeques; everyone eats and drinks until midnight waiting for the huge firework display. It was raining gently that evening which did little to dampen revellers‟ spirits. Music was pumping out of huge speakers. We‟d move from arena to arena, polishing off beers and caiprinhas. Unfortunately, in the early hours, after a few too many rums and beers, I had a little nap on the beach whilst waiting for the sun to come up. I woke up to find that an audacious and enterprising urchin had actually cut through my jeans and stolen my camera – bastards! I mean, who the fuck brings scissors to a New Year‟s Eve party?! Right I‟ve had a shower, clean shirt on, bit of wax in the hair, phone, wallet, keys, what else do I need? Oh yes! Can‟t leave the house with a pair of scissors to go on the rob! Silly me! On reflection, it was my fault really for being daft enough to fall asleep on a beach in Rio at night, but it was the sort of thing that tarnishes memories somewhat. I‟d been warned by the manager of the hostel where we were staying not to bring anything valuable with me. All the advice is to be on your guard in Rio, but you never think anything will happen to you. To be fair though, if the only bad thing to happen to me in Brazil was losing my camera, with most of the pictures backed up, it wouldn‟t be that terrible; it could have been a lot worse. I bought a new camera the next day.
The rest of our stay in Rio was spent sightseeing. We went to the Maracana, once the biggest stadium in the world. The final of the 1950 World Cup was attended by a record 199,854 people. Today, its capacity is a much reduced 88,992 and, despite capacity being more than halved since those heady days, it‟s still the largest stadium on the continent. We took the tour of the stadium but it was slightly disappointing; it‟s not in good condition and there were no games on; unfortunately, the season was yet to start. Outside the stadium lay the impressions of famous Brazilian players‟ feet cast in bronze. I stood in my namesake‟s footprints, the Beast himself, Edmundo, and also those of perhaps the greatest footballer of all time, Edson Arantes do Nascimento, otherwise known as the legendary Pele.
I had to visit the Pao de Acucar, the incomparable and iconic Sugar Loaf Mountain, only a short bus ride from Botofogo in the district of Urca. The summit is only accessible by a cable car which stops halfway before continuing to the peak. Unfortunately, that day it rained, something I‟ve been told only happens a few times up in summer! At 396m, the view from Sugarloaf over the city and sea is mind-blowing! When I was up there, there was a huge thunderstorm adding to the spectacular views. You can see Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado Mountain in the far distance; to your left you can see Copacabana and below, the bay of Urca. It was dark and, from here, Rio looked like one giant, lit-up, forested, urban island, and, from this height at least, a glimpse of paradise.
We also set about exploring the local nightlife. Rio has a strong culture of botecas, a kind of bar/pub/drinking-hole-in-the-wall serving tiny snacks such as deep-fried pastries and the coldest draft beers, called chopps (pronounced show-pe). My favourite boteca was in the district of Urca, a peaceful counterpoint to the frenetic bustle of downtown, where this ultra-traditional boteca, with its polished tiled interior and bow-tied waiting staff, opened out with views of Urca bay. It‟s an example of something that‟s been playing on my mind as I‟ve travelled: it‟s an example of things just being done right. I don‟t like bashing things in England but when you pay 4GBP for an okay pint in London or 4GBP for a scotch egg (I kid you not!) in a pub with average service, it tends to leave a bad taste in your mouth. By contrast, in this boteca, there was ice-cold beer, great décor, it was well-priced (leaving aside questions of purchasing power parity), had a good atmosphere, a great staff, fantastic views across the bay and seemed to serve a broad cross-section of society as well. This boteca just did things right. It‟s nothing ground-breaking or pioneering; it‟s just something that has been done right, clearly something that the proprietors and staff take pride in and take pride from. It‟s not only botecas; I’ve been thinking along similar lines along my travels whenever I’ve come across anything that‟s done well, properly or right, such as particularly good coffee or excellent service or people who take care of their appearance or bars that don’t serve spirits by the measure or decently sized portions or fresh food cooked simply or clean hostels and so on. It‟s a feeling and a recurring thought that‟s been reinforced the further on my trip I go.
The best night out I had in Rio was in the districts of Santa Theresa and Lapa with samba, hip-hop, salsa and live bands dominating the playlists. Wherever you turn in Rio, there‟s always a party, great views and a cold beer!
We took a tram up to Santa Theresa, which takes you up over the Arcos de Lapa, a huge viaduct. We hit a bar with awesome live bossa nova and excellent feijoada and rice. It was rampantly busy with tables seating up to around ten with people crowding the bar to try and get seated. We sat out at the back on a balcony looking over a thickly forested hill and crumbling houses at its foot where children played and women did their washing. We then found a great open-air bar outside an enormous, dilapidated but magnificent house perched on a hill with the friendliest waiter in the world, serving splendid beer, delicious fried chicken wings and ferociously strong caiprinhas. From quiet beginnings, it quickly became more crowded and, as a large live band with huge bongos started crashing out the music, became a hedonistic, sweaty mass of revellers. After a few hours, we headed down to Lapa where we eventually got separated in a pool hall and the rest of the night was a lost memory. The next morning, we discovered that Grant had lost his sunglasses, his camera and his flip-flops!
From Rio, our next stop was Argentina, at the Iguazu Falls. We bought a bus ticket to our next stop at the rodavario; I was keen to get out of Brazil. Five days in Rio is quite enough as a tourist and I had an itch to get out of the city. It’s strange; I really thought I was a city boy at heart and yet I had a burning need to see the Falls. I missed Bolivia and Peru, their mountains and their wildernesses, their deserts and their snows. I was unexpectedly and strangely pleased to be leaving Brazil. I suppose when travelling, there’s a certain pressure to love and be excited by every country you visit, but I was left cold by Brazil, which I suppose is slightly odd given its reputation for all things „passion‟. However, there’s a lot more for me to see within Brazil, not least the eastern coast and, of course, the Amazon, the greatest river in the world. That‟s another trip for sure: down the Amazon from its source at Iquitos in Peru to its end at Belem on the Brazilian coast.