Famed for its miles of beaches, and its stunning setting, Rio de Janeiro attracts young and old, especially during Carnival season. So when we were offered a ‘sit’ just across the bay in Niterói in February 2020, we could not refuse.
Rio is also famous for its sprawling ‘favelas’ (slums) and its somewhat risky nature, so this was not a lightly taken decision. After much discussion with the homeowners, prior sitters and a lot of our own research, we figured we were street savvy enough to enjoy the experience, without putting ourselves at risk.
The main factor was that we were in Niterói, not Rio itself. The big city was just across the bay and easily accessible via bridge, or ferry. Yet here we could walk along the seafront of an evening, or stroll home after dinner without worrying about being mugged. Like many savvy travelers we make a point of trying to look as little like a tourist as possible and keep valuables hidden away.
Our first introduction to Rio was the crazy drive from the airport. The owners had arranged a driver for us who was very pleasant and spoke a little English (our Portuguese at that point consisted of thank you). The crazy part was the drive through the tunnel that goes under the city……….. It’s a typical somewhat gloomy, dirty and air polluted place, yet it was bustling with vendors selling candy, snacks, water, sunglasses and whatever else a driver could possibly need. As the traffic slowed to a crawl, the vendors would dash between the vehicles touting their wares—whilst dodging the motorbikes that weaved through at full speed. Surprisingly we never saw anyone get run over, but if the bikes don’t get them the air pollution must.
The owners were gracious and welcoming and had a beautiful home in a large tropical garden, just steps from a busy road. After meeting the dogs (all 5 of them) we settled in and started learning the ropes. Thanks to the owner’s comprehensive home manual, we had instruction on how to deter the marauding troupes of monkeys (water cannons) and more importantly, how to safeguard the dogs from the vampire bats’ nocturnal visits.
The next day the owners took us to a local lookout with a stunning view of Rio across the bay. It truly is a beautiful city, squeezed between a dramatic coastline of bays and white sand beaches and the hills and crags that punctuate the sprawl of skyscrapers.
The owners also treated us to dinner at one of their favorite restaurants. The meal was excellent, but be warned there is a very convoluted pricing system in Brazil. Some restaurants charge a set fee for ‘Ala Carte’, others are by dish, and some are calculated by how much your food weighs (even an ice-cream cone).
Our first few days were hot and steamy, so we decided to leave exploring Rio until after we had got our bearings in Niterói. The local beach and promenade was just a 10 minute stroll away, as was a plethora of restaurants and a supermarket. We are normally beach lovers, but it took only one whiff of the breeze coming off the bay, and we knew we were not going anywhere near it. Despite the smell, the floating plastic and the oily sheen, whole families were playing in the breakers. Hardy folks indeed, and perhaps why President Bolsonaro quipped ‘he was not worried about Brazilians dying of Covid because they were used to swimming in sewage’.
The heat eventually broke with torrential rains, so our explorations were going to have to wait a little longer. In the meantime we were stunned by the monstrous size of the Giant African snails that were taking over the garden.
Our first trip into Rio itself was to join a group of Brits and Brazilians on a trip around the bay. This had been arranged in advance through a friend of the owners. We were there during Carnival and the friend had got us tickets for the famed Sambódromo, and invited us to join her and her friends there. The bonus and a chance to meet our fellow party goers, was the trip around the bay.
The day dawned sunny and bright, as we headed out fully prepared for a day in the sun. It was also our first Uber ride in Brazil; it was so easy, cheap and simple that we didn’t use anything else. Our hostess and our ride were both late, but we took the time to explore the marina and marvel at the polluted bay. Although we had been instructed to bring swimsuits, there was no way we were going to go in that.
Host and boat arrived at the same time and we poured on with 20 strangers. As I write this during Covid times, it seems odd to say that we sat, talked, ate and drank side by side, on a small schooner for four hours. The time sped by, while our hosts explained what we were seeing, which was the old customs house, the Science Museum (Museu do Amanha) and in the distance, high over the city Christ the Redeemer watched over us. They also introduced us to Caipirinha which is made from Cachaça and lime juice. Cachaça, like rum is made from sugar cane although in a very different way. Also like rum, it comes in many grades of quality, the cheap rot gut stuff and those which are as smooth as silk.
We travelled right out beyond the bay, where we were encouraged to swim and many did. Although the water looked and smelt a lot more palatable, we were not tempted.
Crusty and a little tipsy we made our way home, with a bunch of new acquaintances and the knowledge that our trip to the Sambódromo in a few days was going to be a lot of fun.
Carnival is celebrated throughout Brazil. The whole country embraces what started as a religious event, with almost a week of Samba school parades, blocos (street parties) and a whole lot of fun. Rio de Janeiro has long held the biggest events and the highlight (for us anyway) is the Samba school competition held in the Sambódromo.
Completed in 1984, the Sambódromo is a 700 metres (2,300 ft) stretch of Marquês de Sapucaí Street which has been converted into a permanent parade ground, with bleachers/grandstands built along each side for spectators.
Over four consecutive nights the Samba schools parade from officially 8pm (usually starts later) till the early hours. Each school with its thousands of dancers, drum section and a number of floats has 75 minutes to parade from one end to the other. Each section is carefully judged and competition is fierce to say the least.
Tickets vary in price depending on which sector and which night you choose. Cheapest is the unnumbered stands (popular with locals) where the first to arrive get the best view with the most expensive being in special grandstands complete with meals, drinks and a dance floor.
Our Sambódromo day ended up being an especially busy one, as it was also the only day that we were able to hook up with my nephew. He was in port with his ship, one of Holland Americas cruise lines (yep a cruise ship, remember those), so we arranged to meet him after lunch down at the waterfront. What a spectacle greeted us, the place swarmed with scantily clad ‘cariocas’ strutting their stuff before the ‘blocos’ got started. Outfits of tight metallic bodysuits, tutus and halos were popular (and that was just the guys) as were outfits consisting of discreetly placed pieces of tape with miniskirts or tutus and horns.
Feeling rather overdressed, we snagged a seat at one of the bars that had popped up from nowhere. Here we caught up on the news, quaffed some beers and watched the locals getting ready for some serious partying.
Before we knew it, it was time to leave as we were meeting our fellow partiers for dinner before heading to the Sambódromo. We eventually snagged an Uber driver who appeared to be in a desperate hurry to get us to our destination. We survived the ride and through the bedlam, caught a glimpse of the bands preparing for their big night along the way.
We had dinner with our hostess and fellow attendees before the 14 of us (all wearing matching leas), piled into the van for our big night. By the time our driver got us there the first band was already working its way through, which worked to our advantage as there were no throngs waiting to enter.
We were in sector 9 with numbered seating. ‘Seating’ is a bit of a stretch as you only have enough space to park your butt on your number and enough floor space to be able to stand and see the parade over the tiered heads in front. We were supplied with cushions and drinks and we were off on a whirlwind ride of music, color and an energy we have never known before.
The crowd (dressed in costume to various degrees), surged up when each new sector passed, with tight knots loudly cheering their favorites on. The floats ranged from replicas of Christ on the cross, to a man on the moon, to our favorite (and the winner) a large tank with a live mermaid. These were interspersed by dancers wearing fantastical costumes, weaving and dancing to the beat.
Between bands we would have a short respite until the next one came through, while a mass of carefully choreographed sweepers swept the road clean. It was a crazy, mad night as we partied and danced with the other 90,000 people in attendance. It seems crazy now, this much further into the throes of a pandemic. We had heard news of the outbreak in China and just that morning news of a case in Brazil, but there we were.
Partied out, we laid low for a few days before taking advantage of a break in the weather to visit one of Rio’s icons. Perched on top of Corcovado Mountain, overlooking the city stands the 30 meter high statue of Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor).
We had already been advised to not even head that way unless we could see it from home. So one clear sunny morning we set out to stand at the base and take in the stunning views. By the time we got there, (along with everyone else who had been waiting for the rains to stop) the clouds had rolled back in. Nether the less it made for some very different photo opportunities with the gloomy weather and the crowds scrabbling for selfie shots.
Our last ‘must see’ was Sugar Loaf Mountain and this time the weather behaved. There are two different cable car rides, the first is from the base to Morro da Urca (220m) and the second goes to Pão de Açúcar itself. Both cars offer great views of the city and ocean beneath you. As do the viewing platforms and walkways at each stop. Again it was a popular destination, but not as frantic as at the Christo.
Unlike the tour groups that were being herded around, we took our time exploring. We even had coffee and pastries on an outdoor terrace, before admiring the view one last time and heading home.
Our time in Rio flew by and although we did not do everything the typical tourist does, we did get to see and do what we had planned. Although Rio does have a ‘spicy reputation’ (as one expat told us) we never felt threatened or in danger. In fact we found the people to be charming and genuine. So if you get the chance to visit do go, but do be aware that it can be a dangerous place, especially after too many Caipirinha’s.