We tend to do our biggest trips during the winter to break up the dark and cold of the UK, both my partner and I being very much drawn to lighter and brighter climates. There are few places more attractive to a grey and dreary Mancunian than the iconic landscape and samba sounds of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. February 2016 was my first trip to South America, but undoubtedly not my last.
Rio is one of those bucket list places to visit and we worked and saved hard to make it the best it could be. We decided it was perfect for us, hot, beautiful, further afield and of course February = Carnival! With the Rio Olympics this summer we knew we had to go and see it for ourselves, although now we’re left wishing we were still dancing our way along the beaches.
We actually travelled Brazil for three weeks but spent a lot of time in Rio so I’ll go through some top tips for the once capital, including some top tips, restaurant recommendations, must-sees and travel essentials.
We stayed in two parts of Rio during our time there, one was in an artists gallery that served as accommodation for a small number of guests, and the other was a home-stay up in the Corcovado mountain, right underneath Christ the Redeemer. Both very contrasting places, although not far apart, we learnt that juxtaposition is common in Rio.
The Modernistas Hospedagem e Arte is in picturesque Santa Teresa, famous for idyllic winding streets and bohemian history, it is bursting with artists and vibrant culture. We felt it perfect for our stay, with just four rooms each finished in a different artistic aesthetic. We ate acai, perfectly ripe papaya and local cakes each day at breakfast (I repeat: Cariocas eat cake for breakfast!) and even met a cheeky little capuchin one morning trying to share.
The famous Santa Teresa yellow tram connects the town to the rest of Rio, we walked a lot of the time but you have to be fit to keep up with the staggering hills and endless steps around town, especially in the heat. It’s hard to believe the carriages, or bondes, were once pulled by horses.
As a reaction to the commercialisation of the Rio Carnival the Cariocas started the Blocos de Rua (street parties) and one of the most famous is the Bloco des Carmelites in Santa Teresa. I was thrilled to learn that this bloco is named after a Carmelite nun who ran away from the Santa Teresa Convent to join the Carnival. It was a strange sight to see so many people in nuns veil, speedos and flip flops!
It is said that the blocos embody the more authentic wild side of the Rio Carnival and it’s easy to see why. There is no sponsor or control at these parties, drinks are aplenty and served up out of suitcases and backpacks, music is played from trucks and cars, everyone is dancing and partying- it’s much more free spirited than the official parade in the Sambodromo.
We did see the official Carnival parade during our time in Rio, and I could write about it forever, but I will do a post come next year with top tips and tricks closer to the 2017 event. I just couldn’t talk about Santa Teresa without mentioning the blocos!
After our week exploring the sights near Santa Teresa, the Escaderia de Selaron, the Maracaña, the National Museum of Brazil, we moved up into the forest on the Corcovado mountain in Cosme Velho, where we stayed with two lovely locals who filled us with their knowledge of Rio and gave us lots of pointers of where to eat and live like a local.
A must-see for Rio is the Jardin Botanico where we saw beautiful plants, toucans, marmosets, butterflies, turtles, monkeys, but much to my disappointment, no sloths; they are my favourite but spend their time in much more secluded areas of the rainforest. Don’t listen to the Tripadvisor reviews here, they told us we would only spend 1-2 hours in the gardens, but we were there most of the day. It was a beautiful setting to see Brazilian nature at it’s best.
Our sightseeing for the south of Rio included Cristo (obviously), the beautiful beaches of Ipanema,
spending Valentines day on the Copacabana, and a cable car ride up to Sugarloaf Mountain (another must-do if you are there for the Olympics).
Although it’s possibly the greatest icon of Rio de Janeiro I was slightly uncomfortable visiting Christ the Redeemer. It’s more evidence of the jagged distribution of wealth in Rio. Although architecturally very impressive and a great representation of the strong religious history of Brazil I found the tourist-riddled nature of the place didn’t represent Rio’s heart. You travel up through rainforest and past hundreds of favelas on a tiny tin tram you’re not entirely convinced will make it, only to emerge at the very top under the statue where there is air conditioning, travelators and lifts.
For food I have two restaurant recommendations: you must visit the Garota de Ipanema (Yes, where the song was written!), just a short walk from Ipanema beach. They have great portions and it’s good value for the amount of food you get. They serve sizzling BBQs (Pre-vegan Flynx...) to your table so it’s good fun. It gets very busy later on with a lively atmosphere so go early to make sure you get a table.
The other great meal we had was somewhat more upmarket and back in Santa Teresa. Make sure you book ahead at the Aprezivel restaurant as it fills up. We didn’t book but were lucky to get a table, although we were seated inside rather than out amongst the jungle-outdoor seating where you can see the chefs and monkeys etc. However we had a great view over Rio and saw straight into the Sambodromo, which was amazing during Carnival week. This was our most expensive meal in Rio, but we made the most of it and had three courses, local favourite caprinhas and cocktails, it was well worth it and delicious, even if you couldn’t afford to eat there every night. Plus you burn off the calories clambering up cobbled slopes to find the place!
Prices overall in Rio did surprise us. Be aware if you’re heading over to this Olympic 2016 host that there is quite a hefty tax on everything, including your accommodation, which you are expected to pay on arrival.
February is the peak of summer for Brazil and a few days it did go over forty degrees Celsius. I don’t do well in the heat generally, although I love it, and this was definitely pushing my limits. Be sure to keep yourself hydrated, we were drinking water constantly. My feeble pasty skin got some nasty sunburn even smothered in factor 50. Stay off the beaches during peak times and look after your skin if you're not used to the heat, you’ll be grateful when you’re older.
Another top tip for adjusting is don’t have the air conditioning on in the room constantly. Although it’s tempting in such high temperatures, we realised it was stopping us from adjusting as quickly, once we learnt to keep it off we were much better adjusted outside the room.
I could write so much more on Rio, but hopefully this is a taste of the beautiful city to relive the beauty of the Olympics 2016. It is an amazing city with great, enduring and warm people who deal with such poverty and political shifts on a daily basis. It’s been hard watching the news on Rio in the build up to the Olympics, with such negative spin from all angles. Don’t be put off, Rio de Janeiro is far from perfect, but it is the sunniest of places in heart and soul.