Rio Carnival: A Party like no other.
I am sitting on Ipanema beach, it´s 6.30pm – the end of a long days sunbathing for most. All around me is the buzz of people chatting, wandering, drinking and flirting. The women are clad in virtually nothing and the men in the Brazilian version of Speedos. Reddened tourists stick out amongst the locals who are sitting around in groups sipping their Caipirinhas ( local cocktail made with sugar cane rum) or coconut milk.
“Skol, Aqua, Skol Aqua!” cry the beach salesmen every 2 minutes as they relentlessly pace up and down their square of beach with ice boxes on their shoulders. You can buy virtually anything on this beach – jewellry, clothes, food, drinks, rugs and even tablecloths will all be shoved in your face at one point! As the sun starts to drop behind the rocky mountain at the far end of Ipanema, the hum of chatter dies down and is replaced by the clacking of deckchairs being stacked. Every so often an empty coconut flies past me into a pile the beach cleaner is making. As the bodies and chairs clear I can finally see the perfect curve of the white sand against the blue ocean. Although lined with a busy road and high-rise hotels, Ipanema beach is magnificent especially for a city beach.
Rio is a city that truly has it all – beautiful beaches, architecture, quaint cobbled neighbourhoods, lush rainforest, never-ending nightlife and shopping opportunities! Nowhere gives you a better understanding of this than from the top of the famous “sugar-loaf mountain”. Anna and I emerged white faced from the 2 very-scary cable car rides to the top to ´that view´. Even having seen it so many times in photos the reality was a great panorama. Skyscrapers and high rises sit in-between bays, a lake and the Ocean surrounded by lush green-forested hills. In the distance the on the top of Corcovado peak, the enormous statue of Christo Redentor presides over the urban sprawl and beautiful expanses of white beach. Surely this must be one of the most stunning settings for a city on the planet.
Friday night was the first night of carnival and we celebrated this and the arrival of our friends Marc and Patricia with a meat-feast Brazilian style. (Veggies look away!) Skewers of meet continue to arrive at your table until you can eat no more. Huge knives are wielded in front of you and the meat is sliced right onto your plate. After that it was off to the ´Red and Black´ ball at a club. Once inside we were all shocked, less by the nearly naked men, women and ´in-betweens´ and more by the amount of people that were squeezed in to one space, in typical Latino style. The meat market feel reminded me of Uni freshers week, except it was 10 times more wild! Aside from this though the atmosphere and the sight of 1000´s of people jumping up and down to the samba drumbeat made it a very worthwhile experience.
We awoke on carnival Saturday with the samba beat still thumping in our ears. By 4pm it was time for the Banda di Ipanema – a samba band walks through the street and everyone else dances behind them. We spent most of it darting between doorways to avoid the rain, but the rain wasn’t stopping the Cariocas (Rio residents) in their outrageous costumes! They have an energy and brashness that seems to spill put wherever you look. Almost everyone had a yellow bandana on their head, we were puzzled until Patty translated the words on it: “Get dressed, wear a condom. Department of Health.”
Later we ventured into Rio’s quaintest neighbourhoods – cobbled streets, aging houses and a real old charm. We bumped into an exuberant street party. Set under a beautiful viaduct 100´s packed in to dance the night away. Further down more parties and a stage. It seemed like you could have spent the whole night wandering between different crowds of samba-tapping people!
However the big one was still to come: the Sambadrome. Originally it was a long street along which the parade went; now they have built seating right up both sides for 30000 spectators. By the time our taxi had fought through the traffic it seemed there would never be space for us to squeeze into the sector we had tickets for. Seats are not numbered and are just concrete steps where people stand and dance. We had to push our way through to find a space in the middle of a tour group who were non too impressed. The first sight of the parade below was dazzling. Each samba school parades for an hour and consists of 1000´s of dancers adorned in colouful luxurious costumes following gigantic mechanized floats. It would be impossible for me to describe how spectacular a scene this is as you look down the street. The costumes seem to float along like a multi-coloured sea and the crowd cheers, dances and waves. The atmosphere is electric and all this goes on until 6 or 7am! (Though we only made it until about 3am). Carnival was obviously an unforgettable spectacle, but at times it was almost intimidating.
We realised this more when we experienced the last night of a small town carnival in ´Paraty´ – our next stop. Here, though much smaller and less spectacular, the atmosphere was so laid back, we danced along the streets to the beats of the samba band with a more wild abandon than we felt able to in Rio. More about this in the Paraty update next week!