#13 Time for a party: Carnival and more in Brazil

“The world is like that — incomprehensible and full of surprises.”

Jorge Amado, Gabriela, Clavo y Canela

In the aftermath of the marvellous Olympics and Paralympics in Rio, I thought this was an appropriate time for my Brazil post. Funnily enough, when I ended up in Rio for Carnival 2010 I hadn’t actually planned on going there. I’d flown into Buenos Aires, had a return flight out of Bogota and my intention was to spend the last month or so of my South American sabbatical exploring Colombia. Then I met Aisling on a long bus journey through Patagonia.

During our many hours of conversation as our coach ate up the miles and the stationary pauses as we shuffled our way slowly across the Argentinian-Chilean border, she planted the seed in my mind that being on this continent at carnival time was too good an opportunity to miss. So I put it to the vote by opening a poll on my blog and while there were a few strong voices arguing for me to stick to my original route, the consensus was ‘go to Brazil’!

As a result, some weeks later I found myself taking a flight from El Alto airport just outside La Paz (the world’s highest international airport at 4061m), to Puerto Suarez and from there crossing the Bolivian-Brazilian border overland to go back to nature in the tropical playground of the Brazilian Pantanal. With a total area of almost 195,000 square kilometers, the Pantanal is the world’s largest wetlands. Remote, scantily populated and with very little infrastructure, it was quite an effort to get there. When I did, unsurprisingly, it was hot and steamy, the variegated green foliage humming with busy insects and colourful birds of all sizes. I got an adrenaline hit ‘tubing’ down the river on whose banks the lodge I stayed in was perched. And another when I went out with a guided group to spot dangerous wild boar: as the loud rustling and cracking of undergrowth signalled their arrival, my excitement mingled with a humid fear of what might happen when they encountered us on their patch. As well as the boar, we saw caimans lolling in the river; capybaras (the world’s largest rodents) peeping out from the undergrowth; raucous flocks of vultures; proud preening storks; mischievous monkeys; chattering macaws; a baby armadillo crouching beside two crossed logs; and pert-eared jungle deer prancing across the tracks in front of us – and once, even swimming across the river.

Then it was off to the sophisticated city of Săo Paolo, where I spent a blissful few days being hosted by Solly, a journalist I’d met on my Antarctica journey a month or so before, and his wonderfully hospitable parents. During the days I explored art galleries like the Museu de Arte Săo Paulo (MASP) and the Choque Cultural and shopped for clothes more suitable for the Brazilian summer than my trusty fleeces. I remember a hilarious hour or so in a small boutique, trying on lightweight dresses with the ‘advice’ of the shop assistants. They couldn’t speak English, I don’t speak Portuguese and so we communicated with gestures and facial expressions, with me throwing in the odd Spanish word here and there. By night Solly and I drank cocktails and dined out in style as he proudly showed me different neighbourhoods of his city.

Eventually I bade a sad farewell to Solly and his family and boarded a bus at Săo Paulo’s Terminal Rodoviário Tietê. Six hours later, I was in the legendary city of Sugarloaf Mountain, the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, sprawling favelas … and of course, Carnaval, the ultimate purpose of my Brazilian visit! For the duration of my stay I was wrapped in a whirl of suffocating heat, riotous colour, pulsing samba music and dance, joyous crowds, very late nights, early sun-blushed dawns, frothing hot tubs on the stunning sea view balcony of my hostel in cobble-stoned Santa Teresa, missed flights, sparkly tiaras, a helicopter ride (my first ever) over the towering Christ the Redeemer statue and languorous hours on the iconic beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema.

I was lucky enough to go to Sambódromo, the famous samba stadium, twice, for all-night festivals of ornate costumes, feathers, frivolity, cheering, dancing, shimmying and an electric atmosphere of excitement and friendliness. Fleets of highly decorated floats topped with huge set pieces paraded slowly through the stadium, their accompanying dance troupes performing energetically on board and spilling over to flank their vehicles on the ground with brightly coloured, frothing, cavorting rows of dancers. Themes of fairy tales, animals, myths and magic were all in evidence. The samba schools danced and pranced; the crowds erupted with the sheer thrill of it all. During my stay I squeezed in a cultural visit to the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum (MAC), taking a local ferry across Guanabara Bay to get there, which was fun. But the highlight was the sheer thrill of being in such a party town and experiencing such an iconic event. I couldn’t believe I’d almost missed it; thank you pollsters for voting me there!

If you liked this, you might also like:

  • This video by one of my travel friends, Kelvin Eisses, who completed a remarkable, ‘Rather Odd Journey’ from Antarctica to the Arctic. Some excellent footage of the Rio Carnival from around minute 18 – keep watching to the end for the view from my hostel, Casa 579 and watch the earlier part of the clip for coverage of hostels in South America
  • The Easy Voyage site section on Brazil, with a variety of useful websites and blog posts curated by Francesca Long
  • The CulturalExplorer site – a fun travel site by young blogger and traveller Chanel
  • Grobetrotter – a blog about living in Brazil, with monthly posts on a range of topics by an American expat living in the country
  • Discovering Sao Paulo, a blog about living in the city by Albert Knuth and Pierre Larose

HIGHLIGHTS

Natural highlights – the Pantanal area and of course the Amazon rainforest region is also spectacular (I didn’t visit the Amazon while I was in Brazil, though I have dipped into the Peruvian part on another South America trip; Iguacu Falls, an amazing waterfall that spans the Brazilian-Argentinian border and can be visited from both sides (I saw it from the Argentinian side)

Cultural highlights – carnival! While I spent carnival in Rio, the Salvador carnival celebration is also meant to be spectacular and is described as the biggest street party in the world. The festival is celebrated in several other Brazilian cities including Săo Paolo and Recife. Some impressive art galleries, such as the ones I visited in Săo Paolo (the Museu de Arte Săo Paulo (MASP) and the Choque Cultural) and Rio (the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum (MAC). The Inhotim museum (Instituto de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim) 60km outside Belo Horizonte, which looks astonishing.

Food & drink highlights – the classic caipirinha cocktail; if you’re a carnivore, you’ll love the churrasco or massive plates of barbecued meat that are so popular in Brazil, often served with a variety of grilled cuts strung up on a vertical stand; pão de queijo, a delicious chewy cheese bread made with tapioca flour; feijoada, a traditional hearty black bean, sausage and meat stew. See this Good Food blog post by travel writer Catherine Balston.

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