When you meticulously plan your travels, down to a daily budget and itinerary, the last thing you expect is to accidentally touch down in the middle of the world’s largest Carnaval celebration.
• Days 1-5: Rio de Janeiro
• Days 6-9: Paraty
• Day 10: Sao Paulo
Dates: February 24 – March 5, 2019
Arriving in Rio
It was 7am on Sunday morning when we landed in Rio de Janeiro. It was my second time in the city and Tim’s first, and I was excited to show him some places I enjoyed as well as learn more about this iconic destination.
Since we couldn’t check into our hotel until later in the day, we decided to head out for a morning walking tour of the city center. We love finding free walking tours in the cities we visit, because they are a great way to get an overview of everything.
Our tour was off to a rough start before we even left the hotel. Our Uber not only took forever to arrive, but it turns out we had accidentally chosen a shared Uber. We got into the car with a man in a black faux leather vest (with nothing underneath) and a woman covered in glitter and not much else. Too concerned about being late and missing the tour, I didn’t even fully register the conversation Tim was having with them. Apparently, even though the official Carnaval was still over a week away, the city was already celebrating with block parties around town.
Eventually, our driver let them out near a swarm of other people all walking in the same direction and wearing a colorful array of costumes. Sunflowers, rainbows, and unicorns all passed by as we continued on to the meeting point for our tour.
When we arrived, 15 minutes late, we saw nothing that looked like the start of a tour group. We headed to the first destination listed in the tour description, only to find that it was closed.
OK, I thought, clearly this tour isn’t going to happen for us today. So we did what any reasonable people would. We bought glitter tutus, bunny ears, and beers, and followed everyone else to the block party!
Even though we had not slept much at all on our overnight flight from Argentina, the energy of the crowd sustained us. Before we knew it, we weren’t just watching sunflowers, rainbows, and unicorns. We were among them, dancing and drinking while a dj played music from a platform in the middle of the street.
As the day wore on, we wore out. We left the party in a quest for lunch, made a quick visit to Copacabana Beach in front of our hotel, and then retreated to the quiet comforts of a decent hotel room.
We’d been in Brazil for less than 8 hours and it was already surprising us!
Celebrating Carnaval in Rio
The next morning, we got up early to try to beat the crowds to Rio’s most famous landmark – the Christ Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) statue. Like our efforts to go on a walking tour the day before, our attempts to catch the first bus up Corcovado Mountain to the statue did not go as planned.
Our ticket told us to go to a certain pick up location about 15 minutes walking away from our hotel. When we got there, we saw a sign with a map that had a star indicating where we should be for pick up, at the corner of a park. We went there and waited about 15 more minutes until a stranger told us we actually needed to go over to the OTHER corner of the park. Like kids following clues on a scavenger hunt, we made our way to that side of the park.
Once there, yet another guy pointed us a few dozen meters away to a dilapidated green shack. This, apparently, was where we would wait in line for our tickets (even though our voucher said there was no need to wait in line). Once we had our tickets, we could then wait in line for our bus.
We ended up getting to the statue about an hour and a half after it opened, along with seemingly the entire population of the country. It’s still a cool site to visit, but I don’t need to ever go back again now that I’ve seen it (we were less successful in actually seeing it on my first trip to Brazil).
The Cristo Redentor statue was contructed in Art Deco style in the 1920s. The statue was erected on top of Corcovado Mountain in 1931 in response to the Brazilian Catholic Church’s perceived sinfulness of the Brazilian people. It has since become a symbol of Rio de Janeiro and one of the most iconic landmarks in the world. Fun fact, it’s one of the 7 New Wonders of the World.
Since the weather was looking good for the rest of the day (but less promising for the rest of the week), we decided to make the most of the weather and venture to the Santa Theresa neighborhood.
This hillside town is famous for its bohemian street art, historic yellow trams, and the ruins of a sprawling mansion. We hoped to explore the latter before then finding lunch.
Of course, as with everything we were trying to do in Brazil, things did not go as planned. It turns out the ruins are closed on Mondays (the day we were trying to visit). With an hour to kill before any lunch restaurants opened, we meandered around to check out the murals.
Eventually, we got lunch at a wonderful little spot called Cafe do Alto. I ordered a traditional meaty stew called feijoada, and Tim and I split a large pitcher of mango juice (which was basically just pureed mango – it was delicious!).
After lunch, we returned to our hotel for the afternoon to pass a few hours resting before one last activity for the day – taking the cable car up Sugarloaf Mountain.
Sugarloaf Mountain overlooks Rio’s stunning harbor. The coastline is very topographical, with large mountains jutting up everywhere and a smattering of islands just offshore! On the cable car ride and at the top, you get to take in views overlooking it all.
We timed our trip for sunset, and got to the top about an hour before. The timing was perfect, because there was hardly anyone there, and when it was time for sunset, a thick fog rolled over the area. We ended up enjoying some awesome views before drinking caipirinhas (Tim’s first ever taste of Brazil’s most famous cocktail) and people watching when the crowds arrived.
Rio De Walking Tour
The next day, we finally embarked on that walking tour we’d tried to join that first day. Honestly, this free walking tour was one of the most boring we’ve been on, and I would have left it early if we weren’t interested in some of the places on the route itself.
Notable places included Cafe Colombo, which must easily be the most beautiful and historic cafe and pastry shop in town, a beautiful church in the Lapa neighborhood, and historical buildings of the downtown area. Walking through downtown, Tim and I realized that this was the same street the block party had been at on Sunday! Now, everyone was in business attire. It was a striking contrast from the whimsical costumes we saw there just a few days prior!
The tour ended at the famous Saleron Steps, at the edge of the (rather rough) Lapa neighborhood. The artist created an intricate mosaic along the walls and stairs of an alleyway in the Lapa neighborhood in order to inspire pride in the community and to show that it can rise above its bad reputation. The steps themselves are very crowded with tourists, but the whole area features impressive street murals and kitschy restaurants that you can enjoy sans chaos.
As for us, we took our photos and jetted out of there to find lunch!
Royal Portuguese Reading Cabinet
After lunch we walked to the Royal Portuguese Reading Cabinet, a beautiful library I’d been wanting to see in person ever since I had heard of it! It’s one of the most stunning rooms of books I’ve ever seen (and I love surrounding myself with books!).
The library contains the largest collection of Portuguese language literature in the world outside of Portugal. As a language and lit nerd, this was VERY exciting to me!
We ended up spending over an hour here. The vibe was so peaceful and calm – a welcome break from the city chaos.
The next day, we spontaneously decided to learn more about the Carnaval tradition by joining a “behind the scenes” tour of one of the samba schools, which is basically the factory where Carnaval comes to life.
In Rio, the Carnaval parade is actually a massive samba competition among the city’s best samba schools (associations). The event takes place in a stadium (the Sambadrome) over half a kilometer long.
Each samba school spends most of the year preparing for the event. Between one Carnaval and the next, they have to generate themes, design costumes and floats, come up with their choreography, and rehearse.
Even though the competition was just a few days away, people were still busily putting the finishing touches on the massive floats and elaborate costumes.
The tour was a little cheesy, especially the part where we dressed up in Carnaval costumes and learned a little bit of samba, but it was a fun way to learn more about the event. I especially loved seeing all the floats in person.
That night, we walked along the boardwalk of Copacabana Beach and stopped at several kiosks for some caipirinhas. These little beachfront bars make drinks to go or to stay. I enjoyed walking down the boardwalk, drink in hand and people watching.
Museum of Tomorrow
The next day, we walked to Ipanema Beach for some views and to get a stroll in, and then we visited one last place we wanted to see in Rio – the Museum of Tomorrow.
This fairly new museum features high-tech and interact exhibits focusing on the science behind the future of our planet. The very first exhibit is a 360° video of our world’s creation. The words were all in Portuguese, but the visual was enough to move me to tears.
In the next exhibit, Tim and I were absolutely mesmerized by the artistic interpretation of the wind over the ocean – two sheer scarves billowing over a black surface in the middle of an artificial wind.
Many of the exhibits share data about the impacts of climate change on our world, and they even have an interactive calculator that determines your carbon footprint. Sadly, even with measures Tim and I take to minimize this, air travel puts us well above the individual sustainable allotment. I would have loved to see an exhibit at the end of the museum that shares personalized, actionable recommendations based on your interactions with the exhibitions and the data you share via the ID card they give you at the entrance.
I left the museum feeling discouraged about the earth’s future and my role in that. Still, it was a beautiful and thought-provoking experience, and now Tim and I must do the work in our own lives to put those thoughts into action.
The next morning, Tim and I caught a bus to the small town of Paraty about 4 hours south of the city of Rio de Janeiro (though still in Rio de Janeiro state).
Our Airbnb host arranged for her friend to meet us at the bus station and drive us through the cobblestone streets to the apartment. We’ve stayed in a number of Airbnbs since this, and I can still say this is the cutest, nicest place we’ve ever stayed. It had a charming backyard garden, colorful yet tastefull decor, and an overall vibe that fit the historic and laid back city.
After checking in, we ventured out to explore. We knew Paraty celebrates Carnaval in a traditional way, but we weren’t sure really what that meant.
The streets were lined with streamers from one side to the other, and the effect was doubled by the reflection in the puddles of rain water pooled along the uneven cobblestone. We found a large tent and stage set up in the main square – this is where the action would be.
We grabbed pizza at a restaurant nearby, and we hadn’t even finished eating when we heard the enthusiastic music of a brass band coming down the road, led by a smiling “king”, and a few dozen revelers close behind them.
After dinner we headed to the main square, where again we saw the man dressed as a king. People, mostly Brazilian as this isn’t a very touristy city, posed for photos with him while the band played on. Street vendors were set up all around the square, offering food, face paint, and of course beer.
Wanting to dive deeper into the festivities, Tim and I walked the few short blocks back to our apartment to retrieve the tutu and bunny ears we had bought in Rio.
Back at the party and in proper attire, we ended up joining the parade through the streets for several blocks. Eventually, we ended up at a bar, standing on our chairs on the patio, where we had a perfect view over the growing crowd.
We ended up going home long before the party ended (I’m not sure it ever did end to be honest), because we wanted to make the most of the main event the next day – the not-quite-famous Bloco da Lama.
Bloco da Lama
Every year on the Saturday of Carnaval on a beach in Paraty known for its goopy mud, hundreds of celebrants gather to roll around in the thick sludge, covering themselves from head to toe.
Unsure what to expect, we put on swimsuits and walked to the beach. Sure enough, we arrived to find dozens of people flopping around in the mud, laughing as they covered their skin in goop.
We didn’t hesitate long before jumping in ourselves. It was a blast! It’s an event for all ages, and one of the most beautiful things we saw was how parents and their kids would play around in the mud together. Kids don’t often get permission to get dirty, and to be encouraged to do so WITH THEIR PARENTS is so cool!
Once everyone is sufficiently muddy, the DJ turns the music up, the beer starts flowing, and it’s a big muddy dance party!We stayed for a few hours before walking down to the “normal” part of the beach to rinse the mud off in the ocean. Our Airbnb host probably wouldn’t be thrilled if we tracked mud until her home!
The Carnaval celebrations continued all weekend long, with parades, music, and costumes for everyone. It was a perfect way to wrap up our time in Brazil before continuing on to Sao Paulo for our flight to Chile!