I have always wanted to go to Brazil and specifically to Rio de Janeiro since I watched the cheesy nineties film “Only the Strong” with my brother. He got very deep into the movie’s bad guy ass-kicking Brazilian dance/fighting style called capoeira and is still into it today.
I just wanted to see what all the hype was and get a taste of the culture. So, when I decided that I wanted to travel after university, going to Rio and Carnaval was at the top of my list (and the list of places I want to see is long and getting longer…). I added Bolivia, Peru and Argentina later on just because I felt like seeing more places, and I am glad I did. But as I expected, Rio was my favourite place and a place I could now see myself living.
Evidently, a lot of other people kinda dig Rio too. During Carnaval week 98% of the hotels and hostels were booked to suit the over 1.1 million foreigners expected to siege the city streets. That could sound like A LOT of gringo tourists, and there were, but it didn’t really feel like that except when sitting on Copacabana beach.
While foreigners came aplenty, many of the nearly 200 million Brazilians go to Rio or Salvador for Carnaval, especially from nearby Sao Paulo, who’s 20 million people do not have a major Carnaval celebration to call their own.
I arrived three days before Carnaval to get settled and see some sights. First, I went to the famous Pao de Azucar (Sugar Loaf) Mountain where you can take spectacular photos of the city.
Instead of paying the 55 Reales to go on a lazy cable car, I teamed up with a Dutch guy, a Brit and a friendly Canadian couple to tackle the first mountain beside Sugar Loaf on foot. It took probably 30 minutes, which included feeding a pack of monkeys – contrary to park law (don’t tell anyone!) to walk up. The site was beautiful and I didn’t feel it necessary to pay extra.
Next on the tourist trail a look at some of the world’s most infamous slums! Weird I know!
Check out my impressions of going in to Santa Marta favela before entering:
Fortunately, my Brazilian friend that I met in Florianopolis was with us, so we were easily able to find our way without a local guide.
Bruno showed us local fruit and explained the situation going on with the favelas in Rio. In case you don’t know, I’ll bring you up to speed: Since 2008 the Brazilian government has implemented a Pacifying Police Unit in certain urban favelas as well as social programs to clean up in advance of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.
Going into a world-renowned slum was something I wanted to do, but to do it in light of these militant changes seemed very bizarre to me. As a gringo walking through this mountain village with Bruno’s camera I couldn’t help but feel that I was going to see something like the zoo – except that these people are human beings!
Gringos are encouraged to go in. In fact, you are asked to hashtag the fact that you are there.
The people in the favelas didn’t look at me with detest or anger, but rather they seemed rather welcoming. A few street children followed us around for a while, not looking for money, but simply wanting to play with us.
Up the cable car and through the windy alleys we made it to the Michael Jackson monument where he and Spike Lee filmed half of the music video “They Don’t Care About Us” – the other half in Pelourinho, Salvador, Bahia.
It was told that M.J. used the gangs as his security instead of police. A lot has changed since then. With the pacification and police presence, those gangs are disarmed and powerless.
Michael’s presence in this favela is probably one of the reasons it was pacified. Simply by going somewhere, Michael created a tourist industry and altered the lives of the locals forever. What power!
I was pretty shaken up by the whole favela experience. Not because I was felt threatened, just because it was surreal. Yes it was poor, but it also looked like a united community and a positive place to live.
Another cool tourist attraction in Rio is the Lapa steps also known as Escadaria Selaron. Created in 1990 by a Chilean artist Jorge Selaron, the steps are an incredibly tall piece of interactive artwork that has tiles from people from all over the world. On this day in Rio, it was covered with people.
Actually, Snoop Dogg filmed his video for “Beautiful” on the Lapa steps.
Tourist attractions aside, I was ready for the biggest party of my life! Up next! CARNAVAL.
Watch this 5 minute video I made for a teaser: