‘Cidade Maravilhosa’ (Marvellous City) is an accurate nickname for Rio de Janeiro, home to towering mountains, lush rainforest, sandy beaches and blue seas, as well as buzzing nightlife in its many lively neighbourhoods. I have had the fortune of living in the spectacular lakeside town of Queenstown, New Zealand, in the gorgeous harbour city of Sydney, Australia, and I am even fond of commuting to and from work back home in London, seeing Big Ben through the London Eye and glimpsing Tower Bridge beautifully lit up at night. Rio would be another city I would be grateful to call my home, but in just four and a half days I merely scratched the surface. I also came at a time when World Cup tourists created a different (yet still amazing) atmosphere, so Rio is firmly etched in my list of places I must visit again. I will take you through my journey of views from the tops of spectacular outlooks to lying face down on sandy beaches; identifying the highs of World Cup fever to the lows of harsh Rio hangovers!
The combination of a late last night in Belo Horizonte and bus timings meant my visit to Ouro Preto sacrificed the first half day in Rio. My early morning arrival meant I had to convince the Portuguese night-worker at Copina Hostel to let me into our stiflingly hot, overpriced, 6-bed dorm to catch a few hours of sleep before being woken for my first sights of Rio. What better introduction than by ascending to the dizzy heights of Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain) by two cable cars – “Oh there will be cable cars” becoming one lasting quote from the trip. The view from the top (396m above sea level) showed the fusion between nature and city, with skyscrapers sprawling from the rocky hills to the curved sandy beaches in every direction. Boats filled the beautiful blue waters of Rio’s marina, planes curved their descent onto a scenic runway, people dotted the sweeping Copacabana beach and the England team were conspicuous in their absence at their Rio training camp below us.
Another great vantage point is from the iconic ‘Cristo Redentor’ (Christ the Redeemer) statue, spreading his arms out to embrace the ‘Cidade Maravilhosa’. The largest post-modern statue in the world sits atop 710m ‘Corcovado’ (hunchback) peak and was voted in 2007 as one of the ‘New 7 Wonders of the World’. My views were clouded by the early morning mist but I admired ‘Cristo Redentor’ in all his vast glory, craning my neck amongst the crowds all trying to fit alongside Him into their photo frame.
Accessible from ‘Corcovado’ lies the lush rainforest of Parque Nacional da Tijuca. This will be one of the places to see on my return to explore the trails over small peaks and past waterfalls. One other ‘high’ of Rio would be to hang-glide from 510m Pedra Bonito, with flights lasting up to 1 hour (budget permitting)!
When talking about the lows of Rio, I am referring to the sights and nature of the city closer to sea level. I missed out on the museums and architecture of Rio’s commercial district, nor did I manage to visit the Botanical Gardens or sample the sands of Rio’s many other beaches, such as Ipanema or Leblon. This includes missing out on Arsène Wenger’s replication of RVP’s wonder header against Spain, while playing beach volleyball with France’s past masters: Lizarazu, Wiltord and Carembeu.
I did manage to tackle the neighbourhood of Lapa by day, first searching for the ‘Cathedral Metropolitana’ – one of the ugliest cathedrals I have ever seen! Inside was a little more interesting with stained glass windows stretching up the cone’s entire length. Far more culturally beautiful is the ‘Escadaria Selarón’, it’s 215 steps decorated in over 2,000 tiles from 120 countries (though I didn’t spot London or England). The artist responsible is eccentric Chilean Selarón, who killed himself by supposedly setting himself on fire at the foot of the staircase in 2012. We also strolled through Lapa’s ‘Passeio Público’ park pausing to take in various modern art pieces, however my visit definitely falls into ‘My Rio Lows’ section, suffering from a double hangover after Brazil’s second round triumph the previous day.
With our hostel minutes walk away from world famous Copacabana beach, my laziness and lack of time dictated that I spent all my beach time along this curved bay. Aside from sunbathing and people-watching, we managed a few kick-ups before being scouted for a new FIFA initiative on beach football (supposedly filming its trial for the BBC) where we went 2-on-2 to score in any of the 3 nets of the triangular goal. The other lads were pretty jaded from the night before so I doubt we showed enough flair to make the cut! In contrast, earlier that morning I had taken advantage of my rare hangover-free state to jog the majority of the 4.5km length and back.
My Rio Highs
Copacabana beach was also the setting for probably my biggest Rio high: Brazil v Chile in the 2nd Round. We made a wise choice to dodge the 25,000 capacity FIFA Fan Fest in favour of the second screen, which was used exclusively for Brazil’s games. We secured 6 seats at the back of the crowd, then I wandered along the beach to soak up more atmosphere. I returned with a Brazil bracelet, flag and facepaint; one cheek decorated with Brazil’s flag, the other dedicated ironically to their #9, farcical Fred.
In the first half I got into the spirit of things, knocking back a few beers and caipirinhas that were conveniently offered by vendors wandering through the crowds. This is not something unique to game time, as bustling Copacabana beach had locals selling drinks, food, shirts, hats, flags, balls and all other World Cup paraphernalia all day long. David Luiz’s opening goal set the crowd wild but the nearby pocket of Chilean fans silenced the locals when Sanchez equalised.
The rest of the guys had acquired 5 tickets for Colombia’s match against Uruguay at the legendary Maracana stadium, 3 of these in advance hoping England would qualify as runner’s-up at the group stage. The other two were bought from a tout during the Brazil game and a 6th was offered but this would have raised everyone’s share from £300 to £350 (the final ticket was priced at £550). Despite being a once in a lifetime opportunity, I had to consider my budget – this would have comprised one week of my budget.
To get to the stadium in time, they had to leave partway through extra time, missing an extremely tense penalty shootout. I recorded every penalty on my phone, capturing the emotions and celebrations of the crowd. It was another magical moment when Chile missed their final penalty, which I shared with the Serbian TV crew who had replaced my friends!
Failing to get inside the fan fest, I watched the Colombia victory at a nearby bar then back at the hostel, crashing and burning early as the game reached an early conclusion. My friends woke me up from the sofa and I rallied again for a night out in Leblon’s ‘Melt’ club, although not before falling from my top bunk – down to the wet floor, not my intoxicated state! It was a good night racing through beers then cocktails, including some questionable ‘Pina Colada’s and potent ‘Sex on the Beach’s. Fun times inevitably included another fall negotiating my way over benches with three cocktails in hand!
Aside from the obvious enjoyment gained from the highs and lows of Rio’s natural and cultural beauty, more good times were had experiencing Rio’s nightlife amongst the banter of friends. From my experience, each World Cup host city seemed to have one location for a fan fest and another neighbourhood offering the best bar atmosphere, both during the game and for the after-party. Undoubtedly, these were Vila Madalena and Savassi in São Paulo and Belo Horizonte respectively. The Copacabana beach hosted the major viewing areas in Rio, with its huge fan fest and secondary screen but I assume Lapa would constitute the best alternative. I cannot judge this perfectly as there were not any matches on the evening we visited, but it had a fantastic ambience with people spilling out of the bars onto the crowded streets.
We secured seats in one bar, ordered ‘chopp’s (draught beer) all round and began a night of ‘Champions League Taps’ – the aforementioned ‘Taps’ with new rules introduced at the end of each completed game. I struggled first to keep up with the pace of the game then got baffled by the introduction of various quotes accrued along the trip, many of which mocked England manager, Roy Hodgson’s speech impediment. Examples included “Bring on the Euros”, “We lost Gary Lewin…that was a blow” and “My favourite place in the world would have to be the Great Barrier Reef”. Harsh but hilarious!
My Rio Lows
I had a great time in Rio, and I will not dwell on any lows (brutal hangovers) or the chances missed. For example, I would have liked to continue the night in Lapa beyond the first bar, but we judged it wiser to save ourselves for the carnage of Brazil and Colombia’s matches the following day. Similarly, I would have enjoyed sampling the nightlife in other neighbourhoods but this would require a longer stay. I was denied a potential first night out in Copacabana by my lack of orientation to find the other guys, then an uninspiring match between Costa Rica and Greece on the final night meant the remaining four of us did not venture out.
While the World Cup brought a fantastic international atmosphere, it also brought ridiculous prices to accommodation and I would say that my experience was not a particularly genuine Brazilian one. But this is inevitable when staying in hostels, travelling in a large group, not speaking the local language and being surrounded by internationals. It is also inevitable that you will travel 14 hours across the globe to find yourself lying on a Brazilian beach with an English group for neighbours!
So, top stuff Rio: I will be back for more highs…and probably some lows too!