The citizens of the fourteen-million-strong city of Rio de Janeiro call it the Cidade Marvilhosa – and there can’t be much argument about that. Although riven by inequality, Rio has great style. Its international renown is bolstered by a series of symbols that rank as some of the greatest landmarks in the world: the Corcovado mountain supporting the great statue of Christ the Redeemer; the rounded incline of the Sugar Loaf mountain, standing at the entrance to the bay; and the famous sweeps of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, probably the most notable lengths of sand on the planet. It’s a setting enhanced annually by the frenetic sensuality of Carnaval, an explosive celebration that – for many people – sums up Rio and its citizens, the cariocas. The major downside in a city given over to conspicuous consumption is the rapacious development that has engulfed Rio. As the rural poor, escaping drought and poverty in other regions of Brazil, swell Rio’s population, the city has been squeezed like a toothpaste tube between mountains and sea, pushing its human contents ever further out along the coast. Over the decades, much of the city’s rich architectural heritage has been whittled away, along with the destruction of much of its natural environment.
Sitting on the southern shore of the magnificent Guanabara Bay, Rio has, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most stunning settings in the world. Extending for 20km along an alluvial strip, between an azure sea and forest-clad mountains, the city’s streets and buildings have been moulded around the foothills of the mountain range that provides its backdrop, while out in the bay there are many rocky islands fringed with white sand. The aerial views over Rio are breathtaking, and even the concrete skyscrapers that dominate the city’s skyline add to the attraction. As the former capital of Brazil and now its second largest city, Rio has a remarkable architectural heritage, some of the country’s best museums and galleries, superb restaurants and a vibrant nightlife – in addition to its legendary beaches. With so much to see and do, Rio can easily occupy a week and you may well find it difficult to drag yourself away.
The state of Rio de Janeiro, surrounding the city, is a fairly recent phenomenon, established in 1975 as a result of the amalgamation of Guanabara state and Rio city, the former federal capital. Fairly small by Brazilian standards, the state is both beautiful and accessible, with easy trips either northeast along the Costa do Sol or southwest along the Costa Verde, taking in unspoilt beaches, washed by a relatively unpolluted ocean. Inland routes make a welcome change from the sands, especially the trip to Petrópolis, a nineteenth-century mountain retreat for Rio’s rich.
The best time to visit both city and state, at least as far as the climate goes, is between May and August, when the region is cooled by trade winds, the temperature remains at around 22–32°C and the sky tends to be clear. Between December and March (the rainy season), it’s more humid, with the temperature hovering around 40°C; but even then it’s rarely as oppressive as it is in northern Brazil, and there’s a chance of blue sky for at least part of the day.Read More
The most famous of all images of Rio is that of the vast statue of Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) gazing across the bay from the Corcovado (hunchback) hill, arms outstretched in welcome, or as if preparing for a dive into the waters below. The Art Deco statue (daily 9am–7pm), 30m high and weighing over 1000 metric tons, was scheduled to be completed in 1922 as part of Brazil’s centenary independence celebrations, but this symbol of Rio wasn’t, in fact, finished until 1931. The French sculptor Paul Landowski was responsible for the head and hands, while the engineers Heitor Silva Costa and Pedro Viana constructed the rest.
In clear weather, fear no anticlimax: climbing to the statue is a stunning experience by day, and nothing short of miraculous in the early evening. In daylight, the whole of Rio and Guanabara Bay is laid out before you; after sunset, the floodlit statue can be seen from everywhere in the Zona Sul, seemingly suspended in the darkness that surrounds it and often shrouded in eerie cloud. Up on the platform at the base of the statue, the effect of the clouds, and the thousands of tiny winged insects clustering round the spotlights, help give the impression that the statue is careering through space out into the blackness that lies beyond the arc of the lights – dramatic, and not a little hypnotic.
- Zona Sul
Although it sometimes seems that one half of Rio is constantly being robbed by the other, don’t let paranoia ruin your stay. It’s true that there is quite a lot of petty theft in Rio – pockets are picked and bags and cameras swiped – but use a little common sense and you’re unlikely to encounter problems. Most of the real violence affecting Rio is drug related and concentrated in the favelas. In addition, there are certain areas that should be avoided.
In Centro, contrary to popular belief, Sunday is not the best time to stroll around – the streets are usually empty, which means you can be more easily identified, stalked and robbed. The area around Praça Mauá, just to the north of Centro, should be avoided after nightfall, and even during the day care should be taken. In the Zona Sul’s Parque do Flamengo it’s also inadvisable to wander unaccompanied after nightfall. Similarly, tourists who choose to walk between Cosme Velho and the Corcovado have been subject to robbery and assault – both of which can be best avoided by taking the train. Copacabana ’s record has improved since the authorities started to floodlight the beach at night, but it’s still not a good idea to remain on the sand after sunset.
If you’re expecting Rio’s gay nightlife to rival San Francisco’s or Sydney’s, you may well be disappointed. In general, nightlife is pretty integrated, with gay men, lesbians and heterosexuals tending to share the same venues; apart from transvestites who hang out on street corners and are visible during Carnaval, the scene is unexpectedly discreet.
A good starting-point for an evening out is Rua Visconde Silva in Botafogo, which is lined with gay- and lesbian-oriented cafés, bars and restaurants that are liveliest on Friday and Saturday nights. The classic introduction to Rio’s more traditional male gay society is Le Ball, a bar in the Travessa Cristiano Lacorte, just off Rua Miguel Lemos, at the Ipanema end of Copacabana. Opposite this, the Teatro Brigitte Blair hosts a gay transvestite show from around 10pm. Also in Copacabana, the bar and nightclub Inc (formerly called Encontros), at Praça Serzedelo Correia 15, next to Rua Siquera Campos, is open nightly and very popular, although mainly with tourists.
In Lapa, at Rua Mem de Sá 25, behind a pink facade under the Aqueduto da Carioca, the Cabaré Casanova is Rio’s oldest and most interesting gay bar. In business since 1929, the Casanova features drag shows, lambada and samba music, with large ceiling fans to cool down the frenetic dancers. Very different, but also wild, are the gay nights on Saturdays at the Cine Ideal at Rua da Carioca 62, Centro (w www.cineideal.com.br), an informal club that always draws huge crowds. The most popular gay nightclub is undoubtedly Le Boy at Rua Raul Pompéia 102 in Copacabana, towards Ipanema (t 21/2513-4993, w www.leboy.com.br). Based in a former cinema, this huge club is open nightly apart from Mondays and features dancefloors, drag shows and much more besides.
The strip of beach between Rua Farme de Amoedo and Rua Teixeira do Melo in Ipanema is the best-known daytime gay meeting-point. For Ipanema’s post-beach gay crowd, there’s Bofetada, a bar and café at Rua Farme de Amoedo 87. The beach area in front of the Copacabana Palace Hotel is also frequented by gay bathers, and the café next door, Maxims, is a fun gay place to hang out. Nearby on Avenida Atlântica at the junction with Rua Siqueira Campos, is the Gay Kiosk Rainbow, a summertime information point for gay visitors – ask about circuit parties, usually held in Centro.
For information about Rio’s gay balls, see the “Carnaval section”. If it’s tours highlighting Rio’s gay history you’re after, Carlos Roquette, a rather dapper former federal judge turned tour guide, can help you to explore (see Organized tours). Useful websites on gay and lesbian Rio include w www.riogayguide.com and w www.riogaylife.com, while w www.arco-iris.org.br offers more political and campaigning insights, but the website is only in Portuguese.
- Eating and drinking
- Nightlife and entertainment
Carnaval is celebrated in every Brazilian city, but Rio’s party is the biggest and flashiest of them all. From the Friday before Ash Wednesday to the following Thursday, the city shuts up shop and throws itself into the world’s most famous manifestation of unbridled hedonism. Carnaval’s greatest quality is that it has never become stale, thanks to its status as the most important celebration on the Brazilian calendar, easily outstripping either Christmas or Easter. In a city riven by poverty, Carnaval represents a moment of freedom and release, when the aspirations of cariocas can be expressed in music and song. And at the end of the very intense long weekend, there’s a brief collective hangover before attention turns to preparing for the following year’s event.
The origins of Carnaval in Rio can be traced back to a fifteenth-century tradition of Easter revelry in the Azores that caught on in Portugal and was exported to Brazil. Anarchy reigned in the streets for four days and nights, the festivities often so riotous that they were formally abolished in 1843 – this edict was ignored, however, allowing street celebrations to stand out as the most accessible and widely enjoyed feature of Carnaval ever since. In the mid-nineteenth century, masquerade balls were first held by members of the social elite, while processions, with carriages decorated in allegorical themes, also made an appearance, thus marking the ascendancy of the procession over the general street melee. Rio’s masses, who were denied admission to the balls, had their own music – jongo – and they reinforced the tradition of street celebration by organizing in Zé Pereira bands, named after the Portuguese tambor that provided the basic musical beat. The organizational structure behind today’s samba schools (escolas da samba) is partly a legacy of those bands sponsored by migrant Bahian port workers in the 1870s – theirs was a more disciplined approach to the Carnaval procession: marching to stringed and wind instruments, using costumes and appointing people to coordinate different aspects of the parade.
Music written specifically for Carnaval emerged in the early twentieth century, by composers such as Chiquinho Gonzaga, who wrote the first recorded samba piece in 1917 (Pelo Telefone), and Mauro de Almeida e Donga. In the 1930s, recordings began to spread the music of Rio’s Carnaval, and competition between different samba schools became institutionalized: in 1932, the Estação Primeira Mangueira school won the first prize for its performance in the Carnaval parade. The format has remained virtually unchanged since, except for the emergence in the mid-1960s of the blocos or bandas: street processions by the residents of various bairros, who eschew style, discipline and prizes and give themselves up to the most traditional element of Carnaval – street revelry, of which even the principal Carnaval procession in the Sambódromo is technically a part.
Rio’s street celebrations centre on the evening processions that fill Avenida Rio Branco (metrô to Largo do Carioca or Cinelândia). Be prepared for the crowds and beware of pickpockets: even though the revellers are generally high-spirited and good-hearted, you should keep any cash you take with you in hard-to-reach places (like your shoes), wear only light clothes and leave your valuables locked up at the hotel.
Most of what’s good takes place along Avenida Rio Branco. The processions include samba schools (though not the best); Clubes de Frevo, whose loudspeaker-laden floats blast out the frenetic dance music typical of the Recife Carnaval; and the Blocos de Empolgacão, including the Bafo da Onça and Cacique de Ramos clubs, between which exists a tremendous rivalry. There are also rancho bands playing a traditional carioca carnival music that predates samba.
The samba schools, each representing a different neighbourhood or social club, are divided into three leagues that vie for top ranking following the annual Carnaval parades. Division 1 (the top league) schools play in the Sambódromo, Division 2 on Avenida Rio Branco and Division 3 on Avenida 28 de Setembro, near the Maracanã.
Preparations start in the year preceding Carnaval, as each school mobilizes thousands of supporters to create the various parts of their display. A theme is chosen, music written and costumes created, while the dances are choreographed by the carnavelesco, the school’s director. By December, rehearsals have begun and, in time for Christmas, the sambas are recorded and released to record stores.
The main procession of Division 1 schools – the Desfile – takes place on the Sunday and Monday nights of Carnaval week in the purpose-built Sambódromo, further along the avenue beyond the train station; the concrete structure is 1.7km long and can accommodate 90,000 spectators. The various samba schools – involving some 50,000 people – take part in a spectacular piece of theatre: no simple parade, but a competition between schools attempting to gain points from their presentation, which is a mix of song, story, dress, dance and rhythm. The schools pass through the Passarela da Samba, the Sambódromo’s parade ground, and the judges allocate points according to a number of criteria. Each school must parade for between 85 and 95 minutes, no more and no less.
Regardless of the theme adopted by an individual samba school, all include certain basic elements within their performances. The bateria, the percussion section, has to sustain the cadence that drives the school’s song and dance; the samba enredo is the music, the enredo the accompanying story or lyric. The harmonia refers to the degree of synchronicity between the bateria and the dance by the thousands of passistas (samba dancers); the dancers are conducted by the pastoras, who lead by example. The evolução refers to the quality of the dance, and the choreography is marked on its spontaneity, the skill of the pastoras and the excitement that the display generates. The costumes, too, are judged on their originality; their colours are always the traditional ones adopted by each school. The carros alegóricos (no more than 10m high and 8m wide) are the gigantic, richly decorated floats, which carry some of the Figuras de Destaque (“prominent figures”), amongst them the Porta-Bandeira (“flag bearer”) – a woman who carries the school’s symbol, a potentially big point-scorer. The Mestre-Sala is the dance master, also an important symbolic figure, whose ability to sustain the rhythm of his dancers is of paramount importance. The Comissão da Frente, traditionally a school’s “board of directors”, marches at the head of the procession, a role often filled these days by invited TV stars or sports teams. The bulk of the procession behind is formed by the alas, the wings or blocks consisting of hundreds of costumed individuals each linked to a part of the school’s theme.
In addition to a parade, every school has an Ala das Baianas – a procession of hundreds of women dressed in the flowing white costumes and African-style headdresses typical of Salvador – in remembrance of the debt owed to the Bahian emigrants, who introduced many of the traditions of the Rio Carnaval procession.
The parade of schools starts at 7.30pm, with eight Division 1 schools performing on each of the two nights, and goes on until noon the following day. Two stands (7 & 9) in the Sambódromo are reserved for foreign visitors and seats cost over R$150 per night. Though much more expensive than other areas, the seats here are more comfortable and have good catering facilities. Other sections of the Sambódromo cost from R$15 to R$60 and there are three seating options: the high stands (arquibancadas), lower stands (geral) and ringside seats (cadeiras de pista) – the last being the best, consisting of a table, four chairs and full bar service.
Unless you have a very tough backside, you will find sitting through a ten-hour show an intolerable test of endurance. Most people don’t turn up until 11pm, by which time the show is well under way and hotting up considerably. Tickets are available from the organizers online or at premium prices from travel agents in Rio. Book well in advance, or try local travel agents who often have tickets available for a modest commission.
In whatever bairro you’re staying there will probably be a bloco or banda – a small samba school that doesn’t enter an official parade – organized by the local residents; ask about them in your hotel. These schools offer a hint of what Carnaval was like before it became regulated and commercialized. Starting in mid-afternoon, they’ll continue well into the small hours, the popular ones accumulating thousands of followers as they wend their way through the neighbourhood. They all have a regular starting-point, some have set routes, others wander freely; but they’re easy to follow – there’s always time to have a beer and catch up later.
Some of the best blocos are: the Banda da Glória, which sets off from near the Estação Glória metrô station; the Banda da Ipanema (the first to be formed, in 1965), which gathers behind Praça General Osório in Ipanema; the Banda da Vergonha do Posto 6, starting in Rua Francisco Sá in Copacabana; and the Carmelitas de Santa Teresa, which gathers in the bairro of the same name. There are dozens of others, including several in each bairro of the Zona Sul, each providing a mix of music, movement and none-too-serious cross-dressing – a tradition during Carnaval in which even the most macho of men indulge.
It’s the Carnaval balls (bailes) that really signal the start of the celebrations – warm-up sessions in clubs and hotels for rusty revellers, which are quite likely to get out of hand as inhibitions give way to a rampant eroticism. The balls start late, normally after 10pm, and the continual samba beat supplied by live bands drives the festivities into the new day. At most of the balls, fantasia (fancy dress) is the order of the day, with elaborate costumes brightening the already hectic proceedings; don’t worry if you haven’t got one, though – just dress reasonably smartly.
You’ll often have to pay an awful lot to get into these affairs, as some of the more fashionable ones attract the rich and famous. There’s none grander than the Magic Ball held at the Copacabana Palace Hotel drawing the elite from across the world. For the privilege of joining in, expect to pay well over R$1000 – black tie or an extravagant costume is obligatory. If you’ve got the silly costume but a little less money, other lavish balls worth checking out include the Pão de Açúcar, on the Friday before Carnaval, halfway up the famous landmark – spectacular views, exotic company, but well over R$200 a head and very snobby. The Hawaiian Ball, hosted by the Rio Yacht Club, opens the season on the Friday of the week before Carnaval: it takes place around the club’s swimming pool, amid lavish decorations, and is popular and expensive (about R$150); tickets are available from the Yacht Club, on Avenida Pasteur, a few hundred metres before the Sugar Loaf mountain cable-car terminus. On the same Friday, other big parties take place, with the Baile de Champagne and the Baile Vermelho e Preto being amongst the most important. The latter (the “Red and Black Ball”) has developed a particular reputation as a no-holds-barred affair. Named after the colours of Rio’s favourite football team, Flamengo, it’s a media event with TV cameras scanning the crowds for famous faces – exhibitionism is an inadequate term for the immodest goings-on. In Leblon, the Monte Libano (t 21/3239-0032 for details) hosts a number of “last days of Rome” festivities – the Baile das Gatas, Baile Fio Dental, even Bum Bum Night – sexually charged exercises all, though safe to attend and reasonable at around R$50 a ticket. In recent years, the Rio Scala club at Av. Afrânio de Melo Franco 292, Leblon, has become an important centre for balls, each night of Carnaval hosting a different school of samba. To reserve a table (R$300), go to the box office at least five days before the event. To stand, you can simply show up on the night.
There are a number of gay balls, too, which attract an international audience. The Grande Gala G is an institution, usually held in the Help disco on Copacabana’s Avenida Atlântica. Another is the Baile dos Enxutos, hosted by the Hotel Itália on Praça Tiradentes, Centro.