South America has, in my mind, always been a world separated by more than just the Atlantic Ocean. Stories from friends who have ventured to the ancient Incan ruins or the vast ecosystem that makes up the Amazon, have always seemed like tales and fantasies, just as Harry Potter and Jurassic Park had done when I was so deeply obsessed with them as a child. On leaving my full-time job last September, I wanted to take at least six months out in order to do some decent travelling and general clearing of my my head (as well as doing what I could to avoid the dreary British winter!) After finally getting the ‘cojones’ to book what would be my longest time spent away from home, I booked a 51-day tour, through STA, with G Adventures, that took me from Rio to Lima. I shall be doing my best to give these experiences the justice that they deserve in these blog posts.
I flew into Rio and the first thing I noticed, other than the heat and the sunshine, was just how green it was. In the taxi from the airport to the hotel alone it seemed like we were driving through a beautiful jungle rather than Brazil’s metropolis. I arrived early morning and, after dropping off my bags, went for a wander along the coastal Copacabana. Initially, I’d not known what to expect and what hit me straight off the bat was its size. What my single glance at Google Maps had told me was that the stretch of beach front would provide me with a variety of views along the way. Unfortunately, it was all very much the same; this wasn’t due to it not having much to offer, rather that it was just of such vast length that I didn’t really get from one section to the next. Nevertheless, I thought it was best to soldier on rather than turn back and find Wi-Fi to figure out exactly where I should, or could, go. With the heat of the midday sun beating down on me, this casual stroll had turned into a race against time for me to drink my bottle of water before it evaporated away. The people I encountered along this stretch of coastal Rio were nothing but beautiful specimens; perfect bodies with the perfect tans wearing almost nothing, as they walked, ran or cycled down this Miami-esque boulevard. Considering I’d spent four years of my life at university in Bournemouth (the Copacabana of Britain), I felt very out of place.
After about half an hour, I decided to head inland and towards somewhere that had slightly fewer beach bods and check out other aspects of this stunning city. Christ the Redeemer was my next obvious destination. I had wanted to see the Lapa Steps as well, but it took me the best part of an hour by bus to get from Copacabana to the train station leading to the Big Man himself. As expected, it ended up being a huge tourist trap. Fortunately enough, the locals take full advantage of this and, after being informed that the train was fully booked for the next three hours, I was quickly whisked off onto a minivan tour starting immediately that did the same as the train would do, but for half of the price. Win win. Having only seen images of Cristo Redentor online or on television, I was in for yet another shock to the system. The statue was truly breathtaking and a lot bigger than I could have imagined. Even from a distance, it gave off a gentle yet imposing feel; when I got to the top and had bustled my way through the heaving crowds of people all trying to take that same ‘Instagram photo’, I was relieved that it was more than just a religious symbol. To me it felt more like a beacon of hospitality, with his arms wide open, welcoming both tourists and non-Christians alike into this beautiful city. What’s more, the view looking over the city and onto the bay was magnificent.
Later that day, after slowly making my way back to the hotel, I had my tour’s welcome meeting, where I met our guide for the next 17 days, as well as the seven other travellers I’d be sharing this first leg with. We were due to head out to Ilha Grande early the next morning, but to celebrate being in Brazil and in this entirely different world from what we were all used to, our guide took us to a samba street party.
Getting there was an experience in itself; the taxi drivers drove as if they were playing a game, weaving in and out of traffic at dangerous speeds with surprising grace. This one taxi driver had reduced myself and three other guys to nervous wrecks as we clung onto whatever wouldn’t break off in this aged vehicle that was his car. Whenever we winced or flinched at his driving, he would simply turn to us and smile, which I don’t think had the calming effect he was hoping for. He was most likely just thinking “classic tourists”. We drank caipirinha by the gallon and danced to the sounds of Brazilian samba. The ‘centre stage’ where all the dancers were was in a little cul-de-sac area so unless you were over 6’4”, or were in the front three rows, you couldn’t really see much. There was a freestanding DJ booth just parked in the road with approximately two-hundred people all tightly clustered around it and a few locals dancing next to it. However, despite not seeing much, the energy from the locals travelled and I’m sure it showed on our faces how excited we were just to be a part of this scene. There were little hills and areas around this cluster where people had set up caipirinha bars, making this local cocktail from scratch right in front of you, flavoured with fruit as fresh and juicy as could possibly be. Without a doubt, the Brazilians know how to throw a street party!
From beach walk, to tourist hotspot, to local street party, Rio did not disappoint; despite being warned by various knowledgeable people — including the guide — I found Rio to be very safe and had no issues with pickpockets. A day into my trip and Brazil had taken me under its wing, but with what was still to come, I was about to fall in love.
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