Brazil's most famous and visited city was originally named by a Portuguese explorer, who mistook the large bay for a river and named the city "January River" or Rio De Janeiro in Portuguese.
These days, the locals have coined a new name for the city and while it's not official, it is certainly well deserved - Cidade Maravilhosa or "Marvellous City".
The more information we read about Rio De Janeiro in the lead up to our trip, the more dubious and safety conscious we became. There are a lot of horror stories about petty crimes, kidnappings and muggings in Rio and in the lead up to the FIFA World Cup the media had a field day questioning the city's readiness and general safety for visiting tourists. We had decided early on in this trip to fly in to Rio De Janeiro from Iguazu Falls to save ourselves from another long haul bus trip, but also to avoid rushing to be there in time for the opening night of the World Cup. While this was a good idea in theory, after booking the flight, we read countless reviews of how dangerous Rio airports are and how "express kidnappings" are a real threat. This is where tourists find themselves jumping in a taxi but instead of being taken to their destination, they are taken to a random town or favela where they are told to withdraw all their money from an ATM and then dumped afterwards with no money and sometimes also no luggage. So with this information in mind, we left our accommodation in Iguazu feeling like members of the Bali Nine. We had every important document and the majority of our money strapped to our bodies in some rather interesting and (if I may say so myself) creative ways!
We arrived at Rio airport and collected our luggage without an issue. We went to the official taxi stand and paid a hugely inflated price for an authorised taxi, again, without an issue. Then we jumped in our taxi with a friendly driver who made some basic English/Portuguese conversation with us and before we knew it, we arrived at our awesome apartment on Copacabana Beach. We couldn't believe our luck. We had been in Rio for almost 2 hours and so far hadn't been mugged, kidnapped or pick pocketed! How crazy!
As it turned out, our experience on that first day was just the start of an incredible 10 days in Rio!
Copacabana Beach, eerily quiet but stunning as always, before the madness of the World Cup began!
We had booked an apartment 10 months in advance through Airbnb and could not have been happier with the apartment, the lovely owner Bruno or the incredible location. We were three streets back from Copacabana Beach and a short 10 minute walk down the beach to the FIFA Fan Fest where every match was screened live on a huge TV screen and there was an incredible beach party with live music everyday.
I haven't been to Rio De Janeiro before so I can't comment on the safety or atmosphere of the city before the World Cup, but I can say that I believe Rio had done an incredible job preparing themselves for the World Cup and the vibe in the city throughout our visit was amazing. All day, everyday there were people walking around the streets decked out in their country's colours, blowing kazoo's and singing football chants. I've never seen anything like it!
We had the most wonderful week exploring Rio but also had plenty of time to chill out on the beach and watch enough World Cup matches to last me a lifetime! We did the obligatory visit to Christ the Redeemer - and didn't spontaneously combust upon arrival! The drive up is pretty cool, the statue itself is huge and the crowd made us both claustrophobic and angry. It was one of those sights we wanted to cross off our "must do" lists, but the usually hectic crowd was 100 times worse than expected due to the added impact of the World Cup and we were lucky to leave with a single photo without someone else's head, arm, flag or other appendage ruining it!
Just one example of our incredible photography skills at Christ the Redeemer. Not only did we cut off Jesus' head in our "selfie" efforts but we also have 3 paparazzi in the background!
After leaving Hey-Zeus we decided that while we were already doing the tourist thing, we might as well spend the afternoon crossing off another "must-do" from our list and one that I personally, was pretty damn excited about - Sugarloaf Mountain.
We took the cable car to the top of the first mountain and already we were snapping away at the incredible views. Sugarloaf is one of those places where you arrive and are immediately blown away by the view. After taking around 100 photos in 5 minutes, you realise that you are actually taking photos from the cable car platform on the lower peak and not even the purpose built viewing area on the higher peak that provides the best views! The second cable car takes you to the second peak which provides one of the most incredible natural viewpoints I have ever experienced in a city. We had planned our trip to coincide with sunset and as the sun dropped behind the mountainous jungle framing the city, the view became more spectacular every minute. We ended up spending over 3 hours wandering aimlessly and fighting over who was going to take the photos of this incredible picture-perfect landscape we found ourselves in!
Sunset from Sugarloaf Mountain
Another of our favourite sights in Rio was the beautiful Escadaria Selaron or Selaron's Staircase in Lapa. This work of art was created by a Chilean man living in Rio who went broke multiple times by spending every spare dollar and minute working on turning a simple backstreet concrete staircase in an otherwise average neighbourhood, into a beautiful mosaic. While the tiles were originally scavenged from building sites and some hand painted by Selaron, over the years tourists began sending tiles from all over the world. Today, the stairs are covered in over 2000 tiles from 60 countries around the world (Yes we found multiple Aussie ones including an AC/DC tile. Selaron once said that "This crazy and unique dream will only end on the day of my death". Ironically after 23 years of working on creating this artwork, Selaron was found dead at the base of the stairs in 2013.
Just one small section of the incredible mosaic staircase Escadaria Selaron
So, I suppose by now some of you are wondering about the actual World Cup. Well for Wade and I, being in Brazil during the World Cup was more of a coincidence than actual planning! Of course as soon as we decided to make the trip to South America we applied for tickets (and were lucky enough to get them!) but neither one of us is usually a big soccer/football fan. However all of this changed the day the World Cup started. The atmosphere in Brazil, but in particular in Rio was intoxicating! You could either throw caution to the wind and join in the festivities or you could leave the city (more like the country) to achieve some solace elsewhere. We chose to dive in headfirst and experience all that the city and the World Cup had to offer!
The opening match was intense! We were two of ten thousand people packed into the FIFA Fan Fest on Copacabana Beach. It was an overload of colours, music and football chants and within minutes we were covered in sand, beer and sweat.... and loving every minute!
FIFA Fan Fest opening night
Throughout our time in Copacabana we ended up dropping into the Fan Fest at least 5 times, but while every day had a great party vibe, none quite equalled the excitement of the opening match on that first night. We were also lucky to have our mate Sota staying just a few streets from us in Copacabana so there was always a good reason to catch up over a beer and enough Capirinha's to keep the Brazilian economy afloat! Eventually, we figured out that to save a few bucks and enjoy the games from a more relaxed area and less hectic crowd, you could actually sit outside the Fan Fest right near the high tide line and still see the huge TV screen! The crowd was still huge and equally passionate about the matches but rather than standing and swaying in the over-packed arena for 90 minutes (not to mention the half hour beer queues) you could kick back on beach chairs while locals walked up and down the beach selling beer, tasty snacks and ice cold Caipirinha's. Now that's more my style of football!
Hanging outside Fan Fest on the beach with Sota, our mate from Perth, who we also believe many Brazilians mistook for some famous Japanese soccer player!
Of course all of these festivities culminated in the event we had been waiting for. The Argentina Vs Bosnia-Herzegovina round one match at Maracaña Stadium. Maracaña Stadium was built in 1950 for the last FIFA World Cup held in Brazil and is the largest stadium in South America so you can only imagine our excitement at our first live football game being in such a historically significant and HUGE stadium.
Upon arrival we were greeted by some not-so-friendly looking riot police. While we were definitely expecting an eventful night, we were still surprised to be surrounded by hundreds of armed police, fully kitted up with helmets, riot shields and some hectic looking guns. I had decided early on that I would be cheering for Argentina seeing as we had recently visited there and my Spanish is so awesome that people frequently mistake me for a local...... Hey, I can dream! There were also probably four times as many Argentinian fans so we figured it was a safer bet should any fights break out.
The atmosphere in the stadium was breathtaking. The official attendance for the night was just under 75,000 screaming, cheering, diehard fans. Throughout the match I think we saw two people evicted by the security guards, there were three incredible goals scored and Wade only spilt his beer on me twice. Overall, it went off without a hitch!
The full house at Maracaña Stadium, I would have posted the video, but the noise is quite brutal on the old ear drums!
While the World Cup was exhilarating, I had an even more adrenalin filled morning ahead of me - Hang gliding from the highest point in the Tijuca Forest down onto Sao Conrado Beach. It was such a unique experience. The take-off and landing are both a fast-paced adrenalin rush, but the flight itself is relaxing and breathtaking. It gave me a sense of freedom I've never felt before. While the cost was a little hard to justify for an 8 minute flight (especially when they pumped up the price just for World Cup), it was 100% worth it and I'd do it again in a heartbeat!
After only a few days in Rio, we had started frantically searching for somewhere to stay for a few extra nights so we could turn our seven night stay into ten! We were lucky enough to find an apartment only a few streets from our originally accommodation and while we well and truly blew the budget, we figured this really was a once in a lifetime event.
Eventually, our time in Rio had to come to an end. Our plan from here is to continue heading up the North Eastern coast of Brazil all the way to the Amazon River. This is more or less a distance of some 4700km!
With plenty of overnight buses and some more unique modes of transport in the coming weeks, I hope to update you all again soon. In the meantime I'm always keen to hear any comments, suggestions or advice on our trip in general or any blogging tips.
As always, the photos here are just a small insight into our "FIFA World Cup" and "Brazil" albums that you can see on our Photo Albums page.
Enthusiastic but Useless Traveler.