Cidade Maravilhosa -- Wonderful City. This is the name the Cariocas (residents of Rio) fondly call their town -- and with good reason. A city of six million inhabitants, Rio de Janeiro has a special vibe all its own -- a Samba vibe, to be sure, and it all begins when we deplane at Tom Jobim, an airport like no other. Warm smiles greet us, music pulses from all corners of the building, and men and women sway to the beat of Samba. The city is gearing up for its most famous event -- Carnival -- and so am I!
First reached in January, 1501 by Portuguese explorers in an expedition led by Amerigo Vespucci, the Europeans thought at first the Bay of Guaranbara was the mouth of a river, which they then named "Rio de Janeiro," river of January.
My ride from the airport to Copacabana Beach seemed to take just about as long as it probably took those explorers to discover Rio. Traffic here is appalling and driving even a very short distance takes hours. Finally ensconced in my hotel room, I checked out the scene from my window. Below all was bustling and vibrant. I smiled as I glimpsed the familiar sight I'd long associated with Rio, the wave-patterned sidewalks and Copacabana Beach. Gentle waves washed the shore and the ocean curved off into the distant, odd-shaped mountains beyond.
Brief Is Best:
To call Rio informal is an understatement. The sidewalks teemed with people in various stages of undress -- short shorts, minis and teeny, tiny string bikinis that adorned bronzed, beautiful bodies. This is not a place for the shy, the retiring, or for my boring, one-piece black bathing suit. In fact, I'm sure the color black must be banned in Brazil. Instead, a kaleidoscope of riotous color reigns. Later, peering from my window at 3 a.m., I was surprised to see the beach still alive with countless strollers, water gently lapping at their ankles. I'm told that Rio's citizens routinely hit the beach on their lunch hour, as well. For them, the beach is an integral, necessary part of life. Quite simply, here life is a beach. I planned on getting in some beach time myself, but the main reason I'm here is for Carnival, so let the cutir (fun) begin!
The first records of this festival date back to 1723, when immigrants from the Portuguese islands introduced it to Rio and, by 1855, Carnival acquired unique elements derived from the African culture -- organized parades, luxurious costumes, music, masks and flowers. Fast forward to the 21st century with the event drawing 500,000 foreign visitors, and tens of thousands participating in spectacular parades with fantasy floats and dancing 'til dawn at the Sambodrome -- an event that everyone must experience at least once in life. During these four days, offices, banks and shops close. Everything stops and the insanity begins.
A Truly Heavenly View:
Gearing up for my first night of Carnival, I spent an inordinate amount of time that morning choosing my dress for the famed Copacabana Palace Ball. Satisfied that I had a killer outfit for the night, I was ready for some serious Rio sightseeing. And what should be my first sight? Just the largest art deco statue in the world, Cristo Redentor, Christ the Redeemer, the beloved symbol that looms over the city, and is considered its protector.
It is 73 years old, 98 feet high and rests atop Corcovado Mountain. My reward for climbing the 220 steps to the top (there's an elevator if you don't fancy the climb) is a euphoric feeling of standing on top of the world with a panoramic view of sea, sky, mountains and the beaches of Lagoa, Ipanema and Leblon.
I Could Have Danced All Night
That evening, I had the special privilege of attending the prestigious Carnival Ball held at the Copacabana Palace Hotel -- an event I like to refer to as my very own 15 Minutes. Why? Because to enter the hotel, I walked a Red Carpet while hundreds pressed up against a fence which separated the invited from -- well, from those who were not. Flashbulbs popped as I entered the hotel, and once inside, pure fantasy. This event offered the chance to mingle with the glitterati, international VIPs, starlets and models, the works. The theme of the ball was Opera Magic, and as I wove my way through the costumed Carmens, Aidas, Rameses and Rudolfos, I had to pinch myself to believe I was really there. Like most other Carnival events, this ball lasted until dawn, and I was grateful that next day's sightseeing was put off till very late morning.
Onward and Upward
Because of its height and its unmistakable outline, Sugar Loaf is one of Rio's main attractions. On a cable car that has been in operation since 1912, the first leg of my ascent took me to a height of 720 feet above sea level, and stopped at the Morro da Urca plateau. There, our car was boarded by a group of boisterous musicians who gaily played and sang us to the summit. Sugar Loaf is a green, unearthly peak that rises over the city and affords a bird's eye view from Copacabana Beach to the Corcovado Mountain. Feeling adventurous? You can take a helicopter ride that leaves from the first plateau. Really adventurous, or slightly mad? Try climbing up this mountain. I peered down over the sheer vertical side of Sugar Loaf to see tiny, ant-like figures attempting to make their way to the top. They, more than those who rode a cable car, would have the stunning views.
This Girl in Ipanema
Throughout the four days of Carnival, there are Bandas (street parades) that take place in the many Rio neighborhoods. Each Banda consists of an orchestra playing well-known music that everybody sings along with. I marched along with the Ipanema Banda irreverently titled Que Merda E Essa? (No translation needed). The streets were filled with hordes of enthusiastic people dancing the samba in costumes, bathing suits, special T-shirts and even in drag. The crowds were so thick, I was literally carried along, at times wondering if I'd ever see my safe, relatively quiet hotel again. Happily, I hung in there and made it!
All Night Long
The highlight of Carnival is the Samba Parade, which is held at the Sambodrome (this year on March 2 and 3). The parade features six Samba Schools, each group with as many as 10,000 revelers (you read it right) marching down the Passarela do Samba, the runway. The event ends at dawn the next morning. The phrase Samba School is actually somewhat of a misnomer. It is not a teaching institution; you cannot go there to learn to Samba (a dance unique to Brazil and invented by poor Afro-Brazilians). Instead, the 70 Samba Schools in Rio represent eight neighborhoods that work all year to build the floats, make the costumes and choreograph the dances they will perform in the parade.
All night, I sat mesmerized, viewing the parade in this amphitheater, which was designed by the renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Back in the mid-eighties, the Samba Parades had become too big for improvisation in the streets, and needed a professional site to perform in. When commissioned to build the Sambodrome, which was to be completed in 110 days, Niemeyer said: "We built the capital Brasilia in four years. We certainly can build the Sambodrome in four months." And he did.
About the Samba Parade, may I just say that it is an utterly unbelievable spectacle in color, grandeur and splendor, something you've gotta see to believe.
Too soon, Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday arrived. Carnival in Rio is a unique experience. Discard inhibitions, wear a wild costume, just let go and have a blast. In short, it's a moment you will never, ever forget. And, however cheesy Carnival may be, Rio de Janeiro -- mad, magical and mysterious -- allows you to live out, if only for a brief moment, your most far-flung fantasies and dreams.
Cutir -- Party on!
Carnival 2014: February 28 through March 4