We clap our hands for many things, but until this year I’d never actually applauded the sun going down – that is, until I was at Ipanema.
In homage to a certain tall and tan and young and lovely girl, I was at this iconic beach to see the Procession of Lemanja, an African-Brazilian religious pilgrimage to honour the god of the sea. Often dwarfed by Rio de Janeiro’s New Year celebrations, the festivities involve women clothed in white, throwing flowers into the incoming tide as they try to avoid the crashing waves.
As more and more locals and tourists gathered on the cliffs above to watch, we lifted our heads to take in the last rays of sunlight. When the big orange ball finally disappeared below the horizon, spontaneous applause broke out and you just couldn’t help joining in. It was, after all, a dazzling display in the world’s sexiest city.
While Ipanema’s golden sands are the playgrounds of the rich, beautiful and occasionally sunburnt, locals prefer its more famous neighbour. Amongst the bikini-clad bodies on Copacabana, are kids from the favellas, who just want to play in the waves like you and I used to do.
Brazil is massive – bigger than mainland United States – so for this trip I’d limited myself to Rio de Janeiro, Iguassu and Sao Paulo: the fifth largest metropolis in the world with a teeming 20,000,000 people. Away from Rio’s ubiquitous hotel towers are its less visited old suburbs, including Santa Teresa, best explored by taking the creaking bonde tram. As we rattled through the cobblestone streets, the beats of 1960s bossa nova echoed out beyond the grilled windows, the rhythm of samba tempting us to sway.
But something else beckoned more strongly – the all-encompassing arms of Cristo Redentor. In a country that has the largest Roman Catholic population in the world, this iconic statue is more than just a tourist attraction. Built in the 1920s, on the top of the Corcovado Mountain, the monument towers 700 metres above the city and offers breathtaking panoramas. A word of advice: the best views are early in the morning, before the mist and clouds roll in.
It was mist of a different sort that we encountered at Iguassu Falls. Taking a jungle boat to the edge of Garganta do Diablo, ‘The Devil’s Throat’, we were swallowed up by a thunderous spray that soaked us to the skin. The rapid thrill of the wash gave way to the click of cameras as we neared the plummeting 200 foot falls. It’s worth dedicating time to see the 270 odd falls from both the Brazilian and Argentinian sides.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t just the almighty falls that were a highlight; the animals that call Iguassu home were simply stunning. Never before had I seen so many beautiful butterflies resting on a shallow pond; nor seen a bird look at me quizzically, as if to ask “what do you want?”; or a family of raccoon-like coati casually wandering down the main track. After a sweltering day of 35 degree heat and 100% humidity it was time to return to town for a cooling caipirinha, the national cocktail of Brazil. Although Rio is the best known and Brasilia is the capital, it is the powerhouse city of Sao Paulo that makes the Brazil go round. ‘Sampa’ (as the locals call it) is like a city on steroids. With five times the population of New Zealand, it also has over 5,000 high-rise buildings, is the 10th richest city in the world and has the largest fleet of helicopters on the planet. I was even invited into the cockpit of one for sale on the 6th floor of a shopping mall.
My companion wanted to get away from the concrete jungle so first stop was Ibirapuera Park. Walking around the lakes you’d have little idea that across the way was one of the biggest cities in the world. The locals obviously love it, judging by the amount of cycling, rollerblading and skateboarding going on. The stylised street art on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art adds a real sense of fun to the park. It was a little late when we decided to visit the bohemian suburb of Vila Madalena. As we got out of the car, once again, the sound of music caught our attention. This time we decided to follow the sound. We stumbled across the back alley where the music was coming from – a samba school practising for Carnival! It only cost a few reais to enter and suddenly we found ourselves literally swept up in the madness of drums, dancing, flags and whoop-whooping. The beats went on and on, with everyone joining in, until it was one huge, carefree moving mass of hands in the air.
When the samba finally finished and we got our breath back, it was time to eat al fresco. Within minutes we had two waiters fussing over a hotplate placed on our table. We were to have churrasco beef, cooked in front of us, washed down with a couple of cervejas. It looked and smelt good. Thinking back now, that dish on a warm summer night was a metaphor for Brazil - massive, tasty, colourful and slightly unexpected. The perfect way to end a trip to South America. Top 5 not-so-known Brazilian activities 1) Eat: For something different try dinner-by-the-kilo at Ipanema. Fresh vegetables, salads and cut meats to put on your plate before taking them up to scales to weigh and pay
2) Exercise: Hire a bike and pedal the 7ks around Rio de Janeiro’s Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. When you want a break buy one of the coconuts with straws in them and sip the cool milk (they actually call it water, not milk, but that’s OK. Maybe “milky” water is better - it’s not like Fijian coconuts) 3) Leave: Grab a taxi and cross the border to spend a day on the Argentinian side of Iguassu Falls. Don’t forget your passport and you’ll need Pesos before you cross. Ask for Jair of Sindtaxi 4) Visit: Although the outskirts of Rio are being cleaned up, you can still go on an organised tour in the safer parts of the city. Like anywhere, be aware of your surroundings 5) Shop: If you’re in the market for a new 55ft cruiser or 6-seater helicopter, try Toys & Tools in Sao Paulo. For a measly few million, you too could be hovering over the city.