Celebrating Carnival in Brazil has always been high on my bucket list. This year I was fortunate to visit three of the most famous Carnival celebrations in Brazil: Rio de Janeiro, Recife and Olinda.
Carnival occurs to mark the beginning of Lent and is the largest and most famous festival in Brazil the world.
Over 5 days before Ash Wednesday, high-spirited Brazilians bid ‘farewell to the flesh’ with street parades at all hours. Bands march through every major neighborhood, followed by enthusiastic crowds with colorful costumes, who sing and dance along with the hip shaking music.
I was superbly jetlagged after the 9 hour flight to Rio. But as I walked out into this exotic paradise, the energy from the cariocas (Rio natives) was contagious. Seeing the joy on everyone’s faces, just made me feel incredibly alive.
First thing on my itinerary was to eat and drink as the locals do. So I headed to Casa da Feijoada in Ipanema for Brazil’s tasty national dish of black beans and pork stew, served with white rice, sausage, thinly sliced kale and yucca.
After enjoying this authentic meal, I walked over to Ipanema Beach. As you stroll along the beach, you will find hippies selling handmade crafts, jewelry, art and clothing. After picking up a few unique items, I stopped at one of the many beach bars that play bossa nova and sell beverages. There I enjoyed a refreshing cold coconut and admired my surroundings (meaning the mountains— and the bounty of bronze fit bodies). The natural juxtaposition of the mountains, the water, and the forest was picturesque. It’s hard to believe that a metropolitan city surrounded by both forests and beaches actually exists.
While in Rio, a great beach to soak up some rays and people watch is the world renowned Copacabana Beach. You’ll see itty bitty bikinis, surfboards, and rainbows of tans. You might also see skillful Brazilians practicing capoeira on the beach. Capoeira is a combination of dance and fight mixing martial art moves with music. It is beautiful to watch.
If you want to see where the billionaires live and hang out, head to Leblon Beach which is west of Ipanema. You will see the most expensive real estate in all of South America. You may even spot a celebrity or two in the streets.
One of the most instantly recognizable symbols of this city is the mega Christ with his arms outstretched embracing Rio. You can reach the statue via tram, car or foot. I was feeling adventurous so I chose to hike up through Tijuaca Forest. It was a beautiful hike, but the scorching heat slowed me down. So if you’re short on time, just hop on one of the shuttles or tram. As I arrived to the top of Corcovado Mountain, I saw one of the new wonders of the world: The iconic statue. The view of Rio from the top is spectacular. (Note: Be prepared to compete with thousands of other tourists to get a good shot of the statue)
For a fun night out, head to the district of Lapa. You know you’ve arrived when you see the bright white arches and start to hear that samba beat. You will find beer sellers, samba circles, and live bands on the streets while you make your way to the bars and nightclubs. I went to a bar in Lapa called Rio
Scenarium. This place has three floors, live music and a friendly crowd reveling in the night. The energy was awesome and the sights entrancing. Make sure to try one of their caipirinhas—national drink made with cachaça (Brazilian sugarcane rum) lime and sugar.
Rio de Janeiro has long been associated with its wonderful beaches (Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon), but these wealthy, swanky areas of idleness left me yearning to feel more alive. So I ventured out to see the bohemian side of Rio. Santa Teresa is a hillside artsy neighborhood with colonial mansions miles away from the tourist madness. You will find art studios, 19th century homes, and the work of Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón. Escadaria Selarón is a fascinating staircase covered with multi-colored tile from all around the world. These steps have soul.
One of the many restaurants you must enjoy in Rio is Porcão. This churrascaria (Brazilian steakhouse) is in Flamingo Beach with a stunning view of Sugar Loaf Mountain. Arrive early, try to get seated by the window, and catch the sunset while you savor the delicious food. Bring an appetite because there will be a never ending parade of long skewers of sizzling meat from lamb to filet mignon. (Note: Pace yourself!)
Rio is definitely not as dangerous as you might think from watching most Brazilian films. The city is gearing up to host two of the largest events in the world–2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics–which will attract millions of visitors, so the pressure is on to keep the streets safe. I took the necessary precautions and never felt threatened.
I was exhausted after a few days celebrating Carnival in Rio, but the fun wasn’t over yet. I headed 1,200 miles north of Rio to the northeast coast of Brazil.
Recife is one of the oldest cities in Brazil and its colonial past is still evident. Most Brazilians flock to this coast to enjoy the slower pace and beautiful beaches. One of the best beaches is Boa Viagem. Here you will find white sandy beaches, turquoise waters, and vendors selling everything you can think of. But the most important vendor you want to hunt down is the Caldinho de Edite. She will serve you a delicious caldinho—black bean soup that comes with a quail egg.
Brazil is considered the strongest soccer nation in the world, but it’s not only a sport to Brazilians. It’s a national pastime. On the beaches and streets, you will see young boys kicking the ball around for hours and hours. It is so refreshing to see the passion and love for the game on these young boys’ faces.
Recife is the place to be if you want to experience one of the realest carnivals in Brazil. Unlike Rio’s high priced events, Recife’s events and concerts are all free and just as fun. Millions of Brazilians fill the streets to watch the parades and different local artists performing on the stages.
If you want more Carnival festivities, drive a few miles north of Recife to Olinda. Olinda is a quaint town with hilly streets and homes painted in bright, beautiful colors. Along the streets you will see frevo groups dancing in a spontaneous performance. Frevo is a high speed march that includes colorful umbrella-swinging. It’s hypnotic to watch.
While there are many similarities throughout the country the cultures of the north and south are miles apart from each other. For the most part, the south is more European while the north tends to be more African and indigenous.
In all my world travels, I have never met more lively people than the Brazilians. Brazil is a large and diverse country with so much more to see than Rio, but if you want to experience something truly special, something you’ll probably do only once in your life, then do Carnival in Rio.
Go. See. Enjoy!