DANNY ROBINS INDIE TRAVEL GUIDE: RIO DE JANEIRO
INDIE TRAVEL GUIDE - RIO DE JANEIRO
We're going to Brazil in this week's Indie Travel Guide because Carnival or 'Carnaval' as the Brazilians say) is only a few weeks away. It's always 40 days before Easter - one last big bash before the beginning of Lent. This year it falls on March 4th - 8th.
You'll have seen the photos, it's all about amazing costumes, big floats, loads of music and raucous partying. There are carnivals all over Brazil, including big ones in Sao Paulo and Salvador but the biggest and best is in Rio, the party town watched over by the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer - one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
Carnival is huge in Brazil - get this - apparently 80% of all the beer drunk in Brazil for the whole year is drunk at carnival and 70% of Brazil's tourism comes at carnival time.
It's a good time to go to Rio right now. The city is buzzing in the build up to hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016.
One quick reminder - this may sound obvious, but they speak Portuguese in Brazil. Amazing how many people think it's Spanish. I even knew a girl who'd been having Spanish lessons in preparation for her trip! There are lots of similarities with Spanish and if you can speak a bit of that you'll get by. If you can't you'll still get by because people are so friendly it'll all work out somehow or other...
Where to hang
Rio is split into the Zona Sul or 'South Zone' and the rest. The Zona Sul is where visitors tend to spend most of their time. It's home to the famous beaches - Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon and in Rio so much of life revolves around the beach. For the locals or 'Cariocas', as they call themselves, it functions as meeting pace, chill out spot and party venue. It's great and exciting but if you burn like me, then be warned it's also hot hot hot.
Copacabana is probably the most famous and busiest beach - expect lots of bodies beautiful making you feel very pasty and untanned. A word of warning, it gets very dodgy after dark.
Ipanema is a little more chic and upmarket - it's been tagged 'the sexiest beach in the world'. It is of course famous from the song 'The Girl From Ipanema'. You can go to the bar where the song was composed - Bar Garoto De Ipanema (it had another name before the song and has now been named after it!)
Ipanema beach is divided into areas named after the lifeguard towers or 'Postos' the trendiest areas are around Posto 9 and Posto 10,where you'll find Rio's hipster set. Have yourself a coconut in one of the many beach shacks.
Leblon beach is perhaps even trendier currently and certainly more exclusive - full of Rio's rich young things.
There are always huge street parties in Ipanema and Copacabana during Carnival.
Other areas to explore away from the beach:
Lapa - a bit down at heel but a real slice of what Rio's all about. From Thursday to Saturday it's one big street party here at night. There are lots of clubs you can pop into. Beware the street food though; I have a friend who hallucinated for 3 days after eating a hotdog here.
Probably the best gig venue in Rio - Circo Voador - is in Lapa. It was huge in the 80s then it closed for a while but has been going strong again since about 2002. They have some well known acts such as, recently Air and Vampire Weekend and also a lot of Brazilian acts (from typical carnival music, to new rock bands, to old school Tropicalia, Samba, Bossa Nova...). Another venue worth looking at in Lapa is Fundição Progresso - mostly Brazilian bands I think.
Santa Teresa - just up the hill from Lapa, this is a kinda cool, bohemian area that used to be home to great train robber Ronnie Biggs. It's definitely worth a mooch around and you'll find some great little Bossa Nova bars, often without a tourist in sight. You can get a tram (known as the Bonde) up there. If you're going there in the evening, get the tram back down if it's still running or a cab - walking back down the hill ain't so safe.
Rio doesn't have as big a music scene as São Paulo, which is a much bigger city and where a lot of Brazilian bands come from, CSS being perhaps the most famous, but there's still lots of good places to check out gigs and club nights.
Lapa and Santa Teresa, as mentioned above, are good bets. What we know as Baile Funk is huge in Rio. Popularised by MIA (who basically nicked the sound from the clubs here) it's slightly confusingly just known as 'Funk' in Rio. It's the music of the favelas - the shanty town ghettos of Rio, derived from Miami bass with rapping over the top.
Some of the Favelas are effectively war zones given over to drug gangs so you have to pick which one you head to carefully. Go to the wrong Baile Funk party and it might be full of moody blokes with machine guns straight out of the film City of God. Pick the right one though and you'll get to see a real slice of how Rio parties. To hear some in action without any drama head to Castelo das pedras a baile funk party in the Castelo das Pedras favela. Don't worry, it's safe. It's a mix of Favela kids (the majority) and middle-class Brazilians who have got into Baile. You might even spot MIA, she's been known to rock up.
An article about Baile from the Guardian
Rock is very big in Brazil. Heavy metal - something that for some reason I associate with cold northern countries - has a very big following there. Perhaps appropriately then, the big festival is Rock in Rio. Ironically, it hasn't actually been taking place in Rio the last few years. The last time it was in Rio was 2001 and since then it's been in Lisbon and Madrid (still called 'Rock in Rio' though) but 2011 sees it finally return to its home city so it should be big and spectacular. It takes place from 23rd September to 2nd October. The acts are pretty mainstream - the likes of Elton John and Katy Perry alongside Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Metallica and Coldplay but it will be an event.
Another interesting musical movement worth mentioning is Tropicalia - a genre that started life in the 60s fusing psychedelic rock and rock n roll with traditional Brazilian Bossa Nova rhythms. Lead by exponents like Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and the band Os Mutantes, it became a form of protest music against the military government - lots of musicians were imprisoned and even worse. The genre has been cited as an influence by a lot of English-speaking musicians, particularly the work of Os Mutantes, a favourite of the likes of David Byrne, Beck, Of Montreal and even Kurt Cobain. Os Mutantes are still going strong today. They payed Glastonbury in 2010. The Bees covered their song A Minha Menina
You can still hear it today in some places in Rio.
Some typical Rio things to do...
Drink juice - everybody's always drinking juice in Rio. There are lots of lunchonetes ( open sided roadside cafes) that do fresh juice. Acai berries are very popular there for a breakfast juice. Any of these kind of cafes is a good place to grab brekkie - it's a very Rio thing to do.
Watch football - unless you live on a different planet, you must know Brazilians are crazy about their football. Even if you're not into it yourself, and even more so if you are, sampling a match day in the Maracana Stadium is something to behold. The World Cup is going to be incredible here.
Eat sushi - Brazil has a huge Japanese community thanks to a 19th century immigration deal that saw millions of Japanese people come over to work on the coffee plantations. What that means today is lots of good sushi restaurants. Try Nik Sushi (all you can eat) near the beach in Ipanema or Sushi Leblon - a swish 'in crowd' hang out - expensive by Brazilian standards but only actually about twenty quid a head. Go up Sugar Loaf Mountain - you take a cable car up. It's touristy but it's got to be done. Sunset is spectacular.
Chill out in the Botanical Gardens - Rio can get pretty intense, especially during Carnival. The Jardim Botanico is an oasis - like their Kew Gardens, safe, calm, quiet and very pretty...
Be a Local is an interesting company that will organise Favela tours, trips to the Maracana stadium for the football and nights out at Favela parties.
Another company worth looking at is Cruz the Coast. Run by an Aussie and an Irishman, they run fun sounding mini-bus tours up the coast between Rio and Salvador. The idea is that they provide door to door transport to tried and tested spots for travellers and give you loads of tips on what to do in each place. Excellent guides and drivers and good value for money.
As I said, not so many people in Rio speak English, so here's a few Portuguese phrases that could come in useful.
A praia é ótima, mas Skegness é bem melhor. Yes, the beach is nice but it's no Skegness.
Vôce pode levar a gente num baile funk autêntico? Será eu, meu amigo e todo nosso dinheiro e nosso aparelho elêctonico. Please could you drive us to an authentic Favela party? It's just me, my friend and all our travel money and electronic items.
Ouvi falar que as pessoas aqui gostam muito de futebol. Eu prefiro jogar de dardos. I've heard people are quite into football here. Personally, I'm more of a darts fan.
Thanks to all the people who emailed me tips and suggestions, particularly Dita Rosted, Sarah Shaw, Sarah Kersley, Mike Shaw and most of all Patrick Welch - a man who knows Rio very well and gave me some invaluable help and some Portuguese assistance!
Lauren Laverne Blog BBC 6 Music Danny Robins Indie Travel Guide: Rio De Janeiro