Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Day 1) (2019)
We reached Rio de Janeiro early on the morning of February 24. When the Portuguese first visited this area in January, 1502, they thought that Guanabara Bay was a wide river which they named the January River (Rio de Janeiro). The first settlement here was in 1565.
Sailing into Rio is (in our opinion) one of the great sail-ins in the world and well worth arising before dawn to see, as we discovered on our first visit here in 2012:
So we did so, arriving on deck just as we reached Sugarloaf Mountain, a 1200 foot peak rising dramatically from the water. Beyond it is Corcovado mountain, topped by the 125 foot tall Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue, which is lighted at night. This area is particularly dramatic in the warm and slanting (from left in most of these pictures) early morning sun.
We sailed past a fort built by the water to defend the bay. We think this is Fortaleza de Sao Joao (Fort of St John), which was first built in the 16th century.
While a large international airport is located on the north side of the city, there is a small airport right on the water limited to domestic flights, mostly to and from Sao Paulo. First built in the 1930’s, Santos Dumont Airport was named for Alberto Santos Dumont who Brazilians insist conducted the first heavier than air flight in 1906. They dismiss the Wright Brothers (Rick’s homeboys) who are recognized by the rest of the world for their flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 because their plane flew from a rail on the ground rather than flat on the ground itself. Go figure. Anyway, we could see planes descending past Sugar Loaf to land at this airport and also taking off; from the water it looks like it barely has enough room for such activities.
Nothing to say about them, but here are a few panoramic photos of the city in the early morning light as we sailed past toward the port.
As we neared the turn into the port we passed Ilha Fiscal, an island just off shore on which sits a fantastic green building that was once the customs house, thus the island’s name (it was originally called Rat Island). Opened in April, 1889, six months later it was the scene of a large ball with several thousand in attendance. It is now remembered as the last ball of the Empire because six days later a revolution established a republican form of government. Today it is a museum.
We sailed into the port, where three huge cruise ships were already there, two MSC and one Celebrity if we remember correctly. That meant we had to dock a bit further away to the north. We passed some ornate churches in the neighborhood (Rio is full of ornate churches). The dock is lined with long warehouse-like buildings in a reddish color, one of which was the terminal. Most of the staterooms on our side of the ship looked out on one of these buildings, but ours was luckily placed overlooking a square between two of the buildings with a huge wall painting on a building across the way. This area has been renovated in recent years and looks very nice. There were birds flying above, notably one kind with swallow tails, and from our balcony we could just see Cristo Redentor almost (but not quite) obscured by a building. On a hill behind the port is a favela, or shanty town, on which poor folks have built brick homes, some in a second or third floor above the first family’s. Many favelas have been under the control of drug lords and can be very dangerous to visit on your own, but there was a push to clean them up before the 2016 Olympics were held here and we have read that some of them may have been gentrified in recent years.
We participated in an excursion to Cidade do Samba (Samba City), a complex of warehouse looking buildings not far from the port where the best Samba schools have their quarters. There is a large favela right next to it, which we think is the same one we saw from the port and the oldest favela in the city, founded in the late 19th century by former slaves who had served in the military.
Each year during Carnaval the Samba schools compete with each other and are ranked by judges. The top schools get their choice of space at Samba City and if your ranking goes down you will probably have to move to a less desirable space. Where do they move? Dandara’s response was “who cares!” We were told that the one we visited,Grande Rio Youth Samba School, had been ranked #1 for a number of years. We walked through the warehouse space on the first floor where the floats for the upcoming 2019 Carnaval were kept, but these were secret so no pictures could be taken. Upstairs were a number of exhibits, mostly of costumes from Carnavals past, which we were free to photograph.
We were treated to a lecture about the history of Samba & Carnaval in a room with walls lined with old photos. Samba grew from the music and dance of African slaves, although there have been other influences since. It is very rhythmic, loud and energetic. And of course it features women in spectacular but revealing costume, often dancing on very high heeled platform shoes. We were told that the schools work literally year round preparing their Carnaval presentation. Dandara said that preparation for next year’s Carnaval would start on the Monday after this year’s Carnaval. Nothing is reused from year to year; all the clothing and floats are made anew. It sounds like it takes a very high level of work and dedication. After the history lesson we were led into another room where everyone (yes, everyone) was outfitted in old Carnival costumes (we didn’t get to pick out our own). Then there was a demonstration of Samba, with just two people in this small room. A good time was had by all.
Before leaving we spent some time in a lounge where Caipirinhas and munchies were served and you could buy souvenirs. The Caipirinha is Brazil’s national drink, based on a liquor made from sugarcane. They were very good & refreshing.
We drove across town to Copacabana beach. On the way we passed more favelas & the upscale residential streets of the Corcovado neighborhood.
Copacabana beach is almost 2 miles long and has a wide expanse of soft white sand. But it is famous not only for the beach but for the Portuguese style mosaic sidewalk that runs the length of the beach along Atlantic Avenue. The undulating pattern, designed to evoke ocean waves, is beautiful and mesmerizing. Made of small black and white stones, it must have taken quite a lot of work to create.
It is interesting how different the swirling pattern can look depending on the angle from which you are viewing it.
On the opposite side of Avenida Atlantica from the beach is a long row of mid-rise buildings, most housing hotels and upscale condos (we were told on our last visit that a mid-level condo in a building across from Ipanema beach had just sold for 6 million US dollars, and that was 7 years ago so the prices have undoubtedly risen substantially). One notable building there is the art deco Copacabana Palace, a luxury hotel built in 1923 when it was the only large building in the area, surrounded only by single family houses. Ten years later it was featured in the filming of Flying Down To Rio with Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers. Long considered one of the best hotels in South America, it has been a magnet for the rich and famous for decades. Notably, in 2006 the Rolling Stones stayed there and performed a free concert on the beach that we have read attracted more than a million fans.
On the day of our visit it was sunny & hot, so a lot of people were out on the beach, sitting under umbrellas, playing volleyball, walking around and buying refreshments from the many kiosks. Like all beaches in Brazil, there is never a charge to use it. Several pipes rose out of the sand that constantly pumped out fresh water. Rio’s beaches are notorious for scavengers, so we were told you should never put any of your possessions down, even when you are standing right by them, or they could be gone in an instant. So we kept our cameras in our hands and used them to excess.
Leaving the beach we drove back across town to the port. We passed more favelas and other buildings, including the Sambadromo, where the Samba schools’ performances are judged during Carnaval.
When we arrived at the port we found huge crowds of cruise ship passengers milling around and standing in very long lines to have their credentials checked so the could enter the dock area. Most of these people were headed for the other large cruise ships on the dock. We walked up and down the fence (a very long walk in the suffocating heat) looking unsuccessfully for a quicker way in. Across from the dock was some fantastic wall art, most depicting diverse ethnicities, that we enjoyed while waiting to get back in.
We finally made it back on the ship. As we arrived for dinner the ship penguins were all dressed up, apparently unaware that they would not be the ones handing out the Academy Awards that night.
Since we would be staying in Rio over night, there was a show on the ship of the local music and dance. So what was it, you ask? With Carnaval just days away, what could it be but a samba performance. First on stage were the musicians, mostly drums and other rhythm, who demonstrated their stamina by standing on stage playing nonstop for the entire show.
Then the female dancers emerged on stage. They wore a variety of flamboyant and revealing costumes and their dancing to the high energy percussive music was extremely energetic.
Some male dancers dressed in green came on stage to dance with a couple of new women, one also in green and one in black.
Here are some closer pictures of these women dancing in their Carnaval costumes.
All of the dancers were on stage for the finale.
All in all, this was an entertaining and energetic show & everyone had a good time. But we thought the Samba show we saw on Prinsendam during our 2012 was decidedly better. Perhaps it was the audience participation or just the fact that this was new to us then. That is not meant to detract from these dancers and musicians who clearly gave their all to entertain us, and entertain us they did.
So that was the end of this extremely long and rewarding first day in beautiful Rio de Janeiro. We went to bed happy in the knowledge that we still had another day to go!