The Greatest Show on Earth

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South America » Brazil
March 8th 2013
Published: March 9th 2013
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My rating: 9/10

Daily budget (travel, food and accommodation): USD $100 = 63 pounds

When: 27 January - 22 February 2013

Bases: Foz do Iguacu, Curitiba, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Ouro Preto

Main sights: Iguacu Falls, Bird Park, Itaipu Dam, Curitiba Municipal Market, Corinthians v Oeste football match, Edificio Italia, Museum of Football, Sao Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), Bandeiras Monument, Metropolitan Cathedral of Sao Sebastiao, Confeitaria Colombo, National History Museum, Fluminense v Vasco da Gama football match, Ipanema Hippie Fair, Rio Carnaval Samba Parade, Christ the Redeemer Statue, Sugarloaf Mountain, Bloco Planta na Mente/Escadaria Selaron, Aleijadinho Museum, Ouro Preto-Mariana Valley Train, Mariana Former House of the Town Council and Prison, Mina da Passagem, Adorinhas Park, Betrayal Museum, Mina do Chico Rei

Top 3 experiences:

1) Rio Carnaval
2) Iguacu Falls
3) Live football

Rio Carnaval

No city is identified more closely with one event than Rio de Janeiro with Carnaval.

There are actually Carnaval celebrations all over Brazil. For example, the city of Salvador has a huge party that's popular with Brazilians, as does the tiny gold-mining town of Ouro Preto. Some take place even further afield - we met a few guys during our stay who'd just come from Carnaval in a tiny village in Holland.

But Rio Carnaval is the one that everybody talks about. It's the biggest by far. And it's absolutely sensational.

If you ever get a chance to come to Rio de Janeiro, take it. And the best time to come is during Carnaval, which happens every year in the final days before Lent. Brazilians call Rio Carnaval 'The Greatest Show on Earth' and, for once, they're not exaggerating.

Technically, Carnaval only runs for 5 days but in reality the festivities run for almost a week either side of that. There are an amazing 700 blocos, or street parties, spread out across this hedonistic fortnight and hundreds more unofficial ones. Basically, whatever sort of party you're looking for, you'll find it somewhere in Rio de Janeiro. There are huge ones that draw over 1.5 million people and tiny ones that are little more than some bloke running a barbecue from the back of his car. There are ones with live music such as Bloco Sargento Pimenta (a samba-loving Beatles cover band) and ones with a political message like Bloco Planta na Mente (calling for the decriminalisation of marijuana). And then there are just plain daft ones like Bloco Super Mario where everyone dresses up as plumbers and mushrooms.

However, the best party of all doesn't even take place on the streets - it takes place in the Sambadrome.

The Sambadrome is a 90,000-capacity stadium whose sole purpose in life is to host samba parades. Every last one of Rio de Janeiro's 30+ major samba schools will parade down this 700-metre stretch of land at some point during the celebrations. If you've ever seen photos of Rio Carnaval, chances are they were taken here.

Sunday and Monday are the most sought-after nights at the Sambadrome because that's when the city's 12 best schools battle it out to be crowned overall champion. I went on the Sunday night and what stuck me straight away was the sheer size of it all.

Every school has around 4,000 participants, each dressed in outrageous costumes (carnaval queens, cakes, footballs, Freddie Mercurys...). They also have 300-odd drummers who make more noise than seems humanly possible. And they have half a dozen or so floats that go on forever and are nothing short of works of art (swinging ghost ships, water slides, bullrings, Stevie Wonder puppets...). The amount of work that goes into each one is mind-blowing.

However, for me the most impressive - and unexpected - feature of the samba parade was the infectious energy of it all.

Everyone in the parade dances as if their lives depended on it. And they're often surpassed by those in the stands, who do the samba non-stop while cheering the participants and applauding the latest ridiculously oversized float. And there's no let-up either, despite the fact parades run from 9pm to 6am the following morning.

I could go on and on about all the craziness we saw, from the surreal warm-up area outside and the showboating street cleaners to the hilariously complicated scoring system and the death-defying stunts, but I'll leave it at that. Except to say one more thing.

I've been to lots of events in my life from the Olympics and Wimbledon to Wembley and Glastonbury but nothing has an atmosphere quite like the Sambadrome. Trust me, it's one hell of a party!

Iguacu Falls

Like everything in Brazil, the epic scale of Iguacu Falls is hard to comprehend.

It's not actually the highest waterfall in the world (that honour belongs to Angel Falls in Venezuela) or the one with the highest volume of water (Niagara Falls on the US/Canada border) but it's widely regarded as the most spectacular.

That's probably got something to do with the fact that Iguacu Falls isn't really a waterfall at all - it's 300 separate waterfalls, each one of which is impressive in its own right. It's also probably got something to do with the setting since Iguacu Falls is located inside a 55,000-hectare stretch of Atlantic rainforest filled with easy-to-see exotic lizards, fish, birds and mammals. There are even wild jaguars, although you'd have to be pretty lucky (or should that be unlucky?) to bump into one.

This is a truly beautiful place. It's also deceptively large, requiring at least 2 full days to do it justice. One day to explore the Brazilian side, which offers panoramic views and the best photo opportunities. And one day to explore the Argentinian side, which offers a deafening close-up of the famous Devil's Throat precipice and some cool jungle trails that lead you to the less-visited falls.

These minor trails are well worth following because, it has to be said, Iguacu Falls generally isn't the most tranquil of places. Yes, it's remote but it's also one of the most awe-inspiring natural attractions on the planet with tourist numbers to match. The Devil's Throat - which practically takes you into the middle of the biggest waterfall - is particularly heaving. So for me, one of the best bits was finding our own little spot away from the crowds. Right in the middle of the action but only accessible by boat, tiny San Martin island combines great views of the falls and wildlife-rich nature trails with a sense of isolation that's hard to find elsewhere.

Here more than anywhere, you can imagine that you've just stumbled onto the pages of a classic tale of adventure by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Sir Rider Haggard. This is South America as the first European explorers must have found it. Mysterious, wild and spectacular.

Live football

It's long been an ambition of mine to go watch a football match overseas, and in Brazil we did just that - twice!

On the international scene, of course, Brazil are the benchmark. They're serious contenders in every tournament they enter, they've won more World Cups than anyone else (5) & they usually beat England along the way. However, on the domestic scene, Brazil's a basket case. Or at least that's how it looks to someone used to the simplicity of the Premier League.

Basically, there are 2 domestic leagues in Brazil rather than 1 - the state leagues run from January/February to April/May while the national leagues run from May to December. The big teams play in both every year, as well as the usual domestic, continental and intercontinental cups (their players must be knackered!). And both league systems are largely independent of one another, although this being Brazil there are exceptions when it comes to promotions and stuff. Don't get me started.

What this means is that you end up with all sorts of anomalies. Last year, Corinthians were officially the best team in Brazil despite not being the best team in their own state. This year, they're officially the best team in South America and the world (sorry Chelsea fans) despite not being the best team in their own country or even their own state.

Anyway, putting all these oddities aside for one second, we can say with some degree of certainty that Corinthians are pretty good at the moment. And so they proved to be during our first live game as they crushed hapless provincial side Oeste 5-0 in the Sao Paulo state league.

As the score suggests, it was a total mismatch, and basically turned into an exhibition game after 2 goals in the first 15 minutes. Still, the fans seemed to be enjoying themselves, alternating as they were between dancing, jumping, Mexican waving and cheering every movement of new signing Alexandre Pato on the bench. When the ex-Milan star finally came on, the stadium erupted but that was nothing compared to the noise a few minutes later when he actually scored on his debut. Deafening.

Not the most competitive of games, then, but great entertainment. And a complete contrast to the 1-1 draw we subsequently saw played out in the Rio state league between Vasco da Gama and Fluminense, the reigning Brazil and state champions.

Now Vasco da Gama and Fluminense are 2 of the top 4 teams in the Rio state league. They must be because both are seeded every season, giving them the best possible chance of winning the 1st or 2nd stages of the league and thus progressing to the all-important 3rd stage play-off (did I forget to mention that earlier?). Although since the football authorities refuse to disclose how the seedings actually work, it's unlikely anyone else could ever break into that privileged group.

I digress. The point is that both teams are very good and it's a local derby, so every reason to expect an absolute belter of a game. All of which made the resulting match feel like a bit of an anti-climax. Yes, there were goals, bust-ups, moments of tension and all the rest of it, but for me the chief highlight was seeing ex-Liverpool benchwarmer Diego Cavalieri in the Fluminense net. Daft I know, but there you have it.

Still, I'm glad I went to both, if only so I can say I've now been to matches in 2 foreign leagues. And seen the reigning world, South American, national and state champions (both of them). Only in Brazil...

Random facts:

• The world's largest open-to-visit gold mine is located between the quaint colonial towns of Ouro Preto and Mariana, 7 hours north of Rio de Janeiro. Mina da Passagem has produced a whopping 35 tonnes of gold.
• Brazil remains the only colony to ever become the seat of a European monarch. The Portuguese prince regent (later Dom Joao VI) fled there when Napoleon attacked Lisbon, so for several years Portugal was ruled from Rio de Janeiro.
• Sao Paulo state is big enough to be an independent country. It has the same population as Argentina and covers the same area as the UK.


In many ways, Rio Carnaval is the perfect embodiment of Brazil as a whole.

Like Carnaval, Brazil's almost incomprehensibly huge. It's the world's 5th largest country in terms of both population and area. It's got the southern hemisphere's largest city in Sao Paulo. And it's also got the world's largest rainforest with the world's largest river running through it. We spent a month here and barely scratched the surface, yet that's more than enough time to see the main highlights of every other country in South America.

Like Carnaval, Brazil's also great fun. You can trip over exotic creatures in Iguacu, watch great football teams in Sao Paulo or take rickety trains down abandoned gold mines in Ouro Preto.

And like Carnaval, Brazil's completely, utterly, insanely out of control. The infrastructure in Rio's a mess, so god knows how they'll cope with the 2014 World Cup, let alone the 2016 Olympics. There isn't enough accomodation, transport options are limited and tourist offices are woefully under-resourced. What's more, there's an underlying sense of danger throughout the country - I lost count of the number of stories we heard about people getting mugged here or worse.

But for all its problems, Brazil's still an incredible place to come. It's got hands-down the best food and drink in South America. It's also got the best music, the best dancing and the best city (Rio de!).

And rest assured when Brazil's putting on a show, like it does at Carnaval, there's nowhere quite like it.

Next stop: Manchester (home)


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