Most people don't need to watch Disney's animated film of the same name (the one with the annoying, samba-ing parrot) to know that Rio is famous for its beaches, colourful people (and apparently birds) and of course, the Carnaval. But what they didn't tell us in the film is that there's a right time for all this. And the middle of July - Brazil's winter - is not it. During this time of the year - as we found out the hard way - the weather can be pretty unpredictable. It doesn't get anywhere as cold as the European countries in winter - but it can rain quite a lot. Not the thunderstorms we get back home but more the drawn-out, grey clouds with non-stop drizzle (think London) that is enough to keep you indoors most of the time. So the mental image of an endless stretch of white sandy beaches with glorious sunshine and already tanned people getting even more tan and playing beach volleyball / football may remain just that - a mental image.
OKla, our trip to Rio was not a total write-off. In between the wet spells where we had to stay indoors and watch stuff on the iPad, we did manage to do a few interesting things:
1) Go up Sugar Loaf Mountain So Rio has 2 famous "mountains" - I put the word mountain in inverted commas here because they aren't actually mountains. Barely 400m in height - more like a hill. Semantics. Anyway, the very famous one is called Corcovado - the one where the Christ the Redeemer statue stands. This is the other one. The BnB we stayed in was only about a 20 minutes' walk from where the cable car up to the top of the mountain/hill is so it was the first thing we went to see after arriving in Rio. The Sugar Loaf mountain got its name as it apparently looks like one (in my mind: what the heck is a sugar loaf anyway?). Other than providing a spectacular view of the city on a clear day, there really isn't anything else going for it except maybe being able to make out the Christ standing on the opposite mountain. Plus, it's actually more expensive to go up than Corcovado (R$53 vs R$44). So if you're short of time and need to choose a mountain, definitely go up Corcovado.
2) Catch a football game The locals will tell you that you haven't really experienced Brazil if you have not watched them in action playing the Beautiful Game. As it turned out, there was a game between 2 local teams while we were here - Fluminense and Bota Fogo - ranked 3rd and 4th in the Brazilian league respectively. Brazil + football + close rivals = must watch. So we went. And we were not disappointed - at least in the second half. The first half was a bit uneventful and had no goals but the game picked up quite a bit in the second half and ended with 1 goal a piece. Where a Brazilian football game lacks in turn-out (the stadium was only half-full), it more than makes up for it with the atmosphere with fans waving huge-ass flags, setting off what looks like fireworks with lots of smoke but without the clap, beating drums, singing, cussing the referee, the opponents and even their own goalie at one point, etc. In my opinion, worth the half-day although I'd go find out how to buy our own tickets as opposed to paying the tour guide (we paid the tour guide R$140 per person and later found out that that tickets only cost R$30 each).
3) Walk the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema You can't visit Rio and not see its famous beaches, even if it's in the middle of winter. However, because it was not summer and it was in the low 20s, we didn't unpack our beach clothes. Even then, we were suprised to see quite a lot of people sun-bathing, playing beach sports, surfing. The beaches are big, white (as in the sand, not the people) and relatively clean. We didn't spend much time here though - we walked on the beach a bit in our Havaianas and briefly dipped our toes in the Atlantic ocean.
4) See Christ the Redeemer @ Corcovado Lesson learnt here - trust the local. While having breakfast yesterday, our host Rob (a Canadian who moved to Brazil 20-odd years ago), advised that if we wanted to go see the Christ, we should leave immediately after breakfast to beat the crowd and while the weather was still good. So we did. And he was partially right - other than a handful of scouts (apparently, the 50th National Scout Jamboree was taking place in Rio at that time), the place was relatively empty. However, we were told that the weather was not great and we may not have any view from the top. We thought about it for 10 minutes and decided NOT to go up. Big mistake. Coz just an hour later, the weather cleared up but by this time, we were already halfway across the city. When we spoke to Rob again later, he insisted that we go back to Corcovado as soon as we can while the weather was still good. So we found ourselves back there later in the morning but by this time, the entire scout jamboree was there (not to mention the other tourists) plus a 2-hour wait to go up the mountain. When it was finally our turn to board the train that took us up the mountain, it was well past 1 pm. There is an option to actually hike up the mountain and I would usually be quite open to it, except that every guide book we read and local we spoke to advised against it. Rio has a number of slums (remember Fast and Furious 5?), many of which are run by local drug lords. And you'll need to go through one of them if you are to hike up Corcovado to reach the top. When we eventually reached the top (by train), other than the massive crowd, we were not dissappointed. The view was spectacular - even more so than from the Sugar Loaf - and the Christ Himself was quite amazing. Standing at more than 100-feet tall and being able to go right up to His feet, you'll see why it was voted one of the "official" seven wonders of the world. Amazing stuff.