Rio de Janeiro, or the River of January as it was christened by the early settlers, is a place full of vibrant contrasts. The home of the largest and most opulent Carnival in the world, which draws tourists by the millions, is also home to vast areas of slums or favelas. These crude and somewhat makeshift dwellings climb the surrounding hillsides, a reminder of the early slave roots permanently etched on the city skyline.
Copacabana Beach and Leblon Beach, playgrounds for the world’s rich and famous, are packed daily with hedonistic sun worshippers while many others sleep on flimsy cardboard beds in the streets and try to eke out a living selling sundry merchandise to passing strangers. These are the two distinctive faces of this steamy megalopolis which was once the capital of Brazil and remains one of the great tourist meccas of the world.
Our arrival in Rio by cruise ship coincided with the beginning of Carnival and we docked strategically among the other eleven giant liners which were visiting for this ultra-special occasion. All these grand dames of the sea jostled for their invitation to the best party on Earth, pouring out thousands of curious, cashed-up visitors who would make this unique city their home for the next few days.
Our first stop was the Christ the Redeemer statue which stands on top of a 700 metre peak high above the city, welcoming all with arms outstretched. The views are spectacular from this location, looking back over the city below. To get there we chose a half day bus tour which included a short ride through the city centre and around the famous tourist hotspots, as well as the cog train through the jungle and up the mountain to the feet of the iconic statue.
Along the way to the statue we visited Ipanema Beach, Copacabana Beach and the Sambadrome which we would return to later that night to watch the stunning parade. At this time of year and with a dozen cruise ships in port, everywhere was jam packed with sightseers. We learnt very quickly how essential it is to organise yourself well before leaving your accommodation (see our insider tips).
SUGAR LOAF MOUNTAIN
Take a ride on the cable car to the top of this stunning city landmark. 396 metres above sea level provides amazing views over Copacabana and Santa Cruz Fortress. Watch the planes touchdown at the nearby airport and feel like you could literally catch one as they leave. This is a truly thrilling experience not to be missed.
We also booked a bus to take us to the Carnival. On each of the two nights six Samba schools parade down the expansive avenue between the mammoth purpose-built grandstands. The rhythmic music, spectacular costumes, elaborate floats and crowd appeal make this one of the most memorable events you will ever experience. This is not some last minute dress up show. Each school brings its own flavour to the chosen theme. The costumes, floats and extraordinary stage machinery have been planned, constructed and perfected throughout the year. This spectacle is stupendous and the sheer scale of each performance has to be seen to be believed. Thousands of performers from each of the final twelve schools have the opportunity to participate and help bring this brilliant extravaganza to life for the adoring crowds.
As if Carnival wasn’t enough of a gay man’s fantasy, our research and ‘work in the field’ has uncovered some interesting facts for the first time visitor. On the night before the first Samba schools go on parade, the gay contingent of Rio have their own festival at Copacabana Beach which culminates in a huge warehouse party down at the dock area.
We saw the party in full swing as our ship pulled up at the wharf. There is only one word to describe that event, ‘beefcake’. Every one of the stunning men at the party was naked to the waist and their swarthy good looks made it hard for us to leave this vision to go to the dining room for breakfast before leaving the ship on our first excursion.
There are 2 well known beach hotspots for a gay day of sunbaking, frolicking and gazing. Take yourself off to beach number 8 at Ipanema which is hunk central. However, the best and most famous gay hangout is opposite the Copacabana Palace Hotel where you’ll find two rainbow flags marking the entry point for some hot, hero worship. Try to stay cool!
For a great night out in this fun city, try Le Boy Bar at Copacabana. This handsome, masculine bar is a real find. When you arrive you will pay a small fee to enter (around 30 Real). On street level you’ll see a friendly, cosy bar where you can chat while sipping on your warmup cocktail. On the next level up there is a sauna which will cost you an extra 50 Real to enjoy.
Below the entry level is an enormous central bar surrounded by a dance floor where the DJ will be belting out some great dance tracks. Most of the evening you’ll be entertained by some hand-picked local studs dancing in their brief swimmers on scaffolding above the bar. Just to give it that true Rio flavour, the action from the Sambadrome was streaming in live through the large screen TVs which surrounded the dance floor. So much entertainment on offer in one location and no attitude. Hunk heaven!
- Carnival is an amazing event and one of the greatest spectacles in the world. However, any tourist who comes to Rio at this time of year and doesn’t know what to expect may be very disappointed. This is a period of public holidays and celebration for the local people. Just about everything is shut, including many roads leading to major destinations.
- Crowds from all over the world come to take part in the festivities and this can lead to a type of organised chaos at times. And at other times it’s just a big mess with long delays and frayed nerves. You have to be patient and the intense heat doesn’t make it any easier.
- Make sure you have a hat, sunscreen, insect repellent, water and an umbrella with you at all times during the day. Dress in light clothing and wear sensible walking shoes.
- Street parties are the buzz throughout this period and although they are lively and colourful, they attract all types of characters, including those who may want to sample your valuables. It is common knowledge you must leave jewellery, phones, wallets and just about anything of value in the security of your hotel safe while out on the streets.
- It is best to have transport organised well in advance, know where you are going and how you are returning and don’t expect many people to be able to speak English. Make sure you have your hotel name or directions written down for taxi drivers.
- You will also need to find somewhere to cash your US dollars for Real (the local currency). There are some ATMs available but it is safer to change money at a hotel or ask them to suggest a reputable money changer nearby.
- For up to date tips on Rio Carnival gay gigs and parties check out these two fantastic links: Gay Carnival Guide and Rio Gay Party Guide