So I´ve finally made it to the last stop of my mammoth 68 day South America tour - the world famous Rio de Janeiro! Hard to believe I´m actually here after 2 months talking about it with my group. For everyone its a real highlight of the tour and for some people their last stop before home. We were all desperately hoping for good weather and so relieved when we got up on Friday in Ilha Grande to finally see sunshine again. That made the boat trip back to the mainland that bit nicer, and from the port we boarded private buses bound for Rio, which was 2 hours north-east. Sadly it seemed to get cloudier the closer towards Rio we got, but there was still some sun so most people booked the city tour in the afternoon for 1.30. However due to horrendous traffic congestion in Rio we arrived at our really nice Copacabana hotel at that time and so the tour was delayed. The traffic was on ongoing problem for us in Rio - I have never been anywhere where its this bad. I don´t think it helps that this weekend is a bank holiday weekend in Brazil for the Day of the Dead/All Saints Day.
Anyway, when the tour finally started we were whisked up by minibus 700m to the Christ the Redeemer Statue on top of Corcovado Hill. The view from the road up looked spectacular, but once we reached about 600m it all disappeared as we entered very thick cloud. When we got to Christ himself you couldn´t even see the top of him, even though he´s not really that big! We were given 35 minutes to observe the mist before being taken down to another viewpoint in a converted derelict mansion house in the Santa Teresa neighbourhood. Being lower down we got a lovely view from here both of the Sugarloaf mountain and the nearby downtown skyscrapers. Santa Teresa was a nice area with San Francisco style trams running along cobbled streets. I was planning to go back today but was told downtown and areas near downtown are very dangerous on Sundays as there is no one about. We had a brief foray into downtown to visit the cathedral, which is a massive conical building that looks pretty ugly. It is fairly modern and is reputedly the world´s largest cathedral with a capacity for 25,000, though that must be standing because there were certainly not that many seats. We then got driven into the Lapa district, which is the heart of Rio´s nightlife. On weekends in the evening there are samba parties on the streets and tonnes of live music. The area was quiet though when we passed through in the day, but we stopped off to visit what is apparently the largest art project ever created by an individual. One crazy Chilean bloke has ripped up a whole load of concrete from some steps and replaced it with tiles sent to him from people all over the world. He was an insane bloke and we got to meet him and go inside his studio for a look at some of his other work.
The last part of our city tour was to take the cable car up the Sugarloaf mountain (the one in the centre of the pic above). Because we had left late it was getting a bit dark by this time, and it had clouded over a lot. There were 2 cable cars to get up there and they had no support towers in between the stations, so some people found them very hairy! The view from both the mountain halfway up and the sugarloaf itself though was excellent. Its only around 400m high so we were well below the cloud and the light was quite nice with the sun going down. After this we met Joaquin back at the hotel to go for our second farewell meal with him! He took us to a really nice all you can eat buffet, where waiters came round with amazing meat and carved it out onto your plate in front of you. It made a change from the other buffets we have been to in Brazil where you are charged according to weight. Its OK if you have salad but I always get hit hard because I have loads of meat!
The next morning I got up really early (6.30am) to take advantage of the forecast sunshine and got a rickety local bus out to the Corcovado train station for the 8.30 train up to the Christ Statue. It was a bit like the Snowden mountain railway and took us to the top in just 15 minutes. This time I finally got to see the statue, but more importantly a fairly clear view of Rio, which was definitely worth the effort. I had to rush back quickly though as I had booked a favela (shanty town) tour which I didn´t want to miss. We met our tattooed female guide at the hotel and were bussed out a few miles to the Rocinha favela, which has a population of 300,000 and is one of the largest of the 1,020 favelas in Rio. Most of the favelas are built on hills and we had to get a motorbike each up to the top in order to walk back down. There was basically only 1 road in the favela wide enough for cars so it was very congested, hence the need for bikes. I was a bit edgy about getting on one in such a dodgy place, and my driver was definitely a bit of a speed freak. At one point he overtook a lorry blind only to find a large bus coming the other way. I have no idea how we missed it - I think my knees had about an inch clearance either side! We were about the fastest thing on the road until he came up behind another motorbike with a passenger on who was going much slower. Ourselves and none of the other bikes overtoke this bike, there was a huge backlog behind him, so I´m assuming someone important was on board. Sadly we weren´t allowed to take photos of the bikes or on the main roads of the favela. The local gang lords are anonymous to the police and do not want to be identified, and we warned they would retaliate if we photographed them (not that we knew who they were amongst all the people). The guide escorted us past the young guards who checked us in and out of the favela and phoned some people to say we were coming. These young lads were also armed with grenades and fireworks, but I still felt perfectly safe. I had the feeling that if anyone touched they would probably come in for some serious harm as I bet the gangsters profit somehow from our tour (even though the money apparently all goes into the community centre).
Our first stop was a graffiti arts centre, which doubled as a nice viewpoint. We then visited a local baker and some other street traders. The streets were so narrow and some sewage was running down them and the smell was horrendous. There were also thousands of cables everywhere as the locals all steal electricity, internet and cable TV! They pay no utilities. The guide was very knowledgeable about the favelas and knew everybody living there. She was keen to stress that most of the people are humble folk not into crime, who even have jobs in the nearby tourist areas. There were only 4,000 soldiers in the favela with the leader being just 23 (a veteran in his industry). She explained how the police and politicians are corrupt and all profit from the favela. It was really interesting. I have no idea how the favela will deal with the population growth its experiencing. Already 4m people in Rio live in favelas and the average number of children per household is 7. People sell their roof space for others to build on but the quality of construction is appalling and you can only go so high.
After the favela tour I was meant to have a 1.5 hours break, in which I was going to check into my other hostel (since the tour ended I no longer have GAP provided hotels), but due to traffic I had to go straight off to the Maracana for an evening football match - the 6.30pm kick off between Rio´s biggest team Flamengo and Pele´s old team, Sao Paulo based Santos. Flamengo are in with a shot of the title being 6 points behind with 7 games left, so the stadium was quite full. 77,063 people attended, all but 1,000 of which were home fans, but there were still 23,000 empty seats as the stadium fits an astonishing 100,000. It is South America´s largest and will host the 2014 world cup final. As with the other games most people were in the stadium well over an hour in advance and when we got in with 45 minutes to go the atmosphere was in full flow. We were seated behind the goal in a sandwich tourist area between the 2 hardcore areas. There were still locals among us though, and the noise was defeaning. The whole game everybody was chanting and clapping, it was fantastic. English games will seem so lame by comparison when I get home.
Flamengo took the lead on 7 minutes when ex Inter striker Adriano powered in a fantastic header. He looked quality all game and later on powered a great shot against the crossbar. But the star of the show was home goalkeeper and local hero Bruno. On 20 minutes the referee awarded a penalty to Santos for a blatant dive, but Bruno managed to dive the right way and catch it to spark massive celebrations and a few flares to go off. In the second half another penalty was awarded for a handball, but yet again Bruno saved it, this time with his legs. The celebrations following that were immense, and the rest of the match was like a big samba party. Flamengo held on to win 1-0 in a game which was much better in terms of quality than the other 2 I´ve seen. The teams played excellent passing football which was great to watch.
Traffic after the match was horrific so I didn´t get to my hostel until 10.30pm. I had booked a 4 bed dorm but ended up with a 10 bed in with a load of idiots. Its also a generally loud place (I´m so glad I am not in hostels all the time, I´m too much of a snob!). Just one more night though and then I fly off to Santiago and a day later New Zealand. I am looking forward to going now I´ve left my tour group. Today I have been very bored, wandering the streets of Copacabana and the neighbouring beach Ipanema. Its Sunday though so as ever most things are closed. To make things worse it started raining around lunchtime, so I didn´t even hang about to watch the gay pride parade along the beach front (I´m not even sure it would have gone ahead). 2 million people were expected but there were a fraction of the people there when I walked through. Anyway this has been a very long blog so I shall head off. I am meeting the last remaining people off the tour for dinner in a few minutes before they fly off tonight. Well done if you made it this far!