Carnival queen: Daniella Moyles's Brazilian adventure
Joie de vivre
So many people told me that going to Brazil for 10 days was mad. But do you know what I think is mad? Not going to Brazil for 10 days.
I really couldn't think of anything else I would rather do. Especially during the Carnival festival.
My friend Martin and I have had a visit to Rio de Janeiro's famous Carnival at the top of our bucket lists for some time. Carnival takes place annually in the weeks leading up to Lent, and those who take part consider it a season rather than an event. It is one of the most incredible spectacles on the planet - a combination of parades and street parties.
Without a doubt, the most famous event of Carnival season is the closing parade at the Sambadrome in Rio. It is the only ticketed event during Carnival, and the Sambadrome - a purpose-built parade area in the city centre - sits idle all year waiting for this one celebration. We bought our tickets online about a fortnight before we left for Brazil. They cost us €70 each for really great seats. However, had we been a bit more organised, we could have picked them up for as little as €40.
Our flights cost us €550 return with Air France, and if you fancy visiting Brazil, or a whole list of other amazing countries, you should sign up to its 'Wild on Wednesday' email subscription.
This is how we got our flights for such great value. On Wednesdays, Air France will send you a discounted destination, with a two-day booking window. A great travel tip! And while we're on the topic of cost, if you're planning a trip to Carnival, I would also suggest booking your accommodation as early as possible. Over a million people fly into Rio to attend this whopper festival, so hostel prices for a shared dorm can get as high as €100 per person, per night! Don't let that put you off though, there are loads of really reasonably priced hotels and Airbnb apartments on offer once you're ahead of the crowds.
Daniella in Brazil
We chose to leave the first five nights of our trip free to see where the wind would take us - we did, however, hire a rental car to facilitate that wandering. For the second half of the trip, we had booked into a hotel in Rio's trendy Botafogo neighbourhood. Arriving with no solid plan and one of the most beautiful countries in the world unfolding in front of us was exhilarating. We could head north to the idyllic resort town of Buzios - championed by the likes of Brigitte Bardot; or we could head south towards Paraty, Trindade and the secluded coves and lagoons of Picinguaba.
We decided to drive south along the coast, leaving the city behind us for a few days in search of paradise. The road weaved in and out through lush, dense, green hills, parting only to reveal the bluest ocean. The shore was dotted with small roadside fruit stalls selling local tropical fruits, fishing villages with old wooden boats, and rows of colourful homes. We stopped in the tiny coastal port town of Jacarei because we spotted a bakery and a newsagent. We planned to stock up on pastries and water and then continue south, but a friendly exchange with the cashier changed our minds.
As it turned out, Jacarei was one of only two small port towns in the entire country that taxied boats to an island called Ilha Grande. Our cashier, whose name I can't even remember now, told us that if we were in search of somewhere unspoiled and off the beaten track, this was the place.
Formerly home to a leper colony and then to a top-security prison housing all of Brazil's most dangerous criminals, the island was only opened to the public in 2004, 10 years after the prison closed. The island's 2,000 or so inhabitants realised tourism was a very viable new source of income. Our new friend told us a catamaran was leaving in 30 minutes, and the trip would take only 20 minutes. We were sold.
We bought our boat tickets and were directed to the car park . . . a small field fenced in by palm trees. The 'security guy' was asleep beneath one of them in a pair of tighty-whities. I'd like to take this opportunity to point out that getting comprehensive car insurance was the right choice, Marts. Well done.
On the road...
Travelling has always given me this feeling that I find difficult to put into words - the simplest way I can describe it is that it makes me happy to be alive. That feeling was pulsing through my veins as we docked in Abraao, the largest village on the island of Ilha Grande. There are no roads on the island and motorised transport is banned in an effort to preserve one of the most pristine remnants of Brazil's Atlantic rainforest. So we set off on foot to secure some accommodation for the night.
A pousada - which is a small B&B or guesthouse - is easy to come by in Abraao, but each one is unique, and prices vary greatly from one to the next. We wanted to have our cake and eat it - luxury on a budget, you could call it - and we found it at the Aratinga Inn. We happened upon this place because I stopped to take a picture of a wall covered in beautiful flowers, behind which I heard water trickling in that enchanting way it does. There was an entrance nestled between the flowers and I just had to take a look.
Inside, patterned tiles led us past fountains, hammocks and chalets into a garden pavilion, where complimentary afternoon tea was being served to the sound of chirping birds and distant howler monkeys. Rennie, the owner, greeted us, and within 10 minutes had us sorted with our own stunning room (accompanied by private garden and hammocks), a detailed information pack about the island and a serving of that afternoon tea, for less than €200 each for four nights. Not exactly hostel prices, but well worth it for the experience.
Ilha Grande has more than 92 miles of hiking trails, and approximately 100 miles of beaches that can only be reached by boat, or by a long trek through dense rainforest, so some exploring was on the agenda for the days to come.
Back to nature...
We hiked to Cachoeira Da Feiticeira, otherwise known as the waterfall, a long but doable uphill hike, with a mid-point stop at a cool freshwater pool, complete with a natural rock slide. The heat was unrelenting, so this was a really nice surprise! We were also lucky enough to encounter some endangered brown howler monkeys on our hike back to the village that evening. Ilha Grande is one of the last locations on Earth to host a small, protected population of these fascinating and noisy animals.
The following day, we packed a picnic and set out by boat to visit as many of the unspoiled beaches as possible. Lopes Mendes beach is the most popular stop on the island, and is unquestionably one of the most beautiful beaches on the planet, but, as usual, defiant in our quest to be different, Marts and I chose a tour that bypassed that stop.
Instead, we jumped off boulders into crystal-clear waters at Caxadaco, snorkeled for a glimpse of seahorses and turtles on Dois Rios, and spotted a flying fish as we sat, snacking, on the shores of Parnaioca. But our final stop, Aventureiro, was my favourite of them all. As we cruised in, I was totally floored by the views. Eagles soared above jungle mountains that almost touched the translucent crescent moon hanging out in Brazil's cloudless skies. And then I noticed this genius crooked palm tree along the waterfront. It had grown out from the thick forest at a 90-degree angle to ensure it got maximum sunlight! We wanted paradise, and we absolutely found it.
The following days were more relaxed - we lay out, read, ate local foods, browsed craft stalls, swam in the warm sea and danced to live music until the early hours. But I had one last epic hike left in me before we departed Ilha Grande for Rio: a night-time trek, starting at 2.30am, to the highest point on the island, called Pico Do Papagaio or Parrot's Peak. Our brilliant and informative guide met us with all the essentials - a head torch, some snacks, water and insect repellent - and we set out on the steep ascent. The hike is tough, and the jungle is a pretty incredible place in the depths of the night. The seven-hour round-trip was worth every ache, pain, scrape and bruise to sit in the clouds for 40 minutes and watch the world wake up. An experience I will never, ever forget.
Drinking coconut water...
That evening, we got the catamaran back to Jacarei, collected the car - which, surprisingly, was still there - and then I slept the whole way to Rio, while Marts navigated the unfamiliar roads and city traffic.
Rio de Janeiro is stunning and a world away from the mellow atmosphere on Ilha Grande. It's pulsing with energy, beautiful people and busy streets. It sits perfectly beneath high mountains and spills out into the sea, resulting in some pretty jaw-dropping scenery, not the kind of thing you normally find in a vast city.
Rio was particularly lively when we were there, as it was the final week of Carnival and the streets were filled with blocos - enormous outdoor neighbourhood parties usually involving colourful parades, lots of drums, singing and drinking. There's an app called Carnaval 2015 O Globo, which most people were using to get the lowdown on Carnival's entire bloco itinerary in real time; you can see where they're happening, at what time and how many people are attending.
We had our heart set on heading to the incredible Santa Teresa neighbourhood for our first bloco . . . and it did not disappoint. Thousands of people in elaborate costumes and painted faces paraded through the winding, narrow streets of this artistic hub. Some were on stilts, some riding floats or carrying props, everyone moving to samba drums and sweating in the heat, with glitter constantly present in the air. After the madness had passed, we grabbed a bite to eat in one of the neighbourhood's open-plan cafes and walked to the Selaron Steps, named after Jorge Selaron, the artist who created them, and made world-famous by Beautiful, that Snoop and Pharrell video.
The rest of the evening was spent watching the festivities unfold around us on Copacabana Beach, taking in the sights and sounds while an impressive thunder-and-lightning storm rumbled and lit up the sky out over the ocean.
The following day began with a local favourite, the acai bowl.
If you visit Brazil, you have to try this dish because you can't get acai berries anywhere else in the world like those you get in Brazil, plus it's healthy indulgence at its best. Acai is a superfood with a ton of health benefits (which I reckon is responsible for all the good-looking people over there) but it's also a delicious tropical fruit. The acai bowl has the texture of a really thick smoothie and basically tastes like ice cream. It's served up with a whole range of toppings, such as oatmeal, fruit or peanut butter. Bellies satisfied, we took a trip to the street market in Saara to look for some bargains amongst the labyrinth of stalls. This is the city's oldest daily street-fair, boasting an impressive 600 stores; you'd be forgiven for thinking that you had been transported to a bazaar in Istanbul the moment you arrive. The main purpose of this trip was to put together our very own carnival outfits. Botafogo, the neighbourhood we were staying in, was hosting a bloco that evening, and we wanted to look the part. Initially, we'd decided on the Chiquita banana lady as our inspiration, but we ended up creating a strange hybrid between her and a Hawaiian dancer, which we pieced together with glue, string and love in our hotel room, before proudly showcasing it to the world.
Thankfully, we got much praise for our efforts from the locals, who were so impressed they befriended us, and led us from the bloco in Botafogo to another bloco on Ipanema beach, which went on until the early hours. We arrived home with half the props we went out with and some great memories.
Our big night at the Sambadrome was fast approaching and we were all bloco-d out, so we decided to take a day of rest from the partying to do some sightseeing. One of the New Seven Wonders of the World had been looking down on us, and it was time to pay him a visit. Cristo Redentor, or Christ the Redeemer, stands 30m tall on top of Corcovado Mountain, with panoramic views of Rio, the Sugarloaf and Guanabara Bay. To get to the top, you take the Corcovado train, which costs €10 and leaves every half hour. We had heard horror stories about five-hour queues, but we didn't experience this at all; in fact, quite the opposite. We arrived early, which is advised, joined a queue of around 15 people, picked up our tickets, hopped on an empty train and pulled out of the station a couple of minutes later. The views on the ascent are as impressive as those from the top; pulling up to such an iconic landmark in person is actually a bit of an adrenaline rush.
Watch out for "photographers" who'll offer to take your photo for way too much money. With a bit of patience, you'll get a better one yourself. When we arrived back, we got a table at Rio's most famous traditional churrascaria restaurant, Porcao Rios. Churrascaria is essentially a very posh barbecue; an impressive array of the finest meats are cooked on charcoal and brought to your table until you can't eat any more. On arrival, you're given a card: one side is green and the other red, you simply flip it on the table to signal when you would like more and when you're taking a breather. It's all accompanied by the most extensive buffet of sides you can imagine, and to top it all off, floor-to-ceiling glass windows provide views of the Sugarloaf. Win-win!
The Sambadrome parade starts at 8pm and wraps up around 6am, and we whiled away our entire next day dying to get there. Samba schools train, rehearse and prepare all year for this ferociously competitive finale, performed in front of 90,000 live spectators and millions of others watching from home.
The samba schools parade their unique themes one after another along the 700-metre stretch, with thousands of dancers, drum sections and floats. We had anticipated not lasting the full run from 8pm until 6am standing in the bleachers, especially because it was raining, but when 6am rolled around and the last dancer disappeared from the end of the avenue, I was still ready for more. It was the most incredible show I have ever been treated to - ever! Forget Vegas, forget Broadway, forget Mardi Gras, and any other festival the world over. No production or party or piece of theatrics has ever impressed me like this extravaganza. The sheer scale, attention to detail and assault on the senses is overwhelming. It is spectacular. Plus the arses - special mention to those incredible Brazilian arses.
Martin has since told me that he feels his sole purpose on earth now is to make sure as many people as possible experience Carnival in Rio. If you can, make it something you go see in your lifetime. You won't regret it.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine