Two of my best friends were going and one of them is, well, practically Brazilian as she goes twice a year and is fluent in Portuguese, so luckily the trip was planned out and I was able to squeeze in there, I bought my plane ticket about 15 hours before the flight- talk about sudden spontaneity! It was the afternoon that my two best friends presented their BA theses and passed their state exams. We came to university with two mini bottles of champagne and lots of hugs to congratulate the new Journalism and Communication degree holders.
The last few months had been pretty emotionally and mentally draining for me. I was in desperate need of an escape. I had been feeling really out of touch with myself, especially with my soul. I felt completely and utterly exhausted from numerous things which were happening around me and from university (side-note: I was supposed to graduate alongside my two friends but due to one extremely difficult class I had to prolong my degree an extra semester). So, it was time to replenish myself.
My friends and I were sipping on some drinks at an outdoor cafe along the Vlatva River here in Prague and I said, 'Guys, I want to come to Brazil. Can I come?' (another side-note: they asked me to come along months before but I declined as I had other summer plans- which were cancelled a month or two before- and I needed to focus on writing my thesis).
They got all excited and basically, I bought the last ticket for their flight. I went home that evening, packed quickly, went to exchange some money, sleep an hour or so before heading to the airport at 4 AM.
We had a connecting flight in Amsterdam and I flew on the flight one hour before them so that part of my journey was alone. I was sitting in the plane, right before take-off just staring at my ticket. I'm not sure if I was in utter shock that I was actually going to Brazil or I was just so tired from not sleeping that I was dozing off with my eyes open...maybe a combination of the two.
We spent the next two and a half weeks on the famous beaches Ipanema and Copacabana, exploring the streets, meeting wonderful people, relaxing, sipping on coconuts and eating cups of acai as big as our heads. Unfortunately, this time around we didn't get to go much into the nature parts or out of the city but I guess that's all the more reason to go again!
We did go to Cristos Reedemer one afternoon. It was fascinating to take a little bus up a narrow, winding mountain road and also to see the favellas up close. At the top, the views were absolutely breath-taking and the Cristos stood tall before us. We also had probably the best mango juice ever created. We actually heard a tour guide tell his tour that the mango juice in this cafe was the best in all of Rio...and I'm not surprised. If you go to see the Cristo Reedeemer, make sure to stop in the first cafe you come across when climbing up the stairs (after giving your ticket)- it will have a lovely patio with a view. This is where you need to get a mango juice (or any fresh juice for that matter). Also, if you are a caffeine addict like me, you can find a cappuccino like the ones you get at home here. I had a really hard time finding a 'latte' or 'cappuccino' while in Rio. For some reason, every time I thought I found one, it ended up being a melted chocolate cup with maybe a drop or two of espresso.
My friend insisted that I try the 'tapioca'. When she first told me I had a completely different image in my mind so I was a bit hesitant as I'm not the biggest fan of tapioca. However, this was a glorious little snack which changed my idea of tapioca completely. There were sweet and savory options so, of course, I opted for a sweet one: a dulce de leche with coconut flakes. It rocked my world. The best place to get them is from a street vendor; we got ours in the evening along the streets of Copacabana.
Brazil showed me what the most beautiful sunsets in the world look like. I was in complete awe watching the sun setting over the mountains, coloring the sky in vibrant orange, purple and pink colors. We stayed for about 45 minutes and soaked in the beauty around us. I wanted to take hundreds and hundreds of photos but I told myself that these moments don't necessarily need to be documented because you'll miss the entire experience. So, yes, I took quite a few photos but then I set my phone down and watched as the stars took over the sky.
Before coming to Brazil I had drank caipirinha...or so I thought. I tried some on the beach and I realized I had never actually tried a real caipirinha before! It's an alcoholic drink made with cachaça, sugar and lime. They were incredible and I vowed to never drink a caipirinha which wasn't from Brazil again (I ended up breaking that and regretting it).
Now, I'm not a health-freak or anything but I would say that I usually eat pretty healthy and wholesome. I don't diet, I don't watch what I eat, if I want a piece of cake then I will have a piece of cake (or the whole cake). However, I don't usually eat fried foods. If you call that some dietary restriction then I guess that's my only one. I was never really into fried foods or fast food. It just doesn't sit well in me and I don't find it really tasty, so I just stay away from it. In Brazil though, I realized A LOT of the food is fried. Of course, I had quite a bit of fried food but I came back to Europe feeling pretty yucky. With that all said, I would still recommend trying some of their fried cuisine (don't worry they have plenty of other options). Some of the best fried food I had eaten there was: pão de queijo (fried cheese balls) and olinho de bacalhau (codfish fried ball)
One of my friends is a vegan so we were always trying to find places which accommodated to her. It was hard but definitely do-able. So, vegans and vegetarians of the world, fear not! Brazil DOES have options for people following these types of diets. We ate mainly at buffet style restaurants which are quite popular there. Our two weeks were filled with tons of rice and beans, veggies and fruits (I usually added salmon, sushi or chicken to my plate). Towards the end of the trip I realized that almost all of my clothes were starting to feel...tight...while you can see that as a reason to freak out, I saw it as a sign of a holiday thoroughly enjoyed!
Overall, Brazil was an absolutely incredible experience. We met many amazing people, met some old friends of my friend, explored, relaxed and most importantly replenished our souls. The experiences I had there were surreal. I was sitting on the plane back to Europe thinking to myself, "Did all of that just happen?" Yes, yes it surely did.
Here are some tips I would advise you to follow when going to Brazil, regardless of the time of year:
1. Be safe. That's a no-brainer. Rio de Janeiro is NOT the safest city in the world but if you are mindful of your surroundings and you try to blend in much as you can, you will be just fine. I'll admit, I didn't feel as safe there as I do on the streets of Prague but I did not feel like I was in imminent danger. Always listen to your gut, if you feel like you are walking down a bad street, turn around and go back. Also, don't flash around your iPhone 6, your big fancy digital camera or designer wallet stuffed with money. When on the beach, keep it minimal, cover your belongings and NEVER leave things unattended. If you act like a local, people will believe you are and thus, you will likely be able to avoid any trouble (but, hey, stuff still happens sometimes).
2. Wear sun-screen (and bring bug-spray). The sun is strong. All. Year. Long. We went when it was winter and I still got pretty burned on the first day. There are also a lot of bugs and mosquitoes, some which carry diseases such as malaria and while it's unlikely you will get bit by one of these mosquitoes, it's still good to use bug spray and avoid those big, ugly red bumps all over your legs and arms.
3. Don't assume everyone speaks Spanish. Just because they are in South America does not mean they speak Spanish. It's just ignorant to assume that. Their most widely spoken language is Portuguese. Much of the population in Rio does not speak any Spanish. While my friend is fluent in Portuguese, there were several instances when my other friend and I would go out to explore. We didn't speak a word of Portuguese. Okay, we knew several basic phrases but it was difficult because many people we encountered didn't speak English very well and didn't speak any Spanish. After talking with some locals and asking them what to do in these situations, they always told us, don't assume that people here speak Spanish, they usually are a bit offended and then they will know you are a 'gringa' (Portuguese word for female foreigner).
4. Take a taxi at night. Especially after a night of drinking in Lapa (or anywhere else downtown). Be smart and travel in groups at night unless you are very familiar with the city and know the language.
5. Do not wander off into a favela. Do not do it alone and do not do it at night. Do not go there if you are looking for drugs or whatever it is that you fancy. There are many drug lords in the favelas who deal and will kill you without mercy if you create any sort of conflict over drugs. I've heard many stories about foreigners wandering into these favelas looking for drugs to amplify their big night out in Rio. Well, their big night out didn't happen- either they were found dead, seriously beaten and close to death, jailed or missing. Just don't do it. You can have a fun night out in Rio by just drinking the caipirinhas and avoiding several broken bones or a black eye. Do not go on tour through there because that's just, again, ignorant. Think about it, you are walking through an area where people with less are living and snapping photos so you can post it on your social media pages to claim you had some 'living-changing experience' and then you go back to your fancy hotel and order room service. It's just not very kind, in my opinion. It's not a museum where you can just wander around, point, stare and snap photos. It's a place where people, like you and me, live whether its temporary or permanent. Be respectful. If you know anything about favelas, you will know that there are some worse than others. They are in every neighborhood through Rio except for one. Respect that people live there and it's their home, maybe by choice but many times it's not.
While it might all sound scary, it's just common sense. Be smart when traveling, but especially in Brazil. The likelihood of something bad happening to you is slim-to-none but remember that anything can happen and it's always better to be safe than sorry.
I hope that this will inspire you to travel to Brazil and explore the beauty that Rio de Janeiro is!
Travel on wanderlusters!