The final week of our five month South American Adventure was spent in Rio de Janeiro; the perfect place to really make the most of our last few days on the road. Better yet, we were there over the weekend of the World Cup Final, so that the usual party atmosphere was amplified by the football fans who had gathered in their hundreds of thousands to watch the game in Brazil’s capital.
Over our last seven days, we managed to explore a fair bit of the absolutely enormous city, from the Rocinha favela where we spent the World Cup weekend to the glossy city centre. Of course, no trip to Rio is complete without visiting it’s iconic beaches, so we made sure to take these in straight away.
The rain from our disastrous first day cleared up overnight, thankfully, so on our second day we headed straight for Copacabana beach. It took over an hour to reach by bus from Rocinha, and on the way we passed by the quieter Leblon beach, full of surfers and volleyball games, and the upmarket Ipanema beach. But Copacabana was first on the list.
While we were there, it was rammed full of tourists and football fans who were all in Rio for the World Cup. Straight away, we saw the unmissable FIFA fan fest which took up a huge section of the beach, and of course we couldn’t resist browsing in the FIFA souvenir store. This absolutely enormous pop up store smelled like Disneyland and housed an explosion of plush toys, baseball hats, football shirts, and all kinds of more obscure souvenirs like cheese boards stamped with the FIFA 2014 mascot or the official World Cup wine. Even if the prices had been a bit more affordable, there is no way I could have braved the impossibly long queue to buy anything in there (I couldn’t even find the end), but it was pretty interesting to have a quick browse.
We spent the rest of the day strolling along the esplanade, marvelling at the crowd-dodging joggers and the crazy-fit young guys doing pull-ups at the outdoor gyms, browsing the handicrafts and fake FIFA souvenirs being sold on mats at the edge of the sand – our favourite was the fake pint of half-spilled beer – and eating lunch at one of the many cafés lining Copacabana beach. The luxurious, modern district was completely at odds with all our experiences from the past five months, and although the change was welcome we had mixed feelings about the area. From Copacabana, we made our way across town to the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, an enormous lake in the centre of Rio overlooked by green mountains and the Corcovado, with Christ himself peering down at us. It was a great place for a walk – although our ambitious plan to make it to the other side dissolved pretty quickly – and we even spotted some wild capybaras grazing near the lake!
On Sunday 13th, we were back on Copacabana which was now so overrun by tourists that we could barely see the sand around the FIFA fan fest area. We got down early and managed to secure a fairly good spot with a view of the second screen, but what I couldn’t believe was the absurdly long queue to get into the fenced-in area housing the first screen. Both screens were the same size, so there was no real reason to get into the fan fest to watch the game, other than the prestige of saying “I was there”. For me, being on front of the big screen on Copacabana beach was exciting enough, so we spent the day sunbathing in order to secure our spot and waiting for the final to start.
The atmosphere was incredible. We were completely surrounded by Argentinian fans who were wild with excitement; chanting and screaming as the game went on. I’m not a lover of football, but I can get involved when I’m watching a match with passionate fans – and the fact that Sam and I had a bet on Argentina to win helped me get pretty excited about the game, too. Some of the Argentinian fans near us had stolen a cardboard cut-out of Neymar, Brazil’s star player, from somewhere and dressed him up in an Argentina shirt, holding him up above the crowd, much to the delight of everyone around us. Everyone was in really high spirits until almost the very end of the game, and I couldn’t help but feel as crushed as the Argentina fans when Germany won.
We didn’t go back to Copacabana again, but we did spend our last full day in South America on Rio’s other famous beach, Ipanema. This was much quieter than Copacabana and hadn’t been overrun by the World Cup, so we actually enjoyed it much more. By the end of our week in Rio, the weather had finally improved enough that we could swim in the sea, making the most of the enormous Atlantic waves which are great for leaping about in, and perfect for the many surfers who were great fun to watch. Although we’ve been to many beaches in much more beautiful settings – like Trindade in Paraty or Colombia’s Tayrona Park – Ipanema was modern, clean and very pretty, and we really enjoyed it. The perfect way to round off five months in South America.