Garbage littered the streets, half-naked revelers stumbled around solo as if in the dark, and bodies piled in alleyways trying to find enough space to sleep. Carnival had officially been over for four days, but the party continued, although everyone in attendance looked worse for it. Walking the streets of Rio’s Lapa district felt like wading through a post-apocalyptic landscape.
We hadn’t planned to be in Brazil during Carnival, it just kind of worked out that way. At first we were excited, imagining raucous nights of cheap beer and dancing in Rio’s streets. Those images quickly took a turn when we realized that accommodations were ridiculously overpriced, topping $100 per person a night to sleep in a room with a dozen other strangers. We instead set our sights on escaping the masses, and the inflated prices, by heading to the tranquility of the rainforest. There we were able to bus to the nearest town, the colonial gem of Paraty, for their watered-down, family-friendly, but still charming celebration.
In Paraty oversized, slightly-creepy, papier-mâché dolls guarded street corners, and colored tinsel was strung between buildings. At night, people took to the streets, cachaça (a popular Brazilian alcohol made from sugar cane) in hand, while a six-member band “paraded” down the cobblestone streets, the music quickly drifting off into the breeze as they turned a corner. Children twirled in their Carnival best while their parents queued up for churros and other greasy fair food. A number of stages were scattered throughout the historic center, but the whole affair remained relatively tame.
“A lot of people come to Rio for Carnival, and that’s all they ever see of it. They judge the city based on what they experienced over just a few days of craziness, and it’s not fair. If you want to see Rio — the real Rio — do not come during Carnival,” a Rio resident, who fled his hometown chaos for the calmer celebration, told me.
When we arrived in Rio, days after Carnival was officially over, and were met with the aftermath of the festivities, I began to think that this wasn’t a particularly good time to see the “real Rio” either. But over the next few days, through the grit and garbage, the city’s beauty became undeniable.
We explored the quaint hilltop neighborhood of Santa Teresa, fed micro monkeys living in trees, and climbed the Escadaria Selaron — a set of 250 steps covered with tiles from more than 60 countries around the world by Chilean artist Jorge Selaron as a tribute to the Brazilian people. The work is ongoing and ever-changing, with Selaron proclaiming “This crazy and unique dream will only end on the day of my death.”
On our last night, despite the perpetual threat of rain, we ascended Sugar Loaf Mountain for a birds eye view. We managed to arrive just moments before sunset and the ensuing blanket of fog — enough time to snap a few photos before the city below became whited out. In those pictures, water lapped the sand and sail boats dotted Guanabara Bay, the centerpiece of Rio’s natural loveliness. We watched the city flicker to life as night fell, and from that height, the residue of Carnival was invisible. We were able to observe from our perch a glimpse of what the “real Rio” might be like.
Our time in the city was much too short, and our timing poor. We’re planning on a return trip — only this time we’ll be sure to visit long after the Carnival crowds have gone.