What do you do when you get tired of how rundown your street is looking? Most people would call and complain to the city council. In Rio de Janeiro, though, rundown streets are a dime a dozen and probably not that high on the financially-strapped city’s list of problems. So Chilean artist, Jorge Selaron took it upon himself in 1990 to fix the steps outside of his house. Along the way, he got caught up in the project, redid the whole street and created a new Rio landmark. It’s officially known as Manuel Carneiro street although everyone knows it as Escaderia Selaron.
The Selaron steps is a steep street that runs between the two artsy neighbourhoods of Santa Teresa and Lapa. Santa Teresa is a gentrified bohemian neighbourhood which is easily accessible from downtown Rio by a special tram. The area has lots of galleries, cafes and the very nice relais & chateaux boutique hotel, Hotel Santa Teresa. The Lapa neighbourhood is stuffier and filled with street art.
A selection of the tiles on the steps
There are 250 steps that total about 125 metres. The work took over 20 years to complete with Selaron adding to the project until his death in 2013. Had he not died, you could see unadorned parts where he no doubt would have finished tiling.
unadorned space that will now never get tiled
Selaron started off using yellow and green, the colours of the Brasilian flag. He got the mosaic pieces from construction sites and urban waste sites.
He started expanding his colour repertoire in later years though. From what I could tell he got lots of red tiles in some sort of bulk deal.
There are more than 2000 tiles many of which were donated by visitors and admirers. We really liked checking out the tiles to see which ones were from the most random countries. There are more than 60 countries represented. A fun game for the kids was guessing how many countries they could spot.
Approximately 300 of the tiles are paintings by Selaron of a pregnant African women.
Selaron’s mysterious pregnant African woman and that’s Selaron himself with his swashbuckling mustache.
There are houses all along this street. When Selaron started his project, his neighbours thought he was crazy. Now, the neighbours are flooded with tourists especially during peak season such as Carnival.
A gate and a mailbox to a house on the road tries to blend into the tile work.
Rio considers Selaron the city’s version of Antoni Gaudi, the Catalan artist known for using broken pottery to create mosaics. Selaron, with his handlebar mustache, even had unique facial hair just like Gaudi.
Selaron died in 2013 in mysterious circumstances. His body was found lying on the steps that he had lovingly created.
Social commentary on living in a favela
Social Commentary translated into English
The Selaron Steps achieved international fame when they were featured in the 2003 hit song ‘Beautiful’ by Pharrell featuring Snoop Dogg. By the way, the beach scenes from this video were filmed in Copacabana Beach.
Rio likes to think of Selaron as their answer to Catalan modernist, Antoni Gaudi. In Sao Paolo, we had Estevado who created The Stone House who is compared to Gaudi, too. The Stone House is completely covered in ‘stuff’ the artist had either found or bought and then cemented into the wall. These items ranged from the ordinary (phones) to the ridiculous (tourist souvenirs). Although Selaron’s work is more similar to Gaudi’s broken pottery mosaics, Estevado has pushed the boundaries of Gaudi’s ideas and created something completely new. What do you think Gaudi would have thought of these two Brasilian artists who have paid homage to him?
Although you think that you may have seen the scene from movies and photos, nothing prepares you for the real thing. A mass of sun-kissed humanity prowl, pose, and play on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro in Brasil. The water crashes in effervescent waves spraying their foam onto soft, white sand which stretched as far as your eyes can see. The sea does not get tired of landing on the beaches of Rio and neither do the Cariocas (as residents of Rio are known) who live in the city. From dawn until dusk, the beaches are full of human activity. Blessed with sun, sand and sunshine, Cariocas are beach lovers for good reason.
The Beaches of Rio
Rio de Janeiro is blessed with an abundance of beaches both along the ocean-front and its other inlets such as its lagoon. The most famous of these beaches is the legendary Copacabana Beach. Fallen a bit from grace from its heyday in the 1950’s, Ipanema beach next door is now the trendy beach.
A sea of umbrellas next to the ocean of water.
A sarong with the names of Rio’s beaches on it.
The posts on the beach with numbers are an easy way for people to meet others on the beach. For example, the section in front of the Ceasar Park Hotel on Ipanema has lots of foreigners. Posto 7 is where the surfers are and between Posto 8 and 9 is the gay hangout. Certain favelas have specific posts where their residents congregate.
Posts on the beach so you know where to meet your peeps.
Love, ageless and evergreen. This photo really makes me want to break out into Barbra Streisand.
Unlike the city, the beaches of Rio are democratic. Next door to the bit with the foreigners on Ipanema Beach, we find local Brasilians. A little bit further along there is a large gay section. Bronzed, oiled and wearing the bare minimum, you don’t know which people on the beach are favela dwellers and which are residents of the super-pricey apartment towers with an ocean view. After all, everyone is pretty much wearing nothing.
One of the omnipresent stands on the beach renting umbrellas and stands.
Sorry to burst your bubble but you can definitely tell the tourists even before you hear their voices. The tourists are the ones with the milky skin, one-piece bathing suits and/or expensive sunglasses. On the plus side, the foreigner section of Ipanema has masseurs who bring their massage tables onto the sand. While my children were gleefully being pounded by the surf, I was on the sand having my aching muscles bashed about by a former Brasilian triathlete. For approximately $20 a half hour, she kneaded away the stresses of the 12 hour flight from London. Blissful.
Further along from Ipanema, Leblon is known for being family-friendly. The water is calmer and there is less of a scene. On the other hand, we have heard the water is less clean because the outlet for the lagoon is at Leblon. We stuck to Ipanema Beach because it was the closest to where we were staying.
I’ll drink to tired children!
In any event, all of our children came down with a 24-hour tummy bug sometime during the week. A local Brasilian told my friend that visiting children do often come down with a little something from playing in the water at Rio. There are simply too many people and sanitation is not the best.
Life is a Beach
Some people are sleeping in the sunshine while others sprawl on the deck chairs and sand watching the local talent. The heat of the sun bares down on everyone, a hot oven baking even the most energetic of the children into listlessness. I am surprised that many people don’t seem to be wearing sunglasses.
One of the predominant scenes are boys and men playing football. They play in circles kicking the ball to each other, barefoot in the sand and showing off their sporting prowess. The football starts in the morning and goes until dusk. The men remind me of preening male peacocks displaying their tail feathers for the world to see.
It’s never too early or too late for football in Brasil.
Showing off some skills on the beach
The cafes on the edge of the beach are great for a snack or a tipple. The heat of the sun may make the restaurant staff a little bit dozy too. For example, my son waited for 45 minutes for his banana split. When I went to ask them what the status of the order was, they told me they ran out of bananas. Perhaps we should have been told that earlier?
Coconuts waiting to be hacked open for their sweet water.
Make mine a caiprivodka (a caiprinha made with vodka) please.
You don’t need to leave the beach for a snack. Enterprising vendors weave through the sea of umbrellas bringing drinks (coconuts, caiprinhas) and food (grilled prawns, crisps) to the people too languid to walk.
A bikini seller makes his way through the sun umbrellas.
I’m not sure what you are selling but I’ll take it.
Although there are vendors on the beach itself, the wide sidewalk by the beach has its share of shopping as well. You can buy everything from bikinis and sarongs to tourist souvenirs.
The vendors lock up their stuff overnight on the beach.
My children loved the beaches of Rio. The giant waves crash in an endless rhythm perfect for playing and bodyboarding. They simply did not get tired of playing at the beach even though they went every day.
Splish splash on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro
You would think from the photos that everyone has a perfect body they are showing off to maximum effect. What I noticed about the sun worshippers is that everyone flaunts everything whether they are the next Giselle Bundchen or not. That lack of self-consciousness is a refreshing attitude for a non-Brasilian like me.
Beautiful in every way.
If I lived in Rio, I would be at the beach every day, too. The city has its fair share of problems, but at the beach, everyone is happy. The glare of the sun washes out all of the unpleasant bits so that Carioca life is seen with a soft-daydream quality.
We were open-mouthed at the sheer opulence of the parade floats and costumes in the Sambadrome at Rio’s Carnival. We have been to a lot of parades but we were completely blown away. Between the sound system, the floats and the dancers, Rio’s spectacle was the most extravagant we had ever seen. A look at the backstage of Rio’s Sambadrome parades, though, reveals a whole lot of work and a fair bit of dodgy dealing.
Preparing for Rio’s Sambadrome Parades
My children got to try on some Sambadrome parade outfits when we went to the H.Stern jewellery museum. The handmade beaded outfits are heavy. My daughter couldn’t even move her head wearing a plumed head dress. I assume that’s why the women’s costumes were so skimpy. It would be hard to dance and smile for an entire hour and a half through the Rio Sambadrome parades if your outfit was heavier than you.
Details from the outfits on display at H.Stern
Each year the theme for each samba school changes as does the costumes, floats and official song. The planning work for the next year’s carnival begins almost as soon as the previous year’s carnival ends. You need new costumes, music, floats, dances and choreography.
The kings and queens of each school proudly displaying their flags.
The beads, feathers etc. of the costumes are recycled from year to year. The costumes themselves are always different though. Hundreds of people-hours are spent designing and creating the costumes for the thousands of people involved.
Detail from a handmade beaded jacket.
The Samba Schools
Rio has more than 100 samba schools and the top 12 are part of the elite Special Group. Below the Special Group, there are other tiers (just like in football divisions), Groups A, B, C and D. Just like in football, samba schools can be promoted a division or relegated down to another group. Also, similar to football, the samba schools inspire fierce loyalty that can make grown men cry.
The incredible variety of outfits and creativity.
The samba schools are a bit like community centres. They provide a recreational outlet for favela dwellers. People are really devoted to their own samba school. Even within the same favela, there may be different samba schools. Each one has its own flag and colours. The samba schools were started in Rio in 1920 based on the centuries old traditions and structures of carnivals held in the city.
The city of Rio set up Samba City located near the port to help the Special Group prepare for Carnival. A massive 93,000 square meters, each Special Group member gets its own warehouse so that they can prepare and rehearse for Carnival. These warehouses are also where the floats and the costumes are made and stored. A trip to a favela would reveal that there’s hardly any room in these shanty towns for oversize floats prior to their use in Rio’s Sambadrome parades.
A Sambadrome dancer on her way backstage to get ready
At any time of the year, you can visit Samba City and get a flavour of the spirit of Carnival. Visiting Samba City is a popular tourist attraction and you can get organised tours to see it. Regular tours are conducted in both Portuguese and English.
Funding Samba Schools
Each samba school works hard to create a masterpiece of showmanship and theatre for carnival. Located in favelas, I wondered how the samba schools funded this extravagance. While many people living in favelas are dirt poor, other inhabitants are the working class. For example, they work as the maids, gardeners and household help in the houses of the wealthy. I can’t imagine either type of favela dweller having the spare cash needed to participate in Rio’s Sambadrome parades.
This castle from the St. George and the dragon story is filled with dancers.
The official story says that samba schools raise money for their activities through fundraisers, government grants, ticket sales and corporate sponsors. Many of the participants in the Sambadrome parades don’t have to pay for their outfits. Moreover, there are people who are paid to work on Rio’s Sambadrome parades as their official job. So, you would need to do a whole lot of fundraising to finance this effort.
The level of detail on the floats was mind-boggling. You can see why it took a year to prepare.
The ugly truth? The millions of dollars needed for the extravagance of the samba school displays at Rio’s Sambadrome parade comes from the underbelly of Carioca life. Drug dealers launder money through the favelas. Drug gangs fund the samba schools to keep the favela dwellers happy and turn a blind eye to the drug dealing in the community.
Who needs religion? The opiate of the masses can be sparkly costumes and dancing. It wasn’t just the theatricals, music and dancing that reminded me of Bollywood movies. Indian Bollywood movies are immensely popular and cheap to attend. They are a way to keep people entertained and their minds off their problems. At least the Brasilian samba schools require audience participation. There are at least 4000 people marching in each school’s parade and countless more behind the scenes doing the artwork, music, construction etc.
Not content with ordinary animatronics, this float had people in swings!
In addition, carnival is funded by gambling sources. Although gambling is illegal in this very Catholic country, back-street gambling in the form of a lottery called ‘jogo do bicho‘ is very popular. This money is laundered through samba schools, too. Our guide, Marco Bransford, told us that the government is considering making Jogo do Bicho legal. Brasil is not doing well financially and the government could use the tax money raised from the lottery.
The floats are giant, with exquisite detail and dancers in outfits wearing incredibly detailed outfits too.
The dodgy funding isn’t limited to Brasilian sources either. The 2015 Carnival winner, Beija-Flore, was rocked by controversy that its floats were funded by the dictator of the small West African nation of Equatorial Guinea. The people of Equatorial Guinea are among the poorest in the world even though the country is oil-rich. It’s a bizarre form of wealth transfer to take from the poor of one country to give to the poor of another country (and not even for health, education or other resources that would improve their lives long-term). Such controversies are old news in Rio’s Sambadrome parades. For example, in 2006, another school was accused of being funded by Venezuelan President Chavez.
I went to Brasil thinking that Catholicism was its religion and football was its main preoccupation. Now, I know that samba schools are another form of religion. Between Catholicism, football and samba, the people in the favelas of Rio are kept too busy to complain about their miserable lot in life. It’s a win/win for everyone, or so it seems.
The first thing I notice at the Rio Sambadrome is the crush of humanity. People are packed into the stadium seating with just enough room for little Brasilian surgically-enhanced bottoms. Personal space, as we Americans like to call it, is disregarded. Luckily, pretty much everyone is standing and many are dancing. The supporters of each Samba school enthusiastically wave their flags. The beer was free-flowing and the party atmosphere infectious. Everyone was somehow dressed up (or down!) even if the adornment is just a garland of flowers.
Tickets to the Sambadrome
Most people in Brasil (or even Rio) don’t go to the Sambadrome. It is way too expensive. They watch the Samba School’s parade on television and celebrate Carnival itself at the blocos (street parades) or other private parties.
We got tickets to the Rio Sambadrome for $250 per person. We would have liked to have box seats but they were going for $1000/person. We were seated in Section 9 which is reserved for tourists. It’s a terrific location right across from where the judges sat. Every parade that passed us was going all out to impress the judges.
The box seats didn’t look that special.
Having been to the Rio Sambadrome, I don’t think the more expensive box seats were any more comfortable. They did, however, have a lounge area behind the seats so that our children could have slept there. On the other hand, it was still cheaper to bring along a nanny and send the children home before they were too exhausted.
The kids are dressed and ready to party.
We used Carnaval Turismo to book our buy our tickets and bus transportation to the Sambadrome. They dropped us off in front of Stand 9, the foreign visitors stand, and picked us up there as well.
Tip: Most of the people in Rio are out partying on the night of Carnival. Taxis are few and far between. Pre-organised transportation is a must.
Food and Drink at the Rio Sambadrome
The food served at the Rio Sambadrome is of the usual stadium quality found worldwide. The Brasilian chain, Bob’s Burgers, has a stand that was doing brisk business of burgers, beer, whiskey and vodka. The other option we found was pizza – a thick gelatinous layer of cheese on thick bread. Neither food option was impressive but the beer was great!!
food and drink stands at the Rio Sambadrome
In the stands, the vendors selling beer, water and ice-cream weaved their way expertly through the crowds. People were joyous but we did not see anyone drunk or messy. Although we felt safe in the crowd, as a precaution we did not bring any valuables or bags with us.
The ice-cream sellers were a real service in the heat of the night.
The Rio Sambadrome Stadium
The Sambadrome is a stadium like I have never seen before. It is long and thin with a pretend road down the middle. The stadium seats are on either side of the fake road. Each samba school parade starts with a parade and ends with a flurry of workers sweeping the road clean behind them in preparation for the next samba school parade. Each samba school had their own theme, song and costumes. A lot of the sartorial references were beyond me though.
An Empire of the Sun?
The Sambadrome parades started at 8 pm and went on until about 4:30 in the morning. Each Samba School had a maximum of an hour and a half to parade before they would start losing points.
The parade has a clock which counts the time for each school.
Each night there were six schools that get to parade. Although there are shows from Friday through Monday, the best schools perform on Sunday and Monday. The whole thing was run with an impressive efficiency which I thought would make Brasil a world power if only they would apply it to their economy.
Photo Gallery of the Samba Parades
The Samba parades were amazing! While the tickets were expensive, each parade was a spectacle in itself. Stumbling home at 4:30 in the morning, we watched 4 of the parades at the Rio Sambadrome. We felt we had gotten our money’s worth as each parade was an individual show in itself. We went on the Sunday so we did see some of the best floats. Unfortunately, this year’s winner was in the Monday parade.
The outfits for both men and women were amazing.
It was great to see the floats arrive as well as leave!
A real crowd pleaser was a Pele lookalike running on top of a football.
All sorts of fantastical creatures were made into floats.
Portuguese influenced tea cups? Not sure why these people were dressed in these outfits.
Nor did I understand why a bunch of football players came running out of the orca’s mouth.
Criminals and a taxi? say what??
A drag queen dressed as the Queen of England (Ok, they are playing on the word queen).
Like many people I thought Carnival in Rio de Janeiro in Brasil was just one giant party over 5 days. In fact, Carnival in Rio consists of a number of different events (samba parades, balls, and blocos). Here are my top tips for Carnival in Rio if you are thinking of going to the greatest party on Earth in the future.
Main Carnival Events
There are four days of samba school parades at the Sambadrome, followed by the choosing of a winner and 9 runners-up who will strut their stuff in the Champions’ parade at the Sambadrome the following weekend.
There are also balls in the tradition of Venetian balls. The Copacabana Palace’s legendary Magic Ball has a full-blown red carpet entrance which my friends arrived in time to watch. The other balls are neither particularly pricey nor exclusive. For example, the Scala ball happens every night of Carnival. The Gay Gala ball is so famous that it is broadcast to the rest of Brasil.
There are lots of blocos (street parties) around the city spread out over mainly the 5 days. For Carnival 2016, there were 505 official licensed blocos and countless other spontaneous street parties. Not all the streets were busy at all times. The city lists the official blocos and everyone is welcome to attend.
At the blocos, you can either watch from the sides or join the parade.
Top Tips for Carnival in Rio
Dressing Up for Carnival
If you are going to carnival in Rio, you simply have to get dressed up. The outfits fall into distinct categories. The women wear something skimpy and dress up with accessories. For men, anything goes but there’s a lot of cross-dressing. Children like to wear Disney or movie costumes.
Top Tip! There are lots of street vendors. You can buy outfits or accessories fairly cheaply.
Accessories for sale by a sidewalk vendor.
If you are going to get to Carnival in Rio, expect to get dirty. The streets can get muddy, beer can get spilled and garbage cans overflow. Don’t wear clothes or shoes you care too much for. On the other hand, I was surprised by how quickly the city cleaned up after itself for the next day’s festivities.
The Carnival Atmosphere
Everyone we met seemed to like having their photo taken. Not only do they enthusiastically agree if you ask to take their photo, they will occasionally ask you to take their photo. Entire sidewalks will be full of people taking selfies.
This little boy is attending his first carnival before he even enters the world.
People like to to drink and party. We, however, did not see violence. With the party atmosphere and the free-flowing beer, if Rio’s carnival took place in Britain, you know fights would have broken out, people glassed and the ambulances would be out in full force.
Whether you are straight or gay, lots of men cross-dress.
You should, however, be careful with your belongings as pickpocketing is common. My friend saw a chain being snatched off someone’s neck right in front of her face.
We wore our money in those traveller pockets that strap around your body under our shirts. Other people wore belt bags that they wore with a shirt untucked over the top. Frankly, not flashing your cash and keeping your money on your person is a good general tip for visiting Brazil anytime of year!
We kept small bills that were easily accessible for buying drinks, snacks or souvenirs in our pockets. Women tucked their phone into their bras. Men who weren’t cross-dressing tucked their phones into their speedos. Yeah really.
Top Tip! Don’t take a bag if you can help it. Use a belt bag or similar to keep your personal items safe.
It’s not like he has many other options where to put his phone. The sign says ‘yes’ by the way.
Everybody wants to be your new friend. Brasilians are friendly and no more so than during Carnival. I had any number of people warn me to be careful with my camera. I didn’t have my expensive DSLR but the Olympus mirrorless camera I bought in Japan. It was still relatively flashy.
Brasilian time is flexible. Don’t expect things to start on time. Don’t worry about being late for anything. If you are going to carnival in Rio, the mantra “don’t worry, be happy” could not be more applicable.
Clown hair and a sequin top. Why not?
It’s a public holiday from Friday evening until noon on Ash Wednesday. The banks are not only closed but the doors to the ATM’s in the foyers are locked to prevent vandalism. Some of the shopping centers have ATM’s that work but they do run out of money by Saturday or Sunday.
Tip: Make sure you have enough cash before the bank holiday starts. You can change foreign currency at the airport even during the bank holiday.
Getting a taxi during peak carnival times can be difficult. Taxi drivers need to party, too! Streets get closed randomly and routes rerouted for the blocos.
Top Tip! The new Rio subway system is clean and efficient. If you don’t want to deal with public transportation, stay in Copacabana or Ipanema where there are lots of street parties (blocos) happening. There will also be chartered buses to take you to and from the Sambodrome leaving from designated hotels.
The parties mostly start in the late afternoon and run into the wee hours of the morning. Most people are probably sleeping off hangovers during the fierce daytime heat. If not, they are baking on the beach.
A sea of colourful umbrellas on Ipanema beach
Tip: February is the hottest month in Brasil. Be prepared to stay hydrated and to wear sun protection. The humidity will also make you wilt, and not in the glamorous way the Cariocas do.
Everything in Rio gets more expensive for Carnival. They know they have you by the party whistles so there is nothing you can do about prices.
Carnival with Children
We took our children to Carnival because we went with friends who also took their children. Our friends also brought their nanny with them which was handy for sending the children back to the apartment relatively early around 9pm – before the real partying starts!
Top Tip! You should be able to organise babysitting through your hotel. Alternatively, bring a nanny or relative along to help with babysitting. Trust me, you will want to go out until the early hours of the morning.
A family outing to a Bloco
The children really enjoyed the Children’s Bloco as well as seeing the samba schools perform at the Sambadrome. For children, there are also the children’s samba school parades on the tuesday (Fat Tuesday) which is free to attend at the Sambadrome.
We saw lots of families with kids (both locals and tourist) out and about during the day. It’s really your judgment call on whether you think your child is able to handle the crowds and noise of carnival festivities. The issue wouldn’t be safety so much as the intensity of the experience.