Guest travel editor Carine Buncsi recently touched down in Brazil for the first of many stops on her tour of Latin America on our Argentina and Brazilian Experience.
After some much needed R&R on the sleepy shores of Buzios it was back to Rio de Janeiro, famed for its beaches, Carnival and HOT bods. The atmosphere in this cosmopolitan city is electric, the Carioca (locals) are vibrant and when in Rio you must party to the rhythm of the samba.
First things first, grabbing a bikini, singlet, short shorts and thongs, it was time to soak up the sun's rays and put my camera through its paces.
THE BEACHES OF RIO
The famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema are the marvellous playgrounds shared by the sun-kissed Cariocas and tourists.
Brazilians from all walks of life and ages come to socialise, relax and work on their impressive tan at the cities prized beaches. In amongst the powder blue skies, sea, sand and kiosks, you'll see a flurry of sports in action ranging from surfing, boogie boarding, football, beach volleyball, capoeira and futevôlei (a combo of volleyball and football, using no hands), whilst the endless beachside paths are filled with skaters, cyclists and joggers.
Copacabana is one of the most famous city beaches in the world. The luxury sugary white Copacabana Palace Hotel (for celebs who want to be papped) faces the large and lively stretch. The beach is generally pretty packed but it's definitely worth a gander while enjoying a refreshing evening cocktail. Be sure to observe the dress code – skimpy.
Revered for its beach front real-estate and itty-bitty crochet bikinis on display, Ipanema is a perfect location for classic MTV videos and cool fashionista's sipping Caipirinha's. It's known for its signature trendy hippie locale and fantastic markets.
Leblon with a buzzing nightlife is the more affluent neighbourhood, this exclusive area boasts its own local beach and is prime real-estate for the rich and famous, flaunting their physiques. It's a fair bit quieter than the touristy beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema.
For a truly local experience, hang out by the quaint beach of Vidigal (just the next beach along from Ipanema), it's by far quieter and more peaceful. The flourishing Vidigal Favela perched above is one of the most tourist-friendly. Take time out to explore the neighbourhood and absorb the bohemian atmosphere and friendly locals. Schlep a few cold beers up the hill, as the views from the top are spectacular.
RIO'S MUST-SEE SIGHTS
It can be hard to prise yourself away from the beach and that must-read best-seller (believe me, I know) but if you want to see beyond the beaches, the city sights are a must as the views are mind-blowing.
CHRIST THE REDEEMER
Brazil's iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer, Jesus Christ is located at the peak of the 700 metre Corcovado mountain, overlooking the grand city of Rio. The art deco statue alone stands at 30 metres with arms stretching at 28 metres and is made of reinforced concrete and soapstone.
Be prepared for the hordes of tourists trying to get their ultimate selfie directly under Jesus.
Navigate through the tourist shop aisles for that perfect fluoro Christ the Redeemer memento or for cute candy-coloured Mary trinket boxes.
Rio's cityscape - a harmonious balance where urban meets nature - is arguably the most amazing in the world. It's truly breathtaking and not to be missed.
For a trip up to see Christ, you can drive or take the cute red cog train to the top of Corcovado. The train ride also offers fantastic views (be sure to sit on the right-hand side for a glimpse).
The cog train departs from Rua Cosme Velho 513.
SUGAR LOAF MOUNTAIN
Enjoy the breathtaking scenery as you travel up by cable car up to the rocky peak of Sugar Loaf Mountain, jutting out into the Atlantic ocean. Another must-see for picturesque views of the city and its prized beaches.
Av. Pasteur, Urca 520, Rio de Janeiro, 22290-240, Brazil (Santo Cristo)
JUICE BARS O' PLENTY
Brazilians are big on their juice bars, and there's Sucos Bars o' plenty on Rio's street corners. Why not join the trend and refuel with a freshly-made fruit juice, or for food on the fly, the savoury dishes and yummy treats on offer won't disappoint.
You can also grab an authentic açai berry smoothie, a delicious blend of berries packed with antioxidants. Mimic the Brazilians and add crunchy granola, with a grand topping of chocolate syrup for a 'berry' delish dessert.
FOOTBALL FEVER AT THE MARACANA
Brazilians are known for their passion for football, so when in Rio check out a football match at the Maracanã - Brazil’s temple to football.
Watch local rival teams such as Flamengo, Botafogo, Fluminense or Vasco da Gama battle it out, and for the full pulsating experience, championship games are where the excitement is at. The impressive stadium underwent a major upgrade in preparation for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Maracanã Football Stadium - Av Maracanã, São Cristóvão
EXPLORING RIO'S FAVELAS
In Rio, it's hard to ignore the contrast of stylish and affluent neighbourhoods to the cramped, crumbling dwellings, the favelas, which spread among the cities hill-tops and surrounding areas throughout Brazil.
These settlements are steeped in ongoing political concern and stigma, and recent favela tours offer divided opinions. However, one of the most insightful and interesting experiences during my stay in Rio was exploring the favelas, observing the interesting architecture and spending time with the locals.
There are plenty of great tours run by locals, one of them being the Favela Adventure, in the community of Rocinha. It's an insightful and memorable journey offered by the friendly and informative local Zezinho, where you will see the day-to-day flurry of activity, buzzing atmosphere, and get a real feel for the community that exists in Rocinha Favela.
Whilst immersing yourself in the workings of the dwellings, you'll see children playing on the streets, friends sharing and running local businesses together as residents within the settlements go about their daily activity.
This truly enriching cultural and social exploration is really about educating and empowering the visitors about the community spirit and the great things that happen in the favela, such as the DJ School and volunteer Arts Program, going well beyond the focus of crime-ridden activity and negative stereotypes which are regularly enhanced by the media.
The DJ School and Leadership Program Spin Rocinha, driven by DJs Zezinho and Coordinator Dembore, offers free courses and provides the favela youth and young adults a chance to learn the art, build up their skills and confidence to pursue a professional DJ and music career.
To have a more insightful and memorable experience (avoid the safari-like jeep tours) and explore the neighbourhood with tours operated by residents who reside in the favela. The income made from some of these tours, in particular the Favela Adventures, are placed straight back into the community.
Favela Adventures is an intimate and friendly company operated by residents from Rocinha Favela.
If you wanna party till sunrise there's plenty of grooving, shaking and twerkin' with the Cariocas at the local Favela Party, where the celebrations spill onto the winding streets. The Be A Local! (Don't Be A Gringo) tour offers transfers and entrance to the event.
IPANEMA HIPPIE MARKET
The hippie market in Ipanema (only open on Sundays) is filled with local artisans, sculptors and an array of wonderful painters selling their artwork. You'll also be greeted by the colourful locals.
The inner square is the perfect place to roam around and pick up unique, handmade pieces or homewares and quirky souvenirs for friends and family back home. I found that it really helps to know Portuguese or if you have a local pal in Rio then even better, ask them to assist in negotiating a good price with market sellers for a great steal.
Ipanema Hippie Markets, Praca General Osorio, (Ipanema) Rio de Janeiro
Whilst in Rio, beat the delirious hungover-in-bed brigade and admire the magical sunrise over the glittering calm waters.
Now that's the Brazilian experience for you, full of pulse-raising, beautiful and AMAZING surprises.
Take me to The Best of Buzios.