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Billed as the “biggest party on earth” I knew there was no way I was going to miss the chance to go when I realised that the dates of my small group tour coincided with Rio Carnival in February! There’s usually a 4 or 5 night minimum stay at this time and it’s best to book ahead as hotels/hostels get booked up a long way ahead despite being much more expensive than at other times of year so I booked up an accommodation package for the 5 nights preceding my tour.
In Rio, I stayed in the Lapa district and whilst this is not the most salubrious of areas, but it made it easy to get home in the early hours after a night of bar-hopping and dancing. It was a fantastic 6 days of 24 hour street parties, samba dancing, caipirinhas and sight-seeing.
During the day each neighbourhood took turns to have a Bloco (street party) and one of the most fun-filled was when we joined the happy throng along the cobbled streets of Santa Teresa. This is a pretty district reached by rickety tram from the Dalek-shaped cathedral and the colourful costumes and painted houses made for quite a spectacle!
These Blocos lead up to the all night extravaganza of floats, music and dancing that is the Sambadrome Parade. The parade takes place on the Sunday and Monday nights in a purpose built stadium and it comprises various samba "schools" again representing the various districts of Rio. Competition is fierce which makes for a great atmosphere.
It's easy to get about by taxi, subway or bus within the city. I'd recommend a visit to Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, as well as a ride on the cable car up Sugar Loaf Mountain and a drive up the Corcovado to see the statue of Christ the Redeemer. Both mountains have staggeringly good views as well as being impressive sights in their own rights.
If you're a sports fan and there's a football match on, I'd definitely suggest trying to get tickets to a game as Brazillians are passionate football supporters. It's worth watching the crowd as much as the match and there's can be some very educational and impressive sounding swearing if the game's not going the way your neighbours are hoping!
Carnival over, I bid farewell to the International party-people and met up with the group for my In Search of Iguassu tour. Billed as a basic service level trip the idea is that you have a tour leader who travels with you and arranges the accommodation, transport and so on but there are not many excursions included in the tour price (which is why we love group tours!). This style of tour is ideal for those who want to have the freedom to do their own thing and not feel that they have to stay with a group the whole time.
Our leader, the now legendary Zema, was around to tell us what excursions were available, to answer questions and give advice but for the most part we were encouraged to go off exploring on our own armed with a map and a hotel card so we could get back easily. Zema listened to us enthusiastically when we met up in the evenings for dinner and he always knew the best places to eat and drink so most of us would eat together and catch up on what we’d seen and done during the day.
Before the main attraction of Iguassu Falls, this tour also takes you to the lovely beach resort island of Ilha Grande, the pretty colonial towns of Paraty and Colonia, Montevideo and the relaxing spas of Salto spending time in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina.
The one place a day's excursion was included was at the Brazilian side of Iguassu Falls and it was one that none of us would have missed! We arrived at our hotel a bit rumpled after a surprisingly comfortable night bus (If only National Express had these reclining seats, snacks, free water and movies) too early to check-in so after having dropped off our bags we were whisked off for our first view of the famous falls.
We decided it was worth the extra cost to join a 4 person helicopter ride over the falls and I would recommend this to anyone, it was a fantastic glimpse of the massive series of waterfalls and back on the ground we couldn't wait to get a closer look.
The Brazilian side of the falls has landscaped walkways with a photo opportunity at seemingly every turn so we strolled and snapped to our hearts' content. We soon lapsed into companionable silence as we ran out of adjectives and superlatives to describe what we were seeing.
We spent most of the day at the falls and on the way back stopped off at a nearby bird park which is home to toucans, macaws, ibis and other South American birds as well as reptiles. My favourite section was the one filled with humming birds and butterflies and we got some great photos.
The following day we went to the Argentinian side of the falls and this was even more spectacular, our transport there was included but not the excursions there. Most of us opted to go for the full day green passport which meant that we had a whole day filled with adventures but some chose to meander along at their own pace on foot.
On the Argentinian side you REALLY get a close look at the falls, there are miles of raised metal walkways that take you to the "Devil's Throat" where the sheer force of the water crashing down takes your breath away and we did an exhilarating and wet speedboat trip that takes you right into the waterfalls...
One thing I will say about this tour is that you need to add on a couple of extra nights at least for Rio and Buenos Aires. You don't have long in either city on the tour because you don't need a trip leader in either place, you just need to get out and about to explore but there's so much to see and do.
Whilst Rio is all about Samba, Caipirinhas and carnival, Buenos Aires is all about tango, red wine and steak. Buenos Aires has to be one of the greatest cities in the world, if good food, dancing, culture and night life interest you then it has everything. Whether it's experiencing a tango show, viewing the art exhibitions at MALBA, feasting on meat at a traditional parilla or watching the sun come up from the verandah at Pacha this city has it all. I'm definitely not alone in wanting to go back there, most of my new friends from the trip feel the same and I think that even Zema would grudgingly concede that BA is a pretty great place (high praise from a Brazilian).
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