15 best under-the-radar moments in 15 weeks of travel in South America with Oasis Overland

So, in the last post I talked about the BIG highlights – the epic destinations/activities that get the most airtime on the blog or on Instagram. But the real beauty of 15 weeks of travel isn’t always in the big stuff… but in the under-the-radar wonders that get under your skin and stick with you for a long time. The stuff that people don’t talk about as much, that changes you in more subtle ways. There aren’t as many WOW photographs for this section, but trust me when I say the were epic in their own right. Andddd also, most of them are food-related. We love food, okay?!

Here are my 15 best under-the-radar moments from 15 weeks of travel in South America with Oasis Overland:

1 – Discovering acai (with granola and bananas especially) in Brazil… and never eating anything else. Shoutout also to the sellers of ‘Skol Beats’ on Sambadrome night – their constant cries became the refrain to our evening

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Doesn’t look like much… but this was the nectar of the gods

2 – Buying my personalized South America journal in San Telmo market, Buenos Aires. The man who owned the stall customized it just for me, and I love it. Sometims I am reluctant to buy things (especially as we have to lug them home!) but this was the perfect souvenir.

3 – Swimming under an Iguazu Falls waterfall at the end of the Macuco trail – while the main falls were, of course, the big attraction, it was nice to get a bit off the beaten tourist path and to refresh in the lovely water

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4 – Cooking our own steak in Argentina directly on the coals in the hostel in Puerto Iguazu, Argentina. Going out for dinner is nice and all, but sometimes nothing beats a bit of homecooking. And the steak from the supermarket was so cheap and absolutely delicious.


5 – Coming up with our own ‘truck songs’ around a campfire with our resident former-rock-star, and singing them loudly at every opportunity (confusing anyone who happened to hear). Favourites included ‘Dos Banos con Hobos’ (inspired by some… interesting campsites with special residents), ‘Why don’t you come on over, Pascaline’ (to the tune of Valerie) and ‘Andy’s Full of Meat Again’ (an ode to our closest near-death experience)


6 – Llamas. Llamas everywhere. Baby llamas in the arms of cholitas. Big llamas on Machu Picchu, minding their own business. With such big beautiful eyes, they totally made my heart melt.

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7 – Random karaoke nights in El Calafate, Argentina and Otavalo, Ecuador which led to singing and dancing with locals


8 – Campsite pets – peccaries (Pantanal) and doggies (everywhere). South America is not the place to travel if you dislike dogs. At some point they were like our personal bodyguards, accompanying us to and from our campsites!

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9 – Designing our own truck T-shirt. This was great fun, and a great memory too! We were able to put together a design for a truck T-shirt (Eat, Sleep, Truck, Repeat) which was properly drawn by our resident costume designer, the incredible Pascaline (who was also the oldest traveller on board – overlanding not just for the young’uns!). Not pictured: the back, which is a ‘word map’ of our destinations in South America designed by Lofty!

Me wearing the truck t-shirt on the equator

10 – Chilling out, watching some amazing sunsets with a beer or pisco sour – over Rio and Arequipa especially

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11 – The awe-inspiring frescos of the Huaca de la Luna/ Temple of the Moon, Peru – The Mochi culture was one I hadn’t heard of (much more under the radar than inca) and it was fascinating

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12 – Truck BBQs on bush camp days – even in a quarry in the middle of nowhere, we still managed to eat incredibly well – thanks to the BBQ skills of our driver, Gareth and tour leader, Kim!

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13 – An unexpectedly beautiful fountain show in Lima – a bit of Disney-like Magic to spice up our evening


 14 – CANCHA, the unpopped popcorn snack of Bolivia/Peru/Ecuador. Gluten-free and salty… it became the ultimate snack

  
15 – Lack of wifi on drive days… which led to LOTS of reading, games of Mafia, Uno and looong euchre tournaments – my favourite card game – I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed playing silly boardgames with people

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Okay, okay – I bet you’re all so bored of the good times… what about the bad times?

“Top” 3 lowlights of the trip:

1- THE BUGS. It’s to be expected when visiting the Amazon, but Lofty got properly eaten alive. I think we counted 70 bites on one lower leg alone. And they were ITCHY.

2- Bush pooing. Nuff said.

3- Traveller belly on drive days. Rather inevitable, and this is probably ’nuff said’ as well, but it wasn’t pleasant!

But considering all the amazing times… it was nothing we couldn’t handle!

Thanks for everything, Oasis. You were swell ūüôā

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15 highlights from 15 weeks in South America – Oasis Overland Kingdoms & Carnivals

It’s almost impossible to believe, but fifteen weeks travelling with Oasis Overland¬†are now over! We have arrived in Quito, Ecuador¬†and are settling in to life off the big yellow truck. It’s a bittersweet¬†moment – we know we have some great times ahead, but leaving the group behind¬†is going to be really tough.¬†If there was any room in our backpacks, we would tuck them in and take them with us for the next stage of the adventure!

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(If you’ve been following the blog, you’ll have guessed that I’m several weeks behind on the itinerary but I wanted to write this post while it was still fresh in my mind!)

For new blog readers, I’ve been¬†travelling with Oasis Overland on their Kingdoms and Carnivals route from Rio-Quito. Visiting six countries and driving over 21,496km, it was one heck of a trip!¬†There were definitely ups and downs (mostly because of the number of times we¬†needed to cross the Andes!), plenty of extreme highs and some gut-wrenching lows but that’s what this kind of travel is all about – and I¬†wouldn’t change it for moment.¬†We’ve faced thefts, a (minor) stabbing, a disappearance, several near-death experiences (choking, seizures, falling down glaciers, face-planting on bicycles),¬†a few incidents of dengue fever, a fractured elbow,¬†a bridge collapse and been stuck in the sand… but we’ve also had too many perfect moments to count: camped night after night under a crystal clear Milky Way, watched stunning sunsets by the dozen,¬†visited cultural and historical sites way off the beaten¬†path,¬†eaten fresh fish straight from the sea, skinny-dipped in¬†fjords, hiked to¬†thundering waterfalls,¬†seen lava bubbling and glaciers¬†collapsing and condors flying and poison dart frogs jumping… it’s been amazing.

I’ve struggled to choose but here are just fifteen highlights of the fifteen week tour:

1) Paragliding over Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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As a city, Rio at Carnival was everything I expected: hot, crazy, colourful, loud, chaotic. But even though we had loads of fun in Rio – at Sambadrome and touring Cristo Redentor – my favourite moment was¬†paragliding high above its stunning beaches. From the air, it was so peaceful and I could really appreciate Rio’s deep connection with the mountains and the sea.

2) Snorkelling down Rio da Prata in Bonito, Brazil

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Some experiences you have no idea about, and so when they happen, they absolutely blow you away. For me, this was snorkelling in Rio da Prata in Bonito. The river has absolutely crystal clear water and myriad fish with absolutely no fear. It was mesmerizing.

3) Fuerza Bruta and Tango in Buenos Aires, Argentina

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I don’t want to post too many pictures of the Fuerza Bruta show in Buenos Aires because the surprise was part of the fun. It’s a touring show so we were lucky to see it – and for $12 a ticket it was an absolute bargain. This might be the best live theatre experience I’ve ever had. I won’t say more but if it visits your city, GO. The tango show was also brilliant, but in a different way – it was eye-opening seeing the acrobatic skill of the dancers, legs flying everywhere, and learning about the history of the dance. Add an amazing steak dinner and free wine on top, and you have a winner!

4) ANTARCTICA

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I wrote a series of four posts explaining just HOW amazing this whole experience was – if you want to find out more about my last minute trip to the seventh continent with G Adventures Expedition, I suggest having a read!

5) Completing the W-trek, Torres del Paine, Chile

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The whole W-trek was amazing, but there was nothing like celebrating in the posh Hotel Las Torres at the very end with a HUGE pizza and amazing cocktails. We were pretty merry by the end, but it felt like a huge accomplishment.

6) Turning 30 in Futaleufu, Chile – the white water capital of South America

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I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday, and Futaleufu was the perfect destination! A campsite with beautiful cabin upgrades (of course we had to upgrade from the tent for my birthday), a fire pit, sauna and some amazing white water rafting… it was pretty perfect.

7) Seeing lava in Pucon, Chile

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Hiking the Villarica Volcano was always on the top of my ‘to-do’ list, especially after watching it explode on the news last year. It was one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done, but thankfully we were rewarded at the top with boiling, bubbling, bursting lava. EPIC.

8) Wine Tasting and Wine Ice-cream in Cafayate, Argentina

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I’m not the biggest wine drinker in the world, but¬†even I can get on board with a bit of wine ice cream! Cafayate in Argentina was a beautiful stop on the itinerary, home to dozens of bodegas (wine cellars) and heladarias. Their speciality is ice cream made from Torrentes (a delicious form of white wine) and Merlot (red wine) grapes. Very refreshing on a hot day! The Torrentes wine itself isn’t bad either… in fact, we may have picked up a bottle or two (or eight) to drink during the rest of the trip! The Nanni Torrentes (pictured above) was my fave.

9) Uyuni, Bolivia Salt flats day trip

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What can I say? This was another expected highlight that more than lived up to those expectations. This was so much fun!

10) Cycling Death Road in La Paz, Bolivia

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This activity? I was actually quite scared about. I’m not exactly the world’s best cyclist and I was nervous about how I would handle the challenges of the infamous Death Road. But it turned out to be so much more fun than I thought! Yes, there were scary bits (and some people did hurt themselves…) but if you allowed yourself to trust the bikes then it was not too bad at all. Huge thanks to Mo at Gravity for making it a great day out! I also enjoyed that at the very end, we were taken to an animal sanctuary where we saw an ocelot – so cute!

11) Finishing the hike to Machu Picchu, Peru

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Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was bloody hard work – but once again, finishing was the best reward! This was another one of those ‘classic’ destinations that fulfilled its promise. You can’t help but feel the mystical powers of this wondrous place – and combined with later trips to the Nazca line and the Chan Chan ruins, it really gave me an appreciation of South America civilizations that I never knew about before.

12) Sandboarding in Huacachina, Peru

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Adrenaline, bbq, unlimited pisco and a night sleeping out under the stars? Amazing. This was one of those perfect days which made the whole trip feel worthwhile.

13) Perfect beaches in Punta Sal, Peru

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After leaving Lima, we spent almost a week camping along the Peruvian coastline. With condors soaring overhead, wild surf and beautiful sand, it was an idyllic place to relax after the adrenaline packed activities of the weeks before.

14) Zip-lining, swinging over the end of the world and bridge jumping in Banos, Ecuador

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Okay, let’s face it – I love the adrenaline! My proper ‘daredevil’ moment was a bridge jump in Banos (it didn’t hurt, but I looked like a broken rag doll!). Ziplining on the other hand was just pure fun – and I even got to do it upside down and as a couple!

15) Spotting a poison dart frog in the Amazon, Ecuador

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Finally, the Amazon jungle! My sole request to the universe was to see a poison dart frog and, to my surprise, the universe pulled through! The whole trip to the Amazon basin was wonderful – we went tubing down the river and did several night walks through the jungle to see snakes, spiders and other weird and wonderful creatures. Word to the wise: watch where you put your hands! You do not want a bite from a bullet ant.

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Bushcamping, or, Just in case you were getting a little too jealous of our adventure…

(*More pictures to come when I have better internet!*)

We are now a week into our overlanding adventure and it’s been a baptism of fire! While we were lulled into a false sense of security by two nights in¬†the beautiful coastal town Paraty (more on that later), the three nights and three long drive days that followed was our proper induction into overlanding life.

Our first bush camp stop, somewhere outside Sao Paolo

What is typical overlanding life?

  • Drive days that last between 8-10 hours
  • Pulling over on the side of¬†the road for pee-breaks (and learning to overcome squatting fear for girls – watch out for spiders!)
  • Becoming way too well acquainted with the affectionately known ‘shit shovel’
  • Sharing close quarters with 25 people who have not showered for 3 days
  • 25 people who are also covered in DEET thanks to all manner of biting, flying insects (this one probably unique to this part of the world!)
  • Eating whatever the cook group manages to scrounge together for you (normally pretty delicious despite catering for multiple food preferences,¬†gluggy spaghetti and lack of ingredients!)
  • Deciding whether to pitch your tent on a sand pit, ant hills, cow dung or stones
  • Doing all this in the sweltering heat and high humidity

Good times. And I’m not even being sarcastic! It is good times. It’s not for everybody¬†(at some points, I wondered it if it was for me). Yet nothing bonds a group together quite like bushcamps, and we were well stocked with beers and plenty of good, hearty food to keep us going. Long drive days are broken up with intense games of mafia, naps,¬†lots of reading and even more writing (that last one reserved for me and the diarists!). I’ve blitzed through The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge (so fantastic), How They Met, and other stories¬†by David Levithan¬†(which I read on Valentine’s Day – perfect) and Code Name: Verity (very different to what I expected and much older, but had me tearing up at the end). The nights tend to be short – early to bed and early to rise. The bushcamps vary: the first night, we attempted to pull into a campsite but had to camp outside instead (the campsite was actually a nudist retreat – only three days into the trip, we weren’t quite ready for that much openness!); the second night, we camped near what smelled much like a sewage treatment plant (by far the least pleasant stop); and the third night, we suffered a disaster by being kicked out of our first site by locals – only to find paradise in the form of a campsite in a stunning, Jurassic Park-like landscape with ACTUAL showers and ACTUAL toiletseats. True-to-goodness bliss.

And that’s probably the best part about bushcamping on those long journeys: it makes the¬†destinations so much sweeter.

Take Paraty, our first stop after Rio – and our slice of paradise before the bushcamping began. It’s an absolutely stunning old colonial town and world heritage site with cobblestone streets, cute churches and wall-to-wall cacha√ßa stores (that’s the alcohol that fuels the decidedly lethal caipirinhas).

After exploring the town, we climbed aboard a boat for a little exploration of the little islands and beaches dotted along the coastline. Now this was truly amazing. The water was beautiful and teeming with fish. The sun shone brightly (so much so, many people got burned… including Lofty, who won the first ever truck ‘numpty’ award for his ‘interesting’ suntan marks). We had a yummy lunch and spent the day swimming and sunbathing and sipping cocktails. Not too shabby for a bunch of soon-to-be-shabby overlanders.

But the reason for all the drive days that followed? The Pantanal – the world’s largest swamp. Sounds pleasant, doesn’t it? Despite the reputation, it was magic. But more on that in the next blog post…

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Surviving (and thriving) at the Sambadrome

I can’t believe how quickly our time in Rio has disappeared already! Tomorrow we leave on the Oasis Overland truck ‘Dingo’ for pastures new, and I have little idea what to expect. I’m getting ready to take each day as it comes and to be open to whatever adventures are ahead.

But in the meantime – what a time we’ve had! Sambadrome loomed before us with the prospect of eight hours of partying through the night. Would I be able to handle it? Would it live up to the hype?

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Half party, half city – the two sides of Rio

For me, the answer was ABSOLUTELY. Sambadrome doesn’t just live up to the hype… it is the hype. I’ve never experienced anything like the electric energy that rocketed around the concrete stadium when the floats were in view. Everyone got into the spirit, dressing up in headbands and glitter – and some in full body paint and very little else! While I wasn’t one of those people who could dance all night, I did stay right up until the last float passed through the stands and the sun rose in the sky. It was an epic night/morning to say the least.

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We were in Sector 13, which is right at the end of the parade. There were many benefits to Sector 13 – it was a lot of fun to watch the dancers finish at the end and the chaos as they rushed to take their costumes off and join the party. You could easily find discarded costumes (they made for great pictures and cool – if¬†unwieldy –¬†souvenirs! I think there’s a purple alien head still in the hallway of our hotel) and you felt like part of the local scene. The downside is that we were quite far away from the main action itself and we didn’t feel like we could completely grasp the magnitude of the floats. The binoculars I had just offered a tantalising glimpse of the immense effort that went into every single detail of the parades. It would have been better to experience them in their full glory.

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Throwing away the costumes at the end… so sad!

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6am snoozes… when’s the next Samba school on?

It was definitely an immense way to kick off the trip – and something I will never forget.

Rio has been unforgettable in lots of ways. We went paragliding from Pedra Bonita – an incredible flight over the stunning beaches and coastline of the city. We wiled away an afternoon on Ipanema beach. We watched sunset from the base of Sugarloaf and drank beers on a seawall with the locals. We bought ridiculously cheap Havaianas in Copacabana (and promptly left them in a beachside bar… sigh). Lofty partied in Lapa and I wrote in the corner of an Irish pub.

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Finally, we toured the largest favela in South America – Rocinha – which over 70,000 people call home. We umm-ed and ahh-ed about doing this tour, but in the end we decided that it was the only way to get close to understanding the flipside of this capricious city. Of course, with bus-loads of tourists walking through it every day, Rocinha is one of the ‘safer’ favelas – but it was still eye-opening to see the conditions that still exist for over 3 million residents of Rio de Janeiro. The company that we used takes all the money for the tour and uses it to fund a day care and school inside the favela. While of course it felt uncomfortable to be essentially gawking at people’s lives (and all in the knowledge that we were leaving at the end), we were greeted with warm and open arms by the people we met there – and not just the ones who were taking money from us. I am glad that I went, if only to feel like I’m coming away with a more balanced view of this city and the country I’m about to explore even further.

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The view from the top of Rocinha favela

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All in all, Rio has lived up to its reputation. It’s incredibly beautiful, but it also has a dark side. On the same day that Lofty and I commented on how safe we’d felt the entire time we were here (and we did – we took money out of ATMs without issue, we took the metro at all hours, we partied at the blocos), some other members of our group were not so lucky. It just goes to show that both the raves and the warnings about Rio are true. If you are ever able to find yourself here, practice vigilance and be safe – but feel comfortable that even the bad is not enough to dim the good.

Rio just shines too brightly.

And if you need any further convincing, here’s our time in video form:

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Carnaval, Cariocas, Caipirinhas, Copacabana and Coconuts – our first couple of days in Rio de Janeiro

How do a million dancing, singing, happy people hide within a city block?

That’s what Gabby and I kept asking ourselves as we searched through the streets of Rio for the notorious Bloco Cordao da Bola Preta in the Central district. Where is the Bloco? We tried to follow the hordes of cariocas (the name given to people from Rio) and tourists alike in fancy dress, but they kept peeling off in different directions. Bloco? We asked one policeman. That way. Bloco? We asked a street vendor. He pointed the other way.

Then we turned a corner and¬†heard it before we saw it: the rhythm of drums, the cheers from the crowd. Our eyes quickly caught up with our ears as we spotted a huge bus surrounded by a mass of humanity in brightly coloured costumes, feathers and headdresses, glitter and confetti everywhere. We squeezed our way through until we were right next to the samba school, dancing and drumming in time to the enthusiastic conducting of a woman on top of the bus. We samba-ed in our own gringo way in a slow march through the streets… laughing and cheering alongside a crowd who knew all the words to every song. Now this was the Carnaval we’d been looking for.

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We found a Bloco! Multibloco in Lapa

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Only it wasn’t. We hadn’t found Cordau da Bola Preta at all but stumbled into Multibloco in the Lapa district. Oh well, who cares! We had a blast and this is Rio baby. There’s plenty of partying to come.

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From the moment we landed in Rio,¬†one thing was clear: we were not in Disney World anymore.¬†Our hotel, the Riazor, leaves a little to be desired‚Ķ¬†especially when you‚Äôre coming out of some pretty nice 5-star accommodation! But the rooms are clean and safe, the beds comfy, and the air-con and wifi both work ‚Äď so what more can you ask for?

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Beautiful Copacabana beach

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Our first misty view of Cristo from the streets of Copacabana

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Thank god for these water tracks… they made walking on the beach bearable!

I wanted to get right into the spirit, so our first stop was Copacabana beach. Luckily the bonus of our hotel is that it is right by a metro station, so getting around the city is simple and safe. When we arrived, we had a traditional Brazilian lunch, which involved loading up as much food as possible onto a plate and paying by the weight – delicious. It was then only a short walk down to the beach. And what a beach. The sun was blazing and, despite it being a Thursday afternoon, the beach was packed. Thank god for the people who water the sand so it can be walked on – otherwise I might have burned the soles of my feet to a crisp!

After baptising our trip with a mandatory toe in the South Atlantic, we¬†kicked back at a beach bar with¬†a couple of Caipirihinas and a delicious agua de coco ‚Äď although, admittedly, I probably drank too much too quickly. Combined with the exhaustion of the flight and the heat of the day, I was knackered and feeling a bit ill¬†by the time we were ready to go out for dinner. Me, too unwell to eat? Almost unheard of. But it turned out a good night‚Äôs sleep was what I needed.

The next morning we were up bright and early for our tour of Rio. It was a great way to get oriented around the city and check off some of the major sights! And Rio did not disappoint at all. Our first stop was the Cristo Redentor (do what we did: get there early to avoid long lines at the bottom and monstrous crowds at the top!) and it was truly breathtaking.

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Cristo Redentor

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The crowds by Cristo, overlooking Sugar Loaf mountain

The tour also took us past a favela, into the district of Santa Teresa and to the main Metropolitan Cathedral, which was unlike any cathedral I’ve ever been in! It can hold 20,000 people at capacity, which is kind of mind-blowing.

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One of the most photographed favelas in Rio

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Inside the Catedral Metropolitana de Sao Sebastiao

Finally, we went up Sugar Loaf mountain in the cable cars to get absolutely stunning 360 views of Rio. What a town.

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On Sugarloaf mountain, with a view of Copacabana

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Inside the cable car

Thank goodness we had a good experience of Carnaval on Saturday morning, because Friday night can only be summed up as mildly disastrous. Owing to some misinformation from our Rio tour guide, we ended up arriving late to not one, but two blocos Рarriving after the party only to find the masses of post-party drunk people still wandering the streets. Yes, there was still a bit of music but nothing like the fun, happy atmosphere we imagined.

As much as many blogs and articles I’ve read suggest simply ‘wandering the streets’ until you find a party, a little bit of pre-planning would have helped us have a much better night!

So far, Rio has been pretty amazing –¬†even though¬†I’m glad that this blog and my books give me¬†an excuse to come home in the¬†middle of the day to escape the heat and rest for the evening… Sambadrome is tomorrow, and I’m going to need all the energy my body can muster if I’m to survive the night!

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Typical tourist pose at Cristo – kind of has to be done!

 

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