Anybody flying to Rio de Janeiro in February must be either ill-advised or coming for Carnival. I’m in the latter category, but when I step from the plane into a 99-degree blast furnace — and realize it’s only 7:30 in the morning — I figure I probably qualify for the former group as well.

My second revelation comes during the 30-minute bus ride into town when I discover Rio isn’t all the scenic jewel it’s cracked up to be. The route winds through an urban squalor of rancid-smelling mills, smoke-belching warehouses, and dreary dockyards. Everywhere steep hills and volcanic bluffs jut abruptly from the earth, with grimy streets and alleys snaking into their desolate contours. The roads, I’m told, lead to samba country.

As our tourist bus approaches the heart of downtown, I catch a glimpse of Mount Corcovado — the most celebrated hunchback this side of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame — and the majestic Christ the Redeemer that crowns it. From its lofty position 2,300 feet above Rio, the 125-foot-high statue is visible from anywhere in the city.

Before I can savor the effect, however, Rio’s other famous landmark, Sugarloaf, pops into view. The football-shaped hulk looms peacefully above the myriad pleasure boats anchored at its feet in Botafogo Bay, and a tiny aerial cable car inches across the sky toward its summit.

There’s one more spectacle to come. Suddenly we’re whisked into a tunnel decorated inside and out with colorful Carnival streamers, then shoot out into a hedonistic panorama that evokes a gasp from the passengers — Copacabana Beach.

A vast carpet of gold powder sweeps across my view like a LeRoy Neiman brushstroke, then disappears into a hazy horizon. Great hotel columns of granite, steel, and glass pierce the sand and wall off the oasis from the rest of the city. Brown bodies pepper the sandscape, kept at bay by monstrous waves that pound the shore sensuously.

At 8 a.m., Copacabana is hustling. It may be a beach community, but it’s far from laid back. Serious-looking joggers sweat by, definitely not “Have a nice day” types. Beach vendors selling ice-cold drinks trudge through the hot sand, already weary from their early-morning routes (the first of Rio’s beachgoers arrive at dawn). Wiry Adonises put on a Muscle Beach-style show for the tourists with weights, bars, and rings, and a bevy of shapely tanga-stringed young women skip across the street, provoking a chorus of horns and whistles from passing cars.

It’s just another day in Rio, where having fun and looking good is serious business.

Our passenger dropoffs begin with the Meridien, a skyscrapter of glass and marble that looks more like it belongs in Manhattan. Next is the Rio Palace, complete with its own shopping center. Then comes the Nacional, a cylinder of glass at the far end of Barra de Tijuca that was the first major hotel built outside Copacabana’s tourist mecca. Next is the Ouro Verde, a tranquil Swiss-run hostelry that many consider one of the world’s finest small hotels. And for those who prefer a historical landmark — one that’s been de rigueur for the international social set since the ’20s — there’s the grand Copacabana Palace.

I’ve opted for the modest Excelsior next door to the Palace because it’s a bargain. Upon arrival, though, I see why it’s so inexpensive. The lobby is small and chaotic, the desk clerks are forever dim and confused, and my promised “ocean view” is of the hotel next door. (Actually, to be fair, I can see the ocean if I lean out far enough from my balcony.)

Following check-in and a quick change, I’m ready for the beach. “Get a tan fast so you don’t stand out,” advised my travel agent. I don’t mind exposing my paleness; what I hate is exposing so much of it. In Rio, American droopy swim trunks are verboten. Here the rule is tangas (micro-string bikinis) for women and Speedos for men.

As I dart swiftly across the street (partly due to modesty, partly due to the fear of being run over by overzealous cabbies), I head for the sand and join a legion of similarly clad beachgoers, none of whom seem nearly as self-conscious as I.

The celebrated flesh parade on Rio’s Copacabana and Ipanema beaches isn’t hype. Body talk is the only language spoken; look good and show it off are the only rules. So be forewarned: If you’re offended by such exhibitionism, stay clear of these two R-rated strands.

But don’t worry. Rio boasts more beaches than you could visit in a month, and others are more like home (dress-wise). The previously mentioned praia at Botafogo Bay, plus the neighboring Flamengo, back up to a gorgeous emerald-green park — perfect for a pre-Carnival picnic. Past Ipanema are the outlying South Zone beaches, well blessed with gentle breezes blowing in from the Tijuca Forest. At one of them, Pepino, you’re sure to spot colorful “birdmen” hang-gliding from majestic Gávea Rock above it. Farther on is the 11-mile stretch of Barra de Tijuca, which resembles California’s elite Malibu coastline. Finally, if you’re a stargazer, you can mingle among the celebrities and super-rich at the St. Tropez-like resorts of Cabo Frio and Búzios two hours away by car.

Getting around Rio is quick and easy. Taxis are cheap (if you make sure the driver uses a meter) and plentiful, and most everything worth seeing is close to everything else. Avoid the buses, however; their routes are difficult to fathom and are a favorite milieu for pickpockets.

After a two-hour bake on the sand, I cool off at a sidewalk cafe with a caipirinha, the potent elixir made from cachaça (sugar-cane liquor), green lemon, and sugar. It tastes like sweetened tequila and goes down like lighter fluid — the perfect cure for jet lag. As I relax under my table’s umbrella shade, I surrender to a warm Atlantic breeze and listen to the drumbeat of a distant samba. In Rio, especially close to Carnival, the samba is heard everywhere, a constant reminder of the celebration to come.

An immense potbelly with a man attached thrusts a hairy arm at me; on it perch two baby monkeys the size of tennis balls. They’re for sale, but the man makes no sales pitch; his creatures’ watery eyes do that for him. When I express only mild curiosity, he moves to the next table.

He’s followed almost immediately by a mini-parade of characters that’s almost as bizarre as the real parade that climaxes Carnival week: a legless beggar on a pushcart, a vendor selling fluorescent yo-yos, a transvestite pushing another in a baby carriage, three ladies of the evening working the day shift, and a boy who tosses a handful of peanuts on each table, then disappears.

“They’re samples,” says a voice beside me. “You don’t have to buy.”

I turn to see a middle-aged man at the next table. Sporting a polo shirt, white Bermudas, and a trace of sunburn on his nose, he looks American. But his accent confirms he’s Brazilian. When I offer him some peanuts, he waves them off. “Nao obrigado, they’re old,” he says. “He’ll come back with fresh ones. Those you buy.”

His name is Pasqual and he’s up from São Paulo for the big parade. “You’re going, aren’t you?” he asks hesitantly, fearful I may have overlooked it. I assure him I am.

He’s a loan officer for Citibank, and he chuckles when he learns I’m from Los Angeles. “Here it is the same, no? The sun, the beach…the women.” Then he frowns and shakes his head. “I work in São Paulo — all work, no play.”

Sensing a little jealousy, I ask if there’s much love lost between Rio and São Paulo. He grins slyly. “No more than between L.A. and New York, no?”

Our conversation is interrupted by shrill whistles and a deep rumble of drums. Like an enormous Chinese dragon, a column of T-shirted and bikinied revelers sways around the corner, waving banners and dancing to the same incessant beat I’ve been hearing all day.

“Samba school,” Pasqual shrugs matter-of-factly. “Small one.”

Small one? It fills the street and stretches as far as I can see. Café patrons break out in song, hands pound on tabletops, bystanders stand up and dance. Traffic stops to let the promenade cross the narrow intersection (it’s the only thing traffic stops for in Rio). The procession, gaining new recruits, heads for the beach.

“Samba fever has begun,” Pasqual nods. “It is nearly time.”

For first-time visitors to Rio, Carnival — the annual four-day frolic that precedes Lent — may appear to be staged for tourists and TV cameras. But its real audience, and its participants, come from high atop the humpbacked peaks where the city’s poor, its heart and soul, reside in vast clapboard eyesores called favelas — matchstick shantytowns that harbor a virtual no-man’s-land of poverty, crime, and passion. This is where the samba was born. Where Carnival began. Where Rio carved its name.

By evening I’m ravenous. Changing into a sport shirt and cotton slacks (standard Rio supper attire for men; women wear light cotton dresses), I leave the hotel. In the street, small boys wearing Halloween masks and holding balloons on long strings chase girls through the teeming crowd, slamming the balloons on the pavement with loud pops. Outrageous transvestites, always a hit at Carnival, prance boldly down the alley showing off their fantasias, or costumes. Elderly American tourists in polyester slacks and Hawaiian shirts fill the Avenida Atlântica and take in the show — unaware that for many, they are the show.

I ask an English couple waiting for a tour bus where I can sample Brazil’s legendary beef. Mariu’s they both exclaim, surprised I don’t already know. They’re on their way to the “Rio By Night” tour (one guidebook says it’s “so bad you’ll leave early”). I head for dinner hoping their choice of restaurants is better.

I’m fortunate. They know their beef. Mariu’s, a two-story establishment overlooking the beach, is one of Rio’s famous barbecue steakhouses called churrascarias that are inexpensive and as prevalent as McDonald’s. But there the similarity ends.

Crisp-coated waiters with enormous skewers glide among the tables continuously slicing an endless array of charcoal-broiled meats: filet mignon, pork, sausage, chicken, roast beef, ribs, lamb, etc. onto your plate. Along with all that you get hors d’ouvres, rolls, vegetables, rice topped with spicy tomatoes and onions, and cold chopp, Brazil’s excellent draft beer.

There’s more to Rio dining than barbecue, of course. The city also boasts five-star international restaurants featuring everything from French to Russian to Vietnamese to Italian cuisines. Brazilian fare, however, is the main event. One specialty on everyone’s list should be feijoada, the traditional soup of black beans, jerked meats, sausages, farofa with cracklings, sliced oranges, and kale. Beware, though: After indulging, don’t plan to do anything else the rest of the day because it induces a blissful stupor that lasts for hours.

All these superb eateries notwithstanding, my favorites are Avenida Atlântic’s sidewalk cafés. A sudden squall one day sends me scurrying inside one for cover and, having nothing else to do, I ask for a menu. It features one of the best selections of pizzas I’ve ever seen. Not only are the pizza and accompanying Brazilian wine delicious but the peach melba with raspberry sauce draws me back four more times.

Arriving this close to the Carnival parade is like going to London during Wimbledon week: Nothing else is on anyone’s mind or lips. Understand, the parade is no mere annual march down a boulevard; it’s the Super Bowl, the World Series, and the World Cup rolled into one — with Fellini as the commissioner. The drawback, I’d been told, is that everything stops during this period — shops, services, the works. Not true. In fact, I use the time to take in the city’s other renowned attractions.

I take the cog railway to the top of Corcovado (once during the day for the view; once at sunset for the lights). If you’re a camera buff, you’ll be hardpressed to find a more spectacular vista anywhere in the world. I haggle for bargains along Ipanema’s sidewalk arts-and-crafts fair (every Sunday). Brazil’s leather goods are superb, and good wallets can be had for a steal. Of course, the nation that produces 65 percent of the world’s colored gemstones offers myriad bargains in that area. I find a carving of a toucan for $20. One shopping caveat: locally made clothing features magnificent handiwork, but the materials used to put them together are often inferior.

I shop for a ball costume downtown. For many, these lavish parties are the only attraction during Carnival week, with tickets ranging from $100 and up. But after talking to a few tourists who’ve been to one, I decide to pass. The idea of being squeezed like a sardine all night in a giant sauna-like warehouse isn’t too appealing. Too bad no soccer games are on tap this week. At Maracaña, the world’s largest stadium (180,000 capacity), the notoriously rabid fans have to be separated from the players by a nine-foot moat.

I ferry to lovely Paquetá Island thirty minutes away, rent a bike, and sample some of the island’s warm-water coves. At dusk I hop a horse-drawn surrey and clip-clop along the cobblestones. Later, back in Rio, I splurge for the Plataforma I showgirl nightclub. You won’t leave early from this one, I guarantee you.

I stroll through Old Rio downtown, admiring its baroque and belle époque architecture, its many churches and museums. I hire a car and follow the winding road through the Tijuca rainforest, stopping to chase turquoise butterflies the size of small birds. I take a hike and watch sloths hanging from trees and a secret macumba voodoo-like ceremony at the foot of a waterfall.

But all this is just a prelude to the three-day binge of parades that start Carnival off with a bang each year — and make any other procession you’ve witnessed look like a kazoo band.

Actually, there are three official parades during Carnival. The first highlights the smaller, Class 1-B samba schools (the “schools” are actually social clubs) and isn’t all that great. Either of the final two parades, however, is a must. Each pits eight giant Class 1-A schools against each other in a “can you top this” marathon that runs all day and night. After 48 hours of this, an overall champion emerges. Schools are judged in nine categories: theme, song, floats, choreography, band, etc.

Viewing sites range from unreserved seats on hot concrete (sit where you can and stay put or lose your place) costing less than $100 to posh VIP lounges that can set you back several thousand. (Don’t buy your tickets back home before your trip; there are plenty of outlets in Rio whose prices are much lower than a U.S. travel agent’s.)

At 6 p.m. on the final day, I buy the cheapest ticket available and head for the mammoth Sambadrome downtown. I arrive 90 minutes before the first school is to start and immediately wish I’d come sooner. It’s party time! Long lines wait to get in but nobody seems to mind. Music is playing, people are dancing, and everyone’s wearing the colors or insignia of their favorite school.

No great festival begins without a traditional prelude to rev up the participants and spectators. The Indy 500’s “Gentlemen, start your engines!” is like a shot of 100-proof adrenaline. The playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” induces as many goosebumps as the Kentucky Derby that follows it. And, of course, the whole world feels the electricity when the giant torch is ignited to open the Olympic Games.

Such a moment is when Carnival spectators spy the first samba school at the head of the runway, when the lead float is wheeled into position, when the waves of colorful dancers stand poised like lathered Thoroughbreds, and when the first boom of the drums sets them off. To paraphrase author Albert Goldman: It’s the one chance every participant has to grab the brass ring, to rise above his or her dreary world, and — by virtue of a fancy step, a gorgeous costume, or a fabulous body — to become Cinderella for one glorious night. “You have 45 minutes to cut your name in asphalt.”

A tunnel of floodlights illuminates the pavement. A riot of streamers, flags, and banners bearing all the schools’ colors line the grandstands. At the far end of the runway, a three-story castle is pushed into starting position. Parade marshals dart about like worker ants, exhorting everyone and ensuring each line is in order. A wave of green headdresses bobs behind the float followed by a field of yellow capes, a sea of pink feathers, a sweep of blue topcoats.

For one eerie instant the entire ensemble freezes in place. The crowd hushes. I blink and look around me. Am I imagining this surreal moment? Then just as abruptly, a toe-tapping samba crackles from a hundred loudspeakers, the rainbow horizon shudders to life, and the audience rises as one. The contest has begun.

Fifteen hours later, I’m still in my seat. Only five of the eight schools have passed me. I’ve watched the sun set and rise. My eyes feel like burst glass, my back’s a gnarled knot, my head’s the inside of a drum. But there’s something about Carnival that makes you want to endure the ordeal along with the exhausted and sweat-soaked participants.

The next school, São Clemente, is upon me. The floats that depict its theme (the difficulty of owning a home in Brazil) look like a Hollywood set designer’s dream: gigantic Disneyesque turtles, winking snails, and robotic crabs (that carry their homes with them) scuttle toward us accompanied by dancing fairies and marsh maidens. Courtesans wave from iron-lacework-balconied brothels, inmates frolic around prison tower maypoles, raggedy bums samba with garbage cans, and gypsies dance alone (they have no homes). Then come Cavemen and Indians and Sailors and Conquistadors and Richfolk. And Caves and Treehouses and Bars and Ships and Wedding Cakes. My head is exploding. Finally, a solitary old man enters his final home, a huge casket, followed by a depiction of heaven and hell that would put most Las Vegas revues to shame.

It’s hard to notice individuals, the mass is so overwhelming, but one lone female dancer exemplifies what Carnival is all about. Drenched with sweat and wearing nothing but a sequined G-string, she shimmies past in a sort of drunken stumble, nearly delirious from heat and fatigue, her face a glistening testament to gutty perseverance. A TV cameraman beckons her over. Exhausted, she serves away, wanting no more demanding lenses. Then, as if remembering where she is and what she’s there to do, she veers back toward him, stops, and gives one last bump-and-grind. Pandemonium! A new heroine has been consecrated.

Unfortunately, the commotion draws the attention of the school’s marshal who rushes over, pushes the dancer roughly back inline, and admonishes her for risking a point deduction. The crowd explodes with wrath, booing and cursing the man. This is Carnival! Who cares about awards if there’s no art, no glory, no passion!

Next is São Clemente’s grand finale, its bateria, the 300-man percussion band that’s the heartbeat of every samba school. Legends tell of drummers so swept away during their 45-minute stomp that afterward their hands and instruments are bloodstained.

I believe it. These jack-hammer drill teams are maestros of clatter, conductors of racket, virtuosos of LOUD. How loud? Like the heart of an enormous beast, the pounding, gyrating, palpitating ensemble pumps its way down the street — faintly at first, intensifying as the parade advances, and then overwhelming everything in its path.

As the clanking, scraping tin monster thumps past, the spectators jump and pound with it, surging from their seats in a frenzy of rapture, thrusting their arms upward and shouting the ultimate accolade: “Ja ganhou!” (“You’ve got it won!”) The band passes, the thunder recedes, and I collapse. Two more schools or no, I’m going to my hotel and sleep for a week. Besides, no other club could beat this one if it paraded on its hands.

I’m wrong. São Clemente, competing in the Class 1-A category for the first time, finishes well out of the money. I miss the winner, which followed. Next time, I’m staying to the end, no matter what.

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