The Next Best Thing to Carnival in Rio

Day 17, Grand World Voyage 2020

Monday, Jan. 20, 2020; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

I’ll admit I wasn’t excited to get up early this morning to take the cable car to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. I wasn’t sure how I felt about cable cars. Sometimes heights give me the willies; other times not. I’m never sure. And after all, we went to the top of Corcovado yesterday to Christ the Redeemer. So we had seen the city from on high.

But our guide Victor was right when he said that Sugarloaf would give us a different perspective. While not as high as Corcovado, Sugarloaf is right at the entrance to the harbor, dividing Copacabana and Ipanema beaches on one side from the central city on the other.

Our drive through the city was faster than normal, as today was a holiday celebrating St. Sebastian, the patron saint of Rio de Janeiro. Above the entrance to the cable car station, climbers were working their way up the face of a nearby mountain.

The cable car assent comes in two segments, both of which provided spectacular views and neither of which bothered me. The first ends on Morro da Urca, a 722-foot peak, and then the second car goes to the top of Sugarloaf at 1,300 feet. Early Portuguese explorers named the mountain after the similarly shaped loaves of sugar formed from loose grains for transport and storage.

Because we were early and perhaps because of the holiday, the peak was not crowded, and I had a few minutes to start a sketch of the city, which I will finish later. I usually take a photo of my sketches with the subject in the background, as is the habit of members of the Urban Sketchers organization.

Next we moved to the Lapa neighborhood. A good portion of “The Air You Breath,” our shipboard book club selection, takes place here in the 1930s.

Our destination was the Escadaria Selarón, or Selaron Steps. These tile stairs seemingly lead straight up the mountain and are the work of Chilean artist Jorge Selarón. The 215 steps are covered in more than 2,000 tiles collected from around the world. We didn’t have time (and I didn’t have the energy) to climb to the top, but I did see some familiar locations on tiles along the lower steps.

Murals lined the approach to the steps, including some with a political bent.

So after seeing all these iconic Rio sights, the only thing left is Carnival. Unfortunately, it isn’t for another month, but we did the next best thing – the Carnival Experience, a backstage view of preparations for this enormous festival. At the School of Samba we toured the giant warehouse of the Grande Rio Samba School, one of the main samba schools of the city.

We couldn’t take photos of the giant floats under construction (top secret!), but we could photograph the elaborate costumes of past parades. We even got to dress in samba costumes ourselves. I can’t imagine wearing the heavy clothes with unwieldy hats while dancing down the center of the Sambadrome, a 2,300-foot-long parade area between towering grandstands.

After a samba demonstration from a professional, we returned the costumes and headed back to the ship and the outdoor sail-away party on the Lido aft deck. We were sorry to leave Rio behind and vowed to return.