The city of Rio De Janeiro really exceeded our expectations.

We had expected beauty, and found lush mountain ranges hovering over gorgeous white-sand beaches speckled with sexy, scantily clad Cariocas (inhabitants of Rio).

We assumed Carnival would be a party like no other, and found ourselves stunned by the elaborate floats parading through the Sambódromo.

We welcomed the local know-how of Calina’s friend Ana, but were also warmed by her family’s hospitality and by her willingness to drive us all throughout the city pointing out local hotspots along with the obligatory tourist landmarks.

We had been warned about the dangers of Rio, but were surprised at how difficult it was to ever fully relax ourselves, always wondering if we were about to become the target of the notorious muggers. (Calina: If I were writing this, fear would be the overall theme of the post. I will remember Rio as a city of crazy drivers who drive inches away from one another. I’ll recall suspiciously looking at every cluster of people in the streets wondering if they would jump out to slash my purse. This fear was partially due to warnings from Ana. She has been mugged 5 times and she has found bullet holes in her apartment windows.) For all our concern, we didn’t witness any criminal activity or car accidents during our stay.

Suffice it to say, Rio is an interesting place!

Our overnight bus from Florianópolis left at around noon and took us on a 20 hour journey, stopping briefly in São Paulo, finally arriving in Rio at eight in the morning. The trip was tainted when we realized that a 1.5 hour flight from Florianópolis to Rio would have cost us less than our bus ticket. The bus was, however, extremely comfortable and mostly vacant, and we were privy to some breathtaking views and torrential downpours along the way. We were able to get five or six hours of ‘Bus Sleep’, which is different from regular sleep in that you are constantly jostled awake by potholes, stops at services stations and the movement and conversations of those around you. Hours melt away effortlessly while in this state, but you wake up just as tired as you were when you fell asleep. There were two obnoxious American guys on our bus who thought it would be a great idea to down a case of beer and sleeping pills to get them through the ride.

We arrived at the bus terminal weary and stumbled into the first cab we saw, even though the price he gave us was twice what Ana told us to expect. “Carnival prices”, we assumed. In retrospect, we should have left the bus terminal and found a cab with a meter instead of a fixed price sheet, but when you’re disoriented and exhausted in a notoriously dangerous city it’s better to feel ripped-off than vulnerable.

We made our way to Ana’s place in Leme. Ana is a friend of Calina’s who she met during her exchange last year in Washington DC. Having friends to visit around the world can make travelling an even more rewarding experience.

We slept a few hours and then went to Praia Leme / Copacabana for some Brazilian beach time. The beaches in Rio are extremely wide, the sand unbelievably hot and packed with sunbaked bodies, the water icy cold and the waves relentless. It was a battle to get past the beach break into the calmer, deeper water and it was difficult to get back to the beach without losing your swim trunks. Despite this, it definitely felt cool to chill out on some of the most world famous beaches.

Later in the day, Ana took us for a drive around Rio. It was neat to zoom around the city, getting a quick introduction to all of the different neighbourhoods. My favourite was driving around Lagoa, while the sun set over the mountains in the distance.

Although we had barely any sleep in us, we decided to try and get into the Sambódromo to see Rio Carnival first-hand. Since we started planning the trip almost 7 months ago we have been debating whether or not we would actually get to do this. The pros and cons were very difficult to balance. In the end, we decided to see if we could get scalped tickets cheaply by showing up at 1am, several hours after the event had started, as our guidebook suggested, although many locals we spoke to were very sceptical that this was possible. Ana was able to find a guy that was selling tickets for about 10 dollars per person. It was just what we were looking for, but we never would have been able to pull this off without a native portuguese speaker on our side. If you are planning to try this in 2011, on the main Carnival nights, walk all the way to section 13 at about 2 in the morning and look for guys who seem to just be standing around doing nothing with folded arms.

The Carnival parade was an amazing spectacle. We sat on concrete benches with thousands of Cariocas, and although we had to wait a long time for the samba schools to march past us, we had a great overall view of the procession. We saw one and a half samba schools pass through the stadium, which was pretty much all we could handle given our lack of sleep. The parade consisted of rows of samba dancers parading in front of incredibly ornate floats. More dancers jump around the floats in choreographed numbers. Musicians followed banging drums and singing the samba school’s theme song for that year. The crowd has a lyrics sheet and willingly sings along over and over, for about an hour and a half, which is the length of time it takes each school to complete their passage through the stadium. Helicopters buzz around overhead, providing aerial shots of the entire stadium.

We headed back to Ana’s place and slept well into the next day.

On day two, Ana took us up to Corcovado, the park that holds the famous Christ the Redeemer monument. The monument was immense, imposing and impressive, but I found JC’s view of the city of Rio more captivating than the monument itself. Regardless, the monument is so iconic it is impossible to leave Rio without taking a postcard worthy shot of him.

On our third day, we visited MAM, the Museum of Modern Art. We saw some interesting Brazilian works but our attention was fixated on the “Take Care of Yourself” exhibit by Sophie Calle. The French artist has taken a confusing, sappy, and verbose “break-up” email she received from an ex-lover and has created an entire gallery exhibiting female celebrities and professionals reading, analyzing and reacting to the letter. The poor sap’s letter is torn apart grammatically, translated into numerous languages, has bullets shot through it, is turned into a crossword puzzle, and has its philosophical merits scrutinized. The exhibit is light-hearted, mean, funny and sad all at the same time. I couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for Sophie’s exposed ex-lover, but this sympathy didn’t stop me from laughing at his expense.

Last on our Rio hit-list was a trip up to Sugar-Loaf Mountain. A high-tech cable car transports visitors to the top of this giant rock formation, providing another stunning view of the city of Rio. We went up on a foggy day and saw the city lying silently below, our view intermittently obscured by eerie wisps of cloud.

We went home that night and planned the next leg of our journey. The next morning we woke up at 7 and caught the Real Auto airport bus (#2018). Our flight on TAM airlines left at 10:30 for Foz Do Iguaçu. Flying in South America rocks. This three hour flight cost us only $95, and they even let me bring my guitar on board. On the flight out of Rio we were able to release a long sigh, knowing that the next leg of our journey would allow us to restore a sense of tranquility that was lost amid the chaos and excitement of Rio Carnival.