Falling for that Rio magic

Falling for that Rio magic

As Rio de Janeiro is named as the host city for 2016’s Olympics and Paralympics, Penny Batchelor travelled to Brazil to experience both sides of the country: nature at its finest at Iguassu Falls, and the bustling metropolis of Rio de Janeiro.

Iguassu Falls, which spreads across the Argentina/Brazil border, is a jaw-dropping sight. It’s not just one, huge waterfall but a collection of them, some colliding and creating a misty whirlpool of rainbow-topped water.

The spelling of the falls depends on which country you are in. Argentineans, who speak Spanish, call it Iguassu (or Iguazu) Falls, whilst their Brazilian counterparts, who speak Portuguese, know the natural wonder as Iguaçu Falls. The national park containing and surrounding the falls is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Both countries have viewing areas and it’s well worth seeing both sides of the falls. Travelling between countries takes about an hour and involves going through a checkpoint for each country, meaning a few more stamps in your passport.

The Argentinean side of the falls is well set up for disabled visitors. On arrival tourists walk to a mini-train station to catch an open-air train to the upper circle walk, or to then change trains to reach the Devil’s Throat viewing area walkway.

No walking for me, however, I was whisked on the back of an electric buggy to the front of the train queue. At the beginning of each viewing walk I left my walking frame with the staff at the information point and exchanged it for an off-road capable, three-wheeled wheelchair with huge tyres.

Iguassu means “big water” and that’s an understatement. Every second three million litres of water go over the top. The waterfalls range in size and are given quaint names such as “Adam” and “Eve” and “The two sisters”.

At the horseshoe-shaped Devil’s Throat viewing point, along a metal walkway over the falls, visitors walk past the broken remains of a previous bridge swept away during a flood. It was a mild, sunny day when we passed over the river, yet even so the amalgamation of various waterfalls into the Iguassu river at Devil’s Throat really packed a punch. There’s a continuous roar of water and spray as water thunders into the river.

On the Brazilian side of Iguassu Falls, back through the checkpoints, we got a feel of the water’s power. On one of the viewing platforms there you can venture out (again I was in the safety of a borrowed wheelchair) directly in front of one of the waterfalls. The less adventurous wore a plastic mac bought at the gift shop but we braved the short journey without and came back soaked but thrilled by the view and experience. Make sure you have a waterproof camera though!

A short internal flight took us to Rio de Janeiro. It’s not the biggest city in Brazil, nor the capital, but it’s certainly the most well known globally.

Rio de Janeiro means “River of January” – no prizes for guessing that’s because the Portuguese first came across it in January. 1502 to be precise. Rio is historically the home of the samba dance and each year the celebrated carnival begins in the purpose-built Sambadrome in the city. This is an outdoor concrete structure with tiered seating and lots of room for the revellers to parade. Outside of the festival it’s a common-or-garden road.

Our first tourist visit was the Corcovado mountain, which means hunchback. At the top of the mountain is the famous religious statue of Christ the Redeemer. The statue was inaugurated on 12 October 1931 and was five years in the making. It is 38 metres tall, including its pedestal and is a stunning landmark over the city. That is if it’s not misty and pelting down with rain like when we visited.

We boarded a railway, which takes tourists up through the Tijuca tropical forest to the statue. The word “tropical” should have given me a clue as to the potential climate. At the top of the railway there’s an escalator to take tourists who want to avoid the flights of steps to the base of the statue’s pedestal. The problem was on the day we visited the escalator was switched off for safety reasons due to the inclement weather. With my cagoule tied tightly round my chin I stared up at where the statue should be and had a great view of nothing but grey cloud and lashings of rain.

I hoped we’d have a better scenic view when we took a trip up Sugar Loaf mountain. The Portuguese gave the mountain its name because they thought it resembled a block of refined sugar. Today Sugar Loaf is a huge tourist attraction with two cable cars ferrying visitors up to the top to see the allegedly spectacular views of the city.

Our visit started off well. On the hill at the top of the first cable car ride we looked over at the fading lights in the evening sky across Rio’s bay, which boasts Copacabana and Ipanema beaches.

It was when we went to board the second cable car that circumstances got more ominous. The rain came back and at the top of Sugar Loaf our view was of tourists trying to stop their umbrellas blowing inside out in the midst of a torrential thunderstorm. A helpful guide took pity on me and led me through an area out of bounds to the public, in the hope that it would be quicker for me to reach the dry cable car building to wait for the next ride down. In the cable car, which swung in the wind, we couldn’t see a thing through its glass window. “It’s like travelling into the abyss!” shouted one unnerved American.

I bought a postcard in the gift shop to see what the view should have been like.

One trip that didn’t require good weather was an evening meal and samba show. Brazilian cuisine is influenced by many cultures including African, Portuguese and Spanish, but a mainstay is beef. After dinner at a steakhouse we enjoyed a theatre samba show. The dance resembles the city – loud, proud and colourful.

Rain or shine, Rio is a huge, noisy, developing city trying to recover from deep economic problems, the opposite of Iguassu. All these facts do not make Rio de Janeiro a very disability-friendly place. Pavements are cracked, drivers ignore traffic lights (when they are not stuck in traffic jams that is), locals rush blinkered to get to where they want to be and facilities such as tactile paving or ramped access are few and far between.

The best way to get around is to recruit the help of an English-speaking tour guide who will be able to show you the sights and will know if what you wish to see is achievable. Major tourist sights like Sugar Loaf mountain and the Tijuca railway do have some disabled facilities but you may have to ask to be able to use them. For example, there’s a lift at Sugar Loaf mountain to enable passengers to skip the flight of stairs up to the cable car departure area, but when I went the area was blocked off and we had to ask a member of staff to open the lift for us. On the positive side, staff were only too pleased to help when approached.

Now that Rio de Janeiro has been chosen by the International Olympic Committee to stage the 2016 Olympic Games, maybe the pending arrival of the Paralympics teams will encourage the city to improve its disabled access, not just for the visitors but for locals too. In a place where slums (known as Favelas) claw to hillsides not far away from security-guarded rich neighbourhoods where an apartment costs millions of pounds, equality is certainly not taken for granted.

At the end of the trip, in the taxi back to the airport, we briefly spotted the Christ the Redeemer statue lit up in the dark, evening sky. At last – finally we had a glimpse of Rio’s most famous landmark and saw the promise that the city holds.

Rio – 5 things not to miss

  • A full moon falls walk – guided tour only available a few days every month.
  • Getting soaked taking a boat ride on the falls.
  • For meat eaters, sampling a Brazilian steak.
  • Wandering along Copacabana beach in Rio – Barry Manilow song thankfully not included.
  • Riding up the railway on a clear day to see the statue of Christ the Redeemer, finalist in the new Seven Wonders of the World vote organised by the New7Wonders Foundation.

Rio – how to get there

Penny travelled with BA to Rio de Janeiro from Heathrow. Other airlines also fly to the city. Internal flights from Rio de Janeiro to Iguassu Falls are available with the Brazilian airline TAM.

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