This was the big one. The one we’d been talking about the longest. After staying in 130 different hotels, hostels, homestays, tents, and trains, our Airbnb in Ipanema was actually the first accommodation we’d booked – before we even left the UK a year before. But, as we got closer to arriving in Rio for the second week of the Olympics, we weren’t sure what we’d find. As the city geared up to host the games, the increasing negative press – covering everything from poor organisation to robberies and violence – made us wonder if we were putting ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time for the end of our South America travels.
In fact, it turned into seven days of being in exactly the right places at exactly the right times; benefiting from some good karma, some incredible luck and perfect timing, that got us everything from sneaky seat upgrades, brilliant cup swapsies (we’ll get to that) and even free tickets from a few very generous people.
Rio was running like clockwork, it was really easy to get around by Uber, bus, train, and tube (with a week long travel card that also included ferries), and it felt like a party from the moment we arrived. We spent our first afternoon drinking caipirinhas next to Copacabana beach, and things only got better from there.
Our first full day in the city was a full day at the Olympic Park. First up was Singapore v China in the table tennis. It turns out table tennis doesn’t have the same demure charm of Wimbledon, this is cut-throat. Never mind politely shouting “Come on Andy!“, fans went straight for “CRUSH HER! FINISH HER!!” Sadly, Singapore didn’t do any crushing or finishing. China beat them in straight sets, partly thanks to an awesome spin serve technique involving a low squat and kind of Kossak kick!
Before the basketball we had a few hours to explore the Olympic Park, but just after leaving the table tennis, a steward offered us free weightlifting tickets. Not our thing, but sure why not! Here’s why not: An absurd and pointless rule meant that if we left the Olympic park to use the tickets, our basketball tickets would be void if we tried to get back in! Slam dunks are cooler than dumbbells so we stuck with the basketball, and gave the weightlifting tickets away hoping some good karma would return to us.
We spent the afternoon walking around the Olympic park hearing huge cheers erupt from each stadium as medals were won and records were broken. The loudest were at the fan zone, where we watched Brazil pick up medals in the gymnastics. At the basketball Argentina hugely dominated the crowd – it felt like a home football match – but Spain dominated the court and got a fairly comfortable win. The crowd was a much more even split at the volleyball bronze medal match a few days later. It was an incredibly close game that went to a 2 point difference in the final set before the USA took the medal from reigning champs Russia.
Some of our highlights from travelling have been doing ‘the thing in the place’ (like steak in Buenos Aires or Diwali parties in India), and watching football in the Maracana is definitely that. Brazil narrowly missed out on the women’s football final, but the crowd was packed with Brazilians who didn’t seem to care if Sweden or Germany won – but definitely cared about watching good football. The atmosphere in the crowd was more pantomime than sports game. As soon as Germany took the lead and played defensively they became the pantomime villains, booed by almost the whole stadium when they got the ball. Sweden, vilified only days before for their defensive game against Brazil, were now cheered for anything and everything.
Our Airbnb was just one block from Ipanema beach and a five minute walk from Copacabana beach. You can’t come to Rio and not go to the beach. The organisers obviously had this in mind too as the triathlon route ran alongside Copacabana – both roadside and seaside. With a stash of our new favourite snacks, pao de queso (tiny cheese-stuffed bread rolls), we got a great spot to watch the Brownlee brothers win gold and silver for GB.
Staring down at us on Copacabana, from a perch high up on a mountain behind the skyline, was another not-to-be-missed Rio attraction. The man needs no introduction. The views from the iconic statue at the top of the mountain are incredible, the city sweeps across every inch of available space between the lagoon and the mountains with skyscrapers running along the beach front like metal and glass cliffs. The advice we heard again and again for visiting Cristo Redentor is not to plan in advance: if it’s a cloudless sunny morning, that’s your morning – clouds can roll in and obscure the incredible views at any time, so carpe that sunny diem!
Joining the neighbourhoods of Santa Teresa and Lapa, the Escadeira Selaron is a beautiful, if crowded, tiled staircase. It was created by a Chilean artist who used 2,000 tiles from 120 different countries. We arrived at peak crowd time in the middle of the day, though outside of the Olympics it’s probably much quieter. Either way it’s a photogenic spot on the way to one of Lapa’s famous samba clubs.
We made the most of our afternoon in downtown Rio by heading, via the stunning old Teatro Municipal, to the futuristic lizard-looking Museu do Amanha (Museum of Tomorrow) behind the big screens and street food carts of the Olympic Boulevard. We walked by just as Brazil bagged another gold in the sailing and a huge explosion of shouts, drums and whistles filled the square.
As well as Copacabana and Cristo Redentor, live samba music was our other must-do for Rio. Our Airbnb host invited us to watch her boyfriend’s samba band play at the Charleston Bubble Lounge, a champagne bar in Copacabana. The Champagne looked tempting, but its price tag meant we made an amazing discovery lower down the menu: caipri-sakes. These versions of caipirinhas were made with sake instead of cachaca, and come in kiwi, passion fruit and strawberry fruit blends. Yes, yes, and yes.
One of our favourite discoveries were the Olympic Casas dotted around the city. Country teams and brand sponsors took over buildings to make an Olympic HQ for guests and athletes. Holland House on the lagoon was famous for the parties and pricey entry, Denmark House on Ipanema beach had a Lego room, British House in the Botanic Gardens had cucumber sandwiches and a snooty invite-only policy, and there were rumours of some sort of camel race simulator at Qatar House (tickets for that were long gone by the time we looked).
Paying Casa Airbnb a visit proved to be one of our best decisions in Rio. They’d taken over a beautifully decorated house near the lagoon in Ipanema and were offering interior-shoot worthy rooms to watch the events, a retro styled games room, with snacks and beers flowing. Both times we stopped by, all our good luck came at once and we got chatting to the Airbnb employees running the casa who offered us free athletics tickets for later that evening! Seriously, it happened twice. We’ll have to do some serious paying it forward for that much good luck.
On our first athletics night we saw decathletes, hurdlers, long jumpers, javelin throwers and steeplechasers from some incredible track-side seats. The highlight of the night was being meters away from the 200m starting blocks to see Usain Bolt do his thing.
A few events under our belt now, we’d got a decent collection of Olympic beer cups. Rio2016’s answer to football stickers; each cup has an icon for a different Olympic sport, making it irresistible to collect one for each event you’ve been to. One option was to drink enough beer until you’ve beaten the odds and have all the ones you need. This is also a fast way to an unbeatable hangover, so we instead joined in some strategic cup swaps on the metro and ended up with all but one of the events we saw.
Our final athletics night was incredible. It began with 90 tense minutes watching Brazil v Germany in the final from a bar. There was a massive party atmosphere on the train to the stadium – everyone who’d been streaming the penalties on their phones erupted into cheers and chants when Neymar scored the winning penalty. As we were on the train, Bolt was zipping across town to the stadium too. We’d seen him on TV in the crowd at the Maracana, and must have been streaming the penalties on his phone too, as he appeared in the Olympic stadium minutes after we did to collect his 9th and final Olympic gold medal. Undoubtedly the biggest sporting highlight was being right at the front of the crowd again to see Mo Farah make history by winning the 5,000m gold for GB.