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The marquee attractions may be all booked up, but who cares? Ipanema Beach offers sun, surf and locals.
The marquee attractions may be all booked up, but who cares? Ipanema Beach offers sun, surf and locals.

South America

Last-minute travel to Rio Carnival Add to ...

A shower of fireworks exploded over Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome as the drums began pounding, and along with 80,000 others I began to dance with anticipation. Here I was at the famed Samba Parade, the crown jewel of Rio's Carnival, a spectacle I'd been waiting to see ever since … well, ever since about a week earlier, when I'd booked this trip.

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Normally, I'm not a spur-of-the-moment traveller. A weekend trip to cottage country is one thing, but flying to a foreign country usually requires months of Internet research, polling friends and family on the best places to stay and eat, and tracking plane fares. But my husband and I woke up one day and realized we hadn't had a proper vacation in more than a year. Drastic action was called for.

So I typed "last-minute vacation" into Google. And then "Rio Carnival." And then, using my expert research skills, "Rio Carnival last-minute vacation."

I'd been hoping to find crazy bargains. That's where I met Reality Check No. 1. While such destinations as Las Vegas, Mexico and Florida offer plenty of last-minute deals, Rio de Janeiro's Carnival enjoys a steady supply of travellers from Europe and South America, and the hotels and tour bookers were under no pressure to slash prices.

The official samba parade was costly, but joining a neighbourhood bloco proved just as much fun.

And so, I began to sort through hundreds of thousands of Google results about the world's biggest party. As I struggled in vain to translate a Web page from Portuguese into English while simultaneously reading 427 TripAdvisor hotel reviews late one night, I realized that Last-Minute Traveller Me would have to do things a little differently. It was time to outsource.

My requirements: a good but not fancy hotel near either Ipanema or Copacabana beach; tickets to the Samba Parade; possibly tickets to a game at Rio's massive soccer stadium. And one more thing: I'd read about tourists who paid to participate in the Samba Parade (their money helps the groups that perform; and in a parade of 4,000, no one notices a few awkwardly sambaing gringos). Could we do that?

I e-mailed several travel agencies and also sent my query to Zicasso.com, a site that lets you describe your dream trip and then allows various travel agencies to bid for your business. After a few e-mails back and forth (32, to be exact), British-based Jacada Travel found two flights at not-horrible times, a hotel on the beach, and tickets to the parade.

Reality Check No. 2: The trip wouldn't be exactly what I'd envisioned. The beach was Leblon, not Ipanema, though the two are adjacent. The soccer team wasn't playing in Rio that week. As for the Samba Parade, we would be spectators, not participants - but Last-Minute Traveller Me realized that flexibility was part of the game. I sent Jacada my credit-card information and started hunting for bathing suits in the back of my closet.

Then, the other shoe dropped. In addition to the agreed-upon price for our vacation, Jacada had tacked on an additional $2,000 charge. I frantically called and e-mailed, half-expecting the number to be disconnected and those 32 e-mails to have been an elaborate con. Clearly, I was being punished by the gods of non-refundable travel for my foolish last-minute ways.

After a day and a half of nail-biting, I finally got a reply from Jacada apologizing for the error and promising to reverse the charges immediately. And they did. That dropped shoe, thankfully, was nothing more than a flip-flop. Reality Check No. 3: Sometimes, everything works out just fine.

Once in Rio, everything was both chaotic and fine. No foodie-vetted restaurant reservations? No problem. On every corner was a juice bar. Pointing to the first item on the first menu board I came to, I got an abacaxi com hortela - a concoction of pineapple and mint. I still don't know how to properly pronounce abacaxi, but I ordered that sweet nectar all over town.

Another revelation was grilled cheese on the beach, one of the many snacks proffered by a small army of vendors. Not grilled-cheese sandwiches, but actual chunks of cheese on a stick, they were grilled over a charcoal flame and doused with an oregano-and-garlic sauce. Given the language barrier, I don't know what kind of cheese it was - I'm relatively certain it was cheese - but it was delicious.

Walking back to our hotel from lunch one day, abacaxi com hortela in hand, we heard drums beating, and ventured down a side street to investigate. We spent the next few hours caught up in a bloco, one of the raucous neighbourhood street parades that break out all over Rio during Carnival. We followed a slow, happy procession led by a live band, which in turn was led by a sun-baked, grey-haired man wearing a coconut bra and playing a ukulele atop a brightly painted bus.

Within a few blocks, we were enthusiastically singing the bloco's chorus, "Que merde e essa?" which translates to "What [excrement]is this?" At that moment, I was glad that my research hadn't panned out and I hadn't shelled out big bucks to participate in the official Samba Parade.

Not all the surprises were so pleasant. I was wondering "Que merde e essa?" when we found that none of the ATMs near our hotel would accept our card. I tried kicking the Scotiabank ATM and reminding it that it had a patriotic duty to accept my debit card, but strangely, that tactic failed. We eventually found an ATM that gave us money, but it took half a day and a lot of walking that a better-organized traveller might have avoided. Lesson learned: Don't assume you have ready access to cash just because you recognize the name on the ATM - and plan accordingly.

I came to Rio with few expectations, and left with no regrets, although I did feel slightly bad for the driver who took us to the airport. He asked how we'd enjoyed our trip, and we enthusiastically praised the Samba Parade, Ipanema Beach, the juice bars, the blocos, the Christ the Redeemer statue.

"And Copacabana? How did you like Copacabana?" he asked. My husband and I exchanged guilty looks in the back seat. We meant to get there, of course, but there was always a bloco to join, or a sunset to watch, or an abacaxi com hortela to drink. Our driver looked incredulous.

"You came to Rio de Janeiro and you didn't go to Copacabana Beach?" he asked. I could tell he was mentally calculating whether he had time to turn the car around and take us there before our flight left. Instead, we mollified him with promises to see the city's most famous beach on our next trip. Maybe we'll even plan that trip more than a few weeks in advance - maybe.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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Last-minute travel tips

  • Use the Internet, but don't let information overload paralyze you. It's easy to get freaked out by bad reviews on TripAdvisor. Sometimes, you just have to take a leap of faith.
  • Ask for what you want, but be happy with what you get. Don't be afraid to ask for what may seem impossible, whether it's low-cost airfare or a ticket to a sold-out show - but make sure you have a Plan B.
  • Prioritize. What's most important to you in this vacation? Beach time? Dancing in a parade? Eating at the best restaurant in town? Go for your top priority and then go with the flow on everything else.
  • Be open to new experiences. That's always good advice when travelling, but especially important when you don't have time to do a lot of research.

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