In what is surely a daily occurrence in Brazil, a bunch of transfixed foreigners sat speechless ogling a local. “Wesley, she looks friendly, get out of the van and walk up to her,’’ suggested our Iguassu Falls host Juliana.
“I have two daughters, I’m not going anywhere near her,’’ Wesley replied.
Juliana, let me confirm, was not playing unwanted wingman for our happily married driver: the local with the piercing eyes was a wild jaguar.
In a day that involved touring the monumental Iguassu Falls by land, water and helicopter, these 20 minutes staring at a wild jaguar eclipsed them all.
Channelling my inner Attenborough, I slid open the door and inched towards the big cat of the Amazon. I snapped away feverishly; the euphoric national park biologist told us in 11 years she had never observed a wild jaguar for more than a few minutes. Every sabre-toothed yawn and menacing growl was greeted with a kind of awestruck reverence.
“OK, I think I’d like to have a sheet of metal between me and that,’’ I confessed. No sooner had I retreated, the feline guest tired of our amateur safari party and dissolved into the rainforest. To be 20 metres from such a recluse put us among the slim minority of people visiting this amazing region of Brazil, a benefit of staying within the Iguassu National Park on the edge of the falls. Back at Belmond Hotel Das Cataratas I triple-checked my window locks – this is not a local I wanted to find waiting for me in my room.
My Steve Irwin moment in Iguassu was not the first time Brazil offered drama to rival its beloved cheesy Telenovela soap operas. In a neon-lit corner of Rio de Janeiro I stepped into a music video with two dozen people doing the Samba-come-Electric Slide.
I couldn’t grasp Brazil’s iconic dance, so grasped another caipirinha instead (I was in the minority: on a humid Wednesday night the dance floor was packed while bartenders looked for things to do). As my wise Brazilian guide told me: “The three addictions of Brazilians are Carnival, football and Telenovela. It’s all about the drama and flair.”
Thankfully, you don’t have to be interested in any of the above to enjoy Brazil’s second largest city. It’s every bit as sensorially intense as you imagine. Many Brits will find out for themselves when visiting for this year’s Summer Olympics. The legendary Maracana stadium, which heaved with 200,000 fans in the 1950 World Cup final, was upgraded for the Fifa World Cup in 2014 and will be a focal point once more. But anyone yearning for the organised fun of London 2012 should think again – this hectic city does passion well, but planning and punctuality… not so much. The Olympic regeneration may have obscured some of the city’s famed favelas from view, but the local ad-hoc approach to town planning and heritage has had mixed results – evidenced by a warren of roads and tunnels bisecting the city’s peaks, and the concrete monstrosities that act as a reminder of the 1960s dictatorship, puncturing the beautiful colonial relics downtown. Parts of the downtown area felt like an Eastern Bloc industrial estate with the temperature turned up.
Thankfully the city’s iconic attractions don’t disappoint. Christ the Redeemer, perched above the city, heaved with tourists elbowing for the best selfies with the man himself, set against a backdrop of smoggy rainforest belts and crashing waves below.
The iconic art deco Belmond Copacabana Palace offers ringside seats to the city’s famous sandy catwalk, with trendy Ipanema just a stroll away. The hotel has long been a refuge for Hollywood’s elite – from Golden Era stars, to today’s musical greats who harangue staff with diva-ish demands when they’re in town for the Rock in Rio concert. Today its poolside bar has a smattering of the Rio chic set, keen to avoid the egalitarian system of the beach and, although alluring, it’s clear that today the party is across the road on the sand.
Ipanema and “Copa’’ are community institutions. Footballs flew, caipirinhas were messily poured over bagged iced and business shirts were hurriedly discarded. It’s the only beach in the world where reading a book is a social faux pas.
As the sun disappears behind the sugarloaf peaks, the tanned flesh remains exposed. A French actress drew ire in the 1820s when she dared to frolic on Copacabana in a burqa-like swimsuit. Despite the near revolt at the time, she clearly fired the starting gun in the race to shed the threads.
“The goal is to show almost everything, but never everything,” says my guide sagely. The city famously had to cover up when the Pope visited, but as our Jeep glides past ice carts on Ipanema’s hot-spot Block Nine, it’s obvious this is no city for wallflowers.
Brazilian passion doesn’t waver in the kitchen and the abundant produce of the country is served up in inventive ways at Michelin-starred Olympe, run by Claude Troisgros. There isn’t a barbecued steak in sight. Frenchman Claude, I’m told, is something of a celebrity chef in Brazil, where one of his gimmicks is to take a person’s food phobia and create masterpieces with it that make them change their mind, as broadcast on TV show Que Marravilha! He has his work cut out when I see beetroot on the menu. But it arrives in a tartare with tuna and foie gras, served with yucca chips. I devoured it faster that you can say “converted”. Claude can chalk up yet another win.
Geographically “The Marvellous City” is blessed: sugarloaf rocks and Atlantic rainforest still tower higher than any skyscraper, and world-class beaches fringe the suburbs.
The Carioca spirit seems magnified by its lush surroundings. It’s no surprise that slow Olympic ticket sales, a recession and now the Zika virus have failed to permeate the national mood, which will no doubt rise to Carnival level in time for the opening ceremony.