Anadolu Agency – by Steffen Stubager & Asger Mow, additional reporting and editing by Ben Tavener

RIO DE JANEIRO – Hundreds of football fans in Brazil for the World Cup are refusing to pay sky-high accommodation prices and instead are opting to sleep rough during the key sporting event.

In Rio de Janeiro, football fans from all over the world can be seen sleeping in the main bus station and on the city’s famous beaches, where temperatures have tumbled to 15°C at night and rain has been a regular feature.

Fans, including many from Argentina, Colombia and Chile, have come to Brazil for weeks in some cases without booking any accommodation and, for most, the risk is directly linked to hotels inflating prices during the World Cup.

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Anadolu Agency

SÃO PAULO – President Dilma Rousseff has “guaranteed” Brazil’s airports will be prepared to welcome visitors for the World Cup, which starts on 12 June in São Paulo.

Rousseff made the comments on her weekly Café com a Presidenta national radio programme following criticism that a number of airports which were promised to be completed for the key football tournament remain unfinished.

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Rio Sambadrome. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Rio de Janeiro was awash with colour, music and parties this weekend as the annual Carnival celebrations burst onto the city’s streets.

Street parties lured hundreds of thousands of revellers from across the country and the world and top-flight samba schools battling it out to become this year’s Carnival Champion.

Carnival is celebrated through the country, but Rio de Janeiro hosts the biggest party – attracting an estimated 920,000 tourists from both home and abroad in 2014 – up 2.2 percent on last year’s figures.

At the Sambadrome. Photo by Ben Tavener

União da Tijuca won the 2014 crown. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Carnival-related tourism will also bring in US$950 million for the local economy, according to Brazil’s tourism board.

The city’s world-famous Sapucaí Sambadrome, designed by the late renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, has been marking its 30th anniversary. Built in 1984, it is the venue for what the city bills as “The Greatest show on Earth” – the yearly samba school competitions.

Beginning on Sunday, top-flight special group samba schools continued for a second night on Monday to try to impress and surprise judges and wow audiences with their jaw-dropping floats and meticulously-choreographed routines in a final bid to become this year’s champion.

Schools fighting for the champions’ crown spend up to US$7 million on their parade, which they spend the whole year getting just right: each school depicts a historical or allegorical story through song, dance and costume, and each has around an hour to make their way down the length of the Sambadrome – a process involving thousands of dancers which takes spectators into the small hours of the next morning.

An intense two-day wait for judges to make their minds up then follows before the announcement.

UPDATE: União da Tijuca have been crowned the 2014 Carnival champions!

Million at street parties, despite mounting rubbish

However, most come to Rio not for the Sambadrome, but for the street parties – known as blocos – of which 465 have been hosted across Rio throughout the Carnival period this year, and some have drawn enormous crowds – many in fancy dress or drag.

Rubbish piled up in Cinelândia, central Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Ben Tavener

Rubbish piled up in Cinelândia, central Rio de Janeiro. Photo by Ben Tavener

The Cordão do Bola Preta street party – the city’s oldest and one of the biggest – united over a million partygoers on the streets of Rio’s historic Centro region.

A number of the parties are themed and while some are more family-friendly, they are well-known for their alcohol-fuelled debauchery.

The morning-after sight of streets strewn with rubbish is a common one at Carnival, but has been exacerbated this year in no small way by a strike by street cleaners the city’s municipal cleaning company, Comlurb.

Around 400 street sweepers tried to march on the Sambadrome on Sunday afternoon but were met by military police and clashes ensued as police began to disperse the group.

Rubbish was piled up in many central regions of the city, after some street parties attracted far more revellers than expected.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s trash piled everywhere and the place doesn’t smell great,” Julie, 26, a visitor from the United States, told an Anadolu Agency correspondent at the city’s AfroReggae bloco. “But this is still an amazing party, so we have no regrets in terms of coming here. Rio is gorgeous.”

The number of toilets at the sites was also noticeably lacking.

Even the Sambadrome was left looking worse for wear as the lack of cleaners left refuse strewn down the parade street at the middle of the 70,000-capacity venue.

Biggest protests in a generation

This year’s Carnival was also different for another, more subtle reason: it was the first to take place since the outbreak of mass anti-government protests seen throughout Brazil since last June – the biggest protests the country had seen in a generation.

Although protests were called for by some groups on social media website, including one under a banner of “Occupy Carnival!”, no World Cup-related or anti-government protests took place and locals say Carnival was always unlikely to see any major protests.

Rio's street parties - the "blocos" - are the true heart of Carnival. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Rio’s street parties – the “blocos” – are the true heart of Carnival. Photo by Ben Tavener.

“I’m not interested in protesting during Carnival. I’ve come all the way from Fortaleza to be here in Rio – the protests can start again afterwards, but now it’s time to party and have fun with friends,” Vitor, an 18-year-old engineering student, told AA.

Twenty-four-year-old Bruna, from Rio, agreed: “I’m not happy with the World Cup coming here, and our government still needs to know we’re angry, but this isn’t the time or place.”

Although crowds at the sporadic anti-government and anti-World Cup protests have now dwindled, they have continued with much more momentum than many observers initially credited them with.

Big protests by the “Não Vai Ter Copa” (There Won’t Be a World Cup) group on social media sites are being organized at least every month, and protests are being planned for the time of the World Cup as well.

Spotlight on Brazil

The world is now watching with heightened interest as Brazil holds its final major dress rehearsal to show it can deal with hosting the huge international events – something which Brazil, and in particularly Rio, has said it is already has a good track record in doing – with annual events such as the Réveillon New Year’s party and Carnival.

Não Vai Ter Copa. Anti-World Cup poster. Photo by Ben Tavener

Não Vai Ter Copa. An anti-World Cup poster in Rio. Photo by Ben Tavener

Brazil has now had several mainly successful dry runs including the FIFA Confederations Cup and World Youth Day last year.

Security has also been ramped up across Rio and other cities in Brazil, and both military and riot police have been on the streets to maintain order and visitor safety.

Last week, officials said 150,000 police and soldiers would be deployed, as well as 20,000 private security agents, across the twelve stadiums to keep protests under control and allow fans to get to their games – something FIFA urged Brazil to guarantee in recent weeks.

Concerns about infrastructure and hosting tourists have been largely masked by anxieties whether the country will have stadiums ready and delivered to FIFA on time.

Stadiums in Curitiba and São Paulo are currently representing the greatest worries for FIFA and are likely only to be ready in May – a month before the first World Cup match. São Paulo’s Itaquerão stadium is scheduled to host the opening game between Brazil and Croatia on 12 June.

Extended version of article for Anadolu Agency

Adidas withdrew the sexualised World Cup Brazil T-shirts after outcry from Brazil's official tourism board, Embratur

Adidas withdrew the shirts after outcry from Brazil’s official tourism board, Embratur.

Adidas says it has withdrawn from sale two Brazil-themed World Cup T-shirts at the centre of a row over the sexualisation of women in Brazil, a statement from the company – one of the FIFA World Cup’s biggest sponsors – issued on Tuesday said.

Brazil’s tourism board, Embratur, said earlier on Tuesday that it “vehemently repudiated the sale of products that link Brazil’s image to sexual appeal”. It later asked the German sporting goods company to stop selling the shirts.

Brazil has recently stepped up its long-running campaign against sex tourism, including through its overseas tourism agencies, in the run-up to Carnival and the World Cup.

One of the Brazil-themed shirts depicts a woman in a bikini on a beach in Rio de Janeiro, with Sugarloaf Mountain in the background and the words “Looking to score”, while the other shows the words “I love Brazil” with the heart shape replacing the word “love” in the shape of a woman’s upside-down buttocks in a thong.

In a statement issued on Tuesday afternoon, Adidas said the sale of the shirts was restricted to the US market:

We always listen carefully to our customers and other stakeholders, so having taken on board their feedback, we have made the decision to withdraw this product line,” Adidas said in a statement.

By Tuesday night the items were no longer visible on the company’s website.

Brazil’s Human rights minister Maria do Rosario tweeted that Adidas had contacted the Brazilian government to confirm it was pulling the shirts, and praised the “very important fast reaction from the government and society in rejecting sexualised items” which she said had been “effective”.

Embratur had said that the Adidas shirts’ “campaign” went directly against the message of “natural and cultural attributes” with which Brazil was trying to promote itself.

Tired clichés

The shirts touched a raw nerve for those in Brazil who have often decried the clichéd sexualised stereotype of Brazilians promoted abroad – often involving bikini-clad women.

The controversy over the Adidas shirts also came on the same day that President Dilma Rousseff took to Twitter to lead a renewed crackdown on sex tourism in Brazil in the build-up to this year’s Carnival – which is beginning across the country – and the FIFA World Cup, which begins on 12 June.

Both events attract a considerable number of tourists.

Brazil is happy to receive tourists coming here for the World Cup, but is also ready to combat sex tourism,” President Rousseff warned.

Brazil has strived to shake off its reputation as a destination for sex tourism, and warning signs in the country’s airports have long discouraged foreigners from using the country – including its children and adolescent – for such purposes.

Militant feminist Maria Fernanda Marcelino, who leads the Brazil wing of the World March of Women, told Anadolu Agency that she rejected in the strongest possible terms Adidas’s decision to sell the shirts in the first place:

We repudiate any action that seeks to profiteer from the sexualization and exploitation of women in Brazil and turn them into mere marketing,” she said.

Ms. Marcelino also called on football’s governing body and World Cup organisers FIFA to work with charities and the Brazilian government to combat sexual tourism in Brazil.

Adidas is one of the World Cup’s biggest sponsors and maker of the official World Cup ball.

Report written for Anadolu Agency

Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) statue in Rio. Photo by Ben Tavener.

With the FIFA Confederations Cup and World Youth Day (WYD 2013) set to arrive in Rio, the city has seen pacification operations in favelas at the base of Corcovado Mountain.

Rio’s 33rd Police Pacification Unit (UPP) will establish a permanent presence in the area and should improve security not only for local residents, but for tourists visiting the world-famous Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue.

On Monday, 420 special forces and military police, including elite BOPE (Special Police Operations Battalion) tactical teams, entered three favelas under Corcovado, site of the thirty-meter-tall Christ statue.

Police say they occupied the Cosme Velho communities of Cerro-Corá, Guararapes and Vila Cândido quickly with no gunfire or arrests. The new UPP, with 190 military police, should be operational within a month.

Rio Governor Sérgio Cabral said the communities would no longer become a refuge for criminals and that the new UPP would “offer security and peace to residents.”

Police had monitored Cosme Velho for information about traffickers and other criminals that had been flushed there from previously-pacified favelas.

Cosme Velho is the location of the Trem do Corcovado (Corcovado Train), which takes tourists to Christ the Redeemer, and military police were at pains to show that the occupation would afford tourists visiting the statue greater safety, particularly during WYD on July 23rd-28th when Catholics from around the world will gather.

“The Pope’s visit and the increased influx of tourists are why we went in. Intelligence showed that criminals were sheltering here. Now they’ve lost the territory,” military police spokesperson Col Frederico Caldas said.

WYD 2013 will be the first major overseas mission for Pope Francis; it is the first time the event has been held in Brazil and only the second time in Latin America. Special police training exercises have been staged to represent a number of scenarios, including the well-trodden tourist route to see the statue.

Read the full article on The Rio Times website.

Quito view. Photo by Ben Tavener

A view across Quito on a sunny day. Photo by Ben Tavener.

If the breathtaking flyby as you land in the undulating, mountainous valley speckled with colourful houses doesn’t make you twig, the lack of oxygen in the air as you climb the steep, narrow streets near the Basilica of the National Vow will certainly leave you in no doubt that the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, is the world’s second highest capital city.

View from Quito Basilica over the Old Town and El Panecillo. Photo by Ben Tavener.

View from Quito Basilica over the Old Town and El Panecillo. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Sat in a so-called ‘dry’ valley at over 2,800 metres (9,200ft) above sea level, and also known as La Ciudad de los Cielos (The City of the Heavens), Quito was founded by Spanish Christian invaders in 1534, and barely a day goes by without rain.

As far as tourists are concerned, the main city is split largely into two. First, the Old Town – which is all about old buildings, cathedrals, churches and the enormous statue of the Virgin Mary set up on a small hill in the middle of the valley – El Panecillo.

The Old Town has all the hallmarks of that charming Latin American colonial feel you can also find in places like Salvador in Brazil.

Colourful architecture can be found here in the Old Town, and also dotted around in the favela-esque areas on the steeper parts of the valley (- also reminiscent of Salvador).

The centre of the Old Town, Independence Square is bordered by the country’s main governmental building and the Metropolitan Cathedral and pretty streets that just beg to be wandered up nonchalantly.

The streets are a mixture of old and new: cafés, bakeries and second-hand book shops on one side, and mobile phone shops, fashionable boutiques and fast-food outlets on the other.

The Old Town, Quito, photo by Ben Tavener.

The Old Town, Quito: Colonial colours and the criss-cross of narrow streets are a cheery sight, even on one of Quito’s many rainy days. Photo by Ben Tavener.

The Old Town is wonderful just to walk through – guidebook in hand or left haphazardly on your bedside table.

There is fantastic architecture and a lively street atmosphere with people selling things all over the place – food, jewellery, souvenirs. Quite simply, there’s a real buzz to the place.

Taking a look inside Quito’s Basilica of the National Vow – which was built around the turn of the 20th century – is well worth it. $1 will get you inside, and $2 at the south entrance will get you access to the Basilica towers.

Although the ascent is by very steep, not overly safe-looking ladders, the stunning views of the Quito valley make it totally worth it.

Quito and El Panecillo. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Quito Old Town, leading to the city’s towering silver Virgin Mary statue – known locally as El Panecillo. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Although many guidebooks warn about pickpocketing and bag-slashing, the usual vigilance will probably see you through unscathed – and taking a taxi (they’re really cheap) after dark is always recommended, rather than taking a bus that’s full to bursting – public transport and crowded places is where the opportunists like to strike.

The second part of Quito to which tourists gravitate, to the north of the Old Town and across a number of attractive parks, is the New Town – the city’s Soho: bars, clubs, and chock-full of gringos (Western foreigners), with the Mariscal Sucre region sometimes known by locals as “Gringolandia” for that reason.

If you like partying, this is the place for you. It’s also where many of the hostels and hotels are located, suiting a variety of budgets – from $10 a night to over $150, depending on whether you wish to leave with all your possessions or not. (I opted for a $40 a night option and did.)

The area is perfectly safe during the day, but take taxis at night – even if it’s just a 10-minute walk. Further north of the Mariscal area, you’ll find La Carolina Park, which is perfectly nice in its own right, but also houses Quito’s beautiful Botanical Garden – which at $3.50 is definitely worth a look. Its orchid gardens are sublime – and those in Ecuador for the wildlife might well tick off another few species in this city haven.

A cloudy day at the western edge of the Pichincha volcano, which sits at 4,700m. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Located 25km south of the Equator – giving Ecuador its name, of course – Quito’s 2.5 million-strong population sits next to the Pichincha volcano, or to be more accurate, stratovolcano.

Yes, it’s still active – last erupting in 1999 and showering the city in a small layer of ash. For those you want to get closer to the volcano (who wouldn’t?), in 2005 Quito built the TelefériQo (with a cheesy Q, pinched, of course, from ‘Quito’) – a gondola lift that will take you up to just shy of 4,000 metres above sea level, to the western edge of the Pichincha volcano – the Rucu (“Old Man”) – and least volcanically active part of the volcano.

Another 4km hike will take you up to the rim of the volcano – but a lack of time, and hitting the cloud after about 1.5km, meant we weren’t to conquer it that day. Next time!

Quito TelefériQo, photo by Ben Tavener.

Quito’s TelefériQo takes you up to nearly 4,000 metres above sea level and provides spectacular views across the city valley. Photo by Ben Tavener.

It takes around 3.5 hours at a steady pace, and bearing in mind the reduced oxygen levels, you should be vaguely fit to do it, and I’ve seen a number of warnings not to attempt it on your first or second day in Quito – let yourself acclimatise properly first.

But the view, even from the top of the TelefériQo is absolutely worth the US$8.50 foreigners pay to get up there and back.

The grasslands at the top make up the special high-altitude Páramo habitat – home to some unique species, particularly birds such as plumbeous sierra-finch and stout-billed cinclodes – which can be easily seen on the pathways.

Things to do at the top: sample the extra-oxygen-filled shops; if you’re feeling lazy – take a horse ride up the hill; take a picture with an alpaca; visit the new high-altitude chapel, or perhaps hire and bike and fly back down the hill on two wheels.

To the north of Quito lies the Mitad del Mundo – Quito’s fairground dedicated to its fortunate latitudinal positioning. A mixture of parlour tricks showing water spinning one way to the north and the other to the south of the Equator line (which scientists will tell you is probably faked, as the Coriolis effect doesn’t have that big an influence on the quantity of water used in the fairground’s “experiments”) and a big Equator line monument (which was actually erroneously placed 240m away from the real Equator line) and that’s an hour’s drive both in and out of Quito, and a few dollars, wasted. I didn’t bother.

Much more my bag, and a feasible day trip from Quito (on the list to do next time) is Ecuador’s best-known and second highest volcano, which can be seen on a clear day from Quito itself – Cotopaxi, which stands just shy of 5,900 metres (approx. 19,350 ft) above sea level:

Cotopaxi volcano, as seen from Quito on a clear day

Cotopaxi volcano, as seen from Quito on a clear day. Photo from

By the way, when talking about prices in Ecuador, I’m not translating into US dollars from a local currency.

Ecuador has been using the dollar officially for some time, after it underwent “dollarization” in 2000 following many years of unofficial use and economic turbulence. And that’s not the only good thing for US travellers, they use the same plugs as in the US – and triband mobile phone system.

And with flights from American cities starting from around $500 (as opposed to $2000 from Europe), it’s no wonder that Americans make up the bulk of visitors who come to Quito, Guayaquil – Ecuador’s biggest and more industrial city on the coast, and, of course, to the Galápagos.

Quito is great to visit as a group or alone – you’ll most likely make friends at some point, as friendly, gregarious single travellers aren’t hard to come by.

Rio's civil and military police, as well as its firefighters, are now on strike, and 14,000 soldiers are in town to replace them - just days before Carnaval is set to start.

When I was being interviewed on Canadian national news the other week, one of the questions I was asked was whether Rio would suffer a PR disaster as a result of the multiple building collapse which killed at least 17 people in downtown Rio. 

At that point, my thoughts were mainly that Rio could probably manage to shrug this off before the sporting mega-events – the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympics – make it to Brazil. There’s a long time to go, right?

But now more bad news, and for Brazil’s tourism industry, the last few weeks have been the most challenging for years.

In the Bahia state capital, Salvador, a violent stand-off between police officers on strike over pay and conditions, and the army soldiers brought in to replace them, brought chaos to the streets of the city and the wider state, and more worryingly a doubling of the number of murder victims.

It was another piece of bad news Brazil didn’t want plastered around the world’s press, coming just two weeks after the buildings collapse. It raised questions about Brazil’s poor infrastructure and its ability to welcome visitors – let alone holding the sporting mega-events it is hosting in the coming years.

And now there could be worse to come.

Last night 14,000 army troops took to the streets of Rio as the city’s civil and military police went on strike, along with the fire service, over pay and conditions. For Brazil’s most-visited city, the timing couldn’t be worse: next week sees the start of the one event of the year that lures more tourists to Brazil than any other – Carnaval.

Despite reassuring words from Rio’s officials that everything is under control and that “security at Carnaval is guaranteed”, they are anxious. They do not want a repeat of this week’s events in Bahia while nearly five million visitors descend on the city.

The event is undoubtedly the biggest in Rio’s calendar and in Brazil’s shop window – and each year it paralyses the country with its energy, colour and samba vibes. Images of the festival, traditionally held the four days preceding Ash Wednesday, are paraded around the world as the country’s biggest piece of bait for international tourists.

Last year’s Carnaval attracted 4.9 million people to the Cidade Maravilhosa (“Marvellous City”, as the locals call Rio), according to the City Hall, including 400,000 foreigners – generating around R$1.2 billion – around US$740 million – and it’s big business for Brazil’s other cities, too.

The country’s increased presence in the world’s media – including in a number of movies, such as last year’s blockbuster animation Rio – and its ever more confident position on the world political stage all mean the world has never felt closer to Brazil.

And Brazil is investing a lot of money into making sure they still come, whatever the headlines say.

The result is that the country’s tourism industry is thriving; the fact that Brazil’s expanding middle class now have more money in their pockets means Brazil’s fledgling domestic industry is taking off in tandem with its international one.

Industry experts say this is leading to better standards across the board – and a world-class experience for tourists.

And although question marks still hang over parts of the country’s infrastructure, major improvements have been made in terms of security – particularly with Rio’s ongoing reclaiming of the remaining lawless, gang-ruled favelas, a process known as pacificação in Portuguese – mean few travellers have been put off, and most face their trip to Brazil with a sense of adventure.

And it’s this mentality, something that seems to be shared by a lot of tourists coming to Brazil, which keeps the crowds coming, and in growing numbers.

Travellers coming to Brazil are generally aware of what they’re letting themselves in for – and the country’s beaches, food, culture and general energy nearly always manage to trump any stories of Rio’s pickpockets or queues at the airports.

Of the estimated five million foreign visitors who came to Brazil last year, Argentina and the US top the list, but a growing number are coming from Europe – particularly from Spain, Italy, Germany, France and the UK – as Brazil becomes more and more accessible to global markets.