Shelly, Jess and I flew to Rio de Janeiro where we met up with Rebecca, who decided to fly out from London for a holiday in Brazil and to help me celebrate my big birthday.

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We stayed at a hostel in Ipanema, a yuppy area in Rio and widely considered THE place to stay in. Ipanema beach is considered to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Rio.

We had fantastic weather on our first day there so we decided to visit Corcovado, a mountain in central Rio and home to the famous Christ the Redeemer statue.

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Whenever I think of Rio, the image that springs to mind is the statue of Jesus atop a lush mountain with the surrounding ocean so I was somewhat surprised when I finally got to see the statue. It is smaller than I anticipated.

The views however were pretty incredible.

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It is somewhat of a mission to get to the top of Corcovado.

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We caught a bus from Ipanema to just in front of the Corcovado railway, which runs from the bottom of the mountain to the viewing platform at the top. The area is swarming with tour agents offering bus rides to the top and we decided to go with this option.

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We paid 20 reials for a minibus which is supposed to include a stop at one vantage point to view the statue from afar and then take us up to the viewing platform.

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The sun and clear skies brought the tourists out in droves so we found ourselves queuing alot. Queuing to get entrance tickets, queuing for a transfer up to the viewing platform from the ticket office and queuing for a transfer back down to the entrance. What we didn’t need to spend time queuing for was the short walk up the steps to the statue.

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The views from the top were beautiful but we didn’t linger long as it was quite difficult to get photos without other people in them.

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Once we got back to the bottom, we told the lady who sold us the bus tickets that we weren’t taken to the first viewpoint.

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She encouraged us to grab some lunch from a cafe that her son works at after which she would organise for our driver to take us up again.

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We had to queue for a table, which should have given us some indication as to how long our food was going to take.

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At least there was a nice Alfresco dining area for us to sit and chat in for the next hour while we waited for our food.

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After about 45 minutes, our waiter came out to ask us what our order was. By then it was 2pm and we were very hungry and not in a forgiving mood.

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Rebecca and I ordered the same dish but mine came out 20 minutes later. When it finally did come out, my piece of meat was a third the size of hers and instead of being beef, it was chicken. Jess’s meal didn’t come out at all and when she asked what happened to it, our waiter told us ‘we ran out of chicken’. Well, it sure would have been nice to know that a little EARLIER!!!!

I queued up to pay with every intention of paying my bill but once I got to the till, something in me snapped and I had a ‘minor’ vent about how unhappy I was at the service and the meals.  My vent may have turned into something of a rant and to shut me up, they let me leave without paying for my meal.

To make matters worse, when we went back to the tour agent, she told us we had taken too long at lunch (at a restaurant that she recommended) and our driver had gone up the mountain already. I had a feeling she had been messing us around from the beginning and when she walked off in a hurry to look for someone, I suspected she may have been running away from us. Shelly and Jess were willing to give her the benefit of the doubt until the point where she hadn’t reappeared 30 minutes later.

We had to salvage the day with a visit to Big Nectar where we had some fresh fruit juice and Acai berry.

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Acai berry is a berry found in the Amazon that has one of the highest levels of antioxidants found in any type of food.  In Brazil, they serve it blended with crushed ice (like a granita), with added syrup and either banana or granola.

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On our way back we stopped by the Ipanema hippy markets for some souvenir shopping.

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The next day was my birthday! 16th May! It started off like any other day. The girls and I headed to Rio Sul shopping mall for some retail therapy.

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The Havaiianas shop was a beautiful store to behold.

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We went a little crazy in the store but figured we needed to stock up for the summer.

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Since they are a Brazilian brand, they have a wide range of designs and are cheaper than in the UK or Australia.

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For lunch, we ate at one of the ‘pay by weight’ restaurants that have taken Rio and Sao Paulo by storm.

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A good pay by weight restaurant should have plenty of choice for both meat lovers and vegetarians.

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Jess and I had the most expensive plates which proves that the two of us can certainly eat our weight in food!

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In the afternoon, we headed to the Rocinta Favela for a guided tour.

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Favela is the Portugese word for shanty town.

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In the late 18th century, the first settlements were called bairros africanos (African neighborhoods), and they were the place where former slaves with no land ownership and no options for work lived.

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In the 70′s, when people left the rural areas to move to the cities, they often couldn’t find a place to live and ended up in a favela.

In order to get to the favelas, we had to take local transport up into the slums.

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In all 30 years of my happy life, I had never been on a motorcycle and probably would have happily lived the next 3o years of my life not in the least bit inclined to ride on one. Unfortunately to get to the favela, I had to ride on the back of one.

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The ride up into the slums was certainly what some may call a joyride.  I rode on the back of a driver who I suspect purposely drove like a maniac as he derives some twisted pleasure in hearing unsuspecting tourists squeal. At one point he had to slow down and ask me to stop screaming in his ear.

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We wore no helmets. Jess, Rebecca and I had the added challenge of riding in a skirt. The drivers weave in and out among the traffic and pedestrians. My driver was speeding along and at one point, I found myself sending up a little prayer for someone up there to look out for me and not let me die or get hurt at the wee age of 30.

I tried to relax but obviously wasn’t doing a good job of it as my driver asked me not to hold on to his waist so hard. I figured if I was going to come off that him, I was bringing him down with me!

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We reunited at the top, some a little more frazzled than others.

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Once we were up there, our tour guide told us to follow him closely and not to take any photos of the drug dealers. We weren’t sure how to distinguish the drug dealers from other people but it turns out they were the ones carrying the machine guns around.

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The favelas tend to be ruled by the drug lords who have had regular shoot-outs with the police.

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Surprisingly, drug lords do maintain order in the favelas so that individual residents feel safe despite the record of violence.

Our tour guide said that the only time he would feel unsafe in the favela is if he saw the police.

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The last census results showed that approximately one million of Rio’s residents live in a favela. Favela tourism is viewed favourably by Favela residents as it draws attention to Rio’s underprivileged population.

It was for these reasons that we didn’t feel threatened or unsafe. We had kids performing for us using rubbish on the street as music instruments.

We paid a visit to the local bakery, where we easily bought enough to support the baker and his family for a month!

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My favourite was the dulce de leche doughnut.

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Despite knowing that I would be indulging at dinner time, I decided to go all about and enjoy my birthday treats as everyone knows that on your birthday, anything you eat doesn’t go straight to your hips.

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What was disheartening was the state of the favelas.

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There was so much rubbish on the streets, from old used nappies to food waste. While there are community volunteers who come around and collect the rubbish, it is a monumental task and the odds are against them.

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We were given the chance to see what everyday life is like for Rio’s poorest.

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It was both humbling and uplifting and it made us appreciate how fortunate we are.

We returned to our hostel to get ready for the evening festivities, only to find that we were being kicked out!

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The previous night, Ellen had a few bites on her leg and reported it to staff. She suspected it was bed bugs.

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The hostel owner decided we were the source, asked us to leave and oh so generously told us that we wouldn’t have to pay for that night’s stay (of which we hadn’t actually stayed yet).

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His decision caused a great furore as we had a dinner reservation and weren’t sure how quickly we were going to find another hostel.

Shelly, Jess, Margaret and Ellen tried to talk sense into them but after an hour of arguing with a very abrupt and rude staff member, we packed our belongings up and high tailed it out of there.

I found it all very exciting, even when the conversation got quite heated. Ellen was worried that she had inconvenienced us but really, she did us a big favour. We ended up at Ipanema Beach Hostel, a much nicer hostel that was a mere 2 minutes walk from the restaurant, 100 metres from Ipanema beach and generally much closer to the thick of things.

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We were ready and raring to go with 20 minutes to spare. My cuisine of choice for the evening was Japanese.

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Brazil has the largest Japanese population outside of Japan so it has a reputation for good Japanese food.

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Manekinero is supposedly one of the best, if not the best Japanese restaurant in Rio.

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The setting and service was excellent, as were the cocktails but I wouldn’t say the food was authentic Japanese food, more like Japanese fusion.

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I felt very lucky to have both old and new friends helping me celebrate the start of my thirties.

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Someone at dinner asked me if I felt anxious about turning 30.

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Perhaps I would have been if I hadn’t been happy with my life or if I had been sitting at my desk at work but it felt pretty wonderful.  I’m thankful for all I’ve seen and done up to this point.

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To top it off, the chef prepared a mouth watering brownie with vanilla ice cream for me.

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When I tasted it, I was sure it was the most delectable brownie I have ever had.

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It was a Monday so it was a fairly quiet night. We walked around until we found a bar that was actually open.

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The cocktails in Rio are seriously strong.

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While the ones we had that night tasted nice, they had to be at least twice as strong as cocktails back home.

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I had my third and fourth cocktail of the night plus a jagershot (thanks to Will and Shelly) and before long, was starting to feel the effects.

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The alcohol took its toll and I picked up my 30 year old body and headed back to the hostel at 1.30am.

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Early by anyone’s standards! Rebecca called it a night as well and we walked around the block a couple of times, for some fresh air and to catch up on each others lives as we hadn’t seen each other in 2.5 months.

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The next day, we made our way to Santa Teresa, an artistic and quaint district near the city. It was an overcast day so not the best for photos.

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We caught the tram up to the top of the district and walked around the area for an hour.

Once I was on the tram, I didn’t want to get off but the area isn’t very big.

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The main attraction in Santa Teresa is its little bars, boutiques and restaurants.

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Many of the residences are colonial buildings and you see a lot of art work painted on the side of the buildings.

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Another one of its main attractions are its mosaic steps.

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Known as the Escadaria Selaron, the steps are the work of Chilean born artist, Jorge Selaron who started painting the dilapidated steps as a side project.

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He painted them in the colours of the Brazilian flag as a tribute to the people of Brazil.

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The stairs gave us plenty of photo opportunities.

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In the morning, after saying farewell to Margaret and Ellen, we headed to Ilha Grande, an island off the Emerald coast with beautiful beaches and rainforest.

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We caught a 3 hour transfer to Angra Dos Reis and waited for a boat to take us to the island.

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The sun reappeared and things were looking up.

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The boat ride took just over an hour and felt fairly steady, despite the sea being quite rocky.

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Once on the island, we checked into our two bedroom, two bathroom private villa, completely self contained, including a washing machine and extensive book collection. Shelly had the brilliant idea of renting a private villa since there were 5 of us and it would work out cheaper than staying in a hostel.

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On our second day there, Jess, Rebecca and I followed one of the rainforest trails that took us from the centre Abacao to Lopes Mendez, reputedly the most beautiful beach on the island.

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We weren’t expecting a strenuous climb so it was quite surprisingly to find ourselves exerted.

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The forest provided us with plenty of shelter from the sun and that prevented us from overheating.

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None of us were wearing a watch, nor did we have our phones so we miscalculated how long we walked for and stopped at a beach that we thought was Lopes Mendez.

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We ate lunch there and sunbathed for an hour before being told by others seeking Lopes Mendez that we were only half way there.

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After backtracking to another beach that wasn’t Lopez Mendez, we finally picked up the right trail and took another hour and a half to finally get to Lopes Mendez only to have to hustle out of there to catch the last ferry back to Abacao.

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The next day, we followed a trail to another beach.

The trail took us past an aqueduct ruin and was a more scenic route than the previous day.

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I don’t know why I was taken by surprise yet again at the level of uphill and downhill walking we had to do.

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We reached a waterfall after an hour and a half, where we stopped for a snack and to refill our water bottles.

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Actually my attempt to refill a water bottle didn’t go so well. I was on a large wet rock and I found myself sliding down towards the pool.

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I wasn’t particularly bothered about getting wet though I did try and stop my fall. Alas, gravity took a hold and I went sliding into the water with a splash, laughing all the way until I realised (with horror) that I still had my camera slung around me.

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A quick thinking Brazilian tourist pulled my camera out of the water and told me to take the battery and memory card out in order to dry it, after which, he promptly pulled me out of the water.

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At the time, I wasn’t too upset as it was the tail end of my travels, my photos were all backed up, my memory card was still intact and it’s not the first time I’ve dropped something electronic in the water. After it dries completely, it usually tends to work.

I got the chance to dry it out when we sunbaked on the beach half an hour later.

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It was a relaxed and contented bunch who made their way back to Rio the next day. The sun was out in full force and we were able to catch some rays on the boat back.

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Back in Rio, we headed to Ipanema beach for a walk and to check out the local scene.

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Beach volleyball is a very popular activity and many of the Brazilian players don’t use their arms when playing.

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They use their head, chest or knees resulting in them looking very skilled.

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Rebecca, Jess and I went for a walk around Lagoon.

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We stopped briefly for a paddle ride in their duck boats but did such a poor job at navigating and getting anywhere that we spend most of the time sitting still and admiring the lights of Rio.

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That evening was Shelly’s last Saturday night so we headed to Lapa for a drink.

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Lapa is where the nightlife is though it was once an unsafe area.

Since the influx of bars, restaurants and food street stalls, Lapa attracts locals and tourists alike.

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Sunday was another beautiful day so Jess, Rebecca and I paid a visit to Sugar Loaf mountain, which supposedly has the best views of Rio.

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You can catch a cable car from the bottom of the mountain but we felt confident with all the walking we had done in the previous days so we chose to walk up the mountain to the second cable car stop.

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It started off easy enough. We walked from our hostel to the foot of the mountain and then walked up a gentle path, following all the runners and brisk walkers.

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After 1.5km, we came to a dead end and had to turn back! Turns out we missed the path up to the cable car. Well, to be honest, we saw the path but we saw how steep it was and decided that it couldn’t POSSIBLY be that way!

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Now we’ve realised if you have a choice between an easy or hard route, don’t waste your time with the easy route. You are just prolonging your suffering.

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What followed was a 30 – 45 min tough slog up to the cable car. It was so steep that I knew I wouldn’t be able to walk down without sitting on the ground first.

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The three of us were hot and sweaty by the time we reach the cable car entrance so we rewarded ourselves with………a super big Acai!!!

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It was all worth it in the end.

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The views were incredible and I preferred them to the views from Corcovado as there were less tourists and my view wasn’t obstructed by so high a wall.

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At that point, all I could think about was how lucky the people of Rio de Janeiro were to live in such a beautiful city.

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We hopped on the cable car to the top of Sugar Loaf mountain and stayed at the top for 30 mins to savour the view.

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As soon as we returned, we freshened up and headed out to a football game! We went to see Sao Paulo vs Rio de Janeiro. It was a relatively quiet game due in no small part to Paul McCartney who had his concert on the same night.

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We were buzzing with excitement before the game as we know Brazilians live and breathe football. It’s a way of life here and we expected to see a skilful game.

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While we had some decent drum and percussion playing throughout the game, it wasn’t too long before our attention started to wander.

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You may think it’s because we’re females who don’t appreciate football but really, it was just a dull game.

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The next morning, we said our goodbyes to Shelly, who was returning home after 4 months away. Thank you Shelly for being an awesome travel partner! See you back in Australia!

While Shelly was on a plane, the four remaining girls were saddling up to go hang gliding.

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Hang gliding is an activity I’ve wanted to do for a long time, with it being the last air borne extreme sport that I hadn’t tried yet.

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I emailed Jess and Rebecca while they were still in the UK and told them I wanted to jump off a mountain for my birthday.

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I knew Jess would definitely be up for it but was surprised and delighted when Rebecca said she wanted to as well.

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We had to wait quite some time for the wind conditions to be right. Rebecca and I headed up there first, hanging around the top for an hour before we could go.

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Unfortunately that hour was all Rebecca needed to psych and freak herself out. My flight instructor was a Brazilian called Juy who was an ex intellectual property lawyer turned psychologist who asked her to do some visualisation techniques where she imagined herself running off the mountain to give her grandmother a big hug.

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Let’s just say the visualisation techniques clearly don’t work for everyone. Still, Rebecca was able to overcome her fear and run off that mountain.

When my turn came, my instructor asked me to do a practice run with him so I did, yet we kept running and before I knew it we were sailing off the mountain.

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I was quite startled as I swear he said practice run and by the time I was ready to stop, it was too late. The weight of the hang glide was enough to keep me running.

I felt so serene and relaxed up there. They say hang gliding is the closest sensation you get to flying like a bird.

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Rio is a particular hotspot for hang gliding and I could see the reason while I was up there. It is a stunning city. Beautiful coastline, white beaches and forested mountains. Happy days!

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It ended all too soon. Due to wind conditions (or lack thereof), we were only airborne for 15 minutes. It wasn’t until we were down on the ground that one of the instructors told us that hang gliding is the second most dangerous extreme sport after alpine climbing. I was so glad he hadn’t mentioned that to Rebecca before she jumped! Hehehe woops!

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On my last day in Rio, we walked around Ipanema and Copacabana, admiring the views.

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In recent years, Ipanema beach has overtaken Copacabana beach as the most desirable one but on that day, I couldn’t see the reasons why.

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We finished off a beautiful day with shopping and a whole lot of eating.

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The restaurant we went to was recommended by Margaret and Ellen who went there on their last evening in Rio.

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We paid 45 reials (US equivalent) for a buffet meat grill and salad bar. The salad bar was really impressive. It had fresh cold salads, cooked vegetables, seafood, sushi and sashimi as well as things like risotto, paella and quiches.

As much as I would have liked to make frequent visits to the salad bar, Rebecca and I were overwhelmed by the meat on offer. We waddled out of there and I vowed not to make such a pig of myself again (I know you’ve all heard that before).

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Sadly, my South American adventure ends here.

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I’ve met some wonderful people and made some great memories that will long outlast the dent in my wallet.

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