To prove that glamour doesn’t need silk stockings and silver spoons, simply walk the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, where women in “dental floss” bikinis, who probably live in tiny apartments, exude the aura of elegance eluding anyone who has shopped Wal-Mart in a sweat suit.
Forget the miraculous ingredient in their lives that appears to deflect cellulite; magic happens to all who stroll the legendary beaches of Ipanema, even in your demure one-piece, or even those who slosh across the marble floors of the Copacabana Palace Hotel, dripping from the pool. Unlike any other city in the world, Rio elevates normal to phenomenal.
With its dramatic setting of jungle, mountain and beach, rich ethnic culture of music and dining, and the fun-loving cariocas (locals), this sunny city delights all five senses and seems to alert a few you may not even be aware of. An undertone of excitement electrifies the air, for both tourists and locals: Brazil has one of the lowest emigration rates. Once a carioca, always a carioca. So beware her charms.
As you arrive in Rio, the picture perfect harbor opens its arms wide to welcome you, revealing its brightest blue against bleached white sand. Look up, and another set of arms stretches out, the statue of Christ the Redeemer, the monumental art deco sculpture seen from virtually all of Rio. Sitting atop Corcovado (hunchback) Mountain, the statue can be reached by a train ride up the 2,300-foot (700 meters) slope to the 100-foot (30 meters) figure. Your reward is a 360-degree view of the city ahead and jungle behind.
Across the way another mountain juts straight up from the sea: Sugarloaf, shaped like an old sugar mold. A cable car rattles you up the mountain, which guards the Bay of Guanabara. The views display an artist’s palette, dabbling blue, white, brown and green in broad swaths.
One mountain was sacrificed to provide stones for an enormous public works project that extended the 45 miles (72 kilometers) of beaches, making all of them public. The stones encircle the beaches with colorful tile walkways.
The healthy Brazilian lifestyle means staying alert for those on a more determined pace than the average tourist. The tile walkways carry distinctive patterns indicating the different beaches such as Ipanema and Copacabana.
Stick to your familiar patterns, as Rio is a big city with a huge slum. Just like U.S. cities, there are good parts and bad parts, so stick to the good. And, even so, leave the big diamonds at home and make use of your hotel safe.
If the heat of the sand becomes oppressive, take to the nearby mountains and the world’s largest urban forest, a UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) reserve. A jeep ride through the Tijuca rainforest offers a peak at the original home of the Tamoios people. Every inch is crammed with life: flowering trees, orchids and monkeys carrying young on their backs.
Two hundred types of bromeliads bloom in the trees. A Morpho butterfly shatters the sky with high intensity blue. On your way down, stop in at the Burle Marx estate, former home of Brazil’s most famous landscape artist.
When night falls, enjoy a decadent meal of Brazilian barbeque, brought to your plate on large skewers and served until appetite death. Afterwards, there are plenty of opportunities to work it off. The rhythms of samba, bossa nova, choro, tango and Brazilian rock call the dancers to the floor, and dance they can, moving with Latin grace.
Don’t worry if you feel like Sasquatch lumbering across the floor; take another sip of your caipirihna, made from limes and sugar cane rum. As a testimony to the fun-loving Brazilians, their cacha?a ranks as the world’s third most consumed distilled beverage.
The Lido area in Copacabana is packed with clubs blaring out music. Rio has worked out many of the kinks of bar service; you get a number and pay all at the end of the night. “Rio Scenarium” and “Casa da Mae Joana” are two popular nightspots.
“The Girl from Ipanema,” just a teenager when the song was written, still walks by this ocean front neighborhood and often stops in the song’s namesake restaurant, which serves excellent drinks and a good bar food. (Her real name is Héloisa Pinheiro. In 1962 on her way home from school, she regularly passed the “Bar Veloso,” a sidewalk cafe in this fashionable district where composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and poet Vinicius de Moraes hung out and were inspired to write the melancholic tune about this beauty with long golden hair and bright green eyes.)
Within the nightclubs, friendly people share their joyful attitudes, even if you don’t speak Portuguese. This spirit of fun reaches its fullest expression during Carnival, their version of Mardi Gras, the pre-Lenten season.
For pageantry, Rio excels, even leaving New Orleans lagging behind. Fantastic parades with thousands of dancers compete in choreography and color, in feathered and sequined costumes.
These unusually beautiful people display their talent, legs and maybe even a little bit more. Many are mixed race, and African-American tourists experience an acceptance and comfort level they describe as unusual.
All this because of a happy accident. Rio was founded by a lost Portuguese explorer looking for India. Andre Convalves demonstrated his further confusion by mistaking the harbor for the mouth of a river, thus on New Year’s Day in 1502, it became the River of January, Rio de Janeiro. Januar was the two-headed Roman god who looked into both past and future and guarded the gateways of life. He was considered so lucky that his coins were carried faithfully in pockets. With its many treasures, Rio is indeed a place of good fortune.
IF YOU GO:
“Copacabana Palace Hotel” is the Grande Dame of Rio. Considered one of the best hotels in the world, there are two employees for every guest, and it is one of the few places I seriously considered talking them out of pillows and showerheads. Rooms start at US$ 320.
“Confeitaria Colombo” downtown refuses to modernize its 1894 interior, preserving its dashing elegance. It is an excellent example of Belle Époque decor within art nouveau architecture. Get the whole buffet for about US$ 21.
“Marius” on Leme Beach offers traditional “churrasco” barbeque Brazilian style. Everything from chicken to wild boar could end up on your plate, all of it sumptuous. An amazing dining experience for a flat fee of about US$ 25.
“Casa da Feijoada” in Ipanema is named for Brazil’s most traditional dish. Made of pork and black beans, it is a savory and filling dish first prepared by slaves. Try it with the farofa, stir-fried manioc flour. About US$ 13 for main course and sides.
“Barraca do Pepe” on Tijuca Beach, named for a famous local hang glider. Grab a sandwich and fruit drink and enjoy a famous people-watching spot.
“Rio Scenarium” on Rua do Lavradio combines food, drinks, history, antiques, junk and music into a thrilling mixture of high spirits. An eclectic and fun place to grab a bite, drink a few and dance into the night.
“Casa da Mae Joana” offers authentic Brazilian samba and choro music so well-known that favorite artists have cut CDs from the stage. Relax with a caipirinha or chopp drink and find yourself moving to Latin rhythms.
Crime has been a problem in Rio. Although the situation has gotten better (the city created a tourist police force to help with the problem), it still helps to be aware. Crimes against tourists tend to be near hotels, bars, nightclubs and areas adjacent to all main beaches. Use common sense; don’t walk along at night.
Varig Airlines has been flying out of the U.S. since 1955. The flight to Miami goes directly to Sao Paulo and on to Rio. You can get round trip fares as low as US$ 462.
Check visa requirements at your local Brazilian consulate. Americans, Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders all need visas to enter the country. Currently, Americans pay around US$ 100 for a visa to Brazil. An application is available online, but it’s better to use your travel agent. Beware- forms must be filled out perfectly and applications take time.
Rio Convention Bureau