From Rio’s Bay of Guanabara to the Bay of Sepetiba, to the west, there are approximately 90km of sandy beaches, including one of the world’s most famous – Copacabana. Rio’s identity is closely linked to its beaches, which shape the social life of all the city’s inhabitants, who use them for recreation and inspiration. For many, they provide a source of livelihood, and a sizeable service industry has developed around them, providing for the needs of those who regard the beach as a social environment.
Leme and Copacabana
Leme and Copacabana
Leme and Copacabana are different stretches of the same four-kilometre-long beach: Leme extends for 1km, between the Morro do Leme and Avenida Princesa Isabel, by the luxury hotel Le Meridien, from where Copacabana runs for a further 3km to the Forte de Copacabana. The fort, built to protect the entrance to Guanabara Bay, is open to the public and worth visiting for the impressive views towards Copacabana beach, rather than for the military hardware on display in the Museu Histórico do Exército; there’s also a branch of the excellent Confeitaria Colombo, popular with tourists and elderly wives of officers, which serves light meals, cold drinks, tea and cakes. Leme beach is slightly less packed than Copacabana and tends to attract families – avoid walking through the Túnel Novo from Botafogo, as it’s a favourite place for tourists to be relieved of their wallets. Copacabana is amazing, the over-the-top atmosphere apparent even in the mosaic pavements, designed by Burle Marx to represent images of rolling waves. The seafront is backed by a line of prestigious, high-rise hotels and luxury apartments that have sprung up since the 1940s, while a steady stream of noisy traffic patrols the two-lane Avenida Atlântica. Some fine examples of Art Deco architecture are scattered around the bairro, none more impressive than the Copacabana Palace Hotel on Avenida Atlântica, built in 1923 and considered one of Rio’s best hotels (see Copacabana and Leme). Families, friends and couples cover the sand – at weekends, it’s no easy matter to find space – the bars and restaurants along the avenue pulsate, and the busy Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana is lined with assorted stores, which – like the bairro in general – are in a state of decline, being pushed aside by the boutiques of trendy Ipanema and the shopping malls of the Zona Sul.
Copacabana is dominated to the east by Sugar Loaf mountain and circled by a line of hills that stretch out into the bay. A popular residential area, the bairro’s expansion has been restricted by the Morro de São João, which separates it from Botafogo and the Morro dos Cabritos, which forms a natural barrier to the west. Consequently, it’s one of the world’s most densely populated areas as well as a frenzy of sensual activity. Some say that Copacabana is past its prime, and certainly it’s not as exclusive as it once was. Even so, it’s still an enjoyable place to sit and watch the world go by, and at night on the floodlit beach, football is played into the early hours.
Of course, Copacabana hasn’t always been as it is today, and traces remain of the former fishing community that dominated the area until the first decades of the twentieth century. Each morning before dawn, the boats of the colônia de pescadores (the descendants of the fishermen) set sail from the Forte de Copacabana, returning to the beach by 8am to sell their fish across from the Sofitel hotel.
Arpoador, Ipanema and Leblon
Arpoador, Ipanema and Leblon
On the other side of the point from Forte de Copacabana, the lively waters off the Praia do Arpoador are popular with families and the elderly as the ocean here is slightly calmer than at Ipanema, which is a couple of kilometres away (Leblon lies thereafter). Much more tranquil than Copacabana, the beaches in these areas are stupendous, while the only bar/restaurant on the beachfront is Caneco, at the far end of Leblon – a good spot to aim for anyway, as you’ll enjoy a fine view towards Ipanema from here. As with Copacabana, Ipanema’s beach is unofficially divided according to the supposed interest of its users. Thus, the stretch of sand east from Rua Farme de Amoedo to Rua Teixeira de Melo around posto 8 is where gay men are concentrated, while the nearby posto 9 is where artists and intellectuals ponder life. On Sunday, the seafront roads – Avenida Vieira Souto in Ipanema and Avenida Delfim in Leblon – are closed to traffic, given over to strollers, skateboarders and rollerbladers.
Since the 1960s, Ipanema has developed a reputation as a fashion centre second to none in Latin America. Although many in São Paulo would dispute this, certainly the bairro is packed with bijou boutiques flogging the very best Brazilian names in fine threads. If you do go shopping here, go on a Friday and take in the large food and flower market on the Praça de Paz. For quality clothes, however, prices are quite high compared with their European or North American equivalents.
Instituto Moreira Salles
Instituto Moreira Salles
The Instituto Moreira Salles, at Rua Marquês de São Vicente 476 (Tues–Sun 1–8pm; t 21/3284-7400, w http://www.ims.com.br), is one of Rio’s most beautiful private cultural centres. Located in the former home of the Moreira Salles family (the owners of Unibanco, one of the country’s most important banks), the house, built in 1951, is one of the finest examples of modernist residential architecture in Brazil. Designed by the Brazilian architect Olavo Redig de Campos – with gardens landscaped by Roberto Burle Marx, who also contributed a tile mural alongside the terrace, the building has been open to the public since 1999. Important exhibitions of nineteenth- and twentieth-century painting and photography are staged and there’s a tearoom that serves light lunches, cakes and ice creams, and a good, but expensive (R$45 per person), high tea. It’s a good half-hour walk to the Instituto from the Jockey Club; alternatively, you can take bus #170 from Centro (Av. Rio Branco), Botafogo, Humaitá or Jardim Botânico, or #174 from Copacabana, Ipanema or Leblon.
Parque Nacional da Tijuca and Alta da Boa Vista
Parque Nacional da Tijuca and Alta da Boa Vista
When the Portuguese arrived, the area that is now the city of Rio was covered by dense green tropical forest. As the city grew, the trees were felled and the timber used in construction or for charcoal. However, if you look up from the streets of Zona Sul today, the mountains running southwest from the Corcovado are still covered with exuberant forest, the periphery of the Parque Nacional da Tijuca, which covers an area of approximately 120 square kilometres.
In the seventeenth century, the forests of Tijuca were cut down for their valuable hardwood and the trees replaced by sugar cane and, later, coffee plantations and small-scale agriculture. In the early nineteenth century, the city authorities became alarmed by a shortage of pure water and by landslides from the Tijuca slopes, and in 1857, a reafforestation project was initiated: by 1870, over 100,000 trees had been planted and the forest was reborn. Most of the seeds and cuttings that were planted were native to the region, and today the park serves as a remarkable example of the potential for the regeneration of the Mata Atlântica.
Following on from the success of the forest, fauna have gradually been reintroduced to the extent that it is once again the home of insects and reptiles, ocelots, howler monkeys, agoutis, three-toed sloths and other animals. Most successful of all has been the return of birdlife, making Tijuca a paradise for birdwatchers. At the same time, however, overstretched park rangers have been struggling to keep residents of the eight neighbouring favelas from hunting wildlife for food or for trade.
On the beach
On the beach
Rio’s beaches may attract hordes of tourists but they’re first and foremost the preserve of cariocas. Rich or poor, old or young, everybody descends on the beaches throughout the week, treating them simply as city parks. The beaches are divided into informal segments, each identified by postos (marker posts) assigned a number. In Copacabana and Ipanema in particular, gay men, families, beach-sport aficionados and even intellectuals claim specific segments, and it won’t take you long to identify a stretch of sand where you’ll feel comfortable.
Looking good is important on Rio’s beaches, and you’ll come across some pretty snappy seaside threads. Fashions change regularly, though, so if you’re really desperate to make your mark you should buy your swimsuits in Rio. Keep in mind that although women may wear the skimpiest of bikinis, going topless is completely unacceptable.
Maintaining an even tan and tight musculature is the principal occupation for most of Rio’s beachgoers. Joggers swarm up and down the pavements, bronzed types flex their muscles on parallel bars located at intervals along the beaches, and beach football on Copacabana is as strong a tradition as legend would have it. There’s lots of volleyball, too, as well as the ubiquitous batball, a kind of table tennis with a heavy ball, and without the table.
A lot of people make their living by plying food – sweets, nuts, ice cream – and beach equipment along the seashore, while dotted along the sand are makeshift canopies from which you can buy cold drinks. Like bars, most of these have a regular clientele and deliver a very efficient service. Coconut milk, côco verde, is sold everywhere, and is a brilliant hangover cure.
The water off many of the beaches can be dangerous. The seabed falls sharply away, the waves are strong, and currents can pull you down the beach. Mark your spot well before entering the water, or you’ll find yourself emerging from a paddle twenty or thirty metres from where you started – which, when the beaches are packed at weekends, can cause considerable problems when it comes to relocating your towel. Copacabana is particularly dangerous, even for strong swimmers. However, the beaches are well served by lifeguards, whose posts are marked by a white flag with a red cross; a red flag indicates that bathing is prohibited. Constant surveillance of the beachfronts from helicopters and support boats means that, if you do get into trouble, help should arrive quickly.
Pollution is another problem to bear in mind. Although much has been done in recent years to clean up Guanabara Bay, it is still not safe to swim in the water from Flamengo or Botafogo beaches. While the water beyond the bay at Copacabana and Ipanema is usually clean, there are times when it – and the beaches themselves – aren’t, especially following a prolonged period of heavy summer rain, when the city’s strained drainage system overflows with raw sewage.
Natural dangers aside, the beaches hold other unwelcome surprises. Giving your passport, money and valuables the chance of a suntan, rather than leaving them in the hotel safe, is madness. Take only the clothes and money you’ll need – it’s quite acceptable to use public transport while dressed for the beach.
Hang-gliding above Rio
Hang-gliding above Rio
For a bird’s-eye view of Rio’s beaches and forest, take off with an experienced pilot on a tandem hang-glider flight from the Pedra Bonita ramp on the western edge of the Parque Nacional da Tijuca, 520m above the beach at São Conrado. Depending on conditions, flights last between ten and thirty minutes, flying alongside the mountains and over the forest and ocean before landing on the beach at São Conrado.
The most experienced operator, Just Fly (t 21/2268-0565 or t 9985-7540, w http://www.justfly.com.br), offers flights daily (usually 10am–3pm) when weather permits, which includes pick-up and drop-off from your hotel. If reserving by phone or in person, mention the Rough Guide and you’ll receive a ten percent discount on the standard price of R$240.
In a low-wage economy, and with minimal social services, life is extremely difficult for the majority of Brazilians. During the last forty years, the rural poor have descended upon urban centres in search of a livelihood – often unable to find accommodation, or pay rent, they have established shantytowns, or favelas, on any available empty space, which in Rio usually means the slopes of the hills around which the city has grown.
Favelas start off as huddles of cardboard boxes and plastic sheeting, and slowly expand and transform: metal sheeting and bricks provide more solid shelters of often two or more storeys. Clinging to the sides of Rio’s hills, and glistening in the sun, they can from a distance appear not unlike a medieval Spanish hamlet, perched secure atop a mountain. It is, however, a spurious beauty. The favelas are creations of need, and their inhabitants are engaged in an immense daily struggle for survival, worsened by the prospect of landslides caused by heavy rains, which could tear their dwellings from their tenuous hold on precipitous inclines.
Life for some of Rio’s favela dwellers is slowly changing for the better, however. Bound together by their shared poverty and exclusion from effective citizenship, the favelados display a great resourcefulness and cooperative strength. Self-help initiatives – some of which are based around the escolas de samba that are mainly favela-based – have emerged, and the authorities are finally recognizing the legitimacy of favelas by promoting favela-bairro projects aimed at fully integrating them into city life. Private enterprise, too, is taking an interest as it becomes alert to the fact that the quarter of the city’s population that live in favelas represents a vast, untapped market.
Wandering into a favela does not, as many middle-class cariocas would have you believe, guarantee being robbed or murdered. Law and order is essentially in the hands of highly organized drugs gangs, but it’s simply not in their interest to create trouble for visitors, as this would only attract the attention of the police who normally stay clear of favelas. Alone, you’re liable to get lost and, as in any isolated spot, may run into opportunistic thieves, but if accompanied by a favela resident you’ll be perfectly safe and received with friendly curiosity. For the majority of people, however, the best option is to take a tour, with the most insightful and longest-established run by Marcelo Armstrong. Marcelo, who speaks excellent English, is widely known and respected in the favelas that are visited and has made a point of getting community approval. It is strongly advised to make your own arrangements with Marcelo rather than through a travel agent or hotel front desk, where you may end up with an inferior tour and be charged too much – some operators treat the favelas rather as they might an African game park, ferrying groups in open-topped camouflaged jeeps. But if you’re worried about voyeurism, you shouldn’t be: residents want outsiders to understand that favelas are not in fact terrifying and lawless ghettos, but inhabited by people as decent as anywhere else, eager to improve the local quality of life.
Marcelo’s highly responsible tours usually take in two favelas: Roçinha, Rio’s largest, with around 200,000 inhabitants, and Vila Canoas, much smaller, with some 3000 residents. Twice a day (9am & 2pm; R$65, part of which is donated to community projects in the favelas), tourists are picked up from their hotels or pre-arranged spots in the Zona Sul for the two-hour tour, which stops at lookout points, a day-care centre, a bar and other places of interest. Marcelo offers a fascinating commentary, pointing out the achievements of favelas and their inhabitants without romanticizing their lives. To reserve a place on a tour, call Marcelo on t 21/3322-2727, mobile t 9989-0074 or t 9772-1133, or for more information, check out w http://www.favelatour.com.br.