The citizens of the fourteen-million-strong city of Rio de Janeiro call it the Cidade Marvilhosa – and there can’t be much argument about that. Although riven by inequality, Rio has great style. Its international renown is bolstered by a series of symbols that rank as some of the greatest landmarks in the world: the Corcovado mountain supporting the great statue of Christ the Redeemer; the rounded incline of the Sugar Loaf mountain, standing at the entrance to the bay; and the famous sweeps of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, probably the most notable lengths of sand on the planet. It’s a setting enhanced annually by the frenetic sensuality of Carnaval, an explosive celebration that – for many people – sums up Rio and its citizens, the cariocas. The major downside in a city given over to conspicuous consumption is the rapacious development that has engulfed Rio. As the rural poor, escaping drought and poverty in other regions of Brazil, swell Rio’s population, the city has been squeezed like a toothpaste tube between mountains and sea, pushing its human contents ever further out along the coast. Over the decades, much of the city’s rich architectural heritage has been whittled away, along with the destruction of much of its natural environment.
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Sitting on the southern shore of the magnificent Guanabara Bay, Rio has, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most stunning settings in the world. Extending for 20km along an alluvial strip, between an azure sea and forest-clad mountains, the city’s streets and buildings have been moulded around the foothills of the mountain range that provides its backdrop, while out in the bay there are many rocky islands fringed with white sand. The aerial views over Rio are breathtaking, and even the concrete skyscrapers that dominate the city’s skyline add to the attraction. As the former capital of Brazil and now its second largest city, Rio has a remarkable architectural heritage, some of the country’s best museums and galleries, superb restaurants and a vibrant nightlife – in addition to its legendary beaches. With so much to see and do, Rio can easily occupy a week and you may well find it difficult to drag yourself away.
The state of Rio de Janeiro, surrounding the city, is a fairly recent phenomenon, established in 1975 as a result of the amalgamation of Guanabara state and Rio city, the former federal capital. Fairly small by Brazilian standards, the state is both beautiful and accessible, with easy trips either northeast along the Costa do Sol or southwest along the Costa Verde, taking in unspoilt beaches, washed by a relatively unpolluted ocean. Inland routes make a welcome change from the sands, especially the trip to Petrópolis, a nineteenth-century mountain retreat for Rio’s rich.
Rio de Janeiro state
It’s easy to get out of Rio city, something you’ll probably want to do at some stage during your stay. The easiest trips are by ferry just across the bay to the Ilha de Paquetá – a car-free zone popular with locals – or to Niterói, whose Museu de Arte Contemporânea has become an essential sight for visitors to Rio. After that, the choice is a simple one: either head east along the Costa do Sol to Cabo Frio and Búzios, or west along the Costa Verde to Ilha Grande and Paraty; both coasts offer endless good beaches and little holiday towns, developed to varying degrees. Or strike off inland to Petrópolis and Teresópolis, where the mountainous interior provides a welcome, cool relief from the frenetic goings-on back in Rio.
Inter-urban buses fanning out to all points in the state make getting out of the city easy. If you plan on renting a car, this is as good a state as any to brave the traffic: the coasts are an easy drive from the city and stopping off at more remote beaches is simple; additionally, having your own wheels would let you get to grips with the extraordinary scenery up in the mountains.
Ilha de Paquetá
The ILHA DE PAQUETÁ is an island of one square kilometre in the north of Guanabara Bay, an easy day-trip that is very popular with cariocas at weekends. It was first occupied by the Portuguese in 1565 and later was a favourite resort of Dom João VI, who had the São Roque chapel built here in 1810. Nowadays, the island is almost entirely given over to tourism. About two thousand people live here, but at weekends that number is multiplied several times by visitors from the city, here for the tranquillity – the only motor vehicle allowed is an ambulance – and the beaches, which, sadly, are now heavily polluted. Still, the island makes a pleasant day’s excursion – with colonial-style buildings that retain a certain shabby charm – and the trip is an attraction in itself: if possible, time your return to catch the sunset over the city as you sail back. Weekdays are best if you want to avoid the crowds, or come in August for the wildly celebrated Festival de São Roque.
Inland: north to the mountains
Excellent bus services from Rio de Janeiro make the interior of the state easily accessible, and its mountainous wooded landscape and relatively cool climate are a pleasant contrast to the coastal heat. There’s not a great deal in the way of historical interest, but the scenic beauty of the countryside, studded with small towns still bearing their colonial heritage, is an attraction in itself.
Parque Nacional da Serra dos Órgãos
One of Brazil’s most beautiful mountain regions, the Parque Nacional da Serra dos Órgãos straddles an area of highland Atlantic rainforest between Petrópolis and Teresópolis. The main features of the park are dramatic rock formations that resemble rows of organ pipes (hence the range’s name), dominated by the towering Dedo de Deus (“God’s Finger”) peak. There are tremendous walking possibilities in the park, with the favourite peaks for those with mountain-goat tendencies being the Agulha do Diablo (2050m) and the Pedra do Sino (2263m); the latter has a path leading to the summit, a relatively easy three-hour trip (take refreshments). There are some campsites but no equipment for rent, so you’ll need to come prepared.
Approaching from Petrópolis, take one of the frequent buses to Corrêas (30min; R$3) and change to a #616 “Pinheiral” bus (hourly; 35min; R$3), which will leave you near the park entrance.
To many people, coffee and Rio de Janeiro are synonymous, a legacy of the nineteenth century when Brazil completely dominated the trade. But Rio’s coffee boom was actually short-lived, getting under way in the 1820s and collapsing suddenly in 1888 as a consequence of the abolition of slavery, on which plantation owners were completely dependent. Many of the more resourceful farmers migrated south to São Paulo to take advantage of Italian and other immigrant labour and the availability of fertile, well-watered land. Furthermore, single-crop farming on the hilly terrain of the Paraiba Valley had resulted in serious levels of soil erosion, while the felling of the forest to plant coffee bushes altered the climate, causing draught. The “coffee barons” either abandoned their fazendas (plantations) or looked for other uses of their land. Dairy farming was eventually found to work, and today almost all the land is given over to cattle grazing – the area, some 200km west of Petrópolis, is a peaceful backwater, with the evidence of the coffee boom most clearly apparent in the fazenda houses that are left standing in various states of repair.
With a few days and, ideally, a car, a visit to the Paraiba Valley can be fascinating. The area can be reached in two hours from Rio, and is a convenient stop-off if travelling between Petrópolis and Paraty, or other points on the coast. A particularly attractive place to make for is Rio das Flores, a sleepy little place dotted with grand fazenda houses, some right alongside the approach road to town, others hidden from view off side-roads. The tourist information office at Rua Cesar Nillares 120 can usually help with visiting these houses, and you can even stay in one, the Fazenda Santo Antônio, set amidst beautiful gardens some 22km southeast of town. The six guest rooms are either in the impeccably preserved casa grande, or plantation house, that dates back to 1842, or in the former senzala, or slave quarters, and there’s a pool and horses to ride. The helpful English-speaking owner and his wife can make arrangements for visits to neighbouring properties: the slightly run-down look of Fazenda Campos Eliseos, established in 1847, contrasts greatly with the beautifully preserved Fazenda Santa Justa, the detail of the period decor of the casa grande seemingly leaping from the pages of a coffee-table book.
The best time to visit Rio de Janeiro
The best time to visit both city and state, at least as far as the climate goes, is between May and August, when the region is cooled by trade winds, the temperature remains at around 22–32°C and the sky tends to be clear. Between December and March (the rainy season), it’s more humid, with the temperature hovering around 40°C; but even then it’s rarely as oppressive as it is in northern Brazil, and there’s a chance of blue sky for at least part of the day.
Staying safe in Rio de Janeiro
Although it sometimes seems that one half of Rio is constantly being robbed by the other, don’t let paranoia ruin your stay. It’s true that there is quite a lot of petty theft in Rio – pockets are picked and bags and cameras swiped – but use a little common sense and you’re unlikely to encounter problems. Most of the real violence affecting Rio is drug related and concentrated in the favelas. In addition, there are certain areas that should be avoided.
In Centro, contrary to popular belief, Sunday is not the best time to stroll around – the streets are usually empty, which means you can be more easily identified, stalked and robbed. The area around Praça Mauá, just to the north of Centro, should be avoided after nightfall, and even during the day care should be taken. In the Zona Sul’s Parque do Flamengo it’s also inadvisable to wander unaccompanied after nightfall. Similarly, tourists who choose to walk between Cosme Velho and the Corcovado have been subject to robbery and assault – both of which can be best avoided by taking the train. Copacabana ’s record has improved since the authorities started to floodlight the beach at night, but it’s still not a good idea to remain on the sand after sunset.
Much of historical Rio is concentrated in Centro, with pockets of interest, too, in the neighbouring Saúde and Lapa quarters of the city. You’ll find you can tour the centre fairly easily on foot, but bear in mind that lots of the old historical squares, streets and buildings disappeared in the twentieth century under a torrent of redevelopment, and fighting your way through the traffic – the reason many of the streets were widened in the first place – can be quite a daunting prospect.
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.
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
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, offers flights daily when weather permits, which includes pick-up and drop-off from your hotel.
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, 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. For more information, check out www.favelatour.com.br.
Instituto Moreira Salles
The Instituto Moreira Salles 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, 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
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.
Rio de Janeiro food and drink
As one of the world’s most exotic tourist resorts and with (for Brazil) a relatively large middle-class population, Rio is well served by restaurants offering a wide variety of cuisines – from traditional Brazilian to French and Japanese. In general, eating out in Rio is not cheap – and can, in fact, be very expensive – but there’s no shortage of low-priced places to grab a lunchtime meal, or just a snack and a drink. Cariocas generally dine late, and restaurants don’t start to fill up until after 9pm. Last orders are usually taken around midnight, but there are some places where you can get a meal well after 2am.
Rio de Janeiro nightlife and entertainment
The best way to find out what’s on and where in Rio is to consult Caderno B, a separate section of the Jornal do Brasil, which lists cinema, arts events and concerts; O Globo, too, details sporting and cultural goings-on in the city. Veja, Brazil’s answer to Newsweek, includes a weekly Rio supplement with news of local events; the magazine reaches the newsstands on Sunday. Regardless, you should never find yourself stuck: there’s no end of things to do come nightfall in a city whose name is synonymous with Carnaval, samba and jazz.
If you’re expecting Rio’s gay nightlife to rival San Francisco’s or Sydney’s, you may well be disappointed. In general, nightlife is pretty integrated, with gay men, lesbians and heterosexuals tending to share the same venues; apart from transvestites who hang out on street corners and are visible during Carnaval, the scene is unexpectedly discreet.
A good starting-point for an evening out is Rua Visconde Silva in Botafogo, which is lined with gay- and lesbian-oriented cafés, bars and restaurants that are liveliest on Friday and Saturday nights. The classic introduction to Rio’s more traditional male gay society is Le Ball, a bar in the Travessa Cristiano Lacorte, just off Rua Miguel Lemos, at the Ipanema end of Copacabana. Opposite this, the Teatro Brigitte Blair hosts a gay transvestite show from around 10pm. Also in Copacabana, the bar and nightclub Inc (formerly called Encontros), at Praça Serzedelo Correia 15, next to Rua Siquera Campos, is open nightly and very popular, although mainly with tourists.
In Lapa, at Rua Mem de Sá 25, behind a pink facade under the Aqueduto da Carioca, the Cabaré Casanova is Rio’s oldest and most interesting gay bar. In business since 1929, the Casanova features drag shows, lambada and samba music, with large ceiling fans to cool down the frenetic dancers. The most popular gay nightclub is undoubtedly Le Boy at Rua Raul Pompéia 102 in Copacabana, towards Ipanema. Based in a former cinema, this huge club is open nightly apart from Mondays and features dancefloors, drag shows and much more besides.
The strip of beach between Rua Farme de Amoedo and Rua Teixeira do Melo in Ipanema is the best-known daytime gay meeting-point. For Ipanema’s post-beach gay crowd, there’s Bofetada, a bar and café at Rua Farme de Amoedo 87. The beach area in front of the Copacabana Palace Hotel is also frequented by gay bathers, and the café next door, Maxims, is a fun gay place to hang out. Nearby on Avenida Atlântica at the junction with Rua Siqueira Campos, is the Gay Kiosk Rainbow, a summertime information point for gay visitors – ask about circuit parties, usually held in Centro.
For information about Rio’s gay balls, see the carnival in Rio de Janiero page. If it’s tours highlighting Rio’s gay history you’re after, Carlos Roquette, a rather dapper former federal judge turned tour guide, can help you to explore. Useful websites on gay and lesbian Rio include www.riogayguide.com and www.riogaylife.com, while www.arco-iris.org.br offers more political and campaigning insights, but the website is only in Portuguese.
Shopping in Rio de Janeiro
It’s not hard to find things to buy in Rio, but it’s surprisingly difficult to find much that’s distinctively Brazilian. Throughout the city are shops geared to tourists (most of which sell a similar line in semi precious stones, mounted piranha fish and T-shirts), but the best shopping area is undoubtedly Ipanema, with a wealth of boutiques lining Rua Visconde de Pirajá and its side streets. Books and CDs make good purchases – sales assistants in music stores are usually delighted to offer recommendations and you’ll be able to listen before you buy. Of Rio’s markets, the so-called Hippie Market in Ipanema has nowadays become very touristy; much better is the Babilônia Feira Hype in Gávea, the Mercado das Pulgas at Largo dos Guimarães in Ipanema, or the Feira de Antiguidades at Praça Santos. For arts, crafts and food from Brazil’s Northeast, there’s nowhere better than the Feira Nordestina in the Zona Norte.
Top image © Marcos Amend/Shutterstock