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.