The City of Marvels
[published by the Hindustan Times, 24 April 2008]
Whether you’re seeking sandy beaches, samba parties or a spot of culture, you’re likely to find it in Rio de Janeiro, writes Kate Hodal…
If Rio de Janeiro were a star sign, it would, without a doubt, be a Scorpio. Passionate, enticing, sultry, bewildering and magnetic, the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City) has lured visitors for centuries to a geography unmatched anywhere else in the world. Rainforested hills bustle delicately up against white sandy beaches, streets are shaded by Tarzan-vine covered trees, the sweet perfumes of magnolia and passion fruit mingle in the air, pale blue skies contrast with the dark blue sea, and the curves of the city’s colonial buildings and pavements all create such an incredible mirage that even Darwin himself called Rio “more magnificent than anything any European has ever seen”.
Nowhere else in the world has as much fun – whether sitting on the beach drinking coconut water and soaking up the sun, dancing samba all night long with flip-flop footed revelers, or cheering along with madcap fans at Maracana football stadium – and because of that, Rio personifies a love for life that makes Cariocas (natives of the city) seem absolutely, but endearingly, crazy.
THE FLIP SIDE
Of course, like any good Scorpio, Rio can be just as furtive and edgy as it is gorgeously alluring. In a city of six million inhabitants, nearly one million of them live in the 700 favelas, or shantytowns, that dot the green hillsides. Violence has wracked the city in recent years as clashes between dwellers and police have hit record highs, and beggars on the tourist-rich streets of Copacabana and Ipanema have found that touting for dollars is a more lucrative business than any job in Brazil could offer - at least in the near future. But while the city might seem divided between haves and have-nots, Rio’s beaches are, perhaps, the one last vestige of democracy in a country that has battled dictatorships, political unrest and economic difficulty all in the past 25 years.
AT THE COPA, COPACABANA
But the best – and only – way to really experience Rio is to live it like a local.
And for a typical Carioca, the day starts with a morning jog along the beach from Leblon to Copacabana. Wearing the sexiest outfit that still allows you to sweat a bit, head down around the gentle curvature of Arpoador (the rocks where Ipanema becomes Copacabana), with the rising mountains of Dois Irmaos (Two Brothers) behind you. After soaking up the morning sun, head up Rua Belfort Roxo to Soprati, a juice bar that serves delicious acai (a deep red fruit known for its sexual and anti-oxidant prowess) and granola, or strawberry and milk smoothies. If you’re in the mood for a mid-morning snack, try carne com abacaxi, a pastrami and pineapple sandwich.
LIFE’S A BEACH
Head back into Ipanema for a quick dip in the sea – it’s gentlest and warmest at Arpoador – where you’ll see the throngs of beach revelers pouring down the streets onto the sand in little more than fio dental (“dental floss” – it’s what they call their itsy-bitsy bikinis). If you’re lucky, you might either be asked to douse a girl in suntan lotion, or be doused yourself: such social interactions keep the city’s community spirit alive. Hail a bus (see boxed guide for details) and get yourself into Cosme Velho, the city centre, where you’ll get on a cog train to chug through the verdant hills of Tijuca National Park to see Christ The Redeemer (Rua Cosme Velho 513), the 38-m high outstretched statue that looks out over the stunning city. On a clear day, you’ll see clear across town to football stadium Maracana and out toward the southerly beaches of Barra da Tijuca.
PARIS OF THE ATLANTIC
After taking in your fill of the sights, head back down to Centro, where you can wander the colonial streets, have your palm read among antiques markets and record shops and have a coffee and cake at Confeitaria Colombo (Rua Goncalves Dias 34), whose stained-glass windows, brocaded mirrors and old-world charm smacks of Rio’s past reputation as the Paris of South America.
If you’re in the mood for some modern-art inspiration, walk over to the Catedral Metropolitana (Av Republica do Chile 245), an enormous, concreted beehive built in 1976 to accommodate up to 20,000 worshippers. Its floor-length stained-glass windows and Aztec designs make it one of the oddest churches you might ever step inside in your life.
Catch the bonde (tram) up to Santa Teresa, long considered the Montmartre of the Tropics because of its tiny, cobbled streets and pastel-coloured mansions that sit crookedly on the jungled hills. Winding slowly up the hills of Rio, you’ll have a great view of the sea and Centro, but beware of pickpockets – the many surrounding favelas make Santa Teresa and its visitors an easy target for quick money. Once the tram has stopped, hop off and grab some lunch at Bar do Mineiro (Rua Paschoal Carlos Magno 99), whose Sepia prints of old Rio, feijoada (black bean and pork stew served with cale and white rice) and caipirinhas (cocktail of lime and sugar-cane rum) are a Carioca institution.
Walking off lunch by wandering through the art galleries in the narrow streets and up into Museu Chacara do Ceu (Rua Murtinho Nobre 93), the former mansion of an art patron, which still houses works by Matisse, Picasso and Dali, and is surrounded by gorgeous gardens and panoramic views of the glistening Guanabara Bay below. Taking the tram back down into town, head back into Ipanema in time to catch the sun set just behind Dois Irmaos, preferably with a coconut in hand at Arpoador – the water is said to cure anything from a headache to impotence!
Get ready for a dinner at another Carioca institution – Marius Carnes (Av Atlantica 290B) – this one a churrascaria with an absurdly insane interior decoration. Platters of roasted and grilled meats are brought to your table as you drink up chopp (draft beer) and caipirinhas and snack on the delicacies on the huge buffet table, side by side with Rio’s glamorous and beautiful.
DANCE LIKE NO ONE’S WATCHING
There’s no place better dance that all off than in Lapa, which turns into one giant block samba party at night. Local favourites are Carioca da Gema (Av Mem de Sa 79), a great place to dance with a hip-swinging Carioca, and Rio Scenarium (Rua do Lavradio 20), an old three-storey warehouse decked out in antiques, hanging plants and balconies that overlook a samba dance floor packed with dancers and the live band. If you’re still in the mood to dance after all that, you can catch a taxi up to Sugar Loaf, the granite mass of stone that rises up out of Guanabara Bay, which at night holds its Noites Cariocas, outside concerts that allow you to dance into the morning with the twinkling city of Rio beckoning you. Finally, catch the sun rise over Copacabana Beach, and ask yourself why it is that no one else in the world enjoys life like the Brazilians do.