Rio de Janeiro sneaks up on you. Arriving from the airport, you might be in a southern European city. The motorways, the dockyards, the occasional crumbling colonial façade are all somehow familiar. Even the taxis mimic the colours of Athens cabs. But Rio has plenty of surprises to offer.
It’s the little details that stand out: the absurd pterodactyl silhouettes of the frigate birds circling high above, the brick-and-concrete cubism of the roadside favelas, the abundant verdancy of the distant hills. Crack the window and the humid air is scented with a floral perfume that’s distinctly eau de New World.
By the time you get to downtown Copacabana, the ethnic mix evident on the streets could only be Brazilian: that chaotic historical heritage of African slaves, indigenous Indians, Portuguese colonisers and the more recent influxes of European, Asian, and Middle Eastern immigrants. It’s high-rise district with its own population of around 160,000 – noisy, crowded and pulsing with traffic. Swarming supermarkets exhale cool, fruit-scented gusts.
The fabled Copacabana beach is reliably epic: that 4.5 kilometre swathe of pale sand vanishing into silhouettes and sea spray at each end. Cyclists, roller-bladers and joggers trace back and forth along the promenade, but these are seldom the buff, be-thonged beauties of Brazilian legend. They’re more often the eccentrics, the portly, the ruined and the aged. A Speedoed retiree with straggly grey hair hefts his surfboard through traffic. A woman the shape and colour of a mulberry muffin tests the strength of her bike frame.
Sugarloaf mountain rises at its eastern end of nearby Ipanema beach, where the vibe is more upmarket. Here, the high-rises are fenced and patrolled by bored-looking security guards. Gleaming exercise frames lure you to attempt some pull-ups and there’s a green-coconut stall every ten metres, where, for a few reais, you can watch the guy risk his fingers as he wields the hatchet. The water is supposed to be the world’s best hangover cure.
Further inland, Lagoa (the lagoon) offers a less hectic place to stroll, ride or jog the 7.5km path around the water. It’s an especially good place to watch people on Sundays when the sea-front roads are closed to traffic and the Cariocas come out to circulate around the Zona Sul.
There’s plenty to do and see in the city – certainly enough to fill two or three days – but one tourist attraction is unavoidable. The vast statue of Christ the Redeemer hovers ever-present on the Corcovado hill above the city, occasionally seeming to ride great cumulo-nimbus breakers, arms outspread: the holy surfer.
Take a tour bus up through protected forest to the top of Corcovado (the last part is via National Park bus) and you join hundreds of people competing to take a picture at the viewing platform overlooking Sugarloaf or posing with their arms outspread.
Above it all, the glistening soapstone Christ stands pale, serene and cloud-stroked –unbothered by the crowds.
Back down in the noise of the city, you shouldn’t miss the remarkable spectacle of the Selaron Steps straddling the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighbourhoods. This bizarre creation of Chilean artist Jorge Selaron was begun in 1990 as a tribute to the Brazilian people and comprises thousands of ceramic tiles affixed to what was once a simple concrete stairway. It’s a living artwork: exuberant, joyfully absurd and interactive.
Santa Teresa itself is a bohemian local neighbourhood on a hill overlooking the chaos of Copacabana. Crammed with artists’ studios, galleries, bars and restaurants, it has an old-world atmosphere enhanced by the few slowly-rotting colonial buildings. Weekends find it thick with smart locals spilling out of the bars onto the street. The place is apparently safe for tourists even after dark.
Yet the notorious favelas are always close: an estimated six hundred of them across the city, with a combined population of around eleven million. The largest, Rocinha, has 70,000 people and is a good example of how things are getting better. Ongoing implementation of Pacifying Police Units in all favelas has helped control crime. There are guided tours of some favelas, but it’s questionable whether they benefit the poor, or turn them into a tourist spectacle.
Sugarloaf mountain is another must-see, if only because it was the site of Roger Moore’s cable-car fight with Jaws in the Bond film Moonraker. They even have the actual 1970s bubble car on which the fight took place – a wonderful treat for movie fans. The views are, fantastic on a clear day – but only if you don’t mind sharing them with a few thousand other people.
When in Rio, eat like the locals do. Buffet restaurants, in which you pay according to the weight of food on your plate, are popular. These serve a huge range of fish, meat, vegetables and pasta – as well as some great fruit and desserts. A more traditional choice is the churrascarias, or grill houses, where you can eat some of the best Brazilian meats.
It’s a city like no other. You won’t have it to yourself, but that’s part of its charm.
Traditional Brazilian Buffet