Life is a beach
Everywhere you turn (well, almost), you will see water. A lagoon, a bay and, of course, the Atlantic Ocean. Which city can claim to have beaches that are responsible for inspiring a Grammy-winning hit and a sport that is destined for the Olympics? Ipanema and Copacabana are where everyone comes to play and be seen. From surfing to footvolley, both the sea and the sand have a lot to offer. As is the case anywhere, staring is rude. But, the dental-floss bikinis and sungas, a close male equivalent, make this a real challenge. Cool off with a tall glass of açaí, that looks like chocolate but tastes so much better, or with a quick dip in the gorgeous ocean. And, we haven’t even left the main districts yet. Further out and increasingly more pristine are Leblon, São Conrado and Barra da Tijuca, and the tranquil Urca, overlooking the bay, although not recommended for bathing.
The rhythm divine
Rio is known to throw the biggest party on earth, Carnaval, and from New Year’s Eve till the beginning of Lent, there is always a band playing somewhere. Each of the samba schools have their designated venues and rehearsals, which are in full swing and can be attended by paying a token fee. Off-season, head to Lapa almost any night of the week, and expect to find crowds gathered at street corners and outside bars, sipping on heady caipirinhas, swaying to chorinho (little lament; though, far less melancholic than the name suggests) under the iconic Lapa Arches. Bossa nova, that other musical wave to originate from Rio, can be heard in restaurants and bars that line the waterfront. If you’re in Rio on a Monday evening and have managed to befriend a Carioca, get them to take you to Pedra do Sal for some authentic samba beats. There is no sequence or glitter here, nor any of the other popular influences that make this genre commercial, just a ring of musicians playing traditional instruments and chanting to a distant and unadulterated melody. It’s also one of the best places in Rio to sample some Afro-Brazilian treats.
Eat by the kilo
Everywhere you go in Brazil, you can literally fill up your plate from a wide spread, go to a weighing scale at the cash counter and pay for how much you eat. Brazil has some of the best beef in the world and a churrascaria (barbecue) is a great place to sample some of the cuts. Meats come in all textures and from most parts of the animal’s anatomy, and the waiters keep coming around to serve you more before you can quickly subdue the burp from your previous helping. Brazil has some of the largest varieties of fruits to be found anywhere and these are best enjoyed fresh, in juices or as local favourites, such as guarana soda or açaí, both berries almost exclusively indigenous to Brazil. But, with so much to take in, it might be wise to just pick up a coxinha, resembling a soft layered chicken samosa, or a pão de queijo (cheese bread) from a street vendor or a bakery.
Temple of soccer
The scene of great drama, Estádio do Maracanã is where, in 1950, in the deciding game of the World Cup, the Brazilian side was brought to its knees in front of the highest attendance of any team-sport match on record. It was again, in 2014, when for the first time, a non-South American side lifted the cup in the Americas. Maracanã continues to host some of the most important international games, but a clash between two of the big four of Rio, namely Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo and Vasco, isn’t to be missed. Every game is like a mini carnival in the stands with its not-so-occasional outburst between charged fans.
It is difficult to narrow down on one happy place in Rio, but the Selarón steps is definitely high on the list. With more than 2000 colourful tiles from over 60 countries, India included, this was Jorge Selarón’s tribute to the Brazilians. The Chilean artist was as colourful as his creation, and he was adored by the Cariocas, who were in disbelief at the news of his sudden demise and still don’t concur with the authorities, who claim it was a suicide. Another mystery surrounding this enigmatic character is his favourite subject in his paintings, a pregnant African woman. Some speculate an old flame while others say it’s his alter ego. Up these stairs is Santa Teresa, the bohemian heart of the city. Nostalgia seeps through the winding streets, where up until recently, the iconic yellow streetcars plied. Cafes with great views, cobbled streets with art lining their walls and long-forgotten buildings converted into museums continue to help retain the charm of this neighbourhood.
High above Rio, the views are impressive from every vantage point you can find, like the dangerous thrill of viewing the world like a mafioso gangster atop a favela. Corcovado, crowned by the statue of Christ the Redeemer, is probably the most famous. If you want to ride the train up the mountain, you need to get there early. Another great spot to float above the city is up Sugarloaf Mountain. With the waves crashing below and a cable car to haul you to your destination, there is a certain magic to the place. The epic sunsets are a tourist trap that seems to attract all Brazilians, and not just the international gringo crowd. There are numerous other peaks, including Morro DoisIrmãos, the two brothers in Portuguese, that is a bit of trek uphill, but well worth the view. Of course, you might be extremely loaded and decide to take a helicopter ride over Rio or be extremely lucky and have your aircraft land at Santos Dumont Airport with a flight path that gives you a virtual tour from the air.
The birds and the bees
While London and New York may boast about their green spaces, no park, however large, can compare to an urban forest, considered to be among the largest in the world. Tijuca Forest has natural features with names such as the Fairy’s Lake, Waterfall of the Souls and Emperor’s Table. One of the many hikes leads to the delicately crafted Chinese pagoda, again with wonderful views of the city. But, if it’s pure adrenaline you’re after, head to the base of the cliff at Pedra Bonita and sign up for a tandem hang-gliding flight. Rio is one of the few places in the world where you can do this at such proximity to a major city, thanks to the perfect wind conditions. Don’t be surprised to have your instructor tell you, “Indians like to fly, but hate to run. So, run, run, run.” But, before the words have time to hit you, the wind does, and you’re hovering like a bird over hillsides and the Atlantic Ocean, touching down six minutes later on the soft golden sand below.
Exhilaration is a thirsty feeling and a cold beer at this point seems well deserved. My favourite Brazilian Portuguese song, Sérgio Mendes’s ‘Mas, que nada’ should be in the background at this point. After all, its lyrics roughly translate to ‘a samba like this is so good, you wouldn’t want to get to the end’.