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Editor’s Note: While Rio’s pollution issues certainly raise many concerns, this story aims to explore the rich culture of the popular destination and its surrounding towns.
The beauty of Rio de Janeiro rises from the golden sand of Copacabana Beach to the foothold of the Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado Mountain, a scenic mixture of sprawling forests, high-rise buildings and coastline.
This is the backdrop of the 2016 Summer Olympics, where competitions will spread across four regions of the city: Barra da Tijuca, Deodoro, Copacabana and Maracana. The games offer a topical reason to book Rio, but the city has beckoned tourists for decades with an imperturbable vibe that permeates like the year-round sunshine.
Traffic and Olympics notwithstanding, Rio is a bucket-list destination.
Of course there is Carnival in February, but Rio has vibrant nightlife year-round. The Lapa neighborhood, in the center of the city, has dozens of nightclubs that offer music, from traditional to jazz to American pop. Then there’s Copacabana Beach, where the full-throttle types can join in on volleyball games, beach soccer and group workouts. Bar kiosks along the sand offer cerveja and stacks of fresh coconut.
(The Christ the Redeemer statue at Corcovado Mountain in the Tijuca Forest National Park overlooks the city of Rio.)
(One of South America’s premier luxury hotels, the historic Belmond Copacabana Palace.)
On our first night out in Rio, my wife and I took a 20-minute taxi ride from our hotel near Copacabana to Lapa to meet up with a friend who had lived in the U.S. for several years but returned to Rio, her birthplace. She graciously acted as our local guide for the weekend.
It was a Saturday night and the crowds were thick near the Arcos da Lapa. After a brief conversation, we started our bar hopping. Because there are so many options, most wait lines are short. Inside the three or four places we visited, we quickly found seats. Most of the venues were converted two-story residences, and had live music, spacious dance floors and a bar that served cocktails such as the capeta, which uses condensed milk, pineapple and cinnamon with cachaça or gin and porradinha, a simple mix of cachaça and soda.
(Many of the bars and nightlife venues in Arcos da Lapa are converted two-story residences that feature live music, dance floors and a never-ending flow of cocktails.)
The next day we would attend a friend’s wedding. It was held at a downtown church but the reception was at the historic Belmond Copacabana Palace, an iconic city landmark since it was built in the early ’20s. The Belmond, which overlooks Copacabana, is considered one of South America’s premier hotels and has hosted royalty, famous actors and other A-list celebrities from around the world, as evidenced by the black-and-white autographed photos that grace the walls leading to the large reception rooms.
Stepping into the hotel is like being transported to Monaco, where minimalist glamour and tuxedoed staff are at the bidding of the style-setting elite. We didn’t want the fairy-tale night to end, but at 3 in the morning, we walked the four blocks back to our hotel.
We ventured outside of the hotel daily to sample the local cuisine, which is easy to find in Rio. Fresh cheese bread as a pre-meal warm-up is as popular as the warm bread baskets in the U.S. Here, meat is king. Restaurants offering Rodízio, the endless parade of beef, chicken, pork and sausage, are everywhere. Feijoada, a bean stew, is a staple on most menus.
We encountered groups of people in street corner bars accompanied by guitarists in sing-along, pausing occasionally to sip ‘chope,’ the local term for draft beer, or nibble on delectable pasteis, crispy-crusted finger food filled with chicken, beef or cheese. In Rio’s south zone, not far from Corcovado Mountain, is the ‘Jardim Botânico,’ or Botanical Garden, an awe-inspiring 133-acre expanse of flora. Small turtles rest alongside water lilies near a grand walkway lined with towering palms.
(An example of the architecture in Paraty’s Historic Center, along Brazil’s Costa Verde.)
The Tijuca National Park is the largest urban forest in the world and contains a hang gliding launch site that overlooks the Leblon and Ipanema sections of the city. Unfortunately, or fortunately, we arrived at the site a little too late for a lesson and flight to the São Conrado beach below, but just observing the last flights of the day take off, and standing at the edge to appreciate the mixture of natural and man-made beauty, was well worth the drive up.
It’s worth planning a day trip or even an overnight stay at one of several coastal towns within a four-hour drive from Rio.
Búzios, a seaside resort about two and a half hours northeast of Rio, is at the top of that list, with a coastline that boasts more than 20 small, gorgeous beaches. Brigitte Bardot “discovered” this place in the 1960s, and other celebrities soon followed. Búzios is sometimes referred to as Brazil’s St. Tropez.
(The caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail, is made with cachaça, sugar and lime.)
The resort town features Rua das Pedras, a cobblestone street that runs through downtown and offers shops, restaurants, trendy bars and art galleries.
Our visit here included a sailing tour, the best way to take in all those picture-perfect beaches. Some tours offer complimentary caipirinhas, Brazil’s national cocktail, and drop anchor near the coast to allow patrons to go for a brief swim.
After sightseeing, we had dinner at an Argentinean restaurant. The neighboring country is known for producing scrumptious beef, and this place didn’t disappoint.
(The writer at the launch pad for paragliding and hang gliding atop Pedra Bonita in the São Conrado area, which is about a 30-minute drive south from Ipanema.)
We also headed south from Rio along the ‘Costa Verde.’ After a four-hour drive, we arrived at Paraty. Lush mountains give way to a quaint colonial center with centuries-old architecture and cobblestone streets. Whitewashed storefronts with doors painted in deep-sea blue or citrus orange tout impressive stocks of indigenous spirits. Vestiges of the coffee and sugarcane industry of decades past are still visible here.
The town lies about a foot below sea level and at high tides and full moons, the streets fill with ocean water. Ingeniously, the sidewalks and storefronts are elevated about a foot above the cobblestone so flooding isn’t a problem.
On our way back to Rio, we stopped in Angra dos Reis for lunch and sightseeing.
This fishing town’s coastline is sprinkled with multimillion-dollar vacation homes owned by the country’s elite. More than 350 islands dot the harbor.
(The small town of Paraty on Brazil’s Costa Verde features a colonial center with cobblestone streets and 17th- and 18th-century buildings.)
The Angra Fashion Dive Resort offers a reasonably priced slice of paradise. The hotel is small, with approximately two dozen beachfront apartments. Meals are served buffet-style, and we arrived early enough to snag an outside table overlooking the magnificent harbor. As the name of the establishment implies, diving is offered.
Rio is a place that will tug on you as your vacation wraps up. You’ll find yourself staring at the incredible natural scenery hoping that you can absorb it exactly as it is for future reference at home. My wife and I often found ourselves doing just that. Eight days in this spectacular city allowed us to see and do a lot, but as we sipped on our last chope at a downtown pizzeria on our final night, we started planning our next trip back.