As South America’s most recognisable city, known as cidade maravilhosa or the ‘marvellous city’, Rio de Janeiro promises big things.
By Chris Walker
I ventured into the spectacular city by bus, but I can only imagine the views on offer to those arriving by plane. The four-hour drive up the coast from the small beach town of Paraty was picturesque, twisting through forest landscapes and small towns overlooking beautiful bays. Eventually the forests gave way to cityscapes as we entered the outskirts of Rio, the second largest Brazilian city after nearby São Paulo.
Soon we spotted one of the city and continent’s most famous drawcards, the statue of Christ the Redeemer, proudly perched atop Corcovado Mountain. It looked small from so far away, but I would later learn just how gigantic the statue, one of the seven new wonders of the world, is.
It was clear within an hour or two of arriving that no city in the world sits on better real estate than Rio. Home to the largest urban forest in the world, high-rise buildings seem to protrude from the jungle. If that wasn’t enough it is surrounded by perfect blue bays and beaches, including the world famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. It is also known for the Carnival festival, Sugarloaf Mountain cable car, and the iconic Maracanã Stadium.
My wife Emily and I arrived in the city just a few weeks after the football World Cup final, and was preparing to host the 2016 Olympics. First on our list was a visit to Christ the Redeemer. The drive to the top of Corcovado Mountain took a surprisingly long time, considering our minibus driver weaved his way up the steep climb like he was in a car chase.
Once safely at the top the view was postcard perfect and Christ seemed to project a godly aura.
The statue itself stands 30m tall, boosted to 38m by the pedestal, while its arms stretch 28m wide. Constructed between 1922 and 1931 and recognised as the world’s largest Art Deco statue, it’s made of reinforced concrete and soapstone, tipping the scales at an impressive 635 tonnes.
On a perfect day, without a cloud in the sky, the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema were a perfect contrast of white sand and blue water. In front of the beaches Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a lagoon used by Rio locals to escape the busy city, looked equally inviting.
During the day the image of Christ overlooking Rio is majestic, at night the statue seemed to assume even more power, almost levitating like an angel lit by hundreds of lights. I found it peculiar that every light had its own on and off switch, but at least it gives someone a job for an hour at dawn and dusk every day.
Our home for 10 days in Rio was an apartment just a five-minute stroll from arguably the world’s most famous beach – Copacabana Beach. The owners, who rent out a room online, soon proved their worth, offering all sorts of valuable advice. Venturing out to work on our tans and take in the famous beach, there was something that immediately stood out. The beach was beautiful. The sand was bright white and the water a lovely blue.
But it wasn’t the beauty of the beach, or the colour of the sand that got my attention. It was the bikinis – if you could call them that. They had earned the nickname dental floss bikinis and it was a fair description. All women wore g-strings. Size or age was completely irrelevant. Young, old, skinny, large, huge – it didn’t matter. Most could not pull it off, but some did so in style. It was hard for me to focus on tanning. But there was not a single topless woman; all wore at least the dental floss. Very conservative I thought.
Along with the bikini drawcard the beach is different to beaches in Australia in other ways. For starters you can’t lie uninterrupted for more than a minute without someone trying to sell you something. The mobile sellers offer everything from water and soft drinks, to beer, sarongs, bikinis, shirts, dresses, sunglasses and sunscreen. One guy even carried around a little barbecue and cooked haloumi cheese, while others tried to sell prawn skewers, which didn’t sell well with tourists in the heat.
Rio offers some of the best fresh fruit and fresh juices in South America, or the world for that matter.
There is no need to splurge on expensive meals, simply find a corner café and you won’t be disappointed. As a general rule try to pick the places with plenty of people who don’t all look like tourists. One of those very popular spots is Santa Satisfação. Won over after our first visit, we became regular visitors to the bustling café, just a short stroll from Copacabana Beach. I couldn’t go past the ‘menu of the day’ option, where I tucked in to the best Caesar salad I’d ever tasted, followed by equally delicious pasta. You also can’t go wrong ordering anything combined with avocado.
There are plenty more gourmet options available all over the city as well. We had some great meals in Ipanema, where most knew how to cook a steak. One place we had a particularly enjoyable lunch was Barzin. It was also a good place to try a caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail. But be prepared. It only takes one of the powerful drinks to start feeling the effects. They are also available all over the city, and all over the country, just don’t let them add too much sugar.
Along with visiting the Christ the Redeemer statue, the other iconic landmark to visit in the city is Pão de Açúcar or Sugarloaf Mountain. Unfortunately we picked an extremely hot day to make the rather long walk from Copacabana to Leme and the foot of the mountain. But that was soon forgotten once we took the speedy cable car to the top of the first mountain, before a second cable car took us across to the peak of Sugarloaf.
Just like the outlook from Corcovado it offered 360 degrees of postcard perfect views. Below Guanabara Bay almost looked fake, so beautiful was the colour of the water. Then there was Botafogo Beach to the north and Copacabana to the south. In between the jungle landscape offered a bizarre contrast.
There are many other activities for tourists in Rio, including a visit to the favelas or slums, made famous in movies, but we decided against taking a guided tour into the shanty towns. It would have felt wrong to live it up in Rio and then go and spend a morning staring at those living in poverty.
With so much time dedicated to relaxing on beautiful beaches we didn’t quite make it to Maracanã Stadium, but for fans of the round ball game it is known as one of the most iconic football temples in the world. It was built for the 1950 World Cup, squeezing almost 200,000 people for the final. Today capacity is much less, at fewer than 80,000, but that still makes it Brazil’s largest stadium. Guided tours of the stadium, which was renovated for last year’s World Cup final, are available and include a visit to the locker room and access to the ramp the players use to access the field.
Our time in Rio had been memorable. We visited many of the tourist hotspots and each exceeded expectation, but we had also taken time to eat and drink great food, and relax and recharge. There is certainly something for every traveller in Rio, from those looking to party, to those looking to relax, and everyone in between.
It really is the marvellous city. •
Photography by Chris Walker
LAN Airlines and Qantas fly codeshare from Sydney to Santiago with connections to Rio de Janeiro: 1800-126-038; lan.com
When to Go
There is really no bad time to go to Rio. It’s still hot enough in winter to enjoy the beaches, though it can get very hot in the summer months. You may want to time your trip to coincide with Rio Carnival, which generally starts in February.
Where to Stay
• On a backpacker budget there are plenty of options to stay all over the beautiful city, though I recommend staying near the beach. Copacabana is quite close to many of Rio’s famous drawcards.
• At the other end of the scale is Copacabana Palace, and a long list of other luxury options.
• I’d recommend looking at an apartment sharing website, so you get to experience Rio with locals; airbnb.com
Where to Eat
• Santa Satisfação, near Copacabana Beach, at Avenida Ataulfo de Paiva, 1335-A – Leblon, Rio de Janeiro.
• Barzin, near Ipanema Beach, at R. Vinícius de Morães, 75 – Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro.
What to Do
In Rio there are endless options of activities. The must do sights include visiting Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado Mountain; taking the cable car to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain; and taking in the sun and sights on Copacabana Beach. You may also wish to visit the favelas or slums, made famous in movies. There is something for everyone in Rio; from those who want to relax, to those who want to party.