The Balance city of dreams guide to: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
As the second largest city of South America’s biggest nation, Rio de Janeiro is the most cosmopolitan metropolis in Brazil. With a population of around 200 million, Brazil is 35 times larger than the UK and Brazil’s sunniest, greenest city and the home to a warm, effervescent, youthful population (60% are aged under 29).
Brazil rubs shoulders with 10 vibrant neighbouring countries: French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, Venezuela, and Colombia to the north; Uruguay and Argentina to the south, and Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru to the west.
This location has peppered Brazil with a heady fusion of influences that are evident in its cultures, foods, traditions, festivals and ethnic mix. Rio de Janeiro’s music scene pulsates with a syncopated beat. Drum-heavy African slave rhythms merge with sultry, sassy salsa, hip-swinging mambo, calypso, down-and-dirty champeta, rumba, samba and the gritty grooves of reggaeton.
LIFE’S A BEACH
In Rio, the beach is the city’s playground, sports ground, picnic park, social gathering point, meeting place, bar and office all rolled into one. Daily life is centred on the sands: babies are taken to the beach at a few weeks old, grow up playing in the sand, hang out at the beach as teens, flirt as first romances blossom and lead to marriage and, in turn, produce a new generation of children on the beach.
From Rio, the coastal road traces seductive curves of the shoreline where soft white sands and outlying cays beg discovery. The Atlantic Ocean extends along the entire eastern side of Brazil, giving it a coastline of several thousand miles, earning it the name Rio de Janeiro (‘River of January’) by a Portuguese explorer who wrongly believed it to be freshwater.
Rio’s beaches make few concessions to visitors and remain authentically Brazilian. The bikini – a local invention – is celebrated in all its skimpy glory. Each year, Brazilian designers come up with a new style of bikini: the choice in Rio boutiques is mind-blowing.
In fact, shopping is big business. From street markets and modern malls to swish designer stalls and complexes that feature cinemas, restarants, bars and bowling allies, holiday makers and locals alike stock up on treats to take home.
FULL ON FLAVOURS
Once you’ve got the look, head to one of the many beach-front cocktail joints for a cool caipirinha, Brazil’s wonderfully zesty citrus drink made from lemon or lime and plenty of liquor (cachaça). Rio is also the home of the Brazilian national dish, feijoada: a huge plate of black beans, dried beef, bacon, salt cured pork and ribs, various types of sausages and a pig’s ear, tail and trotter, served with white rice, farofa (fried manioc flour), kale, sliced oranges and a truly fierce hot pepper sauce.
Coffee is another must-try or buy, especially the thimble-sized cafezinho (‘small coffee’), sold for pennies on the attractive broad thoroughfares, lined with French turn of the century-style architecture, in Rio’s historic core. During the many film festivals, literary events and musical extravaganzas, these characterful streets play host to open air performances and ritzy soirées.
Brazil’s most important ecological landscape feature, the mighty Amazon region, is within easy reach of the swish inner city. A fertile lowland basin, it’s packed with extraordinary pink freshwater dolphins, piranha, giant otters, anaconda, peccaries, jaguar, puma, over-sized anteaters and enormous crocodiles.
The serpent-shaped inky-black Amazon River, known as the ‘Lungs of the Earth’, supplies over half of the planet’s oxygen, and is home to 10% of the world’s 10 million living species. It and the surrounding tributories and lakes make up 154,440 square miles of magnificent vine-tangled landscape, home to 3,200 species of fish, 7,500 butterfly species, 1,800 species of birds, 800 insect species and almost 2,000 species of reptile and amphibian.
Giant blue butterflies and water lilies the size of tea-trays are just a couple of the highlights in this magical, surreal land. In a muddle of mangroves, forests of chattering monkeys compete with a zillion insects.
The city’s Galeão International Airportis still the main gateway to Brazil, linking to 2,500 small regional airports and 25 international destinations. Rio’s newly-extended air-conditioned subway system (Metro Rio) is safe and easy to use, with links to Metronibus or Metrô na Superficie, as well as Rapid Bus, a new system introduced to alleviate Olympic congestion. In preparation for the 2016 Olympics, new roads with transport links will reach out to the city’s outer limits. An impressive beautification project has created a spectacular circular waterfront setting, under the imposing gaze of the Christ the Redeemer statue, where the Olympic throngs will take in the incredible crimson and purple sunsets.
Thankfully, all of this recent development work hasn’t altered the character of Rio: the Carioca spirit, with its billion-watts of human energy, remains wholly intact.
MUST SEE/ DO
1. Shop for vintage artefacts
The cavernous Siqueira Campos mall is packed with antique shops, second-hand book stores and shops selling vintage clothes, records and art.
2. Visit the largest bay in the world
Guanabara Bay is dotted with gleaming sailboats and has jaw-dropping views out to 130 offshore islets. Arrange for a guide to take you from here to São Conrado to show you the extremes of Rio: elegant homes together with Brazil’s largest slums.
3. Live the island life
Just two hours by boat from the bustling city, Ilha Grande Island is a tropical paradise. There are no cars or roads, just plenty of opportunities to relax and reconnect with nature: hike, trek, snorkel. Or book into a yoga retreat, such as greenstonejourneys.com – a five-day eco-friendly wellness break.
CHARLIE’S TYRE-ING RIDE TO RIO
TV Presenter and triathlete, Charlie Webster, is cycling 3,000 miles from London to Rio for the Jane Tomlinson Appeal
What motivated you to take part in the challenge?
‘There are two reasons: one, to raise money; and two, to inspire people. The bike ride marks the 10-year anniversary of Jane Tomlinson, who left an inspiring legacy when she rode across the US to raise awareness for cancer services despite her six-month prognosis. I want to show that you can do anything you put your mind to. If you keep fighting and pushing you can do anything that you ever dreamed of.’
How have you prepared your body?
‘I did an Ironman Triathlon last July and I’ve done yoga and weight training through the winter. My job can be stressful, so power yoga helps release tension. Because I’ve been away for work, I haven’t had access to my bike so I’ve not managed the long rides I should’ve done!’
What are you most excited about for Rio?
‘The atmosphere. I’m planning to visit the Copacabana and Christ the Redeemer. I’m told that the Brazilian roads might be the hardest but cycling through Salvador and Brazil’s amazing villages will be incredible.’
What obstacles are you expecting?
‘I’m sure it will be really tough. People assume the exhaustion and tiredness will be most challenging, but I expect that sitting in the same position for a long time will be physically challenging, too. But life’s about pushing through discomfort.’
Will you get to see any Olympic events?
‘As much as I can – definitely the opening ceremony. I would love to see Mo Farah.’
What will the money raised go towards?
‘It goes towards children’s charities and cancer charities so that families can have respite, or so that children can have a joyful experience in their last months.’
Read more: The Balance city of dreams guide to Tokyo