Dancing On The Sand
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
To say Rio de Janeiro is a city of extremes is both a cliché and an
understatement. It is a city of complete polar opposites: of great wealth and
grinding poverty, of great beauty and horrible squalor, of wild decadence and
The first thing you should do when you arrive in Rio is climb
the 710m Corcovado mountain to stand beneath the 100-foot statue of ‘Cristo
Redentor’ – Christ the Redeemer. The famous statue with its outspread arms
looks down upon the city, seeming to offer hope and forgiveness to the seven
million inhabitants below. Many of them need both. It’s a truly stunning view
over the city and the harbor. The top of the mountain can be reached by tram or
taxi, though it doesn’t officially open to the public until 8am, so admiring
the sunrise from here isn’t really practical. There are great vistas over the
city and Guanabara Bay, though, as well as a grand view of the famous Sugarloaf
The other thing you’ll notice on top of Corcovado is how the inhabitants of Rio
(or ‘cariocas’ as they call themselves) live cheek by jowl with a relatively
untamed nature. Many of the hills on which the city is built are still half
covered by forest, and low wooded ridges push through the heart of the city
right to the ocean. The Serra de Carioca range and the traditional centre of
the city at its eastern end divides the city, and marks the halfway point
between the two official halves of Rio – Zona Norte and Zona Sul. These north
and south zones are very different. In general, Zona Sul is home to the
better-off citizens and the most upmarket clubs, bars and restaurants. Zona
Norte is the industrial heart of the city and the home of working class
Really poor cariocas live in favelas – shantytowns – some of
which are right next door to the city’s most exclusive areas, Although Rio has
cleaned up its act in all sorts of ways since the bad days of the early 1990s,
poverty persists. Many residents of the shantytowns have little access to fresh
water and drainage.
The good news is that crime is decreasing. A decade or so ago
the ‘Marvelous City’, as its called in Brazil, was chiefly known for the
corruption of its police force, a high murder rate and the common nature of
petty crime. Thankfully, the crime figures are very much on the way down and
the city’s police force is cleaning up its act. As long as you stay in the main
tourist areas and are sensible about the way you carry your valuables you
should have few problems.
Wandering around you might find it hard to believe in the city’s
rough reputation. Most cariocas are exceptionally friendly and helpful. The
first language of Brazil is Portuguese, which few foreigners speak well.
However, if you speak Spanish you are in luck: Spanish and Portuguese are
pretty well mutually intelligible if the conversation takes place slowly –
though your interlocutor may find it easier to understand you than vice versa.
Brazil is, after all, surrounded by Spanish-speaking countries, and most young
urban Brazilians, exposed to Spanish-language TV and radio, understand Spanish
Rio is justifiably famous for its beaches. The most famous,
Copocabana and Ipanema, seem to go through a full life-cycle every day. Early
in the morning you will find joggers and dog-walkers; later on the warm sand
will become packed with locals and tourists, sunbathing, eating, working out,
listening to music. When the beaches quiten again in the late evening you can
often find clubbers lounging around, chilling out after an intensive session in
one the city’s legendary nightspots. They linger until six or seven in the
morning – when the joggers take over again.
The city and its beaches probably achieve the zenith of their wildness and
decadence every year with the city’s madly exotic Carnival, which takes place
in late February or early March, immediately before the Christian season of
Lent. In the southern hemisphere, of course, this time of year is high summer,
and the temperatures at midday can be very high. The celebration always lasts
for four days, starting on a Saturday and ending on Mardi Gras – ‘Fat Tuesday’.
The timing of the Carnival is controlled by making sure Carnival Sunday is
exactly seven weeks before Easter Sunday. Everything can get a little wild –
the streets fill with girls in bikinis and elaborate head dresses, drag queens,
bands, floats and all kinds of other weird entertainments. Carnival is the time
to catch Rio at its most excessive.
But then, Rio is always excessive. If you like to walk on the
wild side now and again, it could be the place for you.