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Dancing On The Sand

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Corcovado Cristo Redentor – Christ the Redeemer 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 eerie calm.

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 Mountain.

Niteroi and Sugar Loaf 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 citizens.

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 well.

Rio Beach

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.

Sugar Loaf
Rio Sugar Loaf 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.

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