A Beginner’s Guide To Rio

February 21, 2012 by staff 

A Beginner’s Guide To Rio, “Brazil is not for beginners,” the late, great Brazilian composer Tom Jobim once quipped.  Nowhere does the remark hold more true than for the country’s pulsing, chaotic oceanfront metropolis, Rio de Janeiro.

This is a city of contrasts, where vastly different worlds rub shoulders, and the unexpected lies lurking around every corner.

Hang a right during an aimless stroll through the chic beachside neighborhoods of Ipanema or Copacabana, and you might just bump into a lush tropical forest. Hang a left, and the luxury condominiums could give way to a warren of brick and corrugated iron houses perched precariously on a rocky outcropping – a “favela,” or hillside slum.

It’s this proximity between rich and poor, city and nature that gives Rio its intensity. But it also makes navigation a challenge for first-time visitors. It’s even more difficult during Carnival season, which began this weekend, when city streets morph into rowdy block parties with tens of thousands of costumed revelers dancing to infectious samba beats.

Luckily, Rio is dotted with landmarks that allow you to easily find your bearings. Sugarloaf Hill, the awesome rocky outcropping that can be visited by aerial cable car, presides over Guanabara Bay in the east. The monumental statue Christ the Redeemer reaches toward the sea from his perch inside the dense Tijuca Forest in the heart of the city. A five-mile stretch of white sand marks Rio’s southern edge, home to the legendary Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon beaches.

Here, the beach is a way of life, and these iconic stretches of sand are the stage upon which Rio natives – known as Cariocas – play out their lives. Weekends draw huge crowds from across the class spectrum to swim, surf, sun, jog, picnic, gossip, frolic, flirt, stretch and strut.

During the Southern Hemisphere summer, January to March, the throngs are often so thick that towel-size real estate can be hard to come by. But persevere.

Between the tall, tan young and lovely girls from Ipanema, their muscle-bound, tattoo-covered male counterparts, the flocks of screaming children and steady stream of vendors, hawking everything from sunscreen to frozen slush made from Amazon berries, the action is not to be missed.

Theft has long been a problem on the beach, but the government’s recent takeover of some nearby slums – which pushed the drug lords who reigned there out – has improved security throughout the city, including the seaside.

Still, it’s best to leave all valuables – cell phone, camera, watch – at home and avoid drawing attention to yourself by dressing like the locals. Rest assured, while they don’t cover much up, Brazilian “sunga” or Speedo-style suits for men and “fio dental” string bikinis for women have a magical way of bringing out everyone’s best assets, whatever your body type.

No trip to the beach is complete without a stroll down Avenida Visconde de Piraja, Ipanema’s main drag – a sort of relaxed Fifth Avenue, where the dress code consists of bikinis, sarongs and flip-flops. Homegrown clothing lines abound, churning out pretty but pricey sundresses, short-shorts, pantsuits for the daring and, naturally, bikinis. Top Brazilian beachwear houses include Lenny, Salinas and Osklen.

If you haven’t had your fill of snacks on the beach, head to Bibi Sucos, which serves up a dizzying array of freshly squeezed exotic juices – jabuticaba, anyone? – and, with Brazil’s dizzily spiraling prices, is among Rio’s few remaining inexpensive pleasures. A more sophisticated meal can be had at Market, also on Visconde de Piraja, which serves up tasty, healthy alternatives to the “comida por quilo” self-service buffets that offer up meat in all its imaginable incarnations, paid by the weight.

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