Rio shouts “resort city” from our first glimpses as our taxi rolls along the street siding Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Sun, sand, sea, "dental floss," the local lingo for scanty bikinis!
After stowing our luggage in our hotel room, we hastily don our “fuller” bathing suits, and walk the length of Ipanema with its profusion of umbrellas and bronzing bodies. Further back from the water volleyball players show off their finesse, and beach shacks spill over with folks imbibing or snacking. We feel the vibes of "marvelous city," as it is known to the residents.
The next day we check out Copacabana under Sol’s brilliant rays, then it is back to Ipanema, but this time our mission is to stake out a spot for our rented umbrella and loungers…and to swelter in the glorious day as inert as granules of sand….ah, life is good!
I imagine the euphoria of the Portuguese explorers who first sailed into beautiful Guanabara Bay in January of 1502, and thinking it was a river, they named it Rio de Janeiro (River of January), which stuck. Early history was one of strife with the French who established a colony on an island in the bay, only to be expelled by the Portuguese after they set up a fortified town on the mainland.
This settlement became important due to sugar plantations and the slave trade, and later was a principal gold rush fever port. In 1763 Rio de Janeiro replaced Salvador as the colonial capital. Then, during the coffee boom, beginning in 1900, it became the gateway for the flood of European immigrants arriving to work the coffee plantations.
The news was out about Rio’s dazzling beaches, and during the 1920s and 1930s “Golden Age”, it became an exotic destination for international travellers. Albeit in 1960 the city of Brasilia was proclaimed the country’s capital, Rio remains the cultural and tourist capital.
A tour seems the most hassle-free and non-exertive way to visit the iconic sites of the city with Juliana, our guide and Gian, our driver. Okay, a wee bit of exertion is required to make our way from the tour bus to the escalators that rise to the top of Corcovado or Hunchback Mountain where Christ the Redeemer gazes out over Rio; named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Juliana doles out facts: “Built between 1922 and 1931, this art deco creation of concrete and soapstone stands 30m tall, not including the 8m base; arms stretching out 28m and weighing in at 635 metric tons.”
The limited space in front and around this gigantic statue is packed with people posing, cameras clicking; some “selfie” aficionado’s foolishly daring to stand on a ledge. Looking upward, the din around me dulls with the peaceful aura of this symbol of Christianity against the heavenly azure sky.
Next, it's Sugarloaf Mountain rising 396m on a peninsula that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean. The name Sugarloaf was coined in the 16th century for its shape, resembling the blocks of sugar placed in conical molds of clay to be transported by ship to trade destinations.
Cable cars bring us to the summit for a 360-degree view of city, forest terrain, bays and ocean below. The wide top deck area is equipped with seating and places to purchase (very expensive) snacks and drinks.
Our next stop is the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian; completed in 1976. Juliana says its pyramid-shape honours the Mayan ancestry of Brazil’s indigenous tribes.
“Now this is a cathedral!” I spurt out, too loudly, not expecting the resounding echo inside. My eyes take in the scope of stained glass windows soaring 64m from floor to ceiling, and the seating capacity for 5,000, and standing room for 20,000!
The 250 dazzling and dizzying Selarón Steps are next, with their adornment of 2,000 tiles collected from 60 countries around the world. In 1990 Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón began renovating the dilapidated steps in front of his house. Mocking neighbours only served to turn his whim into a full-blown obsession, completely covering the steps and sidewalls with tiles and mirrors. He sold his paintings to fund his work, scavenged tiles from construction sites, and accepted monetary donations and tiles from visitors as his work reached international acclaim. Sadly, on January 10, 2013, Selarón was mysteriously found dead on the very steps that fueled his passion.
It’s onward to see some sites that are synonymous with Brazilian culture. The country’s obsession with football, aka soccer, comes alive in the beautiful Maracana Stadium. This mega venue opened in 1950 to host the FIFA World Cup, in which, “Brazil beat Uruguay 2 to 1 in the deciding game,” Juliana boasts. In 2010 renos began in preparation for the 2014 World Cup. It will serve as a venue for the August 2016 Olympics.
Samba, Samba, Samba….our next stop is the Sambódromo. This African-rooted music and dance style, originating in Brazil, reaches its zenith in this venue annually in competitions between samba schools. This takes place in conjunction with “Rio Carnaval”, which draws national and international folks for riotous revelry in samba clubs, street parties and grand balls.
The Sambódromo, built in 1984, is a 13meter-wide and 700meter-long parade route where super-elaborate floats and costumed dancers strut their stuff under the critical eyes of judges and enjoyed by spectators in the 90,000-capacity grandstands. “See the shape of the arches behind the Sambódromo?” says Juliana, “they represent the buttocks of the dancers, whose skimpy costumes leave little to the imagination.”
It’s back to lazing around Ipanema for our last day in Rio - a grand experience of beautiful natural settings, great sites to explore, stunning beaches, friendly people with a zest for life…and Rick’s zeal for "dental floss."
Irene Butler is an award winning writer and author of
"Trekking the Globe with Mostly Gentle Footsteps" on Kindle. Her articles have appeared in national and international publications. She and her husband Rick explore the world for six or more months of every year.