Written in 1998 for Sky magazine
To anyone over thirty, Rio de Janeiro represents fantasy—a bossa-nova vision of tropical sea, eternal beach, and luxuriant mountains. Alone of the world's great cities, its chic status is wholly a product of the 20th century, aptly summed up in one Brazilian song of a girl, a man, a guitar, Ipanema. I went there fearing the worst: that Rio's physical glory would be no more, and that its severe, well-known poverty, with a corollary of street crime, made it a city impossible to enjoy and relax in. I was glad to be so wrong, to find Rio so much cleaner, greener, calmer, and more joyful than I expected, and to learn how much you could enjoy it even when the season wasn't carnaval.
Because so much of Rio life and culture revolves around its beaches, and the natural beauty of the place and its people, it’s easy for a visitor to overlook everything else. That said, if there is a more wondrous natural location for humans to live en masse, I do not know it. A succession of massive hills, crags, and upheavals, undulant and forested a thick green, stretch off into islets; ingenious landfill has completed the design. Water is everywhere. The colors are simple: blue sea, green mountains, and the white pillboxes of modern man that endlessly multiply. A giant interior lagoon gives the illusion that the entire city is a cutout laid on the sea, all lassoed by nearly fifty miles of beach.
Every great city has an energy of its own—and Rio’s does not resemble that of any other, for its denizens have a vibrant, unmatched genius for pleasure no matter what their circumstances. Beyond the outrageous splendor of the setting, you are first also struck by the glow and athleticism of the people. To say that cariocas (as Rio-dwellers are known) seem to spend all their free time at the beach misses the essential point, which is that they’re always doing something there, always in motion: playing volleyball, or sand soccer, or a horrendously difficult local specialty, foot-volleyball, which combines both. Walk along the hotel-lined Avenida Atlantica that follows the gentle arc of Copacabana Beach, and from dawn till past midnight you see men and women of all ages running, walking, doing yoga, exercising, or tossing a ball; kids are busy on their own bungee-swings and trampolines. The beach is Rio’s gym, its sports arena, and its savior—miraculous, that in a city of so much poverty there should be so many free pastimes granted by nature. No wonder the cariocas have such a finely developed sense of ironic humor.
The first thing every visitor should do is take the cable car up Sugarloaf, the higher of two adjacent peaks. It gives an immediate sense of how, edging up to a jungle like broccoli, the fortunate city has spread its many neighborhoods around the bays, beaches, and green pillars that stand like bodyguards for its bays. The cable car makes the ascent easy; for fourteen hours daily it carries you to Morro da Urca (705 feet) then up to Pao de Acucar (1,300 feet). Seen from miles away, the Christ statue on Corcovado peak pokes through the cloud layer, and Copacabana, the curving beach lined with big hotels that is Rio’s emblem, seems pristine amid the peace a vista imposes—especially at sunset, as the lights begin to twinkle and the view becomes surreal. That so many people are living amid such poetry lifts your heart.
The other essential expedition is up Corcovado, “The Hunchback,” by road or cogwheel train. From the granite mountain’s summit, at 2,300 feet, rises Christ the Redeemer, a hundred feet tall. The statue, a thousand graceful tons of him, floats into your gaze as you climb the sunlit steps; its genius is that first you see only his white-robed back, his outstretched arms; you cannot see his face until you reach the top and walk around the massive pedestal. This statue is with you constantly in Rio—tremendous arms embracing a swimming sky, his pose a gentle echo of crucifixion, turning his back on jungly hillsides to gather in his city of seven millions. He is a reminder of the Brazilian paradox: that as the largest Catholic country on earth, much of its cultural strength comes from the syncretism of its many other religions and beliefs.
Carnaval is the ultimate proof. Though it’s widely known as the time to be in Rio, there’s a lot to be said for visiting in the winter leading up to the great event instead. One reason is that the city’s youthful energy is increased because it’s the southern hemisphere’s summer—school holidays last from mid-December until after carnaval. Many cariocas say the New Year’s Eve celebrations are preferable and nearly as monumental. (This is the second largest open-air party in the world, after carnaval.) An enormous beach party stretches up the shore, with music, candles, and flowers thrown on the waves as offerings to Iemenja, goddess of the sea—a version of the Virgin Mary who’s Rio’s patron saint. Hovering over all are fireworks and laser displays off Sugarloaf and Corcovado.
For a winter visitor, the way to experience carnaval is to take part in a Rio samba “school”—though team or club is closer to the reality. Everyone in Brazil has loyalty to one samba school; each one here has about 4,000 cariocas. Each year, every samba school has its own colors and theme behind the inevitably graceful, incandescent dancing and singing, the legion of drummers and lavish costumes—its theme might be criticizing the government, or making an ecological statement, for example. When carnaval comes in mid-February, the sixteen samba schools (who’ve been practicing since August) compete by passing through the Sambodromo stadium.
An outsider can witness and take part in the samba schools’ rehearsals, usually Saturday but sometimes Friday and Sunday nights as well, starting around ten p.m. This will mean learning to undulate: cariocas like to see you joining in, not chickening out. (Three samba schools to try are Mangueira, Salgueiro, and Portela.)
Ultimately, the great idea and ideal Rio has given the world is of the beach as a place of physical as well as social chic. In most harbor cities the rich live on hillsides and the poor live below; in Rio the opposite is true, which testifies to the enduring allure of its sands. Physical beauty can also be a powerful class-crossing democratizer, and as a result Rio’s beaches have specific areas with the human display at its most competitive—based around seven women per man (the local legend goes), though contrary to repute the women rarely go topless. Rio has twenty-three beaches, stretching forty-five miles; a visitor should try several.
The craze for the city as a glamorous destination dates from the Thirties, built around the dual glow of carnaval and the beach life. Over the years Rio has kept spreading at such speed that yesterday’s wild, untouched beach is today’s big development. The most famous stretch, the three miles of Copacabana hotels, turns a sharp corner to Ipanema and Leblon, with their richer and more residential feel. At Sao Conrado there’s small Pepino beach; next comes Barra di Tijuca, eleven clean miles that at the moment are sprouting the condominiums of choice, though part is a protected ecological zone. Beyond it, Recreio is a gorgeous empty beach, with a few coconut-water shacks and real estate getting more expensive by the minute; at the end, Prainha is the beach for surfistas. After it, near the Pontal museum, is Grumari, almost virginal, where I saw old men fishing with poles for anchovies. It’s out here the old Rio exists, if you go far enough: the long ribbons of sand, quiet mile after mile narrowing and widening.
To make finding friends easier there are numbered lifeguard stations along each beach (on Ipanema the primo meeting-point is near Lifeguard Station #9). The absolutely chic spot is on Barra beach between kiosk #1 and #2 and especially around the snack bar Pepe’s, famous for its fruit juices and health food. Named after a champion surfer and hang-glider, over the years Pepe’s has become a meeting-point for the young, hip, beautiful people. Rocky islets add to the view. Here the beach is wide, the bikinis narrow; fierce volleyball games are under way. Both the men exercising, and the women striding up and back, up and back, seem equally competitive.
Rio is a vast city of articulated neighborhoods; the one where I’d happily move is hilly Santa Teresa. All tiny mansions, cobblestones, labyrinthine lanes, walled gardens, wheezing trams, and almost no concrete, it should be explored on foot. Its epicenter is the Bar do Arnaudo (a restaurant as well), frequented by celebrity exile Ronnie Biggs, leader of England’s 1963 Great Train Robbery.
A profound pleasure of this country is its coffee—readily available at about $1 a pound in any supermarket—and to seek out Rio’s best cafes is an admirable project if you find yourself, as I did, falling asleep on the beach. One of the most popular modern salons, as intimate as a large walk-in closet, is in Ipanema: the Armazem do Café, with thirty types of coffee, plenty of Cuban cigars, books celebrating the national drink, and a vivid wall-mural of a coffee plantation, circa 1830. (Ask for a cafezinho, a “little coffee”). Not far away, en route to the beach, is the Garota da Ipanema (“The Girl from Ipanema”) Bar, where the song was written in 1962 by Antonio Carlos Jobim and his friend, lyricist Vinicius de Morais, sitting there watching her go by.
Apart from coffee, the best deal in Rio is the city’s virtual uniform, the swimsuit. To cariocas they mean even more than T-shirts do to North Americans, and as a result they are available everywhere in a million designs and at bargain rates. Brazil may be the only country in the world where bikinis are priced not by the chic of the design but by the centimeters of fabric, for they are remarkably skimpy and inexpensive. This is only good news, as long as it’s Brazilians wearing them.
The venerable cafes from Rio’s deep past are all downtown. The oldest is the modest Casa Cave, which occupies a busy corner and is easily overlooked. Founded in 1790, rebuilt in 1920, it’s somewhat time-worn. Nearby, the Confeitaria Colombo is the most famous surviving 19th century café—a grand art-nouveau salon, with marble walls, tiled floors, belle-epoque lamps, and a stained glass ceiling. Lunch is its busiest time; traditionally the street was full of fashion boutiques, and the cafe (founded 1894) was where Rio’s high society came to relax. One octogenarian, a former cabinet minister, has visited daily for over fifty years.
An even more lavish luncheon cafe is the Cafe de Theatre, from 1909, on one side of the Teatro Municipal—done up in grandiose Assyrian style, with winged bulls with bearded heads, Oriental hanging lamps, muscular columns, gorgeous tilework; on the outside are mosaics of opera scenes. The theater itself is a copy in granite, marble, and bronze, of the Paris Opera. It stands at one end of the Avenida Rio Branco, the city’s 1905 version of the Champs-Elysees; that era’s one-hundred-fifteen classical buildings have over the decades been reduced to ten, victims of the postwar concrete boom.
What does remain from the colonial centuries is wonderful. (The Portuguese arrived in 1502; Brazil became independent in 1822.) Rio’s wealth was built on gold, sugarcane, and coffee, and the most evocative patch of Old Rio’s prosperity is off Praza Quinza—the intimate Arco do Teles. A late-18th century tract of townhouses and cobbled lanes, it now has chic renovated bars with live music and modern art galleries.
Other real treasures, mostly churches, have survived. The most impressive is the stone-towered Sao Bento Monastery, from 1630. Its interior is full extraordinary Portuguese baroque: a teeming, scrolled universe of wriggling gilded figures, walls, and altars, carved from jacaranda wood, all lit by stained glass whose colors seem ethereal against the dark gold everywhere. Another treasure is the Gloria, a sparse white church (1714) with well-preserved tiles of angels playing harps and the imperial Portuguese crown. Delicate painted ceilings portray the small church amid flowers on Rio’s hills.
And below Corcovado is the Largo do Boticario, a small square named after the royal druggist who settled here in 1831. Architecturally the seven townhouses in the big-stoned courtyard, shaded by enormous trees, represent an eclectic 19th century style: latticework balconies, massive doors, elaborate ironwork, and pink, yellow, green, and blue colonial-era tiles showing large parrots, Maltese crosses, and Dutch windmills.
Rio’s profound European heritage is most evident at the city’s many museums, which visitors often skip. Downtown are the exhaustive National History Museum and the National Museum of Fine Arts, with a huge collection of Brazilian art from the last two centuries. The Museum of the Republic, with a courtyard of royal palms, was in the 1860s a coffee planter’s lavish mansion and then the presidents’ palace for six decades. After one committed suicide in 1954 it became a museum devoted to the country’s history, with a healthy dose of self-criticism.
The Museum of Modern Art boasts changing contemporary exhibitions and sculptures by Brancusi, Rodin, Leger, Lipchitz, Giacometti, Arp, and Moore. The best modern art museum is the Chacara do Ceu, an industrialist’s personal collection that includes Dali, Monet, Picasso, Degas, Modigliani, Braque, Matisse, and the Brazilian master Portinari.
There’s even a museum devoted wholly to Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian singer-dancer who made it big in Hollywood (“Bananas is my business!”) in the 1940s. Here she’s become a saint of carnaval culture, especially among Rio’s transvestites. The museum is full of her trademark blue, red, yellow, and green umbrellas, her jewelry, her elaborate embroidered and fishnet costumes, her high platform shoes and complex gargantuan headdresses.
Two museums over a half hour’s drive from Copacabana might accompany a day’s beach expedition. The first is the estate of Roberto Burle Marx (1909-1994), the country’s preeminent landscape architect, who designed the wavery tiled sidewalks that are a symbol of Rio. On a former plantation, with its winding cobbled road, Marx’s garden is an organized jungle. Here he planted 250 species of palm trees alone, and designed a house incorporating diverse European, Brazilian, and African elements—his trademark.
A few miles farther out is my favorite, the Casa do Pontal. It is a nuisance to get to but not to be missed: the world’s largest collection of Brazilian folk art, in a country house set between the sea and an ecological preserve. Among 5,000 sculptures by over two hundred artists from all regions of Brazil, the majority are amazing small painted clay figures—musicians, street sweepers, medical operations, farmers, a levitating magician, skeletons and robots copulating, wrestlers, fishermen with nets, a soccer team, billiards players, knife swallowers, and an entire circus scene in mid-performance. The most stunning is a mechanized panorama of carnaval, showing two samba schools in high gear, complete with headdresses, teams of drummers, pell-mell crowds.
Rio lives not just for its beaches but for its nightlife. For dancing, El Turf is an elegant annex of Rio’s racing club, turned into a high-tech disco within a classical shell. Each marble table has the innovation of a self-service tap for draft beer, with a meter tallied by the waiter when you’re ready to go. The mood is gentle, like a New York club full of dancing young Brazilians who, from the neck down, could not possibly be Anglo-Saxons.
The national genius for music ranges in this century from the classical composer Heitor Villa-Lobos to the many genres of popular music which seem to be everywhere in this city. The best known outside Brazil, of course, is the bossa nova, which so hypnotized the world in the 1960s. A reliable spot to hear first-rate bossa is Chiko’s—a sleek, elegant club with a jungle of tropical plants behind the piano. Another is the renovated Banco do Brasil Cultural Center downtown, with several concert spaces.
Best of all, though, is to visit one of the samba clubs—like the Casa da Mae Joana, where I heard some of the most beautiful music of my life one breezy midnight; or Sobrenatural, up in Santa Teresa just near the Bar de Arnaudo. Of the big dance-halls, I preferred Estudantina Musical. (These places often don’t get going till midnight.) A tiny spot where you can hear great samba at dinnertime and get a good pizza is the Butiquim do Martinho, set improbably in a huge shopping mall.
No matter where you are, though, no matter what instruments, the magic seems the same: the glorious melodies unfurl, the lyrics follow in their soft Portuguese diction. These songs will always be Rio, and evoke the era when Rio was an ideal to the rest of the world. The 1950s and ’60s were its time; to hear that music is to dwell in the eternal Rio, that majestic beach of the soul between verdant mountains— the city which the sea folds in an endless embrace as Christ the Redeemer looks down on the beautiful men and women dancing and blesses them with a loving melody that time cannot silence, a melody that will go on as long as these things matter.