From the dark green of the forested hills and tree-lined avenues, to the soft creamy beaches sliding beneath the vivid blue waves of the Atlantic Ocean, the many shades and hues of Rio de Janeiro are captivating. There is a unique energy derived from the ceaseless activity and the incessant sunshine. Youngsters play soccer on the sand with astounding skill; beautiful girls with bronzed skin and tiny bikinis ignore the vendors selling colourful pareos; tourists queue at kiosks for caipirinhas; and music spills from every doorway. 🥁
We’ve flown to Rio for a week, a spontaneous impulse brought on by my brother Colin, casually saying, “Hey, why don’t you come to Rio with us!”. And as we approach the famous Copacabana we are instantly so glad to be there!
We’d taken advantage of a too-good-to-be-true package and after being met by Susanna and Eduardo of Red Carpet Tours and being besieged by their sales pitch (supported by a handwritten ‘menu’ of excursions 🙄) all the way to our hotel, we were worried that we’d made a bad decision. We were soon congratulating ourselves that this thankfully wasn’t the case when we arrived at our ideally appointed Excelsior hotel on avenue Atlântica, located on the famous Copacabana promenade with its iconic geometric-wave paving. The Excelsior offered a private pool deck with outstanding views along the scallop-shaped 4km beach, providing refuge from the cariocas (Rio residents), street vendors and tourists.
After a sumptuous breakfast at our hotel, Colin, Nicky, Geoff and I ventured out onto the promenade. It was hot and humid although only about 28 degrees C. There were lots of people about, jogging, cycling and walking, mostly wearing very little clothing.
Avenue Atlântica has triple carriage lanes in both directions and as it was a Sunday, one side was closed for pedestrian use only. Locals were playing volley ball on the beach and there were plenty of little kiosks selling snacks and of course caipirinhas packed with crushed lime.
We walked from Copacabana towards Ipanema, roughly about 4 or 5 km. We passed a hippie market and made use of the water mist sprayers to keep cool . The word Ipanema is an indigenous word for ‘bad, dangerous waters,’ which comes from the strong undertow and often oversized waves that crash onto the shore despite its deceptively serene appearance.
Soon it was time for our first caipirinha. The Caipirinha is Brazil’s national cocktail. Cachaça, hard liquor distilled from sugarcane, is blended with sugar and lime to create this thirst-quenching drink.
By some accounts it was first created to combat the Spanish flu, and the name originates from the word caipira, or “hillbilly.” We noticed immediately that the Brazilian vendors don’t try to cheat you. The alcohol was more than generous and we had to dilute our drinks with aqua minerale (com gas) which made it all the more refreshing.🍹
We’d taken the plunge and booked a city and Sugar Loaf tour through our hotel. After a quick shower we were whisked off by BTR (Best Tours in Rio).
The city tour took us past Rio’s Maracanã stadium, which is hallowed ground among football lovers and apparently the largest soccer stadium in the world. A game was about to start and it was unbelievable watching the fans gathering in droves. No matter who takes the field, the 78,800-seat arena comes to life in spectacular fashion on game days. ⚽️
Next stop was the Sambadrome Marquês de Sapucaí which is a purpose-built parade arena used for the Rio Carnival or Carnaval as it’s known locally. The sambadrome is lined with grandstand seats for viewing the parades and floats. This festival is held every year before Lent and considered the biggest carnival in the world with two million people per day on the streets. The first carnaval festival took place in 1723. 🎡
Our guides took us to visit the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian designed by Edgar de Oliveira da Fonseca in an architectural style based on Mayan Pyramids. The overall height is 75 metres. Inside, the area measures 8,000 square meters and seats 5,000. It also has a standing-room capacity of 20,000 people 😲. The cathedral has four striking stained glass windows that soar 64 metres from floor to ceiling.
Driving towards SugarLoaf mountain (Pão de Açúcar) was amazing. Beautifully winding bays, endless water and hundreds of yachts at anchor in the harbour.
Seen from the peak of Pão de Açúcar, Rio is undoubtedly a Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvellous City). Sunset seemed like a brilliant time to make the ascent. Two cable cars connect to the summit, 395m above Rio. At the top, the city unfolds beneath you, with Corcovado mountain and the dramatic Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) off to the west, and Copacabana Beach to the south.
The first cable car ascends 215m to Morro da Urca. From here, you can see Baía de Guanabara and the winding coastline; on the ocean side of the mountain is Praia Vermelha. We could’ve stayed here for hours, walking about and taking pictures.The second cable car goes up to Pão de Açúcar. Apparently this is the site for some scenes in the 1979 James Bond film, Moonraker. The view across to the statue of Christ perched above the city was breathtaking. Taking in the bays, the inlets, the nestling city buildings, the lakes and the beaches, Geoff and I declared it the most beautiful city we’ve ever seen!
A delicious meal back at our hotel accompanied by an outstanding Brazilian red wine and we were exhausted and ready for bed!
Monday morning was somewhat overcast but we were ready to head off to Corcovado to see the famous statue of Christ the Reedemer. We took a taxi to Rua Cosmo Velho, the point where you catch the train. Driving through the city one catches enticing glimpses of the statue rising above the clouds.
The narrow-gauge red train departs every 30 minutes and takes approximately 20 minutes to reach the top through a very steep, almost scary ascent surrounded by tropical rainforest. Standing atop Corcovado (which means ‘hunchback’), Cristo Redentor gazes out over Rio, a serene expression on his chiselled face. The mountain rises straight up from the city to 710m, and at night the brightly lit 38m-high statue – all 1145 tons of him – is visible from nearly every part of the city. There were additional steps to climb and it was surreal to see the statue rising majestically out of the clouds. Admiring the view below was difficult as it was a bit hazy. We enjoyed an obligatory caipirinha at a small café before making our way down again in the train. One of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and built in 1931, it’s become the cultural icon for both Rio and Brazil.
We negotiated with a taxi driver to take us to Floresta de Tijuca. The Tijuca is all that’s left of the Atlantic rainforest that once surrounded Rio de Janeiro. This national park and tropical-jungle preserve is an exuberant green, with beautiful trees, creeks and waterfalls, mountainous terrain and high peaks. It has an excellent, well-marked trail system.Among the highlights are several waterfalls, a 19th-century chapel (Capela Mayrink) and numerous caves 🌲. Of course it started to rain as soon as we were dropped off by our taxi, but amazingly, because the roof of the forest is so dense, we barely got wet. We took a short hike around the area, but really didn’t do it justice. We strolled down to the village square and got a taxi back to Copacabana.
We were starving by now and found a delicious pizza place called ‘Top Beer’ (go figure) on the main promenade and were able to watch people and the sunset over the beach while we got stuck into our caipirinhas and outstanding prawn pizzas. Afterwards we took a stroll back to our hotel. We were asleep by 19h30 only to be awoken an hour later by a persistent Susanna wanting to know why we hadn’t yet booked one of her tours.
On Tuesday, it was a touch overcast and a shopping day was called for. Our hotel directed us to a modern shopping mall called Barra. Prices were reasonable and we bought shoes, CD’s and clothes.’
On the way we passed the famous slum neighborhoods known as favelas. Although favelas are found in urban areas throughout Brazil, many of the more famous ones exist in Rio. They consist of mainly low and some middle-income families, and are unregulated neighborhoods. We marveled at the wonderful views they had from the mountain slope until our guide explained that favelas which are situated on hillsides are often at risk from flooding and landslides.
In the evening we had booked for a package samba show and Rodízio dinner. Brazil is a country full of meat-lovers and prides itself on its churrascarias. A type of all-you-can eat steakhouse, or rodízio, churrascarias are characterized by their attentive waiting staff, who circle the room offering cuts of meat to hungry diners. It was far too touristy for us to enjoy fully as it was a bit busy and rushed and the guides were determined that we’d be on time for our show in Leblon.
The show was great. Colourful, extravagant costumes and some excellent acrobatics. We squirmed a bit when the MC invited the various nationalities from the audience to come on stage and sing a folk song. It seemed very successful for Germany and Korea, but we had no clue what we’d sing and luckily saved ourselves and our countrymen much embarrassment when South Africans weren’t prevailed upon.
Wednesday was beautiful and sunny. The Excelsior has its own roped off zone on the beach so we decided it was a good day for relaxing in deck chairs. Although the sea looked calm, there were some major dumpers!
In the afternoon we headed off by taxi to the heliport at Lagoa. We were taken on an amazing adventure around the greater Rio area, where we could admire the exquisite scenery and sweep like eagles over the city and the ocean.
It was late afternoon and we had a craving for prawn pizzas and caipirinhas from ‘Top Beer’ again. We were greeted like regulars by Paulo, the maitre’d and we set in for an hilarious session with much laughter and crazy antics including negotiating bandannas from a passing tradesman. Paulo brought us complimentary Cachaça shots. Made from fermented sugarcane and the key ingredient in caipirinhas, it tasted horrendous. 🤮
On Thursday we visited the renowned H. Stern, a luxury jewelry store. The company was founded in Brazil in 1945. H.Stern specializes in precious stones and designer jewelry 💍. We were taken on a tour of the jewelry and stone manufacturing process. I was taken with a gorgeous aquamarine ring set in platinum and was also tempted by a ruby ring so was forced to persuade Geoff that I needed a very early birthday gift!
For lunch we had traditional prawn rissois and frango (chicken) pies. We were entertained by local street musicians with a cool bossa nova beat.
For that evening we had booked at the famous Marius seafood restaurant. 🦞 Unapologetically touristy, it is a huge nautical-themed restaurant with a big buffet for entreés and a groaning dessert table. Nautical decor and other memorabilia such as the racing helmet belonging to Ayrton Senna are artfully placed. This was also Rodízio-style and the waiters kept bringing prawns, lobster, calamari and fish until we couldn’t eat another thing! Of course we managed to find room for the puddings, pastries and chocolates too. Back at our hotel we wallowed in the pool to cool down before bed.
Friday was a perfect day and we opted for a boat trip that Colin had suggested. We took a taxi to Marina da Glória, Rio de Janeiro’s gateway to the sea. We chartered our own speedboat and our skipper took as all the way around the base of sugarloaf and along the coast of Ipanema and Copacabana. Later he took us out to one of the many islands and we were delighted to pass beside a school of dolphins . We anchored and were allowed to jump into the cool sea. Colin and Geoff swam to the island but the prolific barnacles had them returning rather swiftly. We had a pleasant shower on the back of the boat to wash off the salt and enjoyed a beer and some Pringle’s. The trip back was just as beautiful.
It was disappointing to awaken on Saturday and realise it was our last day. We spent some time shopping at Rio Sul, not too far from our hotel. I was chuffed to find the perfect denim jacket as well as some gifts to take home.
It was incredibly warm, around 35 degrees. The beach was jam-packed, so we decided to relax at the pool on the roof of our hotel. Colin and Geoff got a game of water polo going in the pool with a local family and their kids. Later we went for a walk around the neighbourhood.
We felt the magnetic pull of ‘Top Beer’ and settled in for a last prawn pizza and a caipirinha or two. Paulo was delighted to see us and brought out a terrifying bottle of what we assumed was cachaça, but with what looked like a dead slug at the bottom of the bottle. It made South African mampoer taste like champagne. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that we had a flight to catch, Colin and Geoff made a significant dent in the bottle. Sensibly, and perhaps a little smugly, Nicky and I abstained. Let’s just say that it made for an interesting journey home on Varig airlines!
We so enjoyed the dramatic beauty of Rio! It’s a unique place – with urban skyscrapers and beaches squeezed between and around the mountains; the favelas clinging precariously to the slopes flanked by palatial estates, virtually next door. The natural beauty of the pounding Atlantic Ocean and the ethereal clouds, one moment covering and then suddenly exposing the statue of Christ, as he gently protects the city beneath his outstretched arms, will remain with us for a long time.