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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil


After driving from seashore to a lush forested mountaintop, I trekked a little further uphill to where a clearing led to a cliff. Apprehensively, I looked out over it at grand vistas of a great city below with miles upon miles of white sand beaches, a turquoise sea, and rows of beachfront high-rise apartments. My instructor strapped me into a body harness and hooked me up to his hang glider. He watched the wind rustle in the trees. My heart pounded with adrenalin. When the wind was just right, he counted, "one, two, three." And then, together, we ran, and in just a few steps the earth below our feet was gone. We hung together under what seemed a flimsy nylon wing. But it flew and I was still alive. Alive and breathlessly gazing out at the sights below. And so began my adventure in and over the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Brazil is a nation of about 180 million. It is larger than the continental United States and its size and population dwarf the rest of the nations in South America. It is the only nation in the Americas to speak Portuguese. Brasilia is its capital. The Amazon is its heart. Sao Paulo is its largest city and business center. And Rio de Janeiro, a city of 10 million inhabitants known as carioca, is the soul of the country, representing its joie de vivre. But while Rio can seem like paradise, it is also paradise lost. The city is visually seductive, set in one of the most beautiful locales in the world, between dramatic peaks and forests and expansive beaches along the Atlantic Ocean. But there is great disparity between the wealthy, who live in grand beachfront high-rises, and the poor, who live in a scattering of hillside shanty towns. Because of that economic disparity, most every home and apartment in Rio is fenced. Many have prominent security guards. And while the city looks glorious from on high, from ground level, the metropolis clearly needs a serious overhaul - from paint to plaster, to a massive clean up of graffiti run amuck.
While there are many deluxe hotels closer to Rio's famous beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, we stayed at the Sheraton Rio Hotel and Towers (800-325-3535), just on the outskirts of the city's main beaches. Tucked into a picturesque cove, it's the only Rio hotel with its own private beach. The Sheraton is a modern twenty-story building with 559 guest rooms, all with superb ocean views. Our room was comfortable with a marbled bath, and a balcony with a vista of the arch of Ipanema Beach. The hotel has an expansive but cozy lobby, an exercise room, saunas, tennis courts, three pools overlooking the pounding surf, and an easy access stairwell down to the beach below. Published standard rates run from $167/night including tax but real costs are more difficult to decipher since most travelers stay as part of packages that include sightseeing and excursions.
To see the sights of the city, yellow taxis are plentiful and easy to hail. But while they're metered, be sure you demand that the driver throw the meter as opposed to giving you some inflated fixed price to your destination. Most drivers do not speak English so it's best to have your hotel write down your destination before you depart. There are all sorts of tours to the city's attractions - bus tours, semi-private van tours, and tours by private car. If you choose a private tour, which for two or more people can be more convenient and less expensive than a bus tour, make sure that your driver is a "licensed and trained" tour guide and not some glorified, semi-English speaking taxi-driver. I was disappointed that the Sheraton didn't enforce that policy on the car tour service it provides in its lobby. If you're taking a tour, you want to learn about the destination and not simply be taken to it.
Plan to spend at least a day walking the great beaches of Rio and soaking up the life of the carioca. While there were plenty of natives and tourists traipsing the distinctive black and white swirl mosaic beachfront pathways, sadly, there were not the throngs of thongs that I expected to see. There were more men in speedos than women in bikinis. There are refreshment stands every few hundred feet along the beach where you can stop and sip from a cold coconut or have a beer. Artisans and sand sculptors display their handiwork along the sidewalks. And most interesting are the myriad of beach volleyball games played soccer style.
At the point separating Ipanema from Copacabana Beach is Copacabana Fort. It was built in the era of World War I with a massive concrete bunker and great gun turrets facing out to the sea. There's also a museum of Brazilian history here. This tiny peninsula is a wonderful place to relax and stop for lunch with great views of Copacabana Beach and Sugarloaf Mountain.
No trip to Rio is complete without experiencing the panoramas from its famous mountaintops. Corcovado is the site of Cristo Redentor or Christ the Redeemer, the famous 700-ton concrete icon that seemingly embraces the city with its arms. It can be reached by a cogwheel train or a winding road by car. The city's other mountaintop highlight is the Pao de Acucar or Sugarloaf, a granite block mountain at the mouth of Guanabara Bay that is only reached by a two-tiered cable car that first stops at the top of a smaller mountain before continuing on to the summit of Sugarloaf.
Also worth touring is the Tijuca Rain Forest, a dense tropical forest above Rio with a mix of homes of the wealthy and poor and spectacular view spots. Driving in an open jeep, we went through a shanty town where dozens of kids lying flat on wide home-made roller boards joyously careened downhill. Music blasted from the narrow hillside streets. Neighbors danced and waved. The poor in Rio seemed to be enjoying life. While there is plenty of poverty in Rio and the risks of crime are well publicized, in the city's tourist friendly areas, I felt in no jeopardy. And, I saw no beggars. The poor sold their wares, juggled, danced, sang, and performed acrobatics. I never was harassed by a beggar.
While Rio is a city 500 years old, most of the colonial structures have been swept away. Only a few great 18th and 19th century buildings remain - the Paco Imperial or former imperial palace; the National History Museum; the Monastery of Sao Bento; and the Church of Nossa Senhora da Candelaria. There are some interesting newer landmarks like the unusual cone-shaped Cathedral of Sao Sebastiao built in 1976 and designed to seat 25,000 worshipers, and the Teatro Municipal, Rio's opera house, built in 1909 and modeled after the Paris Opera.
While there are some quasi-fashionable shopping districts, particularly along Rua Visconde de Piraja behind Ipanema Beach, and mega shopping malls like the Rio Sol, I found nothing of the quality, variety, or style easily found in upscale American stores. But you will find bargains, particularly in shoes and clothing. And for natives, Brazil has an interesting pricing and payment system. Prices are listed as 3x, 4x, or 5x "$$$". That system allows locals to charge the item incrementally on their accounts or credit cards.
You can enjoy Sunday with a leisurely stroll through Ipanema's Feira Hippie or Flea market where booths are set up selling handmade jewelry, clothes, leather bags, and lots of touristy knickknacks. Or, you can do something more life threatening, like watching a soccer game at Rio's Maracana stadium. The Maracana, built for the 1950 World Cup, is the world's largest soccer stadium with seating for 178,000 and standing room for another 42,000. Brazilians take their soccer seriously. Or perhaps too seriously. We went to see a game between two rival Rio teams, Vasco and Flamingo. Huge surging crowds stood in line for tickets. Violence was seemingly only kept at bay by machine gun toting police helicopters overhead and lots of ground troops with hands on drawn pistols. There is nothing like the threat of death to make a sporting event more exciting. Inside the staid concrete stadium, guards ask you to choose where you want to sit, that is, which team you want to support. Arbitrarily, we chose the red shirted Flamingo side. Fans were fanatic - screaming, waving huge banners, playing drums. On the field, security was further enhanced by a moat around the field that could only be breached by a retractable bridge. The crowd was more entertaining than the game - erupting with great "ooh-ahh" chants and igniting fireworks in the stands. At halftime a series of high performance planes flew precariously low over the stadium to further incite the crowd. But I couldn't get the "wave" to catch on.
We had some great meals in Rio and traditionally they start late, certainly after 8 p.m. I enjoyed the Marius across from Leme Beach on the beachfront Avenue Atlantica. There are two Marius restaurants. One specializes in meat, the other in fish. We ate at the churrascaria, meat venue. The service and ambiance were superb. You start with an introductory cocktail of the national drink, caipirinha, made from cachaca, a sugarcane liquor, that tastes like a whiskey sour. Then there's a buffet of shellfish, sushi, and Brazilian fajiodes or meat stews. Waiters then arrive and keep arriving to carve an assortment of meats and fowl tableside - filet mignon, prime rib, rib eye, and much more.
Just a few blocks down the boulevard from Marius is the Copacabana Palace Hotel (800-237-1236). This was the first hotel built on Copacabana Beach in the 1920's and was refurbished in the '40's and '80's. Its 225 rooms are exquisitely furnished in polished woods and marble. There is a long corridor in the hotel with photos of the famous that have stayed there over the years - from Orson Welles to Eva Peron, Princess Di to Robert De Niro. It is the only truly five-star hotel in the city with service and décor suitable for royalty and celebrities. Standard rooms, without an ocean view, are about $320/night. Or you can have a penthouse suite on a private floor with a butler for about $3000/night. We had dinner at their formal Italian restaurant, Cipriani, where multiple waiters dramatically serve the main courses by simultaneously lifting silver domed covers from perfect entrees.
We had another dinner at Sri Mole, an intimate seafood restaurant in Ipanema. There the fish stew - moqueca - is the regional specialty you have to try.
Summers in the southern hemisphere are our winters. So, the beaches are most crowded during the months of November to February. The most popular season in Rio is Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday comes just before Ash Wednesday, arriving on February 8th in 2005. Carioca prepare all year for the week-long event. But if you can't be there in February, perhaps the next best way to experience some of the color Mardi Gras is to take in the show at Plataforma. This is a large nightclub venue that on the night we attended had a sold out crowd of patrons from more than a dozen countries. The unusual warm-up act pays testament to Brazil's devotion to soccer. For about 45 minutes before the show, a young girl in soccer garb bounced a ball non-stop from her legs and her head - never dropping it. Then the show began - a gaudy Brazilian pageant of samba, drums, dance, and fantastic parades of men and women in Mardi Gras costume.
On our last night in Rio, we went to the Vinicius Bar across the street from the Garota de Ipanema. Both restaurants claim fame as the place Al Jobin wrote his song "The Girl from Ipanema" and where he caught sight of that "tall and tan and young and lovely." Over coffee and Tia Maria, we mused over how beautiful the city was - particularly from on high - and how the carioca have clearly discovered how to enjoy life - with dance, and song, and sport. In any visit to Rio, I think you too will discover and share their joy. I suggest you do it without jumping off a cliff.