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 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
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
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
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
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.