Rio: best of the 2016 Olympic city

All travel is a seeking of something different from what’s at home. Difference makes Brazil in general and Rio de Janeiro in particular a special treat. Even regulars to South America find Brazil’s Portuguese language a whole new challenge and the giant country, larger than Australia and with a population of over 200 million seems to operate in isolation, hardly noticing the rest of South America exists.

It often seems as if there’s an invisible filter around Rio so that this most exquisite setting is inhabited only by beautiful people living a fabulous lifestyle. Towering volcanic plugs surrounded by dense jungle overlook wonderful tropical white-sand beaches fringed with great bars and restaurants pulsing to a Samba beat. No wonder Rio is simply known as the “Marvellous City”.

Of course, much of what we hear about Rio lately is negative. Yes, it does have a crime problem but with such divergence in income existing in close proximity that may be inevitable. From Copacabana’s high rise hotels you can see the favelas, or makeshift slums, spread up the inland hillsides. Most visitors to Rio are as far away from that part of town as possible. You need to be very security conscious, particularly around Carnaval in February, but many visitors come and most love the experience.

The city itself isn’t the main attraction – that honour is split between Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Both are excellent but the crowds that throng to them are even more spectacular – and their choice of, or lack of, clothing is remarkable, even to Australian eyes. Even the “resort wear” considered acceptable for a coffee shop is smaller than swimwear in other countries.

Location, location
It’s useful to understand the layout of this sprawling city with a total metropolitan population of over 10 million people – 5.5 million in the municipality itself.

The downtown area is located on the western shore of Guanabara Bay – explorers thought it was a river hence the city’s name “River of January”. The Sambadrome, the venue for Carnaval and the Maracanã Stadium, both 2016 Olympic venues are found in the city.

Beaches
South of downtown lies Rio’s most famous attraction: Copacabana Beach. Fringed by high-rise hotels and apartments it’s an impressive stretch of sand but it’s the human activity more than the sand, surf and swimming that draws you there. This is where you’ll find the Olympic beach volleyball stadium for the Olympics.

Between the city and Copacabana is the bay beach of Flamengo and the tiny bay of Botafogo with Sugarloaf looming above it. This is pointy granite dome 400 metres high that makes Rio’s coastline so instantly recognisable. You reach the summit by consecutive cablecars – the ones that featured when Jaws battled Roger Moore as James Bond in Moonraker.

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Rio's stunning Copacabana beach

The view from Sugarloaf is just as grand as the movies have depicted it. You can look down the whole length of Copacabana, separated only by another tiny beach and a small hilly outcrop.

The beachfront cafes and hotels of Copacabana bustle with beautiful people. Rio is a melting pot of races: African, European (particularly Portuguese), Pardo or multiracial, East Asian and Amerindian who, combined are referred to as cariocas. They all move to a bossa nova and samba beat and the proportion of the population who are exotically attractive is remarkably high.

When the intensity of Copacabana becomes too much it’s time to head east to the Zona Sul of Ipanema and Leblon beaches separated by the Canal do Jardim de Alah. These are bordered by some of Brazil’s most expensive real estate and the beaches are informally segmented into family, gay and hipster zones. Behind the beach is an array of galleries, shops, clubs, bars and restaurants and several of them claim to be the inspiration for the mid-sixties hit “The Girl from Ipanema”.

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Take a stroll along the golden sands of Ipanema beach

Corcovado
For an overview of Rio there’s only one place to go. That’s up to the 710m peak of Corcovado and the 30m Art Deco statue of Christ the Redeemer with its welcoming outstretched arms. It was constructed in 1922 at the height of the Art Deco movement and is an imposing sight. Most visitors reach it first by cog railway then by taking lifts and escalators to the summit.

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Rio's famous Christ the Redeemer statue is worth the trip up Corcovado (Image: marchello74 / Shutterstock.com)

Beyond Rio
Besides what may be the most beautiful city in the world Brazil offers a completely different world to discover. It’s exotic and unusual with the world’s largest river and the most extensive rainforest.

Because Brazil can be challenging to visit it’s an ideal destination to explore on a cruise. While larger in area than Australia, Brazil has only about a third the length of coastline. Besides Rio the five other main tourist ports are: Fortaleza on the north coast, Natal, Recife and Salvador on the north east corner and Santos to the south of Rio. Each has its own appeal and all appear regularly on cruise itineraries.

For soccer fans a place of pilgrimage is likely to be Santos where the legendary football player Pele began his professional career. It’s also a major export port for coffee and once had a coffee stock exchange (now a museum). Much of the city is on an island and the beach is fringed by the longest beachfront garden in the world.

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Take a cruise down the world's longest river, the Amazon

The Amazon
In most countries ocean cruising and river cruising are neatly divided. Not so in Brazil where the giant Amazon is navigable by cruise ships for more than 1500 kilometres. The inland cruise destination is the city of Manaus, with a population of 2.5 million. Made rich by rubber barons, the city’s best-known attraction is the Teatro Amazonas, a copy of the Paris Opera. It’s still an important trade port and the stepping off point for jungle tours.

While Rio is challenging enough to not suit the diffident traveller, for the adventurer who is prepared to take reasonable precautions Rio has so much to offer. Once seen this beautiful, colourful city will be an abiding memory.

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