I am sure of a few things and one of them is that Rio de Janeiro is one of our most stunningly beautiful cities.
Rio "takes your breath away" when you discover it for the first time or return for the fifth time. Imagine a vista of mountains, one topped by an iconic sculpture of Christ, the Atlantic Ocean framing curvy blond beaches, and high-rise apartment buildings perched on broad avenues that surround the sparkling sea. Mix in the shapely bodies of sun bathers and swimmers who live, work and relax in this magnificent ambiance and you have South America's most charming city and designated home of the 2012 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
Well I went back to Rio recently and the city did not disappoint. In fact, there was more of everything I had experienced in past trips including trendy restaurants, sexy boutiques, and because I went when the weather was cooler, I enjoyed almost private beach revelry without the crowds yet with warm sunny skies. Pick-up a cool drink right on the Ipanema beach promenade, select just the right spot on the sand, rent a beach chair from the ever present purveyors of anything you might need, and just relax and periodically stick your feet in the cool waters and take nice long breaths!
Now Rio is more than sun and sand. It is a city of 7 million 'Cariocas' including a significant Afro-Brazilian population who are an important part of the ebb and flow of this commercial hub. Tens of thousands of residents including a majority of Blacks live in what are called 'favelas' (what we would call informal housing, they call shantytowns). These settlements stretch for miles and miles around the city and literally cascade up the hillsides to the sky. The city government continues work to build affordable housing as developers scoop up chunks of favela communities to build market rate apartments. But land is scarce. Lately the local police are arresting drug dealers and other criminal elements in the favelas to continue t clean-up process in preparation for 2012 World Cup.
But people from all over Brazil continue to seek a place in the sunlight of Rio and residents of favelas start businesses and raise families in the shadow of prime real estate and priceless views, usually separated only by a highway. And they use the free beach access like everyone in Rio does.
What do you do in a weekend in Rio? I chose the "relax and kick back" itinerary. I booked a room at a lovely bed and breakfast in Ipanema, a couple of blocks from the beach. I spent part of my day being driven by my host Rodrigo around the city with stops at the iconic places, i.e. Corcovado Mountain, the statue of Christ the Redeemer. My particularly enjoyed a little trek through the Tujuca National Forest where I saw amazing collections of hand-planted flora and fauna in this rain forest, displayed very elegantly in this unlikely setting - in the middle of this bustling city. I paused at lovely waterfalls, bubbling brooks and discovered species of trees and flowers I had never seen before. The most remarkable attribute was the silence of this little nature walk. I couldn't believe I was still technically in the City of Rio and wandering through the world's largest urban forest.
Since Ipanema was my base, some expansive dining selections were in order. During my two days there, Rodrigo helped me sample a couple of popular Brazilian buffets, and of course I couldn't escape grazing at one of the trendy Churrascarias that offered a selection of meats, seafoods and scrumptious salads and side dishes (all you can eat...yum). After dining, we strolled by the shops and boutiques of Ipanema and made our way down to the beach.
Rio is rich with more than shopping, eating and people-watching. There is a thriving arts, cultural and nightlife experience in all sectors of the city. I had a chance to visit one of Rio's most engaging museums, the Museum of Modern Art, for a taste of what's new and 'newly new' in visual arts. I topped the evening off with a stroll around Lapa, a funky neighborhood near the downtown area, where musicians spring out of nowhere at night to serenade passersby with those Samba and Bossa Nova beats that seduced me back to Rio again. I promised myself, that next time I will visit one of Rio's ubiquitous Samba Clubs where the music pulse and camaraderie provides the perfect accent for the cultural experience of the city.
The hours passed much too quickly and before I knew it, it was time to continue my Brazilian journey on to Sao Paulo. Rio is the poster child of the great Brazilian landscape tapestry and certainly worth much more time than I had this visit. But return I will.