Rio has always been hot, but it's never been this hot. Kaye Holland has the inside story
Brazilians have longed claimed that “God is Brazilian” - how else to account for the country’s embarrassment of riches? - and now it seems as tho the rest of the world, has finally woken up to this fact.
When reading recent travel ‘it lists’ and ‘hot spots’, one country emerges above all others: take a bow Brazil, whose economy has overtaken Britain as the sixth largest in the world, who brought samba music to Stratford during the Olympic closing ceremony and whom starred in a documentary series alongside Michael Palin. All of which has helped Brazil brush off the old jibe that it is a country of the future - and always will be.
Yet if Brazil is hot (in every sense of the word) right now, then Rio gets more sizzling still: Pope Francis has chosen the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvellous City) for his first overseas tour this July, while the world’s best footballers will be arriving in Rio in 2014, followed by the Olympic flame in 2016.
Most visitors touch down and make a beeline for the beach - be it the world famous Copacabana or its more salubrious sibling, Ipanema, both of whom have been celebrated in song and film. Regardless of where you to choose to stretch out your beach towel, expect to see Cariocas (aka residents of Rio) from all walks of life - families, favela kids, football players, pensioners, hawkers peddling sunglasses and sarongs, and socialites in huge sunglasses - coming together to get their groove on.
I had anticipated being surrounded on the honey coloured sand by supermodel thin Cariocas and, consequently, had expected to feel somewhat self conscious in my swimsuit. Turns out I needn’t have worried. Sure there is plenty of taut, tanned, toned flesh on display, but I also saw plenty of portly men and women letting it all hang out in the Rio uniform: skimpy swimwear and cut off denim shorts, accessorised with the ubiquitous havaianas. And if you do want to get fit, Rio is arguably the place to do it: virtually every beach is equipped with (free) exercise machines to help you become healthier.
The city’s two best hotels are also found in the beachside districts. Copacabana boasts the neoclassical Copacabana Palace - whose recent £20million refurb has upped the decadence quota. An exercise in measured elegance, it’s almost impossible to exaggerate the glories of this property, with its dazzling white facade. It’s the kind of place where Don Draper would, you’d imagine, head on his holidays. While I was in town, the Palace was hosting the heads of Lord Seb Coe, Steve Redgrave and Jessica Ennis who were in Riofor the Laureaus Awards (the Oscars of the sporting world). Ipanema, meanwhile, is home to the hip, Hotel Fasano. Designed by Philippe Starcke, the Fasano attracts a cool crowd - here’s looking at you Beyonce - who flock here for its sleek rooms, gorgeous rooftop pool and glam bar.
It would be easy - and perfectly understandable in light of the recent Siberian weather conditions in Blighty - to spend all of your time frying yourself silly on the beaches of Rio. But Rio offers more than just a day on the beach and only a philistine would visit without ticking off the 125ft statue of Christ the Redeemer who stands, arms outstretched, on the summit of Corcovado Mountain - and ascending Sugarloaf Mountain (also referred to as Pao de Acucar).
Neither attraction is a bargain but both guarantee jaw dropping views of the Marvellous City. You’ll be able to see the verdant Tijuca National Park, lovely Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, beaches, mountains and upscale neighbourhoods juxtaposed alongside the favelas (slums) - which serves as a reminder that Rio is a city divided by haves and haves not. If you’re curious about what life in a favela - where one in five Cariocas live - is like, you can take a guided tour around a shanty town, such as Rocinha. Personally I thought said tours sounded a tad too much like a human safari for my liking and opted, instead, to get a glimpse into real Rio life by attending a football match between Botafago and Flamengo.
For Brazilians are futebol mad and, even if you’re not crazy about the beautiful game, it’s worth watching a match for the atmosphere alone: passionate singing, samba drums and smoke bombs are all part of the colourful experience. Furthermore, unlike Premiership games back home, match tickets don’t have a perturbing price tag: I paid around £30 to see Botafagotriumph over their local rivals and that included not only the match ticket but return transport to the ground (about an hour’s drive outside of Rio) and a guide.
Other areas to explore include sleepy Santa Teresa - aka Rio’s answer to Paris’ Montmartre. Set on the side of a hill and choc full of unusual shops, buzzing botecos (al fresco bars) and bohemian coffee shops, Santa Teresa is where English criminal, Ronnie Brigs - known for his role in the Great Train Robbery of 1963 - once resided.
On the subject of crime, I suspect the question on the minds of most would-be tourists is whether Rio can be considered safe? Sadly the city acquired a shady reputation back in the nineties and noughties, when it was known as ‘the murder capital of the world’. Yet just because it was, doesn’t mean it is.
As Rio gets a revamp, ahead of the two major tournaments its staging, the city is certainly safer than it was before the policy of pacification (whereby police forcibly drive the drug lords out of the favelas) began and personally I encountered no problems on the security front, so pack away your prejudices. I wore my watch in public and carried my camera in my bag - despite what my 2010 Lonely Planet guidebook advised - and was warmly greeted by Cariocas looking to shed their city’s international reputation. That said, it’s still a good idea to exercise caution and common sense, as you would wherever you travel.
Crime aside, language barriers are the other issue facing tourists. English isn’t spoken widely but you’ll find that a few Portuguese words(namely obrigado, meaning thank you) and a big smile will go far.
Nights are about feasting on feijoada (Brazil’s famous black bean and meat stew) washed down with a couple of caipirinhas (the national cocktail of cachaca spirit, lime, sugar and iced), before strutting your stuff to samba in the dance halls of Lapa. Make no mistake: Cariocas know how to party - and not just when Carnaval rolls round.
Despite staying out dancing until dawn, I returned home energised and happy, convinced that there is no more enticing place on the planet than Rio de Janeiro. This is an intoxicating city of sun, samba, football, food, beaches and Bossa Nova, that truly justifies every word of the hype. And with interest (and prices) in Rio only set to rocket following the FIFA 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, this is a great year to visit. Get it while it's hot.