One of my favorite things about Brazil is the “ponte aerea” (air bridge) between downtown Rio and downtown SP. You can show up at the airport and get on a flight between the two cities for about $45 one-way. Flights are 15 minutes apart or less and the flight takes 45 minutes.
Flying in the morning allows you to see Sao Paulo’s gargantuan proportions, but even better is the view of Rio’s grandeur as you arrive. The city’s landscape is surreal; not even the great Salvador Dali could have imagined such a place. There are endless miles of powdered sandy beaches and lush green landscapes guarded by immense rock formations. One way to see Rio is from above, and though the view from a plane is fantastic, two of its most prominent tourist attractions, Sugarloaf and the Christ at Corcovado, get top billing as the best vista points.
Another great way to see Rio from above is by hang gliding from Pedra da Gavea. You strap onto a professional hang glider, and run off a cliff thousands of feet up in the air. Then, once you muster the courage to open your eyes, you find yourself looking down upon miles and miles of tropical landscape between white foamy beaches and cement forests of residential buildings. It is really a sight to see! The hangliders have a camera mounted on the wing, so you can get your picture taken in midair. Finally, you land on the beach where you can grab a cold one and reevaluate what really matters in life.
Where to stay? Regarding hotels in Rio, the most traditional ones are Copacabana Palace and Caesar Park in Ipanema. There is also a brand new Marriott in Copacabana. I am a big fan of Ipanema and Leblon as they are less touristy than Copacabana whose night atmosphere can be a bit seedy. My favorite hotel in Rio is the The Marina All Suites, a small renovated boutique hotel. Its restaurant Bar do Hotel is a cozy place for dinner. Another good find is Hotel Everest. It is an older property, but it has a great location, an amazing view from its rooftop restaurant, and also serves a sumptuous breakfast.
Copacabana Beach, Rio
A perfect Carioca Saturday, begins with a small breakfast. “Lanchonettes” are the ideal place to catch a bite on your way to the beach. You will recognize them as they are usually located on a corner, and have a fruit display.
Rio de Janeiro is arguably home to the most sophisticated beach culture in the world. Here the beach is central to the lifestyle. Before your debut at the trendy beach spot Posto 9 on Ipanema, you may want to purchase some local beachware. The major shopping malls such as Rio Sul Shopping or Fashion Mall are littered with beach stores. However, when the Cariocas go to the beach they opt to buy the most fashionable and durable gear. The best brands are Blue Man, Osklen, and Mormaii.
Though Copacabana and Ipanema are some of the most recognized beaches, I think they are too touristy and overcrowded. Rio has a beach for all tastes: tourists, old, young, athletes, surfers, and those who prefer deserted beaches. You name it! Personally, I prefer Prainha, a fantastic beach just south of Rio where there is no development and you can picture Rio before sprawly urbanizatoin. A good last resort closer to base are Ipanema and Leblon.
To have a great time at the beach all you need is a bathing suit and about $10 cash and you will be king for a day. Within minutes, you can get chairs, umbrellas, cold coconuts, icy cold beers, fried cheeses, grilled shrimps, codfish fritters, without moving an inch.
After a busy day at the beach, you will be starving. Here is where you indulge. There are three options: steak feast, traditional feijoada or my hidden wild card, Rest. Bira.
For those who prefer steak, perennial powerhouse Porcao offers a great rodizio (means rotation) and salad bar at many locations. A rodizio is a buffet that comes to you. Make sure to ask for “picanha nobre no alho.” Recently, a new rodizio chain has arrived to give Porcao a run for its money called Barra Brassa. The concept is the same: you have access to the most varied salad bar imaginable including seafood, salads, palm hearts, fresh artichokes, sushi, etc. Upon returning from the salad bar, you will be attacked by a mob of waiters bringing you the choicest cuts of beef, pork, poultry, lamb, and chicken. It’s an all you can eat affair. Though it is top of the line in quality and service you will only be setback about $25. Make sure to save room for dessert and get the Papaya Cream with Cassis liquor.
Feijoada is the national dish of Brazil and consists of a black bean stew with many cuts of beef or pork. Like most things in Brazil, the feijoada has it’s own rich and beautiful history. During the days of slavery, plantantion owners gave their workforce only the worst and toughest cuts from their slaughters. Being crafty, slaves would smoke the cuts and slow cook them with abundant black beans and spices to tenderize the meat. With time, sausages and other meats have been added to it. The result is one of the most famous authentic Brazilian dishes. Served with white rice, fried banana, sliced oranges or tangerines, collard greens, farofa (fried, seasoned yucca flower), it is now one of the great weekend family-and-friends feast where everyone eats, talks, and eventually has to take a nap. Esch Café in Leblon serves good feijoada for lunch on Saturdays
For the more adventurous souls, or if you have visited several times and are ready for a unique adventure, going to Prainha is a fantastic experience. Prainha is located 35 minutes south of Rio. If you don’t have a car, hire a driver since cabs don’t show up in these isolated parts of Rio. The best is to go with local friends. Prainha is a large beach surrounded by mountains of emerald green lushness. There is hardly any development and its appeal among locals is experiencing the beach away from the city.
After a day at Prainha, you can venture 10 minutes over the hills to the town of Goaratiba. This village overlooking mangroves is home to Restaurante Bira (accept no substitutes), which offers a remarkable experience in home cooking. Bira does not take credit cards, therefore make sure to bring cash. About $30 per person should do it. The best time to get there is after the beach around 4:30 PM. The restaurant is perched on a hill and has a deck surrounded by beautiful vegetation.
After indulging at Bira, you are now feeling the effects of food coma. The best thing one can do is go home, shower, and go for a long three hour nap. The “balada” does not get started until 10:30 – 11:00. Though Rio has great parties, I think its main attraction is the beach so nights can be relaxed some times. If this is your taste, go to Cero Cero next to the planetarium and PUC University. A young elegant crowd gathers here. Melt and Baronetti in Leblon are fun spots for dancing on Saturday night. Nuth in Barra is a popular night club where you may see local celebrities or soccer stars.
You cannot forget about samba in Rio. During the months leading up to Carnival there are samba rehearsals at the local samba schools. The most traditional or well-known school is Mangueira. Be prepared to sweat and get down. Entrance is $3-5. Rehearsals with crowd particiption takes place on Saturday nights starting around 11pm. If you come to Rio outside of Carnival season, try one of the nice upper scale samba bars that are open year round. I recommend Rio Scenarium, a three-floor renovated antique store, or Carioca da Gema. Both are located in the Lapa region of downtown Rio. Another popular partying spot is the Lapa neighborhood itself. It’s here that you will find those colorful stairs featured on Snoop Doggy Dogg’s “Beautiful” video.
Sunday mornings, the main avenues in front of the beach turn into pedestrian highways. You will see kids riding in bikes next to parents, others exercise or just walk down the street. Another great alternative is the Botanical Garden (Jardim Botanico) which is free on Sundays. Here you can experience the garden built by Dom João VI, King of Portugal who after being sent into exile moved his court to Rio and carried out several public works.
The main show on Sundays is soccer or futebol. In Brazil, futebol is a religion and there is no better cathedral than Maracana Stadium. With a capacity for over 100,000 screaming fans, Maracana is home to one of the most colorful spectacles in the world of soccer. When Flamengo and Fluminense teams play (otherwise known as “Fla-Flu”), the city stops and rivalries flare up. Make sure you are wearing the right colors for the section of the stadium supporting that team (black and red for Flamengo and white and red for Fluminense).
After the game, friends gather around Baixo Gavea to discuss the great plays and the could have beens. Another activity that takes place in Brazil but reaches even greater proportions at Baixo Gavea is “paquerando” or flirting. The Brazilian way of flirting is charmingly direct yet artfully avoids being rude or brash. By the end of the night you may have realized that you have found new love and its name is Brazil.
Scene Report by October Juventis.