The combination of beaches, hills, and tropical vegetation make Rio de Janeiro a unique city.
I’ve been to places where I traveled with enthusiasm, but knowing that I would be happy to return home. I’ve been to others where I would have liked to have an excuse to settle down for a while. But something more radical happened to me in Rio de Janeiro: I regretted not having been born there. Cariocas are lucky to live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world: almost 20% of its surface is covered with plants, which makes it the largest urban forest on earth. It is not about neat gardens, but a “vegetal force” that seems to want to devour the city in one bite: powerful green hills and spectacular beaches, an uncommon combination that makes it unique. From the beginning I am overwhelmed by the vision of orchids in the streets and women who walk like panthers wearing brightly colored clothes as if in a competition of sensuality and joy.
I head to the beach looking for some relaxation but soon I understand that beaches are the arteries where the pulse of the city beats. Far from seeing sunbathers lying down with a book, in Rio the beach is the place to meet friends, chat, study, fall in love, practice sports, or negotiate a business deal. On the way to work, back from school, Cariocas always manage to go to the beach. For them, being by the sea is as necessary as breathing.
Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon cover only 9 kilometers of the almost 50 beaches that Rio offers. From the historic center to the south, Copacabana extends like a large bay separated from the next one that forms Ipanema and Leblon together, along a rocky massif called Praia do Arpoador (Harpooner Beach). There, in addition to having fantastic views on both sides, you can take a surf class or watch the sun set at the end of Leblon, behind the Two Brothers Hill. While Copacabana, near the big hotel chains, convenes a majority of tourists, Ipanema and Leblon are preferred by locals.
These three beaches, which are among the most famous in the world, are divided into twelve positions, from 1 to 6 on Copacabana, from 7 to 12 on Ipanema and Leblon, and represent secret clubs. On 5, mixed with tourists, couples of local retirees are seen. Nine, in Ipanema, convenes young people. Ten is preferred by families with young children, 11 by fitness enthusiasts, and 12, on the end of Leblon, is said to gather the most beautiful women in Rio. Along the coastal avenue, there is an exclusive path for bicycles and rollers that widens the generous sidewalks each one with its drawing, waves in Copacabana, circles in Ipanema and Leblon, which becomes pedestrian during the weekend.
The charms of Rio do not end on its beaches. In the historic center, I tour the amazing Museum of Tomorrow, designed by the Spanish architect Santiago de Calatrava, which explores the opportunities and challenges that humanity will have to face in the coming decades in terms of sustainability and coexistence. It is full of children operating funny screens and devices.
A few blocks away is the huge Etnias mural, dedicated by the street artist Kobra to the world’s ethnic groups for the 2016 Olympic Games. I stroll among ancient buildings to the Confeitaria Colombo, a postcard from the colonial era. Founded in 1894 by Portuguese immigrants, it was chosen as one of the ten most beautiful cafés in the world. On the first floor, an excellent buffet menu is offered.
Continuing south, I arrive at the Arcos da Lapa (Arches of Lapa), an ancient aqueduct formed by 42 arches, standing 64 meters high, which was inaugurated in 1750. Since 1896 it serves as a route to the picturesque bondinho (strictly speaking, an electric tram) that climbs the hill of Santa Teresa towards the neighborhood of the same name. Known as the Montmartre Carioca, Santa Teresa has the colonial charm of its cobbled streets and hosts buildings of the 18th century, an ideal framework for artists who paint outdoors. Another way to connect Lapa with Santa Teresa is the Escadaria Selarón, a staircase 125 meters high with 215 steps tiled in red, green, and yellow by the Chilean artist Selarón.
I return to Lapa at night, specifically to Rio Scenarium where I expect to see a samba for export show, but I am wrong. It is an old three-story building where Cariocas dance and sing the sambas they love as if the world is going to end the next morning. It is clear that dancing is the verb in Brazil, the backbone of this South American colossus.
The next day, an adrenaline experience is waiting for me: flying over Rio in a helicopter. For 15 minutes I appreciate its sand and sea contours: the half-moon shaped Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, Sugarloaf Mountain, Corcovado, Guanabara Bay and its port, the dark waters of the Freitas Lagoon, the mythical Maracana Stadium, and the 137 hectares of the Botanical Garden. It is an unforgettable experience.
But this flight is not the only way to enjoy panoramic views of the city. Wonderful vistas are also obtained from the Corcovado (hunchback in Portuguese), which is the name of the hill of two peaks where the Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) is located, the undisputed symbol of Rio de Janeiro. You can climb the 710 meters to the top by car or take the train that departs every half hour from the Cosme Velho station. I choose a cloudless day to have optimal visibility. Selected as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World among twenty monuments, the statue opened its arms for eternity in 1931. The 38-meter-high statue is consistent with the message Rio has to give: the image gives a welcoming hug. To see Cristo Redentor from a privileged place, I go to Sugarloaf in the afternoon, where I arrive after taking two telepherics. Although the height of 396 meters is lower than that of Corcovado, its numerous platforms allow 360 degrees of panoramic views.
Football fans can take a guided tour through the legendary Maracanã Stadium and enter the field through the tunnel that so many legendary teams have walked through. You can also visit the Brazilian Football National Team Museum, opened in 2016, where t-shirts signed by stars from Pelé to Neymar, 190 trophies, and five World Cups are exhibited. I prefer to spend the day at the Roberto Burle Marx Site, on the outskirts of Rio. There, more than 350,000 m2 of impressive gardens gather approximately 3,500 species of plants, many of them in danger of extinction. It was the home of the famous Brazilian landscape architect and artist Roberto Burle Marx from 1949 until his death in 1994.
Waiting to board at the Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport -the name pays a fitting tribute to the father of the bossa nova- a slight melancholy invades me for leaving such a wonderful city. I can’t pinpoint with certainty where of the many places its characteristic elegance resides.