Falling for the many faces of Rio

Special to The Times

Rio de Janeiro

This is a city of coexisting extremes: Wealth and opulence adjoin poverty and squalor; courtesy counterbalances crime; sensuality shares space with spirituality. The topography pulls you abruptly from sea level to cloud level and beyond, as mountains burst randomly through the cityscape.

At times I felt as though I were resting in the hollow of a giant’s hand whose massive fingers curled protectively upward. In fact Christ the Redeemer, Cristo Redentor, Rio’s signature statue, stands with arms outstretched at the top of Corcovado Mountain, almost a half a mile high. It’s visible from nearly every quarter of the city, blessing beaches and boulevards.

On our first visit, a stop three years ago, my wife, Janice, and I viewed the city from the base of that statue, skittered carefully along the edges of the notorious favelas where shanties appear Krazy-Glued to the hillsides, and walked Copacabana Beach in the morning sunlight, when its only inhabitants were yoga class devotees. We left Rio feeling deliciously frustrated. As much as we had loved it, there was much more to discover. We returned in November.

The city of 11.4 million is on Brazil’s southeast coast, just north of the Tropic of Capricorn. Europeans got their first look at the area on New Year’s Day 1502, when Portuguese explorer Gaspar de Lemos visited. It gained economic prominence in the 18th century as a major shipping center for gold mined in Brazil’s inland highlands.

In the mid-20th century, tourists began arriving, drawn to the city’s sugary beaches and to the most enticing of its rocky fingers, Sugarloaf. But their ardor diminished in the 1980s with reports of increasing crime linked to the widening gulf between rich and poor.

Janice and I did the cable car trip to Sugarloaf, atop our list of musts this trip, in two hops. Our first stop was Urca, 700 feet high and an interesting viewpoint. Central Rio lay to the northwest, and the upscale Botafogo district and quiet Botafogo Bay spread below us. A series of sightseeing helicopters lighted at Urca’s landing pad for a few seconds and then flitted off like dragonflies. We chose to dangle like spiders as we inched up the cable to Sugarloaf.

At 1,300 feet, commanding a point at the water’s edge, Sugarloaf is a natural skybox, and from it we could see the series of beaches that are so central to Rio’s personality: Leme, Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon. In another direction, Christ the Redeemer stood as if commanding the clouds to part. To the north was little Santos Dumont Airport, and from our extraordinary vantage we could look down at planes as they swooped over the bay, banking, gliding down from the north, then holding fast to the short runways.

Beyond the airport, two ferryboats traveling in opposite directions traced thin, straight wakes in Guanabara Bay. (There’s no river, although Rio de Janeiro means “river of January.” De Lemos, who named the city, was mistaken.)

Keeping a watchful eye

The tranquil scene seemed at odds with Rio’s reputation as a dangerous place, owing to not just muggings and purse snatchings but also drug- related violence. We were routinely advised to keep our eyes open, to leave valuables in the hotel safe, to telephone for cabs rather than hail them on the street, to avoid walking alone on the beach and to stay out of favelas.

All of which we did. On Rio’s streets, we walked close together, keeping my wallet pocket and Janice’s purse between us. We assessed each approaching person as a potential mugger and steered clear of crowds.

Was it overkill? Perhaps. We experienced not a single threatening episode in Rio — except for one taxi ride with a driver who sped through red lights, crossing himself as he did so.

But since our last visit it seemed the city’s residents had become more cautious. More residents in the beach areas had put bars over their windows. And a lot of them had dogs — not Rottweilers or German shepherds but little white poodles, unclipped and freshly washed and fluffed. They looked like cotton candy with eyes.

On Sundays, when major streets were closed to all but pedestrians, it looked as though all the dogs and their owners were promenading along the beaches. Kids played soccer in the sand; people crowded beachside stands to buy coco gelado, a chilled coconut with the top lopped off so that you can drink the refreshing contents through a straw. Many sunbathed, exposing substantial quantities of skin but eschewing outright nudity.

Janice and I walked from Leme at the north end of Copacabana southwest along patterned mosaic sidewalks. We paused at the Copacabana Palace Hotel, celebrated in 1933’s “Flying Down to Rio” when it hosted the film’s stars, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Maurice Chevalier stayed there. In a mezzanine gallery, we studied their photos as well as those of more contemporary guests: Anne Rice, Robert De Niro and a young Mick Jagger.

Janice and I veered away from the beach to find a record store to buy bossa nova CDs. Although Brazil has launched other styles of music — samba and tropicalia, for example — Antonio Carlos Jobim’s bossa nova is Brazilian music for me and many other Americans.

In 1962, smitten by a young girl who passed daily on her way to the beach, Jobim and his songwriting partner Vinicius de Moraes sat in the Veloso Bar and wrote “The Girl From Ipanema,” the ultimate song of lust and longing. Soon the whole world knew about her — “tall and tan and young and lovely.” Jobim, known locally and affectionately as Tom, died in 1994.

Rio’s international airport is named for him; the bar, on a street called Rua Vinicius de Moraes, has been renamed Garota de Ipanema, after the girl.

At 11 that night, Janice and I returned to Rua Vinicius de Moraes and a smoky second-floor club also called Vinicius. Singer Claudia Telles and guitarist and vocalist Paulinho Tapajos alternated strains unfamiliar to our North American ears with ‘60s classics — “Quiet Nights,” “One Note Samba.” Claudia shimmied, Paulinho strummed, and I sat there sipping the sugary residue of my caipirinha, made of lime juice and sugar cane brandy, thinking, “How cool is this? I’m in Ipanema hearing someone sing ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ across the street from the bar where it was written.”

They sang it in Portuguese, a wonderful language that seems to blend Latin intonation with Slavic pronunciation. S becomes esh, and, oddly, R is spoken as H.

That might explain the momentary confusion the next morning when our guide came to pick us up for a tour of the Tijuca Forest. Our name was on her list, written as it sounds in Brazil: Raines. Anna Maria motioned us into the back of a Jeep, after sending me back to our room for a jacket. Although we wouldn’t be traveling far, we would be a world apart from sultry Copacabana.

Tijuca is a mountain jungle inside the city’s limits. The forest, laced with waterfalls and trails, covers 46 square miles of hills. At its peak, it’s 3,300 feet high, topping even Corcovado.

As the Jeep climbed a steep, winding road, Anna Maria gave us a running commentary on the flora in Brazilian nomenclature: pink impatiens are shameless Marys; a hibiscus that never opens is a priest’s kiss; the nonconformist white leafy trees that interrupt the waxy-green landscape are good-for-nothings.

We stopped suddenly because our driver had seen something move in the branches overhead. A pair of capuchin monkeys scrambled through the foliage, staying tantalizingly out of camera range. Alas, that was our experience with Tijuca’s fauna: Although we saw brilliant butterflies and a bizarre walking stick insect, the toucans had apparently taken the day off, the marmosets were bashful and the poisonous coral snakes snubbed us.

But there was still plenty to look at. From the 1,300-foot-high Asia-themed Vista Chinesa, we saw Corcovado’s summit and the twin peaks of Dois Irmaos (Two Brothers). We stopped at the 1,500-foot-high Emperor’s Table, a picnic spot for Brazil’s 19th century emperor Dom Pedro II. It took him 15 hours to reach it.

We left the Jeep to walk a path that ran along the edge of a wooded ridge about 50 feet above the forest floor. We could hear a stream and waterfalls gurgling below but couldn’t see them through the growth.

Anna Maria thumped a eucalyptus tree, and water oozed from its spongy trunk. She showed us where hearts of palm come from. Only a small part of the tree is edible, and harvesting kills the tree. It takes 12 years to mature, a fact that made me pause the next time I was at a salad bar.

She pointed out an impromptu shrine where a puddle of congealed candle wax indicated that followers of Candomblé, an African animist faith, had entered the park and left an illegal offering. Then we left on a slow, brake-burning descent to sea level.

At Sao Conrado Beach we watched hang gliders push off from the 1,700-foot top of Pedra Bonita, circle like multicolored gulls and finally glide to the sand.

Flavors of the city

When I noted a kiosk where vendors sold a confection that resembled chocolate pudding, Anna Maria brightened. It was açai, she said, frozen juice of palm fruit, which tastes like a gritty, vaguely berry-flavored sorbet.

I can imagine traveling to Rio just for the juices. The city’s many juice bars serve fresh varieties that you’d expect — pineapple, mango, papaya — and some that you seldom encounter in the U.S. The sweet guarana soda, made from a fruit that looks like eyes, reminded me of Dr Pepper. Caldo de cana is made by squeezing lengths of sugar cane in steel crushers. And acerola is described as cherry-like, but I thought it suggested rhubarb and tomato.

The food at the little stands is satisfying too — and cheap. For a couple of bucks we ate spicy chicken-filled turnovers, beef pies, cheese puffs. Brazilian rotisserie chickens seemed small, but they were more flavorful than American linebacker-sized birds.

For glorious gluttony, though, nothing beats a churrascaria, the Brazilian barbecue house where waiters cut beef, lamb, chicken and sausages hot off their skewers at your table until, almost speechless with excess, you beg them to stop. My favorite was picanha, a beefsteak with texture tougher than Americans prefer — but its flavor is pure essence of cow.

We finished our stay with a Mass marathon. We began at Sao Bento monastery, a Baroque festival of a building on a hill overlooking downtown Rio. The entire Mass, except for the homily, was sung or chanted. The dark interior of the nave was almost completely gilded carved wood with figures of pontiffs or muscular cherubs in the curlicues.

Next we caught the end of Mass at Nossa Senhora da Candelaria, the big 19th century church downtown. Here the decorative medium was stone: Rock cherubs posed acrobatically on each other’s shoulders inside great arches. Art Nouveau stained glass complemented little trees of lighted lamp globes.

At the hilltop Nossa Senhora da Gloria do Outeiro, the simplest of the three churches but a favorite of Emperor Dom Pedro II, fresh calla lilies graced the carved wood altar. Blue-and-white Portuguese tiles accented some of the walls of the 1714 church. A choir somewhere behind us sang forcefully, seeming to shake the walls and wide plank floors while the organ played loudly enough to fill a soccer stadium.

Janice and I went to three Masses in one day. But I don’t suppose you can stockpile spiritual points any more than you can ever get enough of Rio.



Life at the beach


From LAX, Varig has direct flights (one stop, no change of planes) to Rio de Janeiro. United, American, Continental and Lan Chile offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $827.


To call numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 55 (country code for Brazil), 21 (area code for Rio) and local number.


Copacabana Palace, 1702 Avenida Atlantica; 2548-7070, fax 2235-7330, . Legendary and still luxurious, the Palace has a prime spot on Copacabana Beach. Doubles $395.

Everest Rio, 1117 Rua Prudente de Morais; 2525-2222, fax 2521-3198, . Modern hotel in Ipanema, but not on the beach. Still, there are great views of the beach and the lagoon from its top-floor restaurant (where they mix a dandy caipirinha). Doubles $114.

Rio Copa, 370 Avenida Princesa Isabel (Copacabana); 2546-9500, . On a busy street about three blocks off the beach, but the low rates are a compensation. Clean, comfortable doubles from $66.


Fellini, 104 Rua General Urquiza, Leblon Beach; 2511-3600. Inexpensive self-serve place good for a quick lunch on a beach day. Salad bar and Italian and Brazilian entrees. You pay by the weight of the food. Typical lunch $6.

Marius, 290 Avenida Atlantica, Leme; 2542-2393. The churrascuria against which others are measured. Famous for the parade of skewer-bearing waiters, but its salad bar also is incredible. Dinner for two about $50 with drinks.

Mistura Fina, 3207 Avenida Borges de Medeiros (near the lagoon); 2537-2844, . Elegant setting with Brazilian and European cuisine to match. Typical dinner for two $90 with wine.

Taberna da Gloria, 32A Rua do Russel; 2265-7835. Great for dinner on Sundays, when families crowd the place. It has huge servings, so you may want to share the entrees.


Riotur, the City of Rio Tourism Authority, 3601 Aviation Blvd., Suite 2100, Manhattan Beach, CA 90266; (310) 643 2638, .

Brazilian Consulate General, 8484 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 711, Beverly Hills, CA 90211; (323) 651-2664, fax (323) 651-1274, . Visa processing fee is $100 per person.

— Jerry V. Haines