the beaches

Rio de Janeiro is definitely a beach town.  In fact, Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon beaches are known the world over for their beautiful white sand and, dare we say it?, hot bodies that flock to the shoreline like magnets dressed in bikinis.  At any time of day or night you can expect to see locals huffing and puffing up and down the tiled sidewalks which border each of the beaches.

Copacabana is clearly the most popular.  Aside from the stunning views of nearby mountains, the beach also features volleyball, water sports and all-night parties year round!  (Are you ready for the frenzy?)  Copacabana is surrounded by many hotels and bars and in the high season tends to get very crowded.  (If you want to spend the day here, plan on arriving early!)

To the immediate southwest, Ipanema Beach is a little more relaxed, and in our opinion, a better place for sunbathing.  (Be warned, the water is a little choppier here than at Copacabana.)  Beach bars and a multitude of cafes make Ipanema the perfect place to spend the afternoon in case your hotel is located in another area of Rio.  (Ipanema tends to be a bit more family orientated, so depending on  your mood, you can work out which beach is for you.)

Even further to the west is Leblon Beach, a pristine shoreline attached  to slickened craggy rocks.  The location is quite stunning, and it is no coincidence that the surrounding neighborhood is one of Rio's most affluent and exclusive areas.

Copacabana and Ipanema are connected via a tunnel that cuts through Morro do Cantagalo, a mid-sized mountain.  A cab ride should not cost you too much, though if you are looking for a way to work off those coxinhas (chicken croquettes), you might want to try walking along the shore that connects the two.  Try one beach, try 'em all!

Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf)

Pão de Açúcar is one of the most famous attractions in Rio, and rightfully so.  The mountains are named as such due to their resemblance to molasses sugar lumps, and even on a cloudy day when the fog ices the mountains much like a cake, this attraction is a must.

After trudging through the rain all morning long shopping for shoes and rain gear (see "essentials" below), we caught a break in the weather and rushed over to the magical neighborhood of Urca (see below) to see the infamous Pão de Açúcar.  

To get to the  top of Pão de Açúcar, one must board a tram from the Babilônia Station.  The experience oddly reminded us a lot of Disneyland; the station even smelled like Disneyland!  The cable car journey itself is split between two separate rides, both very quick (around three to four minutes to each mountain landing).  The modernized tram car is very similar to the one used at the San Jacinto Park near Palm Springs, though apparently back in the day, the tram was not much more than a little 6-person trolley car (no thanks!) 

Once arriving at the Cara de Cão landing visitors can explore the tremendous views of Rio de Janeiro, or take a respite and grab a coffee  at the somewhat over-priced concession stand.  Just make sure you watch for signs and continue along the paths to the backside of the first landing!  (At first, we assumed that this was as far as we could go, and if we had not kept walking, we would have missed the other tram station altogether!)

Considering the weather, we were a little apprehensive in continuing the second part of the adventure to the top of Sugar Loaf!  In fact, for much of the second ride, we were traveling into a complete nothingness of dense white fog, and once we got to the top of Pão de Açúcar, we could not see anything off the sides of the mountain!  To be honest, it was a little unsettling.  But the fog moves quickly in Rio De Janeiro.  Soon enough, we were treated to the vast panoramic views of the many islands below.

A bonus treat  for us was the forest preserve clinging to the top of Pão de Açúcar.  We were pretty much on our own with the flora and fauna up there since few tourists   were brave enough to navigate the slippery slope down into the preserve.  What was particularly alarming were the mud paths that led  off of the main paved trails.  We were right at the edge of the mountain so we could not figure out where those paths would end up, and hoped that no one had the opportunity to find out on accident!   We ended up spending an hour or so up at the top of the mountain taking photos of  the natural beauty all around us.  If the weather had been better, we might have spent even more time as this is certainly a magical place. 

Naturally, the sun started shining brighter as we headed back towards the station at Babilônia.  Luckily, the views on the way down were just as spectacular as the ones going up so we were able to experience even more of this special place!  O paraíso está aqui!

The tram up to Sugar Loaf costs R$44,00 for adults (about USD $26), R$22,00 for children (ages 6-12), and is free for children under the age of six.  While the trams usually run between 8:00 AM and 8:00 PM,  make sure to check with your hotel to verify the seasonal operating hours. 

Bondinho do Pão de Açúcar - Avenida Pasteur 520-Urca, Rio de Janeiro, 011 (55) 21 2461-2700

Portuguese tile work

To new visitors in Rio, the most startling first impression of the city may in fact be supplied by something as common as the sidewalks!  But these are no common cement slabs we assure you!  At first, we thought they may have just been a fluke on the edges of Copacabana Beach, but everywhere we would go during our trip, no matter what neighborhood, we would see them - these beautiful decorative works of functional art!

So what is going on here?  (We had to wait until our return home to do more research.)

Paving sidewalks as a craft is believed to have originated in ancient Mesopotamia, later being brought to ancient Greece and Rome.  "Calçada Portuguesa" is the traditional paving used in most pedestrian areas in Portugal and in old Portuguese colonies such as Brazil.  Therefore, each time you are walking along the gorgeous black and white designs in Rio, you are actually walking on stones brought over from the "mother country" of Portugal! 

Some fine examples of the beautiful decorative sidewalks can be found in the Edmundo Bitencourt Park in Copacabana, and one of Brady's favorite souvenirs from the trip was a piece of the Portuguese pavement loosened from the cobbled sidewalks in the magical neighborhood of Urca (see below).

Set of Drifters tip:  When traveling, especially in big cities, always make sure to look up and down, not just in front of you.  You never know what you might miss out on!

Santa Teresa (neighborhood)

Off the beaten track, Santa Teresa is one of the most picturesque areas that we visited while in Rio.  Somewhat surprisingly, it reminded us a lot of Montmartre in Paris -  complete with hilly landscapes, cozy architecture, and a number of emerging "Bohemian" artists filling the local streetside cafes.  Santa Teresa is one of Rio's oldest neighborhoods.  High on a hill just on top of the city center, and boasting great views to the sea, the bay and the mountains, it once used to be the most elite area of the city.

When in the 1960's-1970's, the upper class started moving to the then modern areas like Ipanema and Tijuca, Santa Teresa fell into a state of disrepair - though it stayed a favorite of the intellectual and artistic elite.  Located on the top of the Santa Teresa Hill, a charming tram-way can connect you to other parts of Rio, though we would recommend walking around Santa Teresa as much as you possibly can. 

Though ultimately not as touristy  as its Parisian counterpart, Santa Teresa is perfectly dotted with some very interesting shops, galleries and restaurants, and is definitely worth the cab fare required to reach the destination if the tram up the mountain is closed due to inclement weather.  Check out the up-and-coming designers and artists (see "goodies"), soak in the beautiful architecture and have a seafood lunch while hanging out with the locals; it's an afternoon you do not want to miss while in Rio!

Set of Drifters tip:  Be careful if walking in the rain; those cobblestones can be quite slippery. 

Salgueiro Samba School

When in Rio, Samba baby, Samba!  And that is exactly what we did on our very first all-nighter in the city.

We had no idea what we were in for when our hosts told us they were taking us to one of the weekly "samba school parties;" we certainly would have never found this place unless we had been guided by hand to the small street in an out-of-the-way industrial part of the city north of Tijuca.   

We were instantly intrigued as    we noticed the carnival-like atmosphere that surrounded the building at the end of the street.  Vendors were busy making food and drinks while a gaggle of Samba performers from the Salgueiro school were hanging out and relaxing before heading into the main hall.  At this point, we still did not really know how the night would unfold, though as we got closer to the time of opening of the hall, people started arriving in droves.  After downing quite a few caiphirinhas on the street while enjoying the great people-watching, Doug, our hosts Dudu and Marcio and I were finally able to head inside.  We were soon granted VIP access, with open bar and buffet, thanks to Marcio and a friend of his who was a famous local actress.  Here, the caiphirinhas were made to order, and you could choose between fresh passion fruit, mango or pineapple!  Yum!

Preparing for the annual Carnival fests in Rio is serious business.  An outsider would have no idea how much work and preparation goes into the performances each year.  Salgueiro, or the Acadamicos do Salgueiro, is the most popular samba school in Brazil and is supported by one of the largest fan-clubs in town.  (Of the seven championships won since it was first established in 1953, only one has been taken at the incredible Sambadrome.)  The theme for 2009's Carnival was Tambor ~ "Da  natureza.  Da pré-história.  De árvores, troncos e peles.  Que vibra, comunica. Que pulsa. Dá ritmo à vida.  Tocado, dobrado, sentido."

From our VIP view up above, we were  exposed to a  view of a large sports-type of venue with bleachers on one side and a stage in the middle.  Everything was awash in red and white, the official colors of Salgueiro.  As the night continued to evolve, hundreds of people started dancing with wild abandon to the live samba music supplied by the traditional bateria.  (It is not uncommon for each samba school to feature a bateria with more than 350 men in them!  Traditional instruments include the pandeiro, tamborim and bumbo.)  As each new group of dancers would come to the stage, the crowd would erupt into an entirely new level of frenzy!  (And when the popular songs of the year started to play..?  Forget it!  Everyone in the room was singing and dancing in unison.  This party was truly like nothing we had ever seen and we are certain you will enjoy this experience as well - if you can find it!  Salgueiro Samba School opens at 8:00 PM on Saturdays but make sure to double check the website for more information about current events before just showing up.  Remember, bring your dancing shoes.

Set of Drifters tip:  "Pineapple" in Portuguese is called "abacaxi" (ah-bakka-she).  You just may need this knowledge when ordering fresh, custom made caiphirinhas!

Salgueiro Samba School - Rua Silva Teles, 104-Andaraí, Rio de Janeiro, RJD-CEP 20.541-110, 011 (55) 21 2238-0389


Probably one of the most amazing moments of our trip to Rio occurred while visiting Corcovado, and the large concrete statue of "Christ The Redeemer" which sits atop the mountain.  From what we had heard and read, the monolithic statue and views from Corcovado attract so many tourists each day that you usually need at least two hours to allow for traffic up the mountain and to the final destination.

On our trip, we had the misfortune of having bouts of rainfall pretty much every  day.  It was so rainy in fact, that Corcovado (the mountain) was barely visible when you looked for it from the ground.  On our last day in town, our friend Dudu came to escort us up to the location.  A native of Rio, he had told us there was no point in catching a taxi to the mountain unless  the weather was good.  To be on top of the mountain in the middle of a rainstorm would equal a virtual white-out.  Luckily for us, we noticed a small break in the weather and decided we would take our chances.  We were determined to check out Corcovado, and how often does one find themselves in Rio?

After a 15 minute journey up to the top echelon of the mountain (via the lovely Tijuca National Forest), we switched from our taxi to a shuttle van.  While hugging the sides of the road, we could barely see anything further than the front of the fan.  The mountain was entrenched in a heavy fog that moved briskly across the windy path.  Once parked at the base, a series of escalators then takes you up to the base of the famous statue that easily doubles as the "mascot of Rio de Janeiro."  Even at this close range, we could barely see the massive figure in front of us - and the thing measures almost 40 meters high!  There was a large viewing deck opposite the statue with a group of international students milling about. 

After walking around the seemingly non-existent statue and taking pictures of the large moths and lichen hidden in nearby trees, we made our way to the front of the viewing platform.  The sad thing was, from that edge, we could see neither the view in front of us or the statue behind us!  Our view was completely obliterated by clouds. Nothing but whiteness.

Then suddenly, after a few moments, we noticed what appeared to be a magical painting coming into focus.  With each passing minute, we  noticed more and more shapes becoming clearer, and as if on cue, a collective scream was let out by our group of faithful travelers who had remained at the monument!  The clouds continued to disappear for the next 10 minutes, and soon enough, we were looking at one of the most incredible views we had ever seen in our lives!  It was nothing short of a miracle.  Seriously.

Even if the weather is less than desirable, you don't want to miss this opportunity to see the city from this viewpoint. The beaches, Sugar Loaf, and the city all pulse from the heart of this most unique attraction!

Set of Drifters tip:  To get to the top of Corcovado, you can either take a rickety cogwheel train, or zip up in a tax (which is what we did).  In fact, we retained the same taxi driver throughout our entire stay - which is always  a great way to negotiate better deals!  Access to the "Christ The Redeemer" statue is available most days from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM; there is a small fee for taking the shuttle up to the base of the statue, though I do not remember it being more than R$10,00 (about USD $6).

Corcovado - Alto da Boa Vista, Parque Nacional da Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, 011 (55) 21 2558-1329; train departure is from Rua Cosme Velho, 513-Cosme Velho, Rio de Janeiro

Urca (neighborhood)

Did you know that Rio de Janeiro was founded in January of 1565 by Portuguese settlers who stumbled upon Sugar Loaf mountain and the area of land that is now the neighborhood of Urca?  ("Rio de Janeiro" actually means "river of January.")

On our last night in Rio, our friend and host Dudu took us on a walking tour of Urca, which also happens to be the neighborhood of his childhood.  Aside from Pão de Açúcar (which you can hike up from the base at Urca), there is not much in the way of "tourist attractions" here.  Still, we recommend a stroll through here at night to soak in the panoramic views as well as a taste of residential life in the city.  (For example, did you know that in South America, Santa Claus does not arrive via a chimney to deliver presents at Christmas?  Since the seasons are reversed, there is no need for fireplaces or chimneys in the middle of summer!  Instead, Santa climbs buildings from the ground up!  We saw a lot of examples of holiday decor depicting Santa's trek up the sides of buildings in this neighborhood.)

We started off at Red Beach.  With the dark silhouette of Sugar Loaf looming in the background, conversation soon turned to ghosts, dream messaging, beings from other dimensions, and other associated ephemera.  In fact, Dudu and Doug even attempted to make contact with the space brothers and sisters!  The weird thing about the beach was that the sand resembled brown sugar in both consistency and color.  Perhaps that is why they call the mountain "Sugar Loaf" after all? 

We continued walking to a magical spot where families were fishing for crabs out in the bay.  Behind us, a group of people holding a Santeria baptism ceremony were preparing offerings to the ocean.  Soon, we were witness to a flurry of candlle-lit flowers which were released out to sea on number of little tiny boats.  It was nothing short of intoxicating!

Doug later decided to offer his own flower up to the magical sea.  Unfortunately, the sea wanted more of Doug though than just the flower.  A "magic wave" soon came up to sweep him into the water!  Whoops!  The best way to get to Urca quickly is via taxi, but because of Pão de Açúcar, and its proximity to Babilônia Station, there are many bus lines that tun through this neighborhood as well.

Niterói Contemporary Art Museum

One place we were very happy to visit while in Rio (even if only for a few pictures at sunset), was the Contemporary Art Museum in Niterói, a bedroom community across the bay from Rio de Janeiro.  The art collection is housed in a stunning building designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Neimeyer that looks somewhat like a large spaceship floating on water!  The "UFO" measures 16 meters high and 50 meters in diameter.  A pool named "boa viagem" surrounds the edifice and reflects the cylindrical shape contrasted against the sky.  Truly unique.

Unfortunately for us, we arrived too late in the day to check out the art inside, but we have been told by our local friends that it is not to be missed.  (Next trip, we will give you an update.)

The taxi ride to this fantastic building takes about 20 minutes from Copacabana Beach, and therefore is somewhat pricey.  Still, if you are looking for a great photo opportunity for your Facebook profile, what's 60-70 Brazilian reals amongst friends?

Set of Drifters tip:  If you want to see more of Neimeyer's brilliant work, try to find a way to get to Brasilia, the capital of Brazil.  Neimeyer designed a number of buildings there for the President of Brazil in the late 1950's and early 1960's.

Niterói Contemporary Art Museum - Mirante da Boa Viagem, s / n º. Niterói, RJ-CEP, 24210-390, 011 (55) 21 2620-2400