By Suna Kanga
Christ the Redemeer is a familiar Rio landmark
THE Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, or Rio as locals call the city, is much more than an urban sprawl along a splendid bay and famous beaches. Its soaring cliffs offer exciting panoramas.
From our hotel balcony, the view of Copacabana Beach on Sunday is mesmeric. City dwellers stroll along the promenade in swimwear, some sporting string bikinis (tanga). Topless men carry rolled tees in the back of their shorts. The maxim is, the less you carry, the less you lose.
White sand, blue water, chocolate-toned bodies, fluorescent costumes, colourful umbrellas, boys playing beach volleyball, vendors selling coconuts, kids weaving between carefree sunbathers…the beach is a carpet of colour and movement.
We dress down and cross the road to view the beach against sky-high Sugar Loaf Mountain. The sand sizzles with well-oiled bodies and glistening derrierès give new meaning to the term beach bums. The cariocas (local folk) seem very comfortable in their skin.
In front of us is South America’s first luxury hotel, Copacabana Palace Hotel. Its dazzling whiteness, colourful flags and aristocratic facade proclaim its privileged status.
From here, world dignitaries have watched beach action since 1923. At the Palace’s superb breakfast buffet, we count 20 different types of fruit. Brazilian love fruit and juice vendors are everywhere.
Rio’s highlight is Corcovado Mountain (706m), where the Christ the Redeemer’s outstretched arms embrace brilliant views of the city, parkland, mountains, bay and islands.
Take an escalator or a steep stairway to the top. Fresh melon juice revives us for a trek through Tijuca National Park —the earth’s largest urban extension of tropical forest. Our jeep tour winds back along fashionable Ipanema beach (of The Girl from Ipanema fame) where colourful flags demarcate the gay section.
Despite the favelas (shanty towns), the joy of living is well evident in this city of 11 million people, the capital until Brasilia was built in 1960.
There are fine museums, some dedicated to trains, planes, sport, gemstones and Carmen Miranda, a star of the 1940s.
We visit churches and museums, lunch at glittering Café do Teatro decorated with Assyrian bas reliefs, watch gemstones being cut at famous jeweller H. Stern and dine at Marius Carnes, a churrascaria (grill) with a phenomenal spread.
For the Amazon experience, we fly to Manaus, a midway point along the mighty river which runs 6,437km from the Andes to the Atlantic. From the tastefully spartan Amazon Ecopark Lodge, we take a boat to Monkey Jungle (above) where 250 monkeys are supervised by doctors, go piranha fishing and alligator spotting by canoe and visit the stilt homes of local Amazonians. The trips offer fascinating glimpses of life along a waterway boasting 2,500 fish varieties and 1,500 bird species.
Excitement runs high on a cruise to view a natural phenomenon, the Meeting of the Waters. Two rivers with strong currents meet and run parallel for six kilometres. The Rio Negro’s clear, dark water runs alongside the silt-laden, muddy water of the Rio Solimoes (Amazon). At Manaus, a busy port and electronics centre, budget travellers buy hammocks and board passenger boats for Peru.
For old world charm, unique culture and exuberance, don’t not miss Sao Salvador de Bahia de Todos os Santos — or Bahai as it is fondly called. Soulful and sensuous, the hillside port has an exotic culture imbibed from Portuguese colonists and American Indians and Africans who worked on the gold mines and sugar fields. The charming waterfront town is built on two levels served by giant elevators and funiculars.
Pelourinho, the old city, is Brazil’s largest single treasure of colonial architecture.
We wander through a cobblestoned patchwork of painted buildings, churches and craft market. The aroma of palm oil fills the air as women in white costumes, some of commanding girth, cook at street stalls.
Good buys are white Bahia-print blouses, musical instruments and bead jewellery. Within churches, black saints with Christian and African names fuse Catholic and cult beliefs. The Museum of the City displays a fine collection of Orixas or deities of African origin.
At Solar do Unhao, a seaside restaurant in an old sugarcane factory, we dine on local casseroles and seafood and watch an exciting samba show.
Maurice, our courteous and well informed guide, sneaks us into a tightly packed, open-air nightclub where the singer has the entire crowd on their feet, singing and wriggling to a new beat. Carnival is a hot topic of debate between the two cities. “I love the samba in Rio but, if you want to dance, Salvador is better,” says a local.
Iguazu Falls, a magnificent natural wonder, is Brazil’s pride. From our room at colonial Hotel das Cataratas, we can gaze on a shimmering curtain tasselled with silver. Taking a wooded path, we descend for a closer view and encounter friendly raccoon-like creatures, or contis. Monumental Iguazu has 275 cataracts along three miles of scalloped cliffs across Brazil and Argentina. Donning rain jackets and goggles, we take a heart-stopping Zodiac boat-ride to the vaporous falls. The next day, we drive across to Argentina for another view and come close to the thundering Devil’s Throat.
Back in Rio, our day is devoted to architectural and natural gems — Gloria Church, excitingly contemporary Metropolitan Cathedral, the Aqueduct, 15th November Square and sky-high Sugar Loaf Mountain. Lunch is at the popular heritage Confeitaria Colombo, Rio’s oldest tearoom.
Sunday being synonymous with beaches, we take a schooner cruise to the private Bernardo Island. The buffet includes delicious penné cooked by the Italian owner Enzo Giovannetti. When we leave, the entire staff line up to sing and wave goodbye.
Back at the JW Marriott Hotel on Copacabana, we visit the rooftop for a caipirinha, Brazil’s lime-based national drink laced with sugarcane liqueur. Then we venture out on our own by bus without incident. Rio has been wonderful to us.
Brazilian Bossa Nova: Three generations of bossa nova stars will make Singapore swing to the much-loved style of Brazilian music at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Sept 13.
This article was published in The Straits Times' Travel Treats 2008, produced by the Special Projects Unit Marketing Division, SPH