Rio de Janeiro city of mar­vels

Se­duc­tive and spir­ited, must-see Rio de Janeiro kicks into even higher gear this Au­gust when the Olympic Games come to town, says BRIAN JOHN­STON.

Travel Bulletin - - SOUTH AMERICA -

WEL­COME to the new Rio, and let the Games be­gin. The city has been trans­formed over the past decade, fol­low­ing a boom­ing (though now stum­bling) Brazil­ian econ­omy and the host­ing of the FIFA (soc­cer) World Cup in 2014. The Olympic Games, which take place in Au­gust this year, also en­cour­aged wa­ter­front trans­for­ma­tions, pub­lic works projects and the ren­o­va­tion of land­mark build­ings such as the Mu­nic­i­pal The­atre. Crime has been vastly re­duced, the city buzzes with new­found en­ergy and op­ti­mism, and life has re­turned to its streets. Rio is shak­ing its tail feath­ers once more. For any vis­i­tor, the high­light of Rio de Janeiro is the city’s fab­u­lous nat­u­ral set­ting in which humped moun­tains col­lide with the ocean. You could choose one of sev­eral par­tic­u­larly gor­geous view­points, though many peo­ple are se­duced by all of them. The first is Su­gar­loaf Moun­tain, whose peak, reached by ca­ble-car, leaves you al­most sur­rounded by wa­ter. Rio’s coast­line un­folds be­low in golden sands and sparkling bays backed by jun­gle-draped moun­tains. In­ci­den­tally, the Art Deco neigh­bour­hood of Urca be­low Su­gar­loaf is cu­ri­ously over­looked but lovely; its sea wall is stun­ning at sun­set. Al­ter­na­tively, a ride by rack rail­way up Cor­co­v­ado Moun­tain pro­vides an equally splen­did out­look (though from an in­land an­gle), plus a close-up en­counter with the fa­mous statue of Christ the Redeemer, arms out­spread in wel­come. Go early in the morn­ing be­fore the crowds, and just as the mist lifts to re­veal the en­tire city at your feet. If queues for the rail­way get too much, con­sider a taxi to Mi­rante do Pas­mado, a park hardly known to tourists with a very sim­i­lar (though less iconic) panorama. Be­hind Cor­co­v­ado lies the world’s largest ur­ban for­est, Ti­juca For­est Na­tional Park, stud­ded with wa­ter­falls and lime­stone caves. A guided eco-walk here brings you face to face with tou­cans, para­keets and mon­keys. Adren­a­line en­thu­si­asts – and vis­i­tors who dare to go along for a tan­dem ride – use one of its rocky out­crops, Pe­dro Bonita, as a launch­ing spot for hang-glid­ers, which drift over the city to land on Rio’s beaches far be­low. At upmarket beach sub­urbs Copaca­bana and Ipamema, Rio’s bold and the beau­ti­ful ca­vort on the beach in skimpy swimwear, roller-blade along the prom­e­nades, and en­joy cold beer and bar­be­cued prawns from street stalls. Surf­ing, beach vol­ley­ball and strut­ting are quite the pas­times here but, be­yond the sands, you’ll also find ex­cel­lent din­ing and shop­ping. Ipanema is no­table for fash­ion bou­tiques, while Copaca­bana has chic jew­ellery stores and a week­end crafts mar­ket.

Af­ter ad­mir­ing beau­ti­ful Rio, head to the city cen­tre to get to grips with the city’s his­tory and mod­ern dy­namism. Avenida Rio Branco is Rio’s ver­sion of the Champ­sElysées and cuts through Cen­tro, best vis­ited on week­days; it’s prac­ti­cally dead on Sun­days. Cen­tro is in­ter­est­ing for colo­nial-era squares, wind­ing streets and Por­tuguese-style churches whose in­te­ri­ors are a riot of gilded baroque. Browse fancy bou­tiques, plun­der bar­gain street mar­kets, and en­joy cream cakes and cof­fee in grand cafés flaunt­ing mar­ble-topped ta­bles and chan­de­liers. You’ll also find art mu­se­ums and evening con­certs and bal­let in this dis­trict. In the evenings, head to ad­ja­cent Lapa, where you’ll find a com­bi­na­tion of gritty pubs, so­phis­ti­cated bars and live-mu­sic venues, many in el­e­gantly re­stored her­itage build­ings. Lo­cals come late – din­ner may not be un­til eleven – and stay late, with the par­ty­ing and caipir­inha drink­ing of­ten con­tin­u­ing un­til dawn breaks over the At­lantic Ocean. Santa Teresa is an­other city-cen­tre dis­trict worth vis­it­ing. Once, an in­fa­mously rick­ety tram hauled vis­i­tors up into this hill­side neigh­bour­hood, but now you’ll have to be con­tent with bus or taxi. Santa Teresa was home to the city’s elite in the nine­teenth cen­tury; now its man­sions crum­ble and its trop­i­cal gar­dens are over­grown. An arty crowd has moved in, open­ing gal­leries and quirky restau­rants, and the vibe is es­pe­cially lively on week­ends. As you walk down to­wards Cen­tro, you’re re­warded with great views over the ocean. For some­thing un­usual, join a tour to a favela or shan­ty­town. Al­though Rio’s shan­ty­towns are a shock­ing ur­ban blight, they’ve given rise to much of Rio’s mu­sic and samba, and pro­vide a fas­ci­nat­ing glimpse into Rio’s al­ter ego. Gar­den lovers, mean­while, should visit the Botan­i­cal Gar­dens, par­tic­u­larly fine for their wa­ter lilies and av­enues of palm trees; you’ll also spot par­rots and mon­keys. Art afi­ciona­dos could head to the Niterói Con­tem­po­rary Art Mu­seum for Brazil­ian art ex­hib­ited in a spec­tac­u­lar fly­ing saucer of a build­ing perched on the coast. A match at fa­bled Mara­canã sta­dium among soc­cer-mad Brazil­ians is an­other bril­liant ex­pe­ri­ence. So too is a visit to a samba school or samba club for a spec­ta­cle of se­quins and feath­ers. Rio’s pas­sion with samba cul­mi­nates in its Fe­bru­ary car­ni­val, a four­day fan­tasy of danc­ing and drum­ming, and a truly glo­ri­ous ex­pe­ri­ence that cul­mi­nates in the Pas­sarela do Samba, the grand­stand pa­rade that will leave you be­daz­zled. A city of pas­sion and many plea­sures, it’s no won­der lo­cals re­fer to Rio as La Cuidad Marvelosa, the mar­vel­lous city.

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