Rio de Janeiro is the most visited city in the southern hemisphere.  When you think of Rio, images of Carnival, the Bossa Nova, and bikini-clad bodies on beaches (they don’t call their waxing a Brazilian for nothing) come to mind and, quite possibly, the sound of Barry Manilow singing, “Her name was Lola…” ring in your ears.  In 2016 Rio will take the world stage as host to the Summer Olympics, the first time a South American city will host the event.  Stash that in your Jeopardy fact file.

Indeed Rio is a lively and fun city as you might imagine.  I visited in 2002 as a representative for Habitat for Humanity International at a world religion peace conference.  While the conference was a fascinating foray into crossing customs and cultures, Rio presented its own prospects for fascination; the city is home to some of the world’s most famous landmarks.  Take for example the giant 125-foot statue Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) overlooking the city atop Corcovado mountain (not to be confused with Sugarloaf) in the Tijuca Forest National Park.  This massive iconic Jesus was recently named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.  Made of reinforced concrete and soapstone, took almost a decade to construct.  Trust me.  When you see it, you won’t believe it was possible.

Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio’s other famous peak, rises over 1, 200 feet at the mouth of Guanabara Bay on a peninsula that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean.  Take the cable car to the top, or if you’re looking for a physical challenge, climb it!  Yes, you can scale this rock.

Then there are the beaches.  Copacabana.  Ipanema.  Barra da Tijuca.  Commonly known as “balnearios” these beaches are big business.  I am very lucky to have Brazilian friends who happily enlightened me on all things beach, which I now pass along to you.

  1. Don’t bother taking valuables of any kind to the beach including jewelry, camera, credit card or passport.  Take only the money you need for what you want to buy and enjoy the sand and sea.
  2. TAKE SUNBLOCK.  Don’t buy sunblock from the beach vendors; they refill it.
  3. Set up a relationship with a “coco” stand when you arrive by renting chairs and get what you need from them.  [A “coco” stand is a vendor selling “Agua de coco” or coconut water, which is commonly served directly in the coconut itself.  These big green coconuts contain a sweet drink, high in electrolytes.  A favorite of the locals and valued for its rehydrating properties.  Try asking for one by saying, “um coco verde, por favor.”]
  4. Copacabana Beach: Hate it. The water is dirty and the sand isn’t cleaned at night there.
  5. Ipanema: In front of Caesar Park has the best security and best beach service of yummy cold cocos.
  6. Apoador: Between Ipanema and Copacabana.  This is where the surfers go.  It’s cool but dangerous on weekends as it is closest to the favelas (shanty towns) where many residents hang out on their days off since the beach is free fun.

Speaking of the favelas – shanty towns or slums – take a tour or hire a guide to take you into at least one of them.  Any student of the world seeking an empathic perspective on poverty and interested in economics and the art of survival needs to see a favela.  The largest and arguably the most famous of them is Rocinha (pronounced HO-seen-ya).  Built into a steep hillside, Rocinha is so well-developed it is technically classified as a neighborhood, with nearly 70,000 residents.  You’ve got to see it to believe it.  There are hundreds of thriving legitimate businesses: banks, shops of all kinds, public transportation, internet cafes and schools.

At some point you have to eat and drink and in Brazil that means two things: Churrascaria and Caipirinha.  First, the meat.  A churrascaria is a restaurant serving grilled meats of all types, served by waiters moving around the restaurant, slicing the meat from the large skewer right onto the plate.  Having grown in popularity outside of Brazil, there are even a few chain restaurants in the States that serve meat this way, alongside a huge well stocked salad bar.  Now, onto the libation.  If you are a cocktail drinker you will love Brazil’s national cocktail, the Caipirinha made with cachaça (sugar cane rum), sugar and muddled lime.  Cachaça is Brazil’s most common distilled alcoholic beverage (also known as Pinga or Caninha).  More on Cachaça below in my writeup below on Paraty.

Finally, although I didn’t have much time to shop, I took a trip to the Feira Hippie or Hippie Fair Crafts Market, open on Sundays in Ipanema.  It’s a must see entertaining place to shop for arts and crafts.


Pronounced Par-a-CHEE, this well-preserved Portuguese colonial town is located on the Costa Verde (Green Coast), a lush, green corridor that runs along the coastline of the state of Rio de Janeiro.  A few hours outside of the hustle and bustle of the city of Rio, Paraty offers quaint cobblestone-paved streets and a Historic Center District where much of the architecture hasn’t changed in over 250 years.  No cars or trucks are allowed, only pedestrians on foot or bicycle need apply.  Horses and carts are also a welcome sight.  Consider staying in one of the many “pousadas” or bed and breakfasts that dominate the town.

I happened to be visiting Paraty during its Festival da Pinga which the town began organizing in 1983 to promote the centuries old tradition of distilling Pinga, Brazil’s ubiquitous sugarcane liquor.  Any reason to have a drink and party is a good one in Brazil and the scene among Pinga-lovers in Paraty is a lively one.  Believe me, this stuff will put hair on your chest, so taste with caution.  Opportunities abound to sample many varieties straight from the barrel while enjoying the food and music that is synonymous with the carnivalesque atmosphere.  Saude!

One of the best ways to see Paraty is from the bow of a boat.  Swim, snorkel and cruise the day away on the bay.  If you are a water person, I highly recommend.  There’s one other thing you will not want to miss: puppet theatre.  Before I go any further, and lest you scoff, the puppet show presented by Contadores de Histórias at Espaço Cultural Paraty is NOT meant for kids.  These “storyteller” puppeteers use these incredibly detailed human-like dolls to tell wordless stories with adult themes (yes, sex).  The show has been running since 1994 and the theatre is small and intimate (no double entendre intended) so best to buy your tickets to this very popular attraction in advance.

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