First off, you must say it right. It starts with a roaring 'R', stretches on to a rolling 'e', and ends with an 'oh' - Rio, R-eee-oh! And please dispense with the clunky Rio de Janeiro, that's for boring official purposes only, and nothing, not-a-thing is boring about Rio, or so say the Cariocas (Residents of Rio).
Famed for its lovely beaches, lovelier beach bodies and an incessant appetite for fun and frolic, Rio readily takes to the title of being the world capital of frivolity, in our collective minds at least. Never have I heard a person refer to Rio with a straight face. There is always a naughty wink, a wry smile or an unusually long exclamation which accompanies Rio, which to be fair, is a little unfair.
Crime, poverty and uneven division of wealth, with over 4800 people living in every square kilometer, Rio has much more depth on offer than a roll in the sand. Its livid history of the Portuguese colonizers who fell hopelessly in love with the city and shifted base from Lisbon (with a little nudge by Napoleon); its momentous birth to Samba, Bosa Nova and half a dozen other music forms mark Rio out as a city which needs to be peeled, layer by layer, before any verdict may be etched.
Now, for an Indian to travel all the way around the world to Brazil, is rather odd and a sufficiently punishing ordeal in itself. A thirty-hour flight notwithstanding, the endless wait for the next connection is sure to dampen spirits. Thank god then for the images of the Carnival that were on constant repeat in my mind. "Rio sure knows how to throw a party" was the only positive I remember my Brazilian friend Julio ever mention about the town to the south. Brought-up in Sao Paulo, Julio followed the unwritten rule of love the two cities share.
In order to prepare myself for the trip and know little more than about awesome parties, I dug up a little literature for the long journey. Although I have been to Rio earlier, as a child, the only real memory that remains is of being in a Herbie, which drank cheap alcohol. Today though, the VW bug is all but extinct, with taxi services relegated to larger, less charming but equally impractical clunkers.
A dose of history
Introduced to the European world in 1502 AD by Portuguese explorer Goncalo Coelho, and christened Rio de Janeiro or River of January by Amerigo Vespucci, the Guanabara Bay had long been inhabited by the Tupinamba people who are believed to have crossed the Bering Strait from Asia in 12000 BC.
The imperialists soon wiped off the indigenous tribes and began sourcing Africans to power their substantial plantations. As the inhabitants grew, Rio became a melting pot with a thriving mixed population. With its busy port and large plantations, Rio soon took center stage as an economic powerhouse in the continent.
In 1807, as Napoleon's army marched into Lisbon, the entire Portuguese court moved to Rio, showering great wealth & prosperity on the city. With royal support, the city blossomed. In 1816, King Dom Joao IV declared Rio the capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and Algraves. Albeit only for five years, Rio remains to be the only European colony to ever have a monarch ruling from its soil!
In 1822, as Dom Joao IV settled back to Lisbon, his son declared Brazil's independence as Emperor Dom Pedro I. But in 1889, a military coup overthrew the monarchy and the Brazilian republic was born. The early 20th century was a period of great development for Rio as urbanization opened up Copacabana to jet setters from Hollywood and Afro-Brazilian culture gave birth to Samba music.
Even though the city has endured fascists and dictators, its prominence has never diminished. Despite the move to shift the capital to Brasilia in 1960, Rio remains the socio-cultural heart of Brazil.
Eu gusto de vocÃª
All tanked up on history, I arrived in Rio rather late in the evening. Severely jet lagged and itching to hit the bed, the first sight of the city - from up above the clouds, lit like a thousand candles flickering by the silver sheen of the sea - acted like a visual spa for my tired mind.
Perhaps the most iconic and surely the most recognized monument of Rio is the 80 year old, 38m tall Cristo Redentor. I started off my touristy sight-seeing tour early next morning by taking the train up the 710m cliff to visit the 1145 ton Christ the Redeemer statute. Set up to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Brazilian independence; it took 10 years to build and offers stunning views of the city from the edge of Corcovado (the hunchback) cliff.
Probably a companion piece and like any classic double-bill, twice as dramatic, PÃ¥o de Acucar or Sugarloaf is the cliff on the other side of town which provides progressively stunning views of the city and the Guanabara Bay which originally lured in the Portuguese. Although the sufficiently adventurous have the option of reaching the summit via some 395m of granite, I took the cable car, which in itself offers some splendid views of the breathtaking bay, especially during sunset, when I was there.
Ending my first day's activities with the iconic cliffs, I filled in the warmer hours by strolling down Centro, the business district, which also houses some of the most intriguing architecture in the city with glass & metal office towers, baroque cathedrals, and imperial art galleries & museums, all squished into one, surrounded by beaches and mountains on all other sides.
OlÃ¡! Vamu nessa!
By the time the sun fell into the sea, I achingly walked through the famed Copacabana promenade, livelier than a six year old's birthday party, with football and volleyball under floodlit beaches, samba dancers and bands playing by beachfront kiosks and road side vendors selling a mÃ©lange of cheap souvenirs. I was under strict orders by Enio, my Carioca friend from a previous life (we studied together) to not go treading by the shore and instead be ready for a night of jazz club hopping.
Dressed in our casual best, we headed off first to Lapa, warming ourselves with shots of CachaÃ§a (local sugarcane liquor) we steadily kept pace across bars playing some of the best live music outside of New Orleans. As the drink took its toll on us and made us senseless enough to make all sound seem like pumping bass, we headed off to Leblon to check out the club scene.
Saying that it was not disappointing would be understating it by a mile and more. Although I wouldn't dwell on the topic much, but a word of caution - the Cariocas are seriously good dancers and clubs aren't necessarily a place to just chill out in, that's for the beach.
Early morning is probably the best time to hit the beaches in Rio. Not only is the sun kinder at the time but the beach itself is calm and quite. As the day builds up, the beach is slowly taken over first by sunbathers, then surfers and finally, till late at night by the football and volleyball playing public, which basically means that by the evening, the whole city seems to be on the beach.
Influenced by Enio's wisdom, my plan was to spend the morning at Copacabana, perhaps the most commercial of Rio's beaches, retiring to the shade during the afternoon, feasting on grilled Tambaqui (Amazonian fish) and freshly squeezed caipirinhas (a lime cocktail made of CachaÃ§a), and then hitting the legendary shoreline of Ipanema in the evening.
Rio's beaches have gained legendary status not because of the clear water or silky sand, which in fact is muddled brown and coarse without exception. The beaches boast of dramatic cliffs, jutt