The Washington Diplomat / June 2005
By Larry Luxner
Maracanã, the world's largest soccer stadium, and Copacabana, its most famous beach ... South America's most impressive art museum and some of its most dangerous slums. All this is Rio de Janeiro, the No. 1 tourist attraction in Brazil and a city that must be visited at least once in a lifetime.
And if you're going to Rio, do it now while it's cheap. The recent devaluation of Brazil's real — now worth around 2.55 to the dollar — makes Brazil a truly cheap destination for those with U.S. dollars in their pockets.
Contrary to what most people think, Rio is not Brazil's biggest city. That distinction belongs to São Paulo, a metropolis of 20 million that's often compared to New York. But Rio's 10 million inhabitants, nicknamed cariocas, certainly think their city is the most beautiful in Brazil, and most tourists would agree.
Rio's charm starts the moment you land at Tom Jobim International Airport, known until recently as Galeão. An exhibit inside the airport's gleaming new passenger terminal tells the story of the man who composed "Girl from Ipanema" and put Brazil's unique bossa nova sound on the world music map.
Perhaps Rio's best-known icon is the statue of Jesus Christ atop Corcovado (which is also the name of one of Jobim's most popular songs). Visible from just about everywhere in the city and illuminated by powerful beams at night, this 100-foot-tall concrete statue — known in Portuguese as Cristo Redentor — attracts thousands of tourists every day who make the ascent by train through Tijuca National Park, which in 1999 was declared a "biosphere reserve" by UNESCO.
The Christ monument was planned for the centenary of Brazil's independence in 1922, but was not completed until 1931. The view from the base of the statute is breathtaking, particularly when looking in the direction of the 1,300-foot-high Sugarloaf Mountain, and it is a great way for visitors to get their bearings in Rio.
Rio's other famous icon is of a decidedly less sacred nature: the dental-floss bikini.
Strolling down Avenida Atlantica along the city's world-famous Ipanema and Copacabana hotel strip, it's impossible even for female tourists not to notice the girls.
Several years ago, when Rio was competing to host the 2004 Summer Olympics, city fathers launched a campaign to remake a city known throughout the world for sun, sex and samba into South America's culture and sports capital.
"Rio cannot compete as a resort anymore. A city of 10 million people cannot be a resort," said one prominent hotelier. "We have to resell the city's image. People already know about Sugarloaf Mountain, the beaches and the mulattas. What they don't know is that we have more than 60 museums. We think Rio can be a very important center of a new kind of tourism, and a big center for sports events."
Others disagree, however. One Brazilian tour guide said scrapping Rio's time-honored image of Carnaval and sensuality would be unrealistic and counterproductive. "A few museums does not culture make," said the guide, who asked not to be identified, adding that "if want tourists really want to see is culture, they can go to Paris or Madrid."
Yet it's true that Rio has plenty of culture.
Right in the heart of Tijuca Forest is the 130,000-square-foot Casa das Canoas (House of the Canoes), an example of refined, Brazilian colonial architecture. Built by famous architect Oscar Niemeyer as his private mansion, this exquisite locale is now open to the public. Construction of this majestic place utilized material from Old Rio (17th and 18th-century buildings) and is decorated with pieces of art and antique furniture. Visitors feel as if they have returned to the past, and are in awe of the rare and intimate contact with nature offered by the mansion.
Many examples of Niemeyer's work abound throughout Brazil — he supervised the design of Brazil's capital, Brasília, in the 1950s — but perhaps the most famous is the Contemporary Art Museum in Niteroi, located across Guanabara Bay from Rio.
Designed by Niemeyer, the museum houses an impressive collection of contemporary Brazilian art. Covering 6,500 square feet, its surrounding veranda offers breathtaking views of Niteroi, Sugarloaf, Gávea Rock and Corcovado.
Niemeyer, 96, is an unabashed Communist, and his political views are on display throughout the enormous museum. Along with lavish praise for Mao, Lenin, Stalin and Fidel is an autobiographical panel with the following inscription: "I look out the window at the immense of ocean, the blue sky and the crowded beach. It is Nature celebrating, in contrast with this world of bloodshed and despair that the Bush Empire has disseminated on Earth. Our only hope is that night will fall for a new day to dawn."
On a much less serious note is happy hour at the Academia da Cachaça. Here at this unique bar in the upscale Barra de Tijuca neighborhood, tourists mingle with locals over popular Brazilian dishes and beverages — the most famous of which is cachaça. The bar houses a collection of over 2,000 bottles of this fire-water that once belonged to Ulisses Vasconcelos, a journalist from the state of Minas Gerais.
Displayed on glass shelves and arranged according to themes, they tell the story of 130 years of sugar cane spirits.
Another delightful place to visit is the Colombo Coffee House, which was built in 1894 and has changed little since then.
Part of Rio's cultural heritage, the Colombo is a favorite downtown attraction for visitors from all over the world. With its Belgian, jacaranda-framed mirrors, chandeliers and Art Nouveau decor, it is a magnificent vestige of Belle Epoque charm. Confeitaria Colombo was the favorite tearoom for rich families, politicians, poets, journalists, writers and artists.
The present-day café remains a popular restaurant for entertaining business clients or simply having fun. Another great dining spot is Marius, one of Rio's most popular churrascarias (Brazilian BBQ), offering a feast of Brazilian culinary delights. Grilled meats of all varieties are delivered to your table, while at the buffet you can find everything from tropical fruits and fresh seafood and salads to sushi, moquecas (delicious mixed fish stews), Italian cheeses and mouth-watering desserts.
A popular dinner spot is the Rio Scenarium — a nightspot in the Lapa district that's a mix between an antique shop and an auction room. Here, locals come to listen to traditional Brazilian music, dance and admire the decoration: Bohemian and sophisticated at the same time.
On weekends, these same locals head to the Casa da Feijoada, which features the national dish of Brazil. Known as feijoada, this specialty has its roots in colonial times when slaves cooked leftovers from the manor house for their own meals. When they combined black beans and parts of pork and beef, they created feijoada, which had such a tasty aroma that even the masters and farm owners were attracted by the delicious smell.
Most tours of Rio include the National History Museum, established in 1922 and housed in the historic remains of the Santiago Fort at Calaboose Point, one of the strategic defense points for the city of Rio. This is one of the most important museums in Brazil, with over 287 thousand items, including the largest numismatic collection of Latin America.
Another interesting site is Ilha Fiscal, an island whose claim to fame is that it hosted the last ball hosted by the Brazilian Empire in 1889.
A little green castle surrounded by coconut and palm trees on a small island in Guanabara Bay, this picturesque palace was designed in 1881 in neo-Gothic style by engineer Adolfo del Vecchio, and inaugurated on Apr. 27, 1889. It is today a cultural center housing temporary and permanent exhibitions that portray the history of this miniature palace and the Brazilian Navy.
One of Rio's most impressive sights is Maracanã, the world's largest soccer stadium.
Inaugurated in 1950, the stadium has witnessed Brazilian soccer players' most famous goals, including the 1,000th goal scored by Pelé, today Brazil's minister of sports. There's also a Maracanã "Hall of Fame," inaugurated in June 2000 to honor the 50 most outstanding Brazilian soccer players.
No visit to Rio is complete without a visit to the famous Botanical Gardens, a paradise of plants and trees which, among other things, boasts the largest collection of Amazonian plants in the world. This garden is one of Brazil's most important sources for botanical research, second only to the Amazon itself.
Founded in 1808, it spreads over an area of approximately 340 acres. There are over 5,000 species of plants housed in the gardens including the impressive Imperial Palms, planted in 1842.
Yet Rio, for all its natural beauty, can't seem to shake its association with crime and violence. And a number of tourists conclude that, apart from the glittering Copacabana and Ipanema hotel strip, the city is downright shabby. Like all Brazilian cities, miserable favelas ring the metropolitan area, traffic chokes nearly all main arteries and garbage litters the streets. How much Rio is actually improving is quite debatable.
Also keeping tourists away from Rio is the Brazilian government, which requires Americans to buy a tourist visa for $100 before they can even set foot in the country.
Eduardo Sanovicz, president of the government tourism agency Embratur, conceded that the visa rule for Americans is a big hassle.
"We know about the visa situation, and everybody is aware of it, but it was the United States that decided to charge us for visas and fingerprint us. Whether I agree or not doesn't matter, but a lot of people are working to overcome that."