At the Copa, Copacabana
Whenever I think of Rio de Janeiro, the words to Barry Manilow’s Copacabana always play in my head. Showgirls, beaches, hot nightclubs and models playing volleyball on the beach are what I always imagined Rio to be. To my surprise, the reality turned out very differently.
Behind the name Rio de Janeiro
In English, the name Rio de Janeiro sound pretty exotic and exciting. In Portuguese, it literally means “the river of January.” I felt a bit deflated when I found this out. After all, that doesn’t sound very exciting nor exotic. Does it sound weird to people speaking Portuguese to say they’re going to “the river of January?” Or is it “January River?” Maybe that why they commonly shorten it to Rio? It would still be like saying that they are going to the river, although people probably aren’t likely to say that these days. I digress.
Portuguese explorers arrived on the shores of Guanabara Bay on January 1, 1502. Not knowing what to name this new place, they opted for the significance of the date and called it Rio de Janeiro – January River. Pretty practical fellows when you think about it.
Home of the Portuguese court
As the political situation in Europe became more unsettling, Portugal’s royal court moved from Lisbon to Rio in 1807. They stayed there until tensions between Portugal and Brazil led to the country’s independence. In 1822, Empire of Brazil was established with Prince Pedro, who became Dom Pedro I as its emperor.
The royal palace in Rio is quite an interesting place. It stands quietly in this bustling city, proud like the royals that lived there. Sometimes I wonder if they saw it as a sanctuary or a self-imposed prison. After all, they were only there for their safety. It definitely is not as glamorous as its European counterparts, but it still is an impressive building.
The architecture in Rio was the first thing that surprised me. I didn’t exactly know what to expect. What I found was a city with a much more European feel than anything in North America. When you think about it, countries like Canada and the U.S. were settled by people who were often escaping poverty, persecution and a number of other unpleasant things back home. They wanted a new start and an opportunity to leave the old world behind. They tended to model their new lives differently than what they came from, including they way they built their cities.
South America was mostly a conquest. Those that came here seeking riches did so in the name of their kingdoms. Their aim was to extend that old world power and ways of life into their new colonies. Much like their Spanish counterparts, the Portuguese were in search of wealth and conquest. As a result, much of the architecture here in Rio is reminiscent of Portugal. Although Rio de Janeiro is over 500 years old, much of the old architecture hasn’t survived due to various redevelopments and politics. What has, is definitely worth checking out.
The Copacabana Palace
Built in an art deco style, on what was once the outskirts of Rio, the Copacabana Palace hotel overlooks the beach that is its namesake. As many similar hotels, this was once a playground for the rich and famous. From big name movie stars, famous rock stars and artists to politicians and royals, many have graced these walls with their presence. If the walls could speak, I’m sure they’d have many deliciously scandalous stories to tell. Although, the hotel’s glory days were in the 1930s and 1940s, it’s still a snazzy place today. Walking inside is like taking a step into a world that’s straight out of a movie. The shiny marble, the chandeliers and uniformed staff all play their part to perfection.
The hotel is not exactly a budget accommodation, but if you’re able to stay here – I’m jealous! Actually, you don’t have to be a guest at the hotel to enjoy a drink by the pool and I highly recommend that you do so. The pool area is where the people watching is at its best. I’m sure the rooms have even better views, but you gotta make do with what you have. The pool area has a lovely sitting area where you can enjoy a beverage and a snack in a very pleasant setting. Bonus if the weather is good. I don’t think you can actually get in the pool unless you’re a guest, but it certainly looks inviting.
Much like its sexy neighbour Copacabana, the Ipanema beach has its own claim to fame. I wasn’t quite aware of the Girl from Ipanema song until I came to Rio, but apparently it’s quite famous. Much of this neighbourhood once belonged to José Antonio Moreira Filho, the Baron of Ipanema, where the name derives from.
The Ipanema neighbourhood is quite upscale with many restaurants, bars and shops that are frequented by locals and tourists alike. Here you’ll see many people ride their bikes and roller blade along the beach, surf the waves or sunbathe on the beach. After all, you can’t visit Rio de Janeiro without a stop at the beach. 🙂
Christ the Redeemer statue
You can’t go to Rio and not visit its most famous landmark – the statue of Christ the Redeemer. With arms wide open, it overlooks the city atop the Corcovado Mountain. You can’t really imagine the magnitude of the statue until you actually are standing underneath it.
The statue is another example of the art deco style found in Rio. It is 30 metres (98 ft) tall with an 8 metre (26 ft) pedestal base and was sculpted by a French-Polish sculptor Paul Landowski. The whole project took nine years to complete and it now recognized as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World along with the Great Wall of China, Taj Mahal and the Colosseum.
It’s best to visit the statue first thing in the morning before the crowds. You can book a tour to take you there and to the top. Getting tickets yourself is also an option, but you have to book them ahead of time and that seemed a lot more difficult so I opted for an early tour. The tour bus gets you to the entrance and from there you have to climb over 200 steps to the base of the statue. There are elevators that make some of the journey easier. It was really worth getting up at 6 am as the views were spectacular.
A visit to Sugarloaf Mountain guarantees wonderful views of the city. Sugarloaf’s peak rises up 296 meters above the Guanabara Bay and overlooks the Atlantic ocean. While the views are always stunning, you can catch a very instagrammable sunset there. Cable cars run the 1,400 metre journey every 20 min between the Pão de Açúcar and the Morro da Urca peaks. You can buy tickets at the station located on Praia Vermehla.
Crime and safety
Rio de Janeiro is not exactly the safest city in the world. The crime stats alone can be enough to scare visitors away, but that can be said about many places. While I’m not discounting this issue, I’ve never felt unsafe in Rio. As a visitor, you have to exercise caution and common sense. While most Brazilians I’ve met were friendly and almost surprised that anyone would want to visit their country, not everyone you meet will mean you well.
Unlike many other places I’ve been to, strolling around in the evening wasn’t something I was willing to do in Rio. Travelling with Uber was safe and easy, but it’s also good if you know a local that can take you around. There are many favelas in Rio, as in other cities in Brazil. They are not safe places for tourists to wander into alone, although there are tours that do visits to favelas. It wasn’t something I was interested in, but if you do, make sure you do your reasearch before you head off on a tour with a stranger.
Rio de Janeiro odds and ends
Rio has so many contradictions. Its past is steeped in wealth, power and tradition. The present has a lot of people living in poverty while others live in luxury. There are the rich and the poor, divided by class, race and income which might not be that noticeable to those who are not used to such a way of life.
It definitely isn’t a perfect system, but I felt very welcomed here and would encourage others to give it a try. The people I met in Brazil were friendly, helpful and many of them have become my friends. It’s one of those places that I would like to go back to and visit again.
Have you ever been to Rio de Janeiro? Let me know!
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