Music, football and passion are always in fashion in this Brazilian metropolis
Football and beaches, replies Luiz when I ask him what pulls outsiders to his vibrant city. “Sorry, add the Statue of Christ and Samba to that as well,” he says, while driving me from Rio de Janeiro airport to the Miramar Hotel by Windsor located at the world famous Copacabana Beach.
Sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and tropical forest-clad cliffs, this second largest city of Brazil is one of the most visited destinations in the world. Arrival numbers soared during last year’s World Cup football tournament and promise to reach a record high during the Olympics in August 2016.
Founded by the Portuguese in 1565, the colonial settlement evolved over centuries as the epicentre of the European empire in the Southern hemisphere, politically as well as culturally. After theoretical independence in 1822, the former home of many Portuguese monarchs continued as the sovereign capital until 1960 when the seat of the Brazilian government was shifted to Brasilia.
Even after losing the governmental clout, it’s still the nation’s utmost tourist location, with the main drawcards unquestionably those mention by my guide Luiz from BIT Tourism.
Football is not just a game in Brazil; it’s a religion that ignites the passion of almost everyone in every nook and corner of the nation. However, it is most intense in Rio city where its six million inhabitants are so obsessed with the game that they are said to think about it even in their sleep.
Almost every available space in the city, from green patches to dusty suburban courtyards, are turned into football grounds, but the main one is the Mario Filho Estadio, known worldwide as the Maracana Stadium, built in 1950. It stands as a silent witness to Brazil’s glorious football history.
In the past six decades this 78,000 capacity arena has been the venue for many football battles including World Cup finals in 1950 and last year. This is where legendary Pele scored his 1000th goal. The stadium looks like a futuristic colosseum, where watching a game is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
If that’s not possible, guided tours are available to give visitors an opportunity to imagine the electrifying atmosphere on a match day with thousands of jersey-wearing fans cheering their teams, waving banners and flags.
The ball game is also leisurely played on the beaches, the sprawl of some even wider than any soccer field. These sandy shores are a second home to Rio locals or carikos. They assemble here almost daily to jog, swim, sunbathe, socialise with friends, families and visitors, play beach volleyball, football or futevolei (a kind of volleyball played with the legs and head instead of hands).
Among many, the waterside locations of Copacabana and Ipanema are a magnificent confluence of land and water, brimming day and night with activities; from elders gossiping to youngsters romancing, families dining and vendors selling merchandise to buskers performing, kids showing off football skills there are opportunities for people watching everywhere.
Locals and tourists line up for Caipirinhas, Brazil’s national drink, or green coconut water at one of the many kiosks lining the mosaic promenades of Avenue Atlantica.
While energy and excitement splash these ocean front venues, Rio’s two bolstering landmarks – Sugarloaf Mountain and Corcovado Mountain dominate the skyline while ceaselessly overlooking the lively scenes below.
The affectionate title of Rio is cidade maravilhosa, meaning marvellous city. Visitors agree to this particularly when sighting the surrounding vista from the top of these two mountains. The ensemble of white-sand beaches and verdant rainforests fronting the deep blue ocean create a sensational feast for the eyes. Even the setting of concrete skyscrapers adds special effect to the panorama.
The Corcovado Mountain peak is home to a giant statue of Christ, better known as Christ the Redeemer. The image of this 38metre-high figure, built in 1931, which enjoys the status as of one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is the accepted emblem of Rio and without a doubt the most visited place in the city. It can be reached by a 20-minute train ride through a deep tropical forest, however the best location to catch sight of this statue is from the top of the Sugarloaf Mountain, accessible by cable cars.
The Portuguese left Brazil in 1889 but their legacies remain in terms of language, religion, cuisine and architecture. Portuguese is still the official language and family names such as da Silva, dos Santos, Nasciment and Mello mean this sway will remain for as long as Brazil remains. The well preserved colonial buildings in Rio neighbourhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa, where the famous painted-tiled steps of Seladron are located, repeat the notion.
So does the myriad of historical monuments, cathedrals and squares in and around the city centre, most crowd-pulling being the Imperial Palace, Tiradentes Palace, Metropolitan Cathedral and Municipal Theatre that challenge the grandeur of opera houses in Paris and Vienna.
While wandering in the city I notice a guy wearing a shirt with “Samba is life” inscribed on the back. Such a tag is nothing unusual in Rio; samba music and dance rituals are unquestionably the city’s heart and soul. This high energy and rhythmic cultural routine was introduced in Rio and subsequently spread to other parts of the country through the African slaves of the European colonisers. Like football, today it’s an indispensable part of the local lifestyle.
Samba performances can best be witnessed during the annual Rio Carnival in February, when hordes of dancers dressed in colourful costumes parade through the streets, presenting a highly orchestrated show of songs, drumming and body movement. There are several Samba schools in Rio which throughout the year rehearse with their students to take part in this world famous showstopper.
During non-carnival period, it’s possible to visit these institutions to get a taste of the thriving music culture. Otherwise, drop in at one of the bars in Lapa, the heart of Rio’s nightlife and undisputed capital of samba, and enjoy the exuberant revelry. Rio Scenarium Club is a good venue to enjoy live musical performances in the company of fun-loving Brazilians.
Rio lives with a reputation of being crime infected and therefore unsafe. It’s actually not that bad. By taking a bit of extra care and caution, it’s not too difficult to negotiate the vastly cosmopolitan city. Holding the hands of an experienced guide like Luiz makes it much easier to discover the metropolis where there are things to see and experience at almost every turn.
Getting There: Qantas (www.qantas.com) or LAN Airlines (www.lan.com) via Santiago
Accommodation: Miramar Hotel by Windsor (www.miramarhotelbywindsor.com.br), a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts, offers convenience, comfort, value for money and splendid ocean views from almost every room.
Tour Operator: Contours Travel (www.contourstravel.com.au) is one of Australia’s most experienced South America tour operators, specialising in tailor-made and small group itineraries. Call 1300 135 391 for more info.
Visa: Check www. http://camberra.itamaraty.gov.br/pt-br/ for details.
Local currency: Brazilian Real, 1 AUD = 2.4 BRL