Would you fly 14,000 kilometres to get on to a beach? If you had asked me this question before I set foot in Rio de Janeiro, my answer would have been a categorical no. Now that I have seen the light doing a saucy samba on those waters, I am a changed man.
Like Delhi, Rio seems to have a clear preference for horizontal expansion. When it hits a hill, which is pretty often in this neck of the woods, it simply climbs up along the sides. This makes Rio’s topography extraordinary, and the descent into it utterly dramatic. For a deliciously long duration, the aircraft cruises over this low-lying conurbation. Lushly forested hills appear on either side. There are teasing glimpses of water. And then, finally, we alight in paradise.
Even those who haven’t been to Rio have heard about the legendary beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, the second owing its fame to that bossa nova jazz classic, ‘The Girl from Ipanema’. (The singers sued the ‘girl’ when she set up a boutique with the same name, but the court ruled in her favour.) Predictably, these are the most popular areas for travellers but, since I wanted to get away from it all, I had zeroed in on Barra de Tijuca, a tranquil, upmarket neighbourhood in the western part of the city, for my base. Developed in the middle of the 20th century and planned by the Brazilian architect and urban planner LÃºcio Costa, best known for his master plan of Brasilia, it has a clean, suburban vibe. The avenue on which my hotel, the Grand Hyatt Rio de Janeiro, stood bore Costa’s name.
Barra’s beaches are just as beautiful as the storied beaches of Copa and Ipa. But, as a bonus, they’re delightfully uncrowded, as I could see from my ocean-facing room at the Grand Hyatt. Opened in time for the 2016 Rio Olympics, the hotel has an enviable location. To the front lies the scenic expanse of the Atlantic, while the back overlooks the tranquil environs of the Marapendi lagoon and nature reserve.
Rio has an origin story as strange as they come. On January 1, 1502, a Portuguese explorer, Gaspar de Lemos, arrived on this coast and entered the Guanabara Bay. He mistook the bay for the mouth of a river and named it Rio de Janeiro. The millions of revellers who descend here every year are thankful to him for this egregious error.
I usually give touristy sights a wide berth, but there are certain things every visitor to Rio must do, no excuses. One of them is visiting Sugarloaf Mountain, named for resembling a sugarloaf, which is how sugar was made and sold till the 19th century. Set at the edge of Guanabara Bay, it rises 396 metres into the sky and offers panoramic views of Rio.
A cable car dating from 1912, but modernised since, transports visitors from the Urca neighbourhood to the mountain’s top in two stages. It was from Sugarloaf’s viewing platform that I had my first view of Christ the Redeemer, the other mandatory stop on any Rio pilgrimage. Created by the French sculptor Paul Landowski, this Art Deco statue of Jesus Christ was constructed between 1922 and 1931 and sits at the peak of the 700m-high Corcovado mountain. The mountain itself lies inside the Tijuca Forest National Park, Rio’s own urban rainforest. Synonymous with Rio, the statue has been declared one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Padded mats placed in front of it enable visitors to lie down and take pictures from the best possible angle–which is all they seem to be interested in doing.
One of the most unusual tourist sights in Rio has to be the colourful SelarÃ³n Steps straddling the neighbourhoods of Santa Teresa and Lapa. A series of dilapidated steps, they were restored and embellished by Chilean-born artist Jorge SelarÃ³n from 1990 until his death in 2013. Eventually, visitors started to bring tiles. It’s a lively, polychromatic diversion on any city tour.
We also took a freshly painted tram up to Santa Teresa, where it deposited us nearly in front of the La Vereda souvenir store. Never have I seen such an engaging souvenir shop or such bloodlust in shoppers’ eyes. After we had nearly emptied out the store, the heist was celebrated with a meal at AprazÃvel, one of Rio’s most celebrated restaurants. Perched high in the Santa Teresa hills among towering trees, we feasted on dishes conjured with exotic ingredients which had arrived straight from the Amazonian rainforest.
Food was a parallel strand running throughout our discovery of Rio, and it was on the table that the city truly revealed itself. It would be an understatement to say that we ate well.
Several large and leisurely meals come to mind. (Non-meal times were essentially spent recovering from these meals.) It was at Fogo de ChÃ£o, a legendary steakhouse, that the vegetarians in our group, quite unexpectedly, had their best meal, digging into copious amounts of vegetables, raw, grilled and boiled, from a lavish buffet. As the meats arrived on the table, the carnivores happily swallowed the claim, possibly true, that they prepared the meat in the authentic gaucho way. Then there was the seafood fest at Satyricon, where we found ourselves face deep in oysters, lobsters and octopuses.
Some of the most superlative meals were at the Grand Hyatt itself. Chef Miriam Moriyama’s five-course Japanese tasting menu at Shiso worked with seasonal ingredients to create fresh, enchanting dishes. For traditional feijoada, we turned to CantÃ´. Even our breakfast was enlivened by visits from capuchin monkeys from the nearby mangroves looking for tasty morsels. Expectedly, all this food was generously lubricated with caipirinhas, Brazil’s go-to drink for all occasions.
The hotel was also a tranquil place to retreat to after our energetic, sometimes overwhelming, forays into town. Like Rio, the hotel has a deceptively understated vibe. The architecture seems inspired by the modern and brutalist trends so much in favour in Brazil. But then Grand Hyatts are always about spirit of place (and I don’t mean caipirinha!). There’s nothing cookie cutter about them. Wandering about the hotel, I’d sometimes run into a monumental staircase, or a vertical garden. There were always surprises round the corner.
At the hotel’s Atiaia spa, they use techniques and ingredients developed by the indigenous community. Atiaia, in fact, means ‘light’ in the Tupi Guarani language. In a curtained room at the spa, Bruno, my therapist, administered the Atiaia Signature Massage, which adopts techniques like lymphatic drainage, acupressure, aromatherapy, and our own abhyanga. I felt cocooned in luxury.
Rio is part rainforest, part mega-metropolis. But mostly it’s just a beach, with a coastline measuring almost 250km. I had a perfectly acceptable beach right under my nose but, you know, human nature. Even a sucker for shanti like me found Ipanema’s lively vibe infectious. Vendors promptly brought deck chairs and umbrellas and set us up in a matter of minutes. Caipirinhas were ordered (they would come at last half an hour later–Brazilian Standard Time), after which I turned my attention to the serious matter of getting into the water. I visited during the Brazilian winter and even though in Rio it’s definitely mild, the water is pretty cold. And the waters of the Atlantic seem to have a mind of their own, the waves too robust for any serious attempt at swimming. You just walk into the sea until a large wave topples you over. And then start over. It’s great fun.
Then it was time to explore the wild, untamed beaches outside town. Only, they were wild in more ways than one. At AbricÃ³, the city’s only official nude beach, even the barely visible dental floss bikinis of Ipanema had disappeared entirely. Coyly set behind some rocks, bodies sculpted to pure perfection mingled nonchalantly with plus sizes and sagging skin. The Frescobol players were utterly unself-conscious. And you could still order a caipirinha.
No, it’s not as far as you think. I flew Emirates, on which economy return tickets between Delhi and Rio cost approx. â‚¹ 1,20,000. My flight to Rio from Dubai took around 15 hours, no different from any long-haul flight to the US. I have it on good authority that Ethiopian Airlines has some of the most affordable connections to Rio.
Traffic in Rio can be slow, especially during rush hour, but a judicious use of public transport should have you moving about pretty swiftly. Your options include the metro, the BRT which has dedicated lanes for buses and even motorcycle taxis (these cost about a third of the regular cabs). Rio’s public transportation system can be held up as an example to any developing country. The BRT that failed so spectacularly in Delhi works like clockwork in Rio, connecting seamlessly with the subway system.
Where to Stay
If you’re clear about your priorities, you’ll know where to stay. The Grand Hyatt worked beautifully for me. With 436 guestrooms (43 of which are suites, including a penthouse suite with plunge pool and two presidential suites), the Grand Hyatt is located in Barra de Tijuca, one of Rio’s poshest areas. Rooms feature balconies, with great views of either the Atlantic Ocean or the Marapendi Lagoon. The bathrooms are reassuringly large, with deep, soaking tubs and separate rain showers (standard rate from $169; +55-21-37971234, riodejaneiro.grand.hyatt.com).
What to See & Do
Even on the strength of my oh-too-short sojourn, I could write a book or two on the subject.However, here’s a super-short guide.
Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain, Santa Teresa Tram, the Selaron Steps, the Tijuca Forest, MaracanÃ£ Stadium.
Samba is as quintessentially Brazil as it gets. The historic downtown neighbourhood of Lapa is the place to catch some samba street parties. Ginga Tropical (gingatropical.com) is said to be the best samba show in town. It features other dance forms aswell, like capoeira, forrÃ³and lambada.
Copacabana and Ipanema, of course, but also Leblon, Sao Conrado, Barra, Recreio, and the wild beaches like Prainha and Grumari.
Must-see ones like Museum of Modern Art and Museu Casa do Pontal (folk art) have been joined by new entrants like the Calatrava-designed Museum of Tomorrow.
My hosts were extremely generous,and had no doubt that I deserved a helicopter tour of Rio. You’ll have to book your own, but they are perfectly affordable. See riohelicoptertour.com.
Our Italian-return Brazilian guide and tattoo artist, Tatiane Araujo,made all the difference to our Rio trip. Vivacious and friendly, she’s listed on Viator. For the unbelievably busy, she also offers a ‘Rio in One Day’ tour.