February 20, 2013 00:00 By Ana Maria Pomi
Despite violence and the economic crisis, beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema flourish
Rio de Janeiro’s beautiful beaches have endured for decades despite economic crises, harsh dictatorships and social upheavals in Brazil. Far from being bumped from the list of “earthly paradises”, they are readying for a new golden era as host to two of the world’s biggest sporting events.
With a population of nearly 12 million people, Rio de Janeiro is set to host the World Football Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016, the first South American city to obtain the double honour.
Rio de Janeiro welcomes visitors “with open arms in the postcard and a closed fist in real life,” its Paralamas do Sucesso rock band claims in a song. But the city is not letting misery and poverty spoil the coming party.
The social inequality that has been the scourge of Brazil throughout its history seems far away from Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon, Barra da Tijuca beaches and other tourist locations.
Lying next to hilly and verdant landscapes and overflowing with joy and sensuality, these beaches have lost none of their charm.
But, if it is true that toned golden bodies, hot sandy beaches, samba dancing and caipirinha cocktails are the images and words that immediately come to mind when thinking of Rio, favela (slum), urban warfare and street urchins also dominate news from Rio.
The darker side of Brazil's second capital (the first was Salvador de Bahia and currently the capital is Brasilia) has been the focus of many films, novels and media coverage.
Visitors, both foreign and local, take this in their stride and seem to enjoy the splendid ocean waters and the cheery attitude of the Rio people, who describe themselves as “Cariocas”.
They love the brighter side of life, the side that can be soaked in from the top of the Corcovado, the mountain topped by the gigantic Christ the Redeemer statue, dubbed one of the seven modern wonders of the world.
This bright side also emerges when the sun sets each evening and people applaud and cheer and offer toasts.
Those who want to get to know the dark side can go on favela tours, guided walks of the hillside slums. Several of the slums are now watched over by police pacification units and are safe to visit.
Despite suffering a considerable shortage of hotel rooms, Rio de Janeiro is preparing for what could become the biggest tourist moment of its history.
Changes are being planned for Copacabana. It is to be the setting for the 2016 Olympic Games beach volleyball and beach football events.
There will also be alterations at its wealthy neighbour Ipanema, with its crystalline waters. Ipanema beach is the birthplace of the bossa nova movement and was made famous by "The Girl from Ipanema" song.
Ipanema continues to be trendy and also teaches lessons in tolerance and getting along.
The stretch of sand is divided into different sections: a spot for body builders, one for open-air gym sessions; one for the gay community and another for surfers searching for the best waves.
Besides these two world-famous beaches there are others: the elitist Leblon, with its Dois Irmaos hill, as well as the Leme, Vidigal, Flamengo, Arpoador and Botafogo beaches.
All of these enjoy warm weather practically all year long, except in winter, when temperatures drop slightly to an average 18 degrees Celsius, hardly chilly.
If you go
Singapore Airlines flies to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where Rio de Janeiro is an hour flight away.