The Best Show in Town
In 1960 two starving local musicians, the now-famous Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, wrote a song about a beautiful girl from Ipanema Beach. They could not have known they would turn this sandy strip into a shrine as inherent to the local character as Sugarloaf Mountain is to the city’s unmistakable profile. Rio’s twenty-three beaches make up a 45-mile stretch of white sand, but Ipanema is its most sophisticated and elite, for those endowed with gorgeous bodies, dental-floss swimwear, and attitudes to match.
Bordering the city’s upper-class neighborhoods, it is the beach of choice for the chic and fashion-conscious, who use it for daily preening, strutting, socializing, volleyball games, flirting, jogging, being seen, and generally showing off. Ipanema is a window, a stage, a microcosm, a study of the exuberant carioca ethos of rhythm and style. After a day here, sunburned visitors walk away with some insight into an unhurried and gregarious way of life that springs from the city’s sensual and age-old love of beaches. It is a party for friends and family – not as rambunctious or boisterous as the street-festival atmosphere at Copacabana, but a party nonetheless, and outsiders need no invitation.
An Unmatched Urban Tableau
The mesmerizing 360-degree panorama from atop Corcovado Mountain showcases Rio de Janeiro’s beauty in all its heart-stopping glory. This unique, overpowering tableau of curving white beaches, skyscrapers, gray granite mountains, lush rain forest, and the island-studded Bay of Guanabara encouraged Rio’s nickname, Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City).
Corcovado’s summit is crowned by the 120-foot-high soapstone figure of Christ, his arms outstretched to a 75-foot expanse; the very symbol of the city, it was completed (nine years late) in 1931 to commemorate the 1922 centennial of Brazilian independence. Almost twice as high as its rival, 1,300-foot Pao de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain), Corcovado offers a view of the gumdrop-shaped Sugarloaf, and confirms that no other major metropolis is as blessed with physical and natural beauty as Rio. The passenger train to the summit makes its steep 2.3-mile, twenty-minute ascent through lush Tijuca National Park, the largest urban park in the world – an 8,151-acre forest of plate-size blue morpho butterflies and refreshing waterfalls.
The Feast of lemanjá, Afro-Brazilian Goddess of the Sea
No less impressive than Rio’s wild and raucous Carnaval celebrations is New Year’s Eve along Copacabana Beach during the exotic, mysterious, quintessentially Brazilian homage to Iemanjá. She is the beloved African goddess of the sea and central deity (conveniently conflated with the Virgin Mary) in such Afro-Brazilian spirit cults as condomblé, macumba, and umbanda. Well before dusk, thousands of her white-clad followers begin to gather on Rio’s many beaches, particularly Copacabana, where macumbeiros baptize initiates while others chant and create candlelit sand altars.
The air is thick with incense as a huge fireworks display turns the thirty-six-floor Meridien Copacabana hotel into a gigantic Roman candle. Cariocas (Rio’s residents) launch small handmade boats carrying their gift of flowers, perfume, lipstick, mirrors, and lit candles – anxious to see if lemanjá will accept them and fulfill their wishes (the boats are washed out to sea and sink into the depths) or reject them (the waves return them to shore). The best view for those not into entranced crowds is from above. If you can’t wrangle an invitation to any of the swank high-rises lining Avenida Atlántica, book a beachside room at the Meridien, but do it months in advance.
Rio’s Elegant Beachside Landmark
The neoclassical-facaded Copacabana Palace is one of South America’s most legendary hotels, and perhaps its greatest. Inspired by the French Riviera’s grande luxe Negresco in Nice and the Carlton in Cannes, it exudes a light, airy Mediterranean feel unique in this chaotic city-resort. And following an extravagant tiara-to-toe renovation, it is once again the most stylish place in Rio. Overlooking the famous beach from which it takes its name, “the Copa” is a veritable pleasure palace: The semi-Olympic-size pool is the best in town for a dip or a high-octane poolside caipirinha break, and the daily tea service has become something of a cultural experience (reservations necessary!).
Inside, the cool marble halls are lined with sepia photos of the Who’s Who that have signed the Golden Book since the Copa first opened in 1923. Here was the backdrop for Flying Down to Rio; the 1933 film that was the first to pair Fred Astaire with Ginger Rogers also helped launch the hotel as the favorite vacation spot of Hollywood stars. Ask for suite 751, home to Carmen Miranda for four months. The myth of yesteryear lives on in the ornate Golden Room; its famous glass dance floor is lit from below and is the exquisite location for the most exclusive black-tie Carnaval ball in Rio.
The World’s Most Lavish Party
Say “Carnival” and the world thinks Rio de Janeiro. Each year, the whole city becomes a stage, hosting one of the great free-for-all productions of street theater and embodying the exuberant Brazilian spirit. Carnaval, as it is spelled in Portuguese, is constantly being created and re-created, sexually charged and fueled by creative passion and, to some degree, the ever-growing commercial need to entertain tourists from everywhere. There are three distinct ways to experience it, not all of which are expensive or require advance planning.
The major events are the grand parades of the eighteen lavishly costumed samba “schools” (actually teams) and their floats on the Sunday and Monday before Ash Wednesday. The televised parades begin at 6 P.M. and last till dawn, filling the 70,000-seat Sambódromo with music, passion, and unbridled frenzy as the samba teams compete for the year’s championship. Certain bleachers are reserved for foreign visitors. Elsewhere, indoor samba balls (often black tie or in full costume) are held in upper-crust clubs and hotels, the most exclusive being at the Copacabana Hotel. But perhaps the most authentic experience of all is to join the tag-along bands that snake through the beachside neighborhoods of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon. They wander noisily until there is no audience left – only to reappear later on another corner.
An 18th-Century Time Warp on the Costa Verde
As the gold rush of the 18th century died down, so did Parati’s importance as the flourishing port for galleons carrying precious cargo from inland Minas Gerais to Portugal’s royal court: The town went into hibernation, encapsulating its colonial heyday until its eventual rediscovery in the 1950s. Located on the coast midway between Rio and Sao Paulo, its precious time-warped beauty is one of the few things on which the cariocas and paulistas (Sao Paulo residents) agree.
Visitors and locals navigate the waterfront cobblestone streets (closed to traffic) by foot or by bicycle, while small family-run shops confirm the suspicion that this is a town where the locals still thrive on fishing and fanning. There’s no action and no beach to speak of, but you can still admire the fine houses and the few elaborate churches that wealthy merchants built for themselves (along with two churches exclusively for their slaves and servants). One of the first inns to jump on the tourist bandwagon is still the town’s most charming: Pousada Pardieiro’s rustic simplicity is offset by a stylish selection of artwork, objects, and such discerning touches as chilled Champagne in your minibar and a pool for further refreshment. Parati’s location on the lush, jungle-clad Costa Verde makes it the perfect jumping-off place for boat excursions to any of the 365 outlying islands and the deserted beach idylls they promise.
Barefoot Casual Chic in Brazil’s Party Beachtown
Búzios is about gorgeous beaches and gorgeous nightlife. People looking for a quiet hideaway head to Parati; those looking for the St.-Tropez of South America flock here. Búzios – Portuguese for “shells” – remains a fishing village at heart, despite the vacationers from nearby Rio, who put this place on the map long before it was immortalized by Brigitte Bardot in the 1960s. The small amoeba-shaped peninsula of a town offers twenty-some-odd beaches, and the day’s most pressing decision is which crescent cove to visit. Nights are filled with a variety of live-music bars and jazz clubs, whose denizens dance till dawn.
The cobbled Rua das Pedras is lined with chic, expensive stores, casual but excellent restaurants, and open-air bars that invite lingering. Colonial-style inns, or pousadas, blend luxe with coziness for their sophisticated clientele. The castaway-minded hop aboard a schooner that shuttles them to Nas Rocas, a private island retreat for those who prefer to view the action from across a moonlit bay.
Incredible Mountains of Roller-Coaster Adventure
Beaches are Natal’s real claim to fame, and Genipabu is its finest. Located on the easternmost tip of the South American continent, Natal has become the hot spot of Brazil’s northeastern area. Miles and miles of enormous white sand dunes and some of the world’s most beautiful beaches can be found 15 miles north of Natal in and around Genipabu, where sunset strolls, donkey or horseback rides, sand surfing, or roller-coaster-style rides in four-wheel-drive beach bugues (buggies) are pastimes of choice.
Beach buggies can be rented by the intrepid, but no one knows the shifting sands and adrenaline-busting turns and Indy-500 potential of the dunes like the local professional bugueiros drivers. They can also whisk you away to the secluded lagoons, palm-fringed lakes, or a well-earned celebration at a funky beach hut selling fried shrimp and cold beer after you’ve survived one of their rides. To keep in the spirit of this exotically beautiful dunescape, stay at the delightful Hotel Genipabu. It sits on a bluff above Genipabu Beach and offers great views of the fabled sand dunes.
Dolphin Ballets and Fragile Ecology
One of the last great, little-known, little-visited destinations for ecotourists, the mini-archipelago of Fernando de Noronha offers an unusual Galapagos-like experience. As a closely guarded national marine park, whose untroubled waters ensure a pristine ecosystem with year-round visibility of more than 300 feet, it’s small wonder that the twenty-one-island paradise is considered one of the world’s greatest sites for scuba and snorkeling. Add to that the community of more than 600 whitebelly spinner dolphins who have chosen to make the Baía dos Dolfinhos (Dolphin Bay) their home since the 1700s; their famous gravity-defying acrobatics can be viewed by boat excursions or from the bay’s escarpments (though visitors are no longer allowed to swim with them).
The volcanic main island’s 1,600 friendly human residents are as unpolluted by outside contact as the local flora and fauna. Many of them are descended from penal inmates who were imprisoned here in the 18th and 19th centuries. TV is nonexistent, and rudimentary accommodations are often in bunker-type barracks built during the island’s brief stint as an American military base during WW II.
Time Stands Still in a Colonial Hamlet
When Ouro Preto became this once-affluent province’s 19th-century capital following an earlier gold boom, Tiradentes missed out on the development, remaining remote and rural – much as it is today. Situated between the picturesque Rio das Mortes and the Atlantic forest at the foot of the mighty Serra São José mountain, its nine winding streets and seven impressive Baroque churches would still be recognized by those who knew Tiradentes in its 18th-century splendor.
A smattering of contemporary art studios, galleries, and small restaurants have arrived as the town has become a favored weekend getaway for escapees from Rio and Belo Horizonte. The charming inn Solar da Ponte is an Anglo-Brazilian collaboration that has become a beloved home away from home for a diverse roster of international guests. This small pousada captures the spirit of a rustic but elegant country home in an 18th-century village with warm hospitality and old-world charm. There are freshly cut flowers from the garden in each of the spacious guest rooms, which have been beautifully decorated with the traditional regional handcrafts and designs for which the Minas Gerais region is known.