Rio’s Sporting Double
The Daily Mail's Jo Tweedy visits Rio, where, in spite of some vocal opposition, a palpable sense of optimism hangs in the air as a result of the city's hosting of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
It never rains but it pours. Bid to host the world's top two sporting events in short succession and few would wager on a double yes.
So when the suits at the International Olympic Committee in Copenhagen announced that the Olympic flame would finally be lighting a path down to South America in 2016, hot on the grass-scuffed heels of the world's best footballers in 2014, cariocas (Rio natives) celebrated as only they know how. They started to samba, in their thousands, on the most famous beach in Brazil.
Anyone who’s ever felt Copacabana’s softness beneath their feet would tell you there is much more to this particular beach than the sand itself. It is a microcosm of Rio life; where Speedo-wearing businessmen yap on mobile phones, volleyball players swat down points, surfers soar almost as high as the kites and fledgling relationships blossom under the hot South American sun. Tourists watch wide-eyed from the fringes.
It’s almost impossible to arrive in Rio de Janeiro without a few preconceived images layering themselves among the clothes in your suitcase. World-beating carnival, scantily-clad beach goers and mercurial-footed soccer stars are among those that spring instantly to mind...often to the frustration of those who live here.
'There is so much vibrancy and energy to Brazil and it's not just football, bikinis and Copacabana beach. Rio is revamping and becoming a world class destination. It's a really fantastic place to visit right now,' says Steven Chew, owner of the Brazilian Beach House Company.
Having dipped my toe in South American waters for the first time this summer, I'm inclined to agree with him. Rio is the sun-drenched, exotic, developing sprawl that travel folklore suggests it is but for visitors going anytime soon there's also a very palpable sense of optimism. Rio is clearly poised for a purple patch.
Take the suburb of Lapa, for instance. Daylight reveals streets tattooed in graffiti and boarded up buildings but when the inky sky drops, a Cinderella effect ensues and thousands of cariocas cram into the samba bars.
We spent our first night in Rio watching shined leather shoes making light work of samba songs in Rio Scenarium, among the most popular of the Lapa dancehalls. Choruses rolled like tidal waves through the venue’s three creaking floors, propelling people to their feet and uniting them in a singing-to-the-heavens finale.
The lion’s share of tourists head for the brace of beaches that sweep like a gull’s wings across the southern corner of the city. Immortalised in song and film, Copacabana and Ipanema are bookended by misty mountains and divided by just a small stretch of land. The showboating Copacabana Palace, easily the city’s most famous hotel, sets out the stall for erstwhile glamour, harking back to a gilded age when Hollywood starlets and high society would mingle by the pool.
Sugar Loaf Mountain and Corcovado, where the awesome statue of Christ the Redeemer stands, battle it out for the city’s best vantage point. The views atop both are staggering, with deep green forested mountains, skyscrapers and the favelas (shanty towns), which run like fingers through Rio, stopping only at the cobalt Atlantic which pools around the city.
Elsewhere, the bohemian quarter of Santa Teresa, one-time home to Ronnie Biggs, is a hilltop hideaway worthy of an afternoon’s visit. A handful of delicious restaurants and art shops are tucked in among historic mansion houses that have seen better days but it all melds together to make a beautiful setting for lunch.
We heeded warnings about pickpockets but had no problems with security, and although guidebook Portuguese will ease your passage in a city where English isn't widely spoken, we seemed to bumble along with one very useful word...obrigado - thank you, and a bit of Spanish.
In spite of its superlative setting and tourist wonders, Rio quickly exhausts and after a few days' exploration, it can leave you wanting to turn another page on Brazil.
The easiest way to do this is to head south – by bus or by car – and take the two hour journey to Costa Verde (literally, ‘green coast’) where the forested mountains glimpsed at in Rio completely dominate the landscape. It is a tropical, picturesque portion of the country and there are plenty of small towns including Angra Dos Reis and historic Paraty that could keep you entertained for a day or two. The real gem of this region though is an island that lies an hour and a half‘s ferry ride from Angra Dos Reis.
Ilha Grande (Big Island) follows in the footsteps of Alcatraz and Robben Island in that until 1994 it was a penal colony. Visitors who come to this protected island retreat now stay of their own free will. The tiny resort of Abraão is affectionately known as 'Downtown' although in reality, it's a crescent-shaped bay fringed with around 20 small pousadas (guest houses), beach-shack style restaurants and a good smattering of shops.
UK travel agents are already reporting an increased interest in holidays to Brazil. The arrival of the world's best athletes will introduce a new audience to Rio and while staging two major tournaments in as many years is an enormous feat for any destination, it's hard to deny this hugely endearing city its chance to samba on a global stage.