Rio Rhythm: Exploring Brazil's beachside metropolis.

Reading Time: 10 Minutes

Famous for its flamboyant carnaval, iconic beaches and beautiful samba music, Mark Knoff-Thomas takes us through his life-long love affair with Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's beautiful beachside metropolis.

Shown above: Christ The Redeemer Statue Created by French Sculptor Paul Landowski.
Photo: Marchello74 / Shutterstock.

Ahhhh Rio! Cidade Maravilhosa – Marvellous City. My lifelong love affair with this iconic Brazilian metropolis began back in Standard 2 or 3 (that’s Year 4 or 5 in modern speak). Back in those days for geography projects in class, the teacher would get out a huge rocker stamp, and dutifully press the outline of a country onto a piece of paper for you. (The smell of the ink was enough to put you into rehab to be honest). The anticipation would build as you didn’t know where the place would be until the imprint was revealed. This was the beginning of an exciting journey into faraway and exotic places – very far from Dunedin, in the 70s. One such project - and one of the few memories I have retained from primary school - was Brazil, and in particular a feature on the beautiful city of Rio de Janeiro. A spark was lit, I was mesmerized.

Fast forward a few decades…. on arrival and after jumping into a taxi, at then Galeāo Airport but now renamed Tom Jobim International, we slowly made our way towards the hotel in Ipanema. Rio is hectic, but not in a Bangkok kind of way. It’s a city that moves, slowly, it’s busy, and traffic can give Bali-esque PTSD. Your eyes will drink in so many iconic geographic sites and buildings – driving passed Maracan. stadium – the largest in Brazil, Sugar Loaf Mountain, glimpses of the coast, and Corcovado (Christ the Redeemer statue). There are also confronting images of young kids walking in motorway lanes selling chips and drinks, weaving in and out of cars. It’s a lot. It’s a chaotic symphony. As you get closer to the main beach areas you soon realise some of the best views of Rio are had from some of the most impoverished parts. Favelas (shanty towns) crawl their way up the steep hills encircling the city with grandstand views of some of the world’s most famous beach fronts. It’s an oddly beautiful juxtaposition. Favelas are home to plenty of every day decent people, but some also harbour dark secrets, drug and gang activity. The Rio Federal Police have their work cut out keeping on top of the issues.

The inhabitants of Rio are known as Cariocas,they embrace life and live it to the fullest. Music and dance is in their DNA. Rio is famous for many things like its annual Carnaval (Carnival), Samba, Bossa Nova, and of course its beautiful beaches. Moving from west to east, are Leblon, Ipanema, Copacabana and Leme. They form a continuous line with a peninsula break in the middle between Ipanema and Copacabana. All are open to the public and are well worth spending some time at. All along the city-side of the beaches you will notice “Postos”, which are numbered lifeguard stations, often indicating what sort of crowds go where and what activities are available. The Postos also have facilities such as showers, toilets and changing rooms. Small fees may apply. Postos 1-6 are best for sunrises, playing volleyball, football, or showing off your muscles, and Sugar Loaf Mountain views; Posto 7 is more surfer oriented, or for quieter romantics and sunsets; 8 and 9 are LGBTQI+ specific spaces; 10-12 are very boujee and where the millionaires and celebs hang out.

Rio - Ipanema Beach
Ipanema Beach. Photo: Catarina Belova / Shutterstock

Commerce all over Brazilian beaches is alive and well. And in Rio at regular intervals along the soft sandy stretches you will find bars and cafes. But parading the beaches are vendors selling a vast array of things. From hammocks to sarongs and bikinis, to fried haloumi, prawns on sticks, sunglasses and drinks. The sellers really are their own art form. Great for people watching, and good for bargains. Just be mindful of any wooden handicrafts as you don’t want to be that person featuring on Border Patrol on your return to NZ.

If you love trawling through markets for souvenirs, knickknacks or clothing you’re in for a treat. Rio is very well served with plenty of markets, plus if you are a bit of an art lover and enjoy supporting up and coming artists, you can find some great original pieces at ‘Feira Hippie de Ipanema’. It will undoubtedly get to the point where you will spend significantly more on framing the canvases than you did on the actual art! Copacabana has a night market on Avenida Atlantica every day except Sundays. And remember you’re in Brazil, the mothership of Havaianas - don’t miss out on picking up a pair. For a more upmarket retail experience head to the boutiques in Ipanema (especially Rua Visconde do Piraja, a vibrant street parallel to the beach that crosses the whole Ipanema neighbourhood and links Copacabana to Leblon) and Leblon.

If, like me, you’re an architecture nerd, and in particular love the designs of Oscar Niemeyer, you are in for a treat. Rio doesn’t have the same volume of Niemeyer’s work as Brazil's capital Brasilia, but it does have some superb examples. His buildings are dotted around the city, but it’s well worth making the small trip over the harbour to Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum – a 6km NZ$30 taxi ride. The museum wouldn’t look out of place on the Jetsons and is part of the Caminho Niemeyer (Niemeyer Way), an 11km route showcasing many of Niemeyer’s designs. Quite stunning. Architecturally Rio gives midcentury vibes. Many examples of modernist commercial and apartment blocks with superb use of concrete (I’m a huge fan… look out for my TED Talk on Le Corbusier – just joking). You can imagine the elite of Europe and the US flocking to the beaches here in the 60’s. I’m sure Hollywood A-listers, Jackie O, Euro-royalty and The Rolling Stones etc, would have been regulars. It has that Roger-Moore-as-James-Bond-in-a-tux-sipping-a-martini energy.

Niteroi Contemporary Art Museum. Photo: Renatopmeireles / Shutterstock

Apart from their succulent BBQ meats, Brazil is not really all that well-known for its food, but the country does have some absolute delights. For a hot country – and it can reach fan-bake oven temperatures – they sure love stew. Rio has great food aplenty and boasts the best dishes from all over the country. If you’ve never tried Feijoada (black bean stew) often served with farofa - fried cassava flour, do it, or Moqueca (fish stew, with origins from Bahia in the northeast of Brazil), pastel (a rectangular-shaped fried snack with a vast array of delicious fillings), coxinha (a chicken filled croquette), biscoito Globo with mate tea at the beach (a tradition for Cariocas), a refreshing acai, and you must try one of the many Churrasco restaurants (specialising in steak – apols to vegetarians). In particular – peak tourist - but nonetheless fabulous, was the steak I devoured at Restaurante Garota de Ipanema. This was the place where composer Antonio Carlos ‘Tom’ Jobim was at when he got inspiration to write the song “The Girl from Ipanema”. Most churrascaria (BBQ restaurants) will serve endless amounts of meat to your table, carved out in front of you, until you say stop, or get the meat sweats – whichever comes first. This type of bottomless service is called ‘rodizio’ – and is keto heaven! (NB: In Brazilian Portuguese the letter ‘R’ is generally pronounced like ‘H’).

When visiting many international cities, you need to have your wits about you (actually that probably applies to Auckland these days too), Rio does have a reputation for crime. Be mindful of bags, phones and even smart watches. When I travel anywhere these days, I keep my phone safely locked away in a bag, and my smart watch in an ActionSleeve positioned on my upper arm under my t-shirt sleeve. It means I can keep up my activity and steps (mild obsession) but not have my watch on display to tempt the more lightfingered.

Depending on how much time you have, I’d recommend doing a tour, there are plenty on offer. They make navigating the city easy, and you can rely on expert local advice. At the end of the tour, don’t be surprised if your guide asks for a tip, this is pretty common practice. On top of what I have already mentioned, other things I’d recommend for your bucket list:

  • Sugar Loaf Mountain (Morro do Pão de Açúcar) – take a cable car from Praia (Beach) Vermelha to the top of Sugar Loaf (about 400m high), and costs around NZ$60. The views are spectacular, plus you can take walks to see monkeys, lizards etc.
  • Christ the Redeemer (Corcovado) – possibly one of the most iconic structures in the world today. At 30m high and 28m wide, you don’t need to be religious to enjoy the wonders of the scale of this statue.
  • Escadaria Selarón, or ‘Lapa Steps’ – these colourful steps by Chilean artist Jorge Selaron have featured in many music videos (Snoop Dogg, U2 and Michael Jackson) and are a symbol of Rio.
  • Museu do Amanhā – Museum of Tomorrow located in Praça Mauá is an applied science museum combining science and art and is a highly interactive and thought-provoking experience – allow a decent amount of time.
  • Sambadrome Marquês de Sapucaí – only Rio would have a 700m purpose-built facility (another Niemeyer creation) for Carnaval with a capacity of 90,000… Cariocas take their Samba and street festivals very seriously. Carnaval takes place just before Lent, in the lead up to Easter each year.
  • Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas (Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon) – it is a great place to watch the sunset over a drink in one of the many bars that face the lagoon in Leblon.
Museu do Amanhā – Museum of Tomorrow located in Praça Mauá.
Photo: R.M. Nunes / Shutterstock
Escadaria Selarón, or ‘Lapa Steps’.
Photo: Aleksandar Todorovic / Shutterstock

There have been rumours circling for many years that Air NZ was planning direct flights to Brazil, but COVID seems to have put that on the back burner. They do however do a code share with United Airlines via Houston. Or LATAM operate daily flights to Santiago, Chile on their very comfortable 787 Dreamliner, with direct connections through to Rio.

This is merely a snippet of things that you can do and see in Rio. Auckland has a fast-growing population of Brazilians, and links between New Zealand and the South American continent are only getting stronger and stronger. Rio, and Brazil in general, provides a superb option for a holiday destination, for something unique and different. Plus, currently the exchange rate is favourable to the NZ dollar. Rio really is Cidade Maravilhosa!

This article was published in NEWMARKET. Magazine Summer issue, click here to view more.