Rio de Janeiro Beyond the Beach
Off The Beaten Path in Brazil
By Carla Waldemar
Sun yourself all day, then samba under starlight. That indulgent anticipation draws many a hedonist to Rio de Janeiro.
But a vast and fascinating city lies beyond that 60-mile stretch of sand extraordinaire. The place to start is atop the half-mile-high Corcovado Mountain that erupts from the center of the city, reached by a 20-minute tram ride. From here you can view the entire city as it falls seaward from tumbledown favellas (shantytowns) to sleek hotels with cozy names like Two Brothers (Corcovado itself means "hunchback") and islands poking from the turquoise sea.
On the way up you'll travel through the Tijuca Forest, named a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1995 and a great place to hike through rainforests lush with tropical fruits and monkeys. (You can also hike the Claudio Cortinho Trail across Sugarloaf that begins along the beach or take a tram to its top.)
South of the city center the hilly Santa Teresa district, lined with Victorian mansions that once housed the city's elite, has been saved from decay by the city's hip artists and revived as a mini-bohemia. At the crest of the hill an eccentric arts patron built a then-radical modern house to hold his collection, which now serves as the Museum Chacera de Coy (Farm in the Sky), housing his amazing art collection—Picasso to Matisse, Monet to Modigliani—and another fabulous view of the city.
It gets even better.
Burle Marx, a Brazilian landscape artist and lion of the arts community, bought a failed banana plantation just south of the city (reach it by minibus from Copacabana Beach), which he "painted with plants"—3,500 species in a 100-acre site he donated to the Brazilian government. His home contains a collection of pre-Columbian, classical Portuguese, and modern "naïve" art and crafts. Guests are welcome by pre-scheduled tour only (9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., $2.50; tel/fax 011-55-21-2410-1412. The estate lies close to Rio's wildest, most natural (and most swimmable) beach, a popular weekend haunt for locals who come to devour fresh seafood from seaside shacks.
After a short drive you will arrive at a small museum called Casa do Pontal. It showcases a Frenchman's collection of the very best Brazilian folk art—humorous and sophisticated portraits of ordinary life. Its modern equivalent may be purchased or admired at a shop in Rio called Pe de Bol (R. Ipiranga 55, Laranjeiras district).
Rio boasts its share of glitzy restaurants for high rollers, but you’ll find the locals at the historic Colombo Coffee House, changed little since its debut in 1894; at the casual Garota de Ipanema, a bistro where "The Girl from Ipanema" inspired the song; Carioca da Gema, another locals-only place to nibble and drink while listening and dancing to live samba music.
After seeing the favellas' rooftops from Corcovado, you may be more than a little curious, as we were, to learn about life in the city's 300-plus "neighborhoods," as they prefer to call the slums. Outsiders—even the mayor—are warned not to enter, at serious peril. Yet several jeep touring companies recommended by Rio's Tourism Authority (011-55-21-217-7575, fax 011-55-21-532-1872;or the Brazilian Tourism Office, 800-7-BRAZIL) will arrange 2-hour, mostly-walking tours through Rocinha, one of the safer neighborhoods.
One out of four of Rio's inhabitants live in favellas. The occupants may earn $100 to $400 a month as street sweepers or hotel maids and can’t afford a 2-hour commute. But, they've got that great view of the ocean, as guides are wont to point out. What they don't have is freedom. The drug lord rules the favella with his army, which even the police won't confront. (We encountered a street blocked with motorcycles and drawn guns. "Cameras away and eyes down," our local guide instructed, as we walked-—safely—on by.) We bought paintings from a local artist and a pastry at the bakery and felt we were inside the "real" Rio beyond the beach.