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Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro

New Country, New Continent, New Hemisphere ...

Peter had worked on a ship and travelled the world after high school so he'd been south of the equator before, but it was the first time for me. And after obsessively watching the animated tracking map on the plane for almost the whole 10 hours we were crammed in our seats (on the second leg of our journey), I could really feel the distance — we were somewhere very different and very far (5162 miles) from home.

It had been an overnight flight with very little sleep, so we arrived in Rio de Janiero in the morning. We got in a cab and experienced the "excitement" of driving in Rio right away. It was actually helpful (I realized later) that our driver whipped along the crowded, curvy highway at what seemed like crazy speed. CopacabanaNothing cures fatigue faster than fear. We'd soon get used to (but never comfortable with) the driving M.O. in Brazil.

Our hotel was on Copacabana beach, but we had some time to kill before we could check in. So off we traipsed down the beach, getting assaulted by a barrage of vendors aggressively hawking shirts, hats, towels, purses, etc. at two obvious tourists. I knew for sure I wasn't in Ft. Lauderdale when I saw hundreds of magnificent frigatebirds (see video) soaring above the beach. We walked by a jewelry store where the friendly owner gave us lots of tips on what to do and see and also gave me a small gift. It was a figa, a good luck symbol in Brazil. See Intro to Copacabana photos.

The coast of Rio.

Female magnificent frigatebird on Copacabana.

A mico on top of Sugarloaf.

From the top of Pão de Açúcar looking down at Morro da Urca. The arrow points to our hotel on Copacabana beach.

Our room was on the 21st floor so right away we had a great view looking south down Copacabana. (See hotel view video.) But that was only an inkling of the many spectacular vistas we'd have. Rio must be one of the most geographically blessed places on the planet. We wondered about natural disasters that could affect the area ... hurricanes? earthquakes? wildfires? None of the above, we found out. It seemed the worst that could happen was heavy rain.

From Copacabana beach we could see Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain), a 394-meter granite (gneiss, sculpted by erosion) upthrust reachable by cable cars. An engineer, Augusto Ferreira Ramos, envisioned the aerial system in 1907. The laborious project began in 1910, with German-made parts that were assembled by local workers. The Brazilians had to climb the mountain then hoist all the pieces up with a makeshift winch. And they did it all in two years, linking Red Beach to Urca Hill to Sugarloaf. The current cable cars are the only ones in the world with completely transparent sides. So on the ride up, you can see in all directions, including, gulp, down. See Pão de Açúcar photos.

The views at our first stop on the lower Morro da Urca (218 meters) were actually better than on Sugarloaf because the clouds hadn't rolled in yet. We got a look at Corcovado and the famous Cristo Redentor statue in between the moving fog banks. The 360° view of Rio and its outskirts was nothing short of spectacular and gave us a good orientation for miles around. We spent a good part of the day walking around Morro da Urca, literally: the Pista Claudio Coutinho trails follows the curve of the mountain and overlooks the rocky coastline.

Now, finally: Christo Redentor on Corcovado... I'd envisioned going to this alluring, iconic place for many years and didn't want to wait another moment. So the day after visiting Pão de Açúcar, we got a taxi to the train station at the base of Corcovado. We boarded a packed three-car train for a steep climb up the 704-meter mountain. On the way up we passed through Parque Nacional da Tijuca, all that remains of the tropical rainforest that once surrounded Rio.

Then we were on top, and oh my:

The view from Corcovado ... Ipanema, Leblon, the Lagoa and the Hippodrome.

Cristo Redentor

Cristo Redentor has the best views of his city below, and is a looker. Every one of the hundreds of people there seemed to want their picture taken with him. So between his 30-meter high presence (38 meters counting the base) and the stunning panorama surrounding us, it was a natural high in every way. (See Corcovado video.) After getting past the awe, we examined everything below us in more detail. I had the rare feeling of peace and contentment that comes when you know that, at that moment, you're in the right place. See Corcovado photos.

A surfer at Ipanema.

Cockatoo carved from minerals — loved these.

A woman with her best friend on Ponta do Arpoador.

We enjoyed just walking around Copacabana and Ipanema, those exotic, exciting places we'd heard about our whole lives. Maybe the weather wasn't quite warm enough yet — it was just spring there — but we didn't see many of the famous string bikinis. But there were certainly lots of beautiful, fit people. Cariocas are really into their sports, everyone plays or is active at something. And we could always find good, fresh fruit drinks. Peter tried açaí (ah-sigh-ee) smoothies, a popular energy-type drink made from the fruit of an Amazon palm. I was more interested in coconut and pineapple drinks. See The Beaches photos.

Sunset view from our room in Copacabana.

So we checked the most spectacular tourist locations off our list. Rio was amazing ... But the most interesting part of our visit was still to come.

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