This is a city of coexisting extremes: Wealth and opulence adjoin poverty and squalor; courtesy counterbalances crime; sensuality shares space with spirituality. The topography pulls you abruptly from sea level to cloud level and beyond, as mountains burst randomly through the cityscape.
At times I felt as though I were resting in the hollow of a giant's hand whose massive fingers curled protectively upward. In fact Christ the Redeemer, Cristo Redentor, Rio's signature statue, stands with arms outstretched at the top of Corcovado Mountain, almost a half a mile high. It's visible from nearly every quarter of the city, blessing beaches and boulevards.
On our first visit, a stop three years ago, my wife, Janice, and I viewed the city from the base of that statue, skittered carefully along the edges of the notorious favelas where shanties appear Krazy-Glued to the hillsides, and walked Copacabana Beach in the morning sunlight, when its only inhabitants were yoga class devotees. We left Rio feeling deliciously frustrated. As much as we had loved it, there was much more to discover. We returned in November.
The city of 11.4 million is on Brazil's southeast coast, just north of the Tropic of Capricorn. Europeans got their first look at the area on New Year's Day 1502, when Portuguese explorer Gaspar de Lemos visited. It gained economic prominence in the 18th century as a major shipping center for gold mined in Brazil's inland highlands.
In the mid-20th century, tourists began arriving, drawn to the city's sugary beaches and to the most enticing of its rocky fingers, Sugarloaf. But their ardor diminished in the 1980s with reports of increasing crime linked to the widening gulf between rich and poor.
Janice and I did the cable car trip to Sugarloaf, atop our list of musts this trip, in two hops. Our first stop was Urca, 700 feet high and an interesting viewpoint. Central Rio lay to the northwest, and the upscale Botafogo district and quiet Botafogo Bay spread below us. A series of sightseeing helicopters lighted at Urca's landing pad for a few seconds and then flitted off like dragonflies. We chose to dangle like spiders as we inched up the cable to Sugarloaf.
At 1,300 feet, commanding a point at the water's edge, Sugarloaf is a natural skybox, and from it we could see the series of beaches that are so central to Rio's personality: Leme, Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon. In another direction, Christ the Redeemer stood as if commanding the clouds to part. To the north was little Santos Dumont Airport, and from our extraordinary vantage we could look down at planes as they swooped over the bay, banking, gliding down from the north, then holding fast to the short runways.
Beyond the airport, two ferryboats traveling in opposite directions traced thin, straight wakes in Guanabara Bay. (There's no river, although Rio de Janeiro means "river of January." De Lemos, who named the city, was mistaken.)
Keeping a watchful eye
The tranquil scene seemed at odds with Rio's reputation as a dangerous place, owing to not just muggings and purse snatchings but also drug- related violence. We were routinely advised to keep our eyes open, to leave valuables in the hotel safe, to telephone for cabs rather than hail them on the street, to avoid walking alone on the beach and to stay out of favelas.
All of which we did. On Rio's streets, we walked close together, keeping my wallet pocket and Janice's purse between us. We assessed each approaching person as a potential mugger and steered clear of crowds.
Was it overkill? Perhaps. We experienced not a single threatening episode in Rio — except for one taxi ride with a driver who sped through red lights, crossing himself as he did so.
But since our last visit it seemed the city's residents had become more cautious. More residents in the beach areas had put bars over their windows. And a lot of them had dogs — not Rottweilers or German shepherds but little white poodles, unclipped and freshly washed and fluffed. They looked like cotton candy with eyes.
On Sundays, when major streets were closed to all but pedestrians, it looked as though all the dogs and their owners were promenading along the beaches. Kids played soccer in the sand; people crowded beachside stands to buy coco gelado, a chilled coconut with the top lopped off so that you can drink the refreshing contents through a straw. Many sunbathed, exposing substantial quantities of skin but eschewing outright nudity.
Janice and I walked from Leme at the north end of Copacabana southwest along patterned mosaic sidewalks. We paused at the Copacabana Palace Hotel, celebrated in 1933's "Flying Down to Rio" when it hosted the film's stars, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Maurice Chevalier stayed there. In a mezzanine gallery, we studied their photos as well as those of more contemporary guests: Anne Rice, Robert De Niro and a young Mick Jagger.
Janice and I veered away from the beach to find a record store to buy bossa nova CDs. Although Brazil has launched other styles of music — samba and tropicalia, for example — Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova is Brazilian music for me and many other Americans.
In 1962, smitten by a young girl who passed daily on her way to the beach, Jobim and his songwriting partner Vinicius de Moraes sat in the Veloso Bar and wrote "The Girl From Ipanema," the ultimate song of lust and longing. Soon the whole world knew about her — "tall and tan and young and lovely." Jobim, known locally and affectionately as Tom, died in 1994.
Rio's international airport is named for him; the bar, on a street called Rua Vinicius de Moraes, has been renamed Garota de Ipanema, after the girl.