The word "Rio" instantly evokes exotic panoramas of mountains, bays, sexy beaches, samba music, joy and laughter -- not to mention a certain "girl from Ipanema." A popular stop on voyages to South America and World Cruise itineraries originating in South Florida ports, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, often figures on travelers wish lists for the trip of a lifetime.
Many cruises that call at Rio overnight at the city, so passengers can sample its many charms and lively nightlife. Some stops are timed to coincide with Carnaval (at the start of Lent in February or March) one of the planet's biggest parties with balls and street parades at Sambodromo Stadium, Rua Marques de Saprocal. The elaborate parades feature costumed revelers, floats and entries from top samba schools. Ships that visit Rio during Carnaval generally organize optional shore excursions with reserved seats at the stadium for passengers.
Other popular city tours sold onboard cruise ships hit Rio's "musts" including 2,316-foot-high Corcovado Mountain with the iconic 98-foot-tall Christ the Redeemer Statue with arms outstretched as if to embrace the whole city from the top of the mountain. Inaugurated in 1931, the statue has come to symbolize Brazil for many. A funicular train takes visitors to the summit where from a platform at Christ's feet, they can enjoy panoramic views of the city, the tropical national park, Parque Nacional da Tijuca, and spectacular Guanabara Bay below with its backdrop of green-clad mountains and hills that seem to be doing a samba around the harbor (one of the world's most scenic harbors along with those of Hong Kong, China; Sydney, Australia and Acapulco, Mexico). There is a chapel at the base of the Statue of Christ the Redeemer.
Sugar Loaf Mountain, another of Rio's iconic spots, rises to an elevation of 1,312 feet at the mouth of Guanabara Bay --this bay, incidentally, was the point of arrival for Portuguese explorer Gaspar de Lemos in 1502 --he built a small fort and claimed the bay for Portugal. A cable car takes to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain -- as do hiking trails -- where visitors may watch for marmosets and other birds. Morro da Urca is a separate, lower mountain with a flat top, directly below Sugar Loaf Mountain. A variety of lookout points at both mountains offer views of the city and the bay. Helicopter tours are available to sightsee both at Corcovado and Sugar Loaf Mountains and some cruise ships offer them as options.
Other must-sees include the Parque Nacional da Tijuca with forests that dress the Carioca Mountains ("carioca" is also the name given to residents of Rio) and walks and trails for nature lovers, and the Monasterio de Sao Bento, a hilltop Benedictine monastery that dates from the 16th century located to the north of Rio's city center. The interior of its church features gilt ornamentation in Brazilian Baroque style. Still other Rio highlights include Praca XV, the city's colonial plaza at Rua 1 de Marco, with historic buildings; the Botanical Gardens with some 8,000 plants and trees at Rua Jardin Botanico 1008; the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Rio Branco Avenue 199, with an 20,000-piece collection of art including works by Brazilian artists and such international masters as Rodin and Debret; and the Museu Historico Nacional with exhibits detailing Brazil's history at Praca Marechal Ancora.
Those who would simply like to catch some rays are in the right place --Rio has world-famous beaches in which to do so. Among them are Copacabana Beach, stretching for 1.5 miles from the Morro do Leme to Arpoador. This beach sets the scene for one of Rio's liveliest New Year's Eve celebrations with concerts and fireworks. On any given day, kids from the favelas (poor neighborhoods) use Copacabana Beach's wide sands to play soccer, a top national pastime. Other famous beaches include Ipanema and Leblon, located at fashionable neighborhoods of the same names. Sports like beach volleyball are practiced here and beach massages are offered. Beachside cafes are popular spots for a cool drink or snack before or after a swim.
After the day is done, nightclubs and bars beckon. Two to try if your ship stays in port overnight are Mistura Fina, Rangia Elizabeth Belgica 770 (between Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches) with Bossa Nova acts from the 1960s and international artists; and Bar Luiz, Rua du Carioca 62, in Rio, a bar/restaurant serving delectable "petiscos" (tapas) and draught beer.
Local flavors not to be missed include tropical fruit juices like the Acai, an Amazonian palm berry drink said to be packed with vitamins, and grilled meats --Brazil is famous for them--that can be enjoyed at a variety of grilled meat restaurants or "churrasquerias" including the Esplanada Grill, Rua Barrao da Torre 600 in Ipanema. You can wash it all down with "capirinhas" cocktails (a mixture of lime juice and "cachaca," a Brazilian cane brandy, lightly sweetened.
Cruise lines that visit Rio de Janeiro include Azamara, Celebrity, Holland America, MSC, Oceania, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn and Silversea.
IF YOU GO -- For additional information on Rio de Janeiro, visit www.braziltour.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun