Rio de Janeiro in Brazil has a rich and boisterous past. Once the home of the Tamoio Indians, it is now a city full of opposites, where the poor and the rich live side by side.
Rio de Janeiro is a city that stirs up a feeling in everybody. It’s a feeling based on association. For instance like with the world-famous Copacabana Beach, the Rio Carnival extravaganza or the statue of Christ the Redeemer on the 710 meters high Corcovado. Although idyllically located in the jungle, it is also the city of the slums, where football may be one of the few means to escape. The city bathes in a relaxed, typically South American atmosphere.
Tourists often have trouble grasping the immensity of this city and once they get to know it, they become pressed for time. Planning and time are essential, especially for those who wish to experience the annual carnival. Rio de Janeiro is ideal to combine a couple of days relaxing on the beach with some activities like visits to the city park and see Christ the Redeemer, for example.
Rio, as the city is popularly called, has a remarkably long history. According to archeologists, the native people here were the Tamoio Indians. They kept to the jungle most of the time but also used the sea as a source for food. Apart from the food they gathered by hunting and fishing, they also ate fruits and roots.
In 1502, a group of Portuguese explorers arrived, led by Amerigo Vespucci, who left the Indians alone at first. When the Portuguese first saw the bay of Guanabara they thought to have found an estuary of a large river. This is why they named their settlement Rio de Janeiro, or ‘January river’.
The French were the first to build a settlement in the spot where Rio de Janeiro now lies. For a long time, this had been their only settlement in South America and they especially looked for hardwoods which they shipped to Europe. The stories of gold and other minerals caused an increasing interest by the Portuguese, who attacked the French settlement in 1560.
The result was that the Tamoio got caught in the middle of a war. The French forced the Tamoio to support them in driving out the Portuguese. As the Portuguese were better armed, they eventually won the bloody battles and the Tamoio were driven out of the area.
Despite the early French presence, Governor-General Mem de Sá was seen as the founder of Rio de Janeiro in 1567, over sixty years later. The mercantile town gradually grew and apart from the French, also the Republic of the United Provinces of the Netherlands tried several times to conquer it.
The continued attacks by the Netherlands were not without success: from 1630 to 1654 almost all of Brazil was a Dutch colony. It was named Dutch Brazil or New Holland, but the colony did not last because the number of immigrants from the Netherlands was insufficient, so the city remained vulnerable. In 1654, all immigrants were either slaughtered or driven out by the Portuguese again, this time for good. That was the end of the Dutch history here.
The inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro call themselves ‘cariocas’, which is a local Indian term for ‘home of the white people’. This generic name is a good indication that the inhabitants are descendants of people with different backgrounds. Brazil, and also Rio for that matter, was very popular among Europeans at the end of the 19th century. Even back then, the city attracted many German, Italian and Dutch emigrants. This is still evident around the city. These days, the city is divided in a northern section (zona norte) and a southern section (zona sul) and in between there is a huge park named Parque Nacional da Tijuca.
Rio also is a city of opposites. You can see brand new skyscrapers rising up right next to enormous slums, with expensive residential neighbourhoods bordering old and dilapidated quarters. There is a huge difference here between rich and poor and it is clearly visible in the street. However, sports bring people together and especially the most popular sport of all: football. Sometimes emotions will run high, but this is simply one of the features of one of the most impressive cities in the world.
Things to see and do in Rio de Janeiro:
See Rio from a hang glider
Hang gliding with an instructor is an adventure in itself. It certainly is an extraordinary way to see the city. Rio de Janeiro gets an extra dimension from the sky. If you always planned to do this at one time, then this is your place to do it…
More information: http://rio-hang-gliding.com
See the real Rocinha-favela
The slums of Rio are both famous and notorious. Art House movies like Cidade de Deus (about young gangsters in a violent favela in Rio) bring all the problems to the attention of the greater public. You can follow a workshop and go into Rocinha, which is the largest slum in the world, according to many. Here you will get acquainted with the population in a realistic manner and see how they live, what their problems are, and their chances in life. The organizers refer to the tour as a safe, sustainable, and unique undertaking. It’s up to you to verify this.
More information: www.favelatourismworkshop.com
See the city from a helicopter
Rio must be one of the most remarkable helicopters flights you can ever take. This due to its position around the hills. And diversity. A helicopter flight comes highly recommended. Especially in the early morning or in the late afternoon, when the colors are soft. This is perfect for taking photos of all the highlights the city has to offer.
More information: www.city-discovery.com/rio-de-janeiro
Count down to the new year at Copacabana
If you want to celebrate the new year differently for a change, you should go to this famous beach on 31 December. It is tradition to honor the African goddess of the sea ‘Yemanjá’, on that day. The atmosphere during this spiritual feast is very intense and extraordinary. Everywhere, followers are walking around in white garments, many of them in a trance.
During the various ceremonies, new followers are baptized, others build altars in the sand. There is singing everywhere. Self-made boats with ritual offers like flowers, little mirrors and burning candles are sent out to sea. The best way to view this is from one of the apartment buildings or hotels alongside the beach. The fireworks at midnight are also stunning …
Experience samba football
For the fans, the Estadio do Maracanã is a football temple. A visit to one of the most important stadiums in the world is a must. It was built for the 1950 World Cup and could accommodate a staggering 183,000 people. For safety reasons, this number was reduced to 90,000.
Nowadays it is the home ground for four of the biggest football clubs in Rio: CR Flamengo, Fluminense FC, Botafogo FR and CR Vasco da Gama. In fact, it doesn’t matter which match you go see, the atmosphere and the stadium will make it all worthwhile. By the way, the museum is equally impressive and you can view it on a tour during the day.
See the sunset on the Corcovado
The view of the city from the Corcovado and the other mountain, the Pao de Açúcar (Sugarloaf mountain), is phenomenal. It is all the more worthwhile because you can take the small train through the Tijuca National Park. The best time for this is at sunset. The warm light of the sun will glide across the city and slowly it will give way to artificial lighting. Many tourists take a bottle of wine and some glasses with them, to celebrate the setting of the sun.
Discover and try capoeira
It is a mixture of dance and martial art, but capoeira is particularly a game where flexibility is a primary condition. It is a remnant from slavery, brought from Africa, and further developed in Brazil.
You can see Capoeira in the afternoons on the various Rio de Janeiro beaches. But you can see also special competitions and shows. The participants are easily recognizable: they are dressed in white linen. And, you can always join in …
Hike in the largest city forest in the world
Parque Nacional da Tijuca is an enormous city park. However, it is also a real national park, despite its location, smack in the middle of Rio de Janeiro. It comprises Corcovado and Sugarloaf Mountain, among other things. This remarkable jungle is easy to reach and ideal for a (lengthier) walk.
The rain forest boasts many flowers, butterflies, and birds and you are relatively alone here, especially when you take to the hiking trails. Be quiet; you may encounter monkeys, snakes, and countless other animals.
Taste exquisite meat in a churrascaria
It is the ultimate dream of people who love to eat meat. If you visit a churrascaria (or steakhouse) you will see a huge charcoal fire. On the fire, there are skewers with sizzling pieces of beef, pork, lamb and chicken. The staff walks around the place with the skewers and will stop at your table to cut off some of the meat.
However, take it easy, you can eat until you drop here … Salads, vegetables and several other side dishes complete the meal. You can find them all over the city, but the most famous one (and most tourist-oriented) is Marius Degustare at the Copacabana. Conclude your evening with a cafezinho, a cup of sweet black coffee.
More information: www.marius.com.br
Hop on a bike
The city is relatively easy and safe to explore on a bike. A group of Dutch journalists organizes tours for travelers. They have lived here fr a long time, so they can provide you wits lots of information and tips while exploring the neighborhood.
You can also join a local tour that is organized every Tuesday evening. From the district of Lebon to the district of Flamengo, you can bike together with hundreds of local people. For most of them, this is exercise, for others, it’s an evening out. Tourists can tag along and have a chat with other participants at the same time. This has now grown into a major event. The point of departure is Leme Beach.
More information: http://riobybike.com
Look for ancient Rio
This is literally a dive into the past. ‘Santa Teresa’ and ‘Cosmo Velho’ are the two oldest districts of the city. It feels as if you have stepped into the 19th century and you can catch a glimpse of life as it was way back then. Walk between the blocks of houses, through the narrow streets and gape at the large old houses and gardens.
Visit the best botanical garden in the world
According to experts, the Jardim Botânico in Rio is one of the best botanical gardens in the world. With its magnificent location on the foot of the Corcovado Mountain, you can see over 10,000 trees and flowers here. They come from all over the world, but a great deal of them are from South America, including many, many orchids.
More information: www.jbrj.gov.br
Dance the jazzy Bossa Nova
Besides samba-shows, Ipanema will also let you get acquainted with the Bossa Nova. It is similar to the samba, but has a lot more jazz in it. This music style arose at the end of the 1950s in the USA. The Brazilian samba was used as a basic rhythm and the music was strongly influenced by jazz. The founder of the Bossa Nova-style is Brazilian guitarist-vocalist-composer João Gilberto. He especially played compositions by Antônio Carlos Jobim.
Best time to visit Rio de Janeiro:
The Brazilian winter is short: from June to August. These are the coolest months, which means the temperature will be around 25 degrees.
In summer (from December to February) it is very warm in Rio and the humidity is high. Most Brazilians will go on holiday then, so hotel rooms will be more expensive and harder to come by. This is especially so during carnival (which is mostly held in February) and you will be required to make your reservations at least a year in advance.
Rio de Janeiro is notorious for its many burglaries and robberies. They occur very frequently, particularly at Copacabana. The Southern region of the city is considered to be much safer than the Northern region, but robberies take place here as well, even in broad daylight. An old trick here is that thieves will sneak sleeping pills into your drinks at the outdoor cafés, to make you an easier victim. Please beware of this.
How to get to Rio de Janeiro?
There are direct flights to Rio from many airports across the world, while there also are ample opportunities to get to Rio from the other major cities in Brazil. You may also come here by sailboat from Paraty, which is a very popular trip.
More information: www.ipanema.com/rio/basics/e/safety.htm