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Brazil’s Beach Culture: Dos and Don’ts

Cariocas have developed a very sophisticated cultura de praia with habits and codes worth taking note of if you want to blend in.

A beautiful sandy beach on curving coastline with visitors scattered amongst colorful umbrellas.
Praia Mole at Florianopolis. Photo © Mike Vondran, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.
  • Don’t wear a bathing suit from home; purchase one on location. Rio’s cutting-edge bikini and sunga (the male version of a bikini) styles are light-years ahead of the rest of the world, and prices are generally affordable.
  • Do wear flip-flops (Havaianas are the coolest) to and from the beach and don’t wear shoes.
  • Don’t take any valuables to the beach and don’t leave possessions unguarded. Take a beach bag instead of a purse and ask a respectable-looking neighbor to keep an eye on your stuff while you take a dip.
  • Don’t bring a towel to the beach. Cangas are lighter, de rigueur, and are sold all over the beaches. For more comfort, rent a chair.
  • Don’t schlep food or drinks to the beach. Rio’s beaches are well-serviced with food and drink vendors.
  • Don’t go swimming if a red flag is flying; Rio’s beaches have strong currents in places. Only go in the water where locals are already swimming.
  • Don’t get a sunburn. Not only will you suffer on your vacation, but the red lobster look will brand you a foolish gringo.

If you’re female:

  • Do know that Cariocas are not shy about revealing a lot of flesh. However…
  • Don’t take your top off. Topless sun“bathing is a no-no and Cariocas are very proud of their tan lines.
  • Do cover up (lightly) with a lightweight top and microshorts or skirts when walking to/from the beach.

If you’re male:

  • Don’t don a Speedo-style bathing suit. Stylish sungas are modeled on men’s full briefs.
  • Do know that surfing shorts are for surfing or wearing over your bathing suit, not for lounging around on the sand or swimming.
  • Do flaunt your bare chest to/from the beach, but otherwise wear a T-shirt.

Pin For Later

Learn the do's and don'ts of Brazil's beach culture so you can blend in with the locals

Excerpted from the Fouth Edition of Moon Brazil.

Rio de Janeiro City’s Gay Scene

While Rio’s vibe is quite gay friendly, few specifically gay venues exist. GLS (a Brazilian slang term for gay, lesbica, e simpatisante; i.e., gay friendly) spaces rule, with gays, lesbians, and heteros mixing socially. For more info about Rio’s gay scene, visit

Beachgoers near a tent with a rainbow flag and beach chairs on the white sand of Ipanema beach.
Pride flags fly on Ipanema beach.Photo by estark licensed Creative Commons Attribution.


Cine Ideal (Rua da Carioca 62, tel. 21/2221-1984, 11:30pm-close Fri.-Sat., cover R$25-30) is a disco with bars and a rooftop lounge.

Port Zone

The Week (Rua Sacadura Cabral 150, Saúde, tel. 21/2253-1020, midnight-close Sat., cover R$40-60) is a more massive and upscale São Paulo import.


Buraco da Lacraia (Rua André Cavalcanti 58, tel. 21/2221-1984, 11pm-close Fri.-Sat., cover R$30-40) showcases drag shows, videoke contests, snooker, and electronic games. The beer is fantastically cheap.


The high-profile strip of Ipanema beach stretching from Posto 8 to Posto 9 (nicknamed “Farme Gay”) is home to beach barracas flying rainbow flags and the toned outlines of well-oiled “Barbies” (as muscle men are called). The street perpendicular to the beach, Rua Farme de Amoedo also attracts a gay crowd.

Tô’Nem Aí (Rua Farme de Amoedo 87-A, tel. 21/2247-8403, noon-3am daily) is a laid-back bar that draws a mixed crowd and offers great views of the action.

Galeria Café (Rua Teixeira de Melo 31, tel. 21/2523-8250, 10:30pm-close Wed.-Sat., noon-8pm Sun., cover R$28-38), one street over, is a hip, hybrid space sheltering a café and art gallery. At night, it holds sizzling festas that reel in a trendy crowd.


The gay crowd has conquered a prize strip of beach on the doorstep of the Copacabana Palace, baptized “Praia da Bolsa” (Handbag Beach).

The Rainbow (noon-close daily) kiosk is a haven for Rio’s transgendered community, who often perform in between caipis and pizza slices.

Le Boy (Rua Raul Pompéia 102, tel. 21/2513-4993, 11pm-close Tues.-Sun., cover R$15-25) is Rio’s classic and notorious temple of gaydom. This enormous club offers go-go boys, a quarto escuro (dark room), and Tuesday’s Strip Nights.

La Cueva
(Rua Miguel Lemos 51, tel. 21/2267-1367, 11pm-close, R$20) means “The Cave,” which describes this dim, yet friendly basement lair where the entrance fee earns you two drinks.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Brazil.

Volunteer with Two Brothers Foundation in Rio de Janeiro

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Based in the favela of Rocinha, the mission of Two Brothers Foundation (TBF) is to “promote education, community service and international exchange in low-income neighborhoods in Brazil.” To achieve this, they seek to create educational communities, bring together people from diverse walks of life, and empower people to have a positive impact on the world around them, both locally and globally. Their educational communities focus on learning in languages, arts, and science.

Based in the favela of Rocinha, the mission of is to “promote education, community service and international exchange in low-income neighborhoods in Brazil.”
Based in the favela of Rocinha, the mission of is to “promote education, community service and international exchange in low-income neighborhoods in Brazil.” Photo © Daytours4u, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

[pullquote align=right]Voluntourists are welcome to propose programs and workshops they would like to initiate and can be responsible for.[/pullquote]TBF is a small-scale NGO with a bare-bones structure, so the most successful volunteers here will be those with initiative and strong self-management skills. Short-term volunteers (“voluntourists”) support ongoing classes and activities by acting as assistants to full-time volunteers who are “resident” (staying for three or more months), and voluntourists can only be accepted if there are residents on-site to work with them. Voluntourists are welcome to propose programs and workshops they would like to initiate and can be responsible for. It is important that voluntourists realize they will not just be teachers at this organic school, but also learners. There are always English classes at the educational center, and “open classes” have included subjects such as personal financial management, health, physical fitness, martial arts, dance, visual arts, computer literacy, film studies, photography, and video production. Tutoring in reading, writing, math, and science is also provided.

TBF also accepts groups; in the past, they have helped out with English classes, assisted in refurbishing TBF’s old building, and have offered consultation in business administration or other areas of expertise.

When volunteers are not working, they have plenty of ways to keep themselves busy: hiring a local tutor to improve their Portuguese, surfing, learning capoeira or jiujitzu, working on photography and film projects, conducting research, or exploring Rio. Some have volunteered for other organizations in Rocinha as well.

As a marginalized neighborhood, Rocinha can be dangerous. According to TBF’s Volunteer Manual, “Police and members of Rocinha’s drug gangs are extremely dangerous, and while it is wise to be friendly when spoken to, it is important to avoid getting involved with either.” TBF will provide volunteers with guidance about staying safe.

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Two Brothers Foundation

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Application Process: Volunteers should send an email and arrange for a meeting upon arrival to Brazil. Individual volunteers must be 18 or older; those younger than 18 will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Families are welcome.

Cost: None. Volunteers are responsible for their own expenses.

Placement Length: Minimum three visits for short-term volunteers.

Language Requirements: None, although if the volunteer does not have Portuguese skills, TBF asks him or her to be actively studying before and during volunteering. Local tutors can be hired by the volunteer upon arrival in Rocinha.

Housing: Volunteers must make their own arrangements, although TBF can provide a list of conveniently-located hostels (US$17-26 per night). They also work with a guesthouse that is in a local home (US$120-144 per month; shorter stays are possible, but preference is given to resident volunteers). All volunteers are responsible for their own meals.

Operating Since: 1998

Number of Volunteers: about 50 “voluntourists” and another 7 resident (long-term) volunteers in 2012.

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Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Volunteer Vacations in Latin America.


Watching the World Cup with the Brazilians

In this mural, Brazilian star Neymar stands victorious, while Argentina’s leading light, Lionel Messi, cries into his shirt on the left.
In this mural, Brazilian star Neymar stands victorious, while Argentina’s leading light, Lionel Messi, cries into his shirt on the left. Photo © Tom Le Mesurier.

Several years ago, a new phrase became part of standard Brazilian vocabulary: Imagina na Copa. The phrase roughly translates to “Imagine during the World Cup,” and it became the standard exclamation when there was a problem. It might be a bad traffic jam, localized flooding, or a transport strike—in each case, people would use this phrase to say “If you think it’s bad now, imagine how much worse it will be when we are hosting hundreds of thousands of World Cup fans.”

Then in June 2013, a series of protests over public spending erupted in cities across Brazil. These protests made global headlines and further increased Brazilians’ own fears of potential disasters during the first of Brazil’s two “mega-events.” (Rio will also be hosting the Olympics in 2016.)

As we approach the latter stages of the tournament, have the fears been realized? Have infrastructure limitations spoiled the party? How have all these World Cup visitors been treated—and are the football-mad Brazilians themselves enjoying this festival of soccer?

Two weeks before the start of the tournament, the first signs started to appear.

The World Cup effect: dull, grey steps are given a patriotic lick of paint. Flags and streamers are hung across streets, and murals are painted on any available surface.
The World Cup effect: dull, grey steps are given a patriotic lick of paint. Flags and streamers are hung across streets, and murals are painted on any available surface. Photo © Tom Le Mesurier.

And so, with the streets suitably decorated, the first day of the tournament arrived. From the Amazon in the north to the golden beaches of the south, this nation of 200 million became a sea of green and yellow. Brazilians and tourists alike huddled in front of television sets in bars and restaurants while a lucky few packed into the Itaquerão stadium in São Paulo.

As Brazil finished their opening game with a victory, the nation breathed a sigh of relief, and it was generally agreed that the tournament had started smoothly.

In the periods between matches, legions of visiting fans enjoyed the best of Brazil, climbing mountains, lounging on beaches, and seeing the sights. On match days, opposing fans enjoyed a good-natured rivalry; jeers were always accompanied by friendly grins.

Ipanema Beach, normally a hive of activity, was eerily empty as kick-off approached.
Ipanema Beach, normally a hive of activity, was eerily empty as kick-off approached. Photo © Tom Le Mesurier.

With so many visiting tourists in the country, enterprising Brazilians were quick to spot business opportunities. Patriotic pedicures became the new craze, while vendors sold flags, shirts, and novelty hats on beaches and street corners.

In the tourist hub of Rio, the main match-day parties centered on several huge screens on Copacabana Beach.

Wherever large groups of football fans congregate, a small army of vendors follows to provide everything the fans could desire, from snacks and soft drinks to Brazil’s national cocktail, the caipirinha.

At the time of writing, tournament organizers and football fans are riding high on a wave of happiness and contentment. The fears of Imagina na Copa have melted away as this World Cup has provided all the thrills, controversial moments, tense matches, and great goals that anyone could have hoped for.

Any lingering doubts about a lack of World Cup enthusiasm among the majority of Brazilians were quickly dispelled.
Any lingering doubts about a lack of World Cup enthusiasm among the majority of Brazilians were quickly dispelled. Photo © Tom Le Mesurier.

Brazil’s Best Beaches

Pale sand rippled with footprints stretches out to gentle waves with a verdant hillside in the distance.
Maresias in São Paulo. Photo © Eugeni Dodonov, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Brazil boasts close to 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) of beautiful Atlantic beaches. Whatever your mood or budget, there is a beach to suit everyone.

Best Urban Beaches in Brazil

Known as a “crab culture” because 70 percent of the population lives on the coast, city life is often synonymous with beach life. These beaches are not tranquil, but they are both visually stunning and overflowing with life.

  • Copacabana and Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro
  • Porto da Barra in Salvador in Bahia
  • Ponta Verde in Maceió
  • Ponta Negra in Natal
  • Praia do Futuro in Fortaleza

Brazil’s Best Island Paradises

There is always something deliciously castaway-like about fleeing to an idyllic tropical island. The following beaches fit the bill.

  • Ilha Grande in Rio de Janeiro
  • Ilhabela in São Paulo
  • Ilha de Boipeba in Bahia
  • Fernando de Noronha in Pernambuco
  • Ilha de Marajó in Pará

Best Party Beaches in Brazil

Take ample amounts of sun, sand, and surf, shake them up with Brazilians’ chronic alegria (joyfulness), fueled by music and caipifrutas, and you get the following permanently festive beach scenes.

  • Búzios in Rio de Janeiro
  • Maresias in São Paulo
  • Praia da Joaquina in Santa Catarina
  • Morro de São Paulo in Bahia
  • Praia da Pipa in Rio Grande do Norte

Hippest Beaches in Brazil

Many of Brazil’s hippest beaches were once tiny fishing towns until they were discovered in the 1970s by hippies in search of paradise. Over time, they’ve succeeded in becoming quite cosmopolitan, without having lost their laid-back groove or eco-friendly vibe. To mellow out in style, head to the following beaches.

  • Praia do Rosa in Santa Catarina
  • Trancoso in Bahia
  • Jericoacoara in Ceará

Best Total Getaways

For those fed up with civilization and who long to return to a more primitive, natural state, the following beaches and their surroundings are not only secluded and unspoiled but hypnotically beautiful.

  • Lagoinha do Leste in Santa Catarina
  • Caraíva in Bahia
  • São Miguel dos Milagres in Alagoas
  • Praia dos Carneiros in Pernambuco
  • Lençóis Maranhenses in Maranhão
  • Alter do Chão in Pará

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.

Sports and Recreation in Rio de Janeiro City

View from the soccer stadium stands where fans wave flags and smoke curls into the air.
The legendary Flamengo-Fluminense (“Fla-Flu”) rivalry makes for intense games. Photo © keetr, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Sports and Recreation in Rio

Blessed with so many natural attractions, it is unsurprising that Cariocas are a pretty sporty bunch. Beach activities—everything from walking, jogging, and yoga to surfing, soccer, and volleyball—are very popular, as are radical sports, especially those that take advantage of the city’s mountain peaks. Meanwhile, the exuberantly green Floresta da Tijuca offers an oasis for athletes who want to commune with nature.


Floresta da Tijuca

Although the dense tropical forest that covers Rio’s jagged mountains possesses a distinctly primeval quality, the truth is that by the 19th century, the original Atlantic forest that had existed for thousands of years had been almost completely cleared away to make way for sugar and coffee plantations. The deforestation was so dire that by the mid-1800s, Rio was facing an ecological disaster that menaced the city’s water supply. Fortunately, inspired Emperor Dom Pedro II had a green conscience. In 1861 he ordered that 3,300 hectares be replanted with native foliage—the first example of government-mandated reforestation in Brazil’s history. Over time, the forest returned to its original state, and today this urban rain forest boasts an astounding variety of exotic trees and animals ranging from jewel-colored hummingbirds to monkeys, squirrels, and armadillos.

Within the Floresta lies the largest urban park in Brazil, the Parque Nacional da Tijuca (tel. 21/2492-2252, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily). A veritable oasis in the midst of the city, it is particularly refreshing during the dog days of summer. The park has various walking trails—many of them quite easy—along with waterfalls where you can stop for a drink (or a dip), grottoes, and many lookout points that offer stunning views of the city. The most spectacular of these are the Mesa do Imperador (Emperor’s Table)—where Dom Pedro II liked to picnic with members of his court—and the Vista Chinesa. Another highlight is the charming Capela Mayrink, with panels painted by the talented modernist artist Cândido Portinari.

The easiest way to explore the park is by car. If you don’t have access to one, take a taxi: You can usually negotiate with drivers to drop you off and pick you up for a reasonable rate. You can also take a guided Jeep tour with a company such as Jeep Tour (tel. 21/2108-5800) or Trilhas do Rio Ecoturismo & Aventura (tel. 21/2425-8441), which cost around R$130 pp. If you want to venture in on your own, take the Metrô to Saens Pena and then a bus going to Barra da Tijuca that stops at the main Alta da Boa Vista entrance. Organized hiking tours are available. The park entrance is at Praça Alfonso Viseu, and a few hundred meters inside is a visitors center where you can buy a map (although trails are well marked). Robberies are not uncommon, so be careful not to venture too far off the beaten track, and don’t go alone. It’s safer to visit on weekends, when the park is more crowded. Near the entrance, there are three restaurants and a café. Or if you want, bring along food for a picnic.

Within the Floresta da Tijuca, the Museu do Açude (Estrada do Açude 764, Alto da Boa Vista, tel. 21/2492-2119, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Wed.–Mon., R$2, free Thurs.) occupies the former house of wealthy industrialist Raymundo Ottoni de Castro Maya. Beautifully decorated with antiques and Portuguese azulejo panels, the neoclassical villa, completely engulfed by rain forest, exhibits Castro Maya’s impressive art collection, which runs the gamut from ancient Asian ceramics to works by contemporary Brazilian artists.

Hiking, Biking, and Adventure Sports


Rio has 130 kilometers (80 miles) of bike paths. Those in search of a languorous outing can take to the paths that line the beaches (stretching from Flamengo to Leblon and then along Barra) and ring the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. Meanwhile, hard-core jocks can take on the steep trails leading into the Floresta da Tijuca. You can rent bikes in many places along the Zona Sul beaches and around the Lagoa. A particularly wide range of models are available at Ipanema’s Bike & Lazer (Rua Visconde de Pirajá 135‑B, tel. 21/2267-7778), which also has a second location in Laranjeiras near Largo do Machado (Rua das Laranjeiras 58, tel. 21/2285-7941). Rental fees are R$15 per hour.

Following the example of Amsterdam and Paris, Rio also operates a bike rental system, SAMBA, which to date boasts 20 bike terminals the Zona Sul. To actually get your hands on a bike, you have to register online and then, with a credit card, you can opt to rent for a day (R$10) or a month (R$20). Rides of up to 60 minutes are free, after which you’re charged R$5 per hour. Both to register and to activate bikes, you need to have a cell phone number.

Hiking, Climbing, and Adventure Sports

Rio possesses an enormous number of options for hiking and climbing within and around the city. Rio Hiking (tel. 21/2552-9204) is highly recommended. The six-hour hike (R$150 pp) to Pedra da Gávea combines strenuous hiking with dips in waterfalls and the ocean, but shorter, easier, and equally enticing options abound as well as more adventurous outings including rappeling, climbing, cycling, trekking, kayaking, and scuba diving.

Trilhas do Rio (tel. 21/2425-8441) has expert guides who are highly knowledgeable about Rio’s natural surroundings. They lead hiking, biking, horseback riding, climbing, and trekking tours in and around the city. There is even a yoga tour. A four-hour hike up Pão de Açúcar costs R$40 pp, while an eight-hour hike up and around Pedra da Gávea is R$85 pp.

Trilharte Ecoturismo (tel. 21/2225-2426) also offers many interesting eco-trips—all of which are slanted toward adventurers with cameras. Photographic safaris to a wide range of photogenic destinations involve hiking, horseback riding, climbing, and rafting. The only drawback is that tours are in Portuguese. Trip prices vary depending on the length of time and activities involved. They range from R$35 for a light hike up the Pão de Açúcar to R$180 (including lunch) for a full-day guided excursion into the Mata Atlântica.

Meanwhile, if you have ever dreamed of scaling Pão de Açúcar or Corcovado, Companhia da Escalada (tel. 21/2567-7105, R$100–160 pp) organizes rock-climbing classes and excursions for beginners and experts.

Hang Gliding

The popularity of hang gliding in Rio—second only to surfing—is unsurprising viewing the spectacular surroundings involved. The classic (and most breathtaking) trip is to jump off Pedra Bonita (in the Parque Nacional da Tijuca) and glide down to the Praia do Pepino in São Conrado. Both Just Fly (tel. 21/2268-0565) and Super Fly (tel. 21/3322-2286) charge around R$240 for the 15-minute thrill, including transportation to and from your hotel.

Sailing, Boating, and Surfing

Sailing and Boating

Better than gazing at the Baía da Guanabara is to actually get out on its blue waters. Saveiro’s Tour (Av. Infante Dom Henrique, Marina da Glória, Glória, tel. 21/2225-6064) rents out all types of seaworthy vessels as well as water skis. Those interested in a mini cruise can charter a posh yacht that will take you up and down the coast to destinations such as Búzios, Ilha Grande, Angra dos Reis, and Paraty. A two-hour tour around the Baía da Guanabara costs R$30 pp.


Rio is a surfers’ haven, luring wave junkies from around the world to the beaches of Arpoador, Barra, Recreio, Prainha, and Grumari. To get around town, the city ingeniously operates a special Surf Bus (tel. 21/8515-2289 or 21/2527-0891) equipped to deal with boards and dripping bodies. Leaving from Largo do Machado in Botafogo, it travels all the way down the coast from Copacabana to Prainha, departing at 7 a.m., 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 4 p.m. Despite the fact that it’s equipped with air-conditioning, a minibar, and a 29-inch TV that screens surfing DVDs, the cost is only R$3.

If you want to hone your technique, Escola de Surf Rico de Souza (tel. 21/2438-1821) offers daily lessons at its headquarters (in front of Posto 4 at Barra) and at Prainha (Praia da Macumba). Private lessons (including equipment) cost R$60 pp for one hour. The website has class schedules for foreign students. The school has lots of information about surfing conditions, events, and equipment rental. To buy or rent surf equipment, check out the stores at Galeria River in Arpoador (Rua Francisco Otaviano 67). Hot Coast (Loja 12, tel. 21/2287-9388) rents various styles of boards for R$40 per day.


Brazil’s favorite sport is also Rio’s, and you’ll see everyone from women to favela kids to beer-bellied seniors dribbling, passing, shooting, and scoring, particularly on the beaches. However, if you want to see the real deal, head to the largest and most famous futebol stadium in the world: Maracanã (Rua Profesor Eurico Rabelo, Maracanã, tel. 21/2334-1705, tickets R$15–40). Built in 1950 to host the World Cup, the stadium seats close to 200,000 people. Even if soccer itself leaves you cold, it’s worth taking in a game for the sheer theatrics of the crowd as they toot whistles, beat drums, unfurl gigantic banners, and wield smoke bombs in team colors. When things aren’t going well, fans shed tears, implore saints, and hurl death threats (as well as cups of urine—for this reason, consider seats in the lower levels, which are sheltered by a protective canopy). However, when victory rears its head, it’s like a collective mini Carnaval.

Rio’s four biggest and most traditional teams are Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo, and Vasco da Gama. Each has its die-hard followers, but the most toxic rivalry of all is the legendary Flamengo-Fluminense (“Fla-Flu”) match-up. Games are played throughout the week and throughout the year. When going to a game, avoid rabid fans on the bus and take the Metrô or a taxi. During the day, Maracanã is open for 40-minute guided tours (9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, 8–11 a.m. game days, R$20). Due to ongoing renovations for the 2014 World Cup, it’s best to call ahead.

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.

Care for a Drink with your Film? (or a Film with your Drink?)

Cine Odeon Petrobras movie theater
Photo © Michael Sommers.

Although it’s more famously known for its beaches, music, and Carnaval, Rio de Janeiro is also a great city for film lovers.

This isn’t just because Rio is home to dozens of movie theaters, many of them housed in alluring edifices – ranging from the streamlined Art Deco splendor of the Roxy, in Copacabana, to the intimate 45-person hipster haven of Cine Santa, perched on Santa Teresa’s Largo de Guimarães.

Or because every year, for two weeks in early October, the city plays host to one of the biggest film festivals in the Americas, the Rio International Film Festival.

Or because, from time to time, an enormous screen is erected in the middle of Copacabana Beach and hundreds flock to sit in the soft sand and watch a free movie with Sugarloaf and Corcovado as backdrops (I recently had the pleasure of being one of the flock when Hitchcock’s very first (silent) film – The Pleasure Garden – was shown, with a live musical accompaniment by the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra’s Youth Ensemble).

It’s because Rio de Janeiro is a city where you can drink in movie theaters – and watch movies in bars.

This is particularly the case in Centro, home to Rio’s first movie houses (and its oldest bars). In the 1920s, a savvy Spanish entrepreneur decided to transform the sprawling square of Praça Floriano Peixoto into a Carioca version of Broadway, with restaurants, dance halls, theaters, and a handful of glamorous movie palaces whose prominence earned the square the nickname of Cinelândia.

Sadly, today Cinelândia’s sole survivor is the Cine Odeon Petrobras, a classic deco palace that opened its grand doors in 1932. Aside from screening (often independent and/or national) films on its blissfully large screen, it plays host to a variety of cool cinema-centric events that attract a cult following and involve as much drinking and dancing as movie watching:

Cineclube GLBT: On the final Friday of each month, Rio’s alternativo crew gather to check out screenings of GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender-themed short films from Brazil and all over the globe, followed by a DJ-led dance fest out in the lobby.

Maratonas: On the first Friday of every month, hard-core cinephiles (and insomniacs) can watch an all-night marathon of movies knowing that, in between features, they can down cocktails and dance to DJ-spun tunes until dawn and the final credits – at which time, breakfast is served.

Cineclube Cachaça: On Wednesday nights (usually once a month), members of this “club” gather to watch recently produced Brazilian short films (often with the makers in attendance) before congregating post-film to tipple fine blends of Brazil’s most famous homegrown alcohol to the strains of live or DJ-spun music.

On the flip side of the equation, Cine Botequim is a classic Carioca botequim (neighborhood bar) that screens movies. Located in the formerly down-and-out, but now up-and-coming area near Praça Mauá, it shows double features every night of the week (at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.) with selections organized according to genres, themes, and actors.

Complementing the main features are the décor (lighting fixtures made from old film canisters and lots of vintage movie posters) and a food and drink menu that allow you to gorge on “Raging Bull” (slices of sizzling grilled beef) while nursing an “All About Eve” (a ladylike mixture of vodka, passion fruit, and condensed milk that packs a nasty punch).

Note: Those who don’t speak a word of Portuguese can take comfort in the fact that, in Brazil, foreign (including English-language) films are shown in their original versions with Portuguese subtitles (since film titles are sometimes only listed only in Portuguese, some quick advance Googling might be necessary to determine what in fact you’ll be seeing).

Making House Calls in Rio, Part 2

Rio de Janeiro house with pool
Photo © Michael Sommers.

The house I wrote about in my previous post was a 1930s Norman-style villa overlooking the Lagoa Rodrigo das Freitas that was home to art collector Eva Klabin. The second, a beautiful Modernist house located on the lush slopes of the upscale neighborhood of Gávea was built for, and lived in, by the wealthiest and illustrious Moreira Salles family.

Walter Moreira Salles was a distinguished Brazilian businessman, banker, and diplomat. For decades, he presided over Unibanco, founded by his father, João, which grew into one of the largest private banks in Brazil. A cultured man, known for his charm and wit, Walter had an intense interest in the arts (a legacy he passed down to his children; one son João is an acclaimed documentary film maker while another son, Walter Jr., is the internationally renowned director of films such as Central Station, The Motorcycle Diaries, and most recently, an adaptation of the Jack Kerouac classic, On the Road.)

[pullquote] In 1992, the family decided to convert their former residence into a private cultural center known as the Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS). [/pullquote]
In 1948, Walter called upon Carioca architect Olavo Redig de Campos to build a house located on a 10,000-square-meter patch of land on a steep hillside blanketed by the jungly Tijuca Forest. Completed in 1951, the Moreira Salles house is considered to be Campos’ masterpiece. Its uniqueness stems from the way in which the classic tenets of Modernism are “Brazilian-ified” through the use of sensual curves that soften normally rational lines and typical Brazilian architectural elements such as inner courtyards, latticework, and shiny ceramic tiles (azulejos) that conjure up the nation’s colonial past.

In 1992, the family decided to convert their former residence into a private cultural center known as the Instituto Moreira Salles (IMS). Aside from hosting temporary art exhibits, IMS screens films and hosts debates, concerts and other events. The family’s private collection of photographs, musical recordings, and books – most of which are devoted to Rio and its history – is open to the public and comprises a rich archive of Carioca history and culture.

Elegantly streamlined, spacious, and suffused with light, the house is captivating in its own right. However, what makes it so striking is the way it merges, harmoniously and shockingly, with its natural surroundings. This is due not only to the house’s immersion in the tropical forest – (a cascading stream flows through the property, tiny mico monkeys swing from the trees, and from time to time, a pendulous, jackfruit plops onto the ground) – but to the extensive gardens, the work of the celebrated artist and landscape architect, Roberto Burle Marx.

Although not well know outside of Brazil, aside from designing the iconic black-and-white, mosaic “wave” promenade that famously lines Copacabana beach, Roberto Burle Marx is considered by many to be the inventor of the Modern Garden. Born in São Paulo, in 1909, and raised in Rio de Janeiro, it was ironically in Germany that Burle Marx first became interested in Brazilian flora. When he was 19, his family briefly moved to Berlin during which time he studied painting. In between his art classes, Burle Marx discovered exotic species from his homeland in the Botanical Gardens of Dahlem.

At the time, Brazilian gardens aped European models and were all about geometrical arrangements, rose bushes, and Greco-Roman statues. However, Burle Marx completely subverted these Eurocentric precepts. After his return from Germany, the young artist, who landed a job as Director of Parks and Gardens for the city of Recife, began creating gardens composed entirely of homegrown, and hitherto unsung, native species such as lowly cacti, bromeliads, and palms.

Burle Marx’s gardens shocked – and seduced – not only in terms of their (tropical) content, but in terms of their form as well. Inspired by his painter’s sensibility, his gardens are living canvases in which foliage and flowers, arranged in large sweeping organic forms, allow shapes, colors and textures to play off each other, creating beguiling effects.

In the 1940s, Burle Marx began corresponding with renowned botanists and naturalists around the world. At the same time, he traveled deep into Brazil’s interior, by car, and often on foot, in pursuit of new and interesting Brazilian species. His mission was to “redeem” ignored and unknown plants, by rescuing them from invisibility and introducing them into a new landscaping context.

One of the most successful of Burle Marx’s rescue missions involves the heliconia. Traditionally scorned as nothing more than the flower of a wild banana tree, Burle Marx’s use of these fantastical fire-engine red blossoms – both in floral arrangements and the hundreds of gardens he designed – single-handedly revived the heliconia’s previously ignoble reputation. Indeed, Burle Marx took his heliconia research so seriously that he ended up discovered various new species – some of which are now officially known by the scientific name Heliconia burle-marxii.

Heliconias are on abundant display in the beguiling back yard of the Moreira Salles house as are dense patches of anthuriums, swaying palms, and a cluster of slender pau mulatto (literally “mulatto wood”) trees, whose smooth bronze bark peels away to expose a glistening green underbelly. Burle Marx is also the author of the beautiful blue-and-white, ceramic tiled, pond, whose carp-filled waters are dotted with islands from which wild grasses and daylilies sprout.

The garden is sprinkled with chairs and benches. There is also a café that serves snacks and light meals (as well as copious breakfasts, from 11am-1pm). Cariocas of all ages sit and read, or chat, or even work away on laptops, although I can’t imagine swapping the idyllic surroundings for a spreadsheet. In between checking out the two exhibitions and the bookstore (the Instituto Moreira Salles also publishes Brazilian fiction, poetry, and art books), I kept finding myself drawn back to the oasis of a garden, which lies in the shadow of Dois Irmãos, two towering hunks of rock rising up from the forest that really could be mistaken for “two brothers.”

Sometimes, the combination of a specific place and a specific moment can be so otherworldly that it’s as if you’ve been temporarily dipped into a dream. I certainly felt dream-dripped as I sat in the garden listening to bird squawks, insect hums, and the gush of cascading water while the afternoon turned to indigo and soft lights illuminated the curves and lines of the Moreira Salles’ house. Even once the sky was completely dark, it took considerable effort to wake up, walk out the front gates, and return to the city.

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The Dawning of Brazil’s B&B Age

B&B overlooking the beach
Photo © Michael Sommers.

Earlier this week, I spent the night at O Veleiro, a bed-and-breakfast owned and lived in by a friendly Canadian-Brazilian couple. This B&B is noteworthy for its location – a sprawling house hugging one of Rio de Janeiro’s jungly mountainsides (iconic neighbors include both Sugar Loaf and the statue of Christ the Redeemer). However, it’s also remarkable for the fact that, according to its owners, it’s the first B&B not only in Rio, but in all of Brazil.

Robin, who (like my mother) originally hails from Vancouver Island, recalls that when he and his partner, Richard, first decided to transform their Botafogo house into a bed and breakfast, he met with officials from the Brazilian tourism agency (Robin is also a licensed tour guide) to find out if there were any rules or regulations governing B&Bs.

[pullquote] Not only had the Brazilian officials never heard of the B&B concept, but they were completely mystified by it.[/pullquote]

Not only had the Brazilian officials never heard of the B&B concept, but they were completely mystified by it. Reactions ranged from “Why would anybody want to go on holiday and stay in somebody’s house?” to “You’d really open your home to strangers who could steal all your belongings?”

Despite the lack of positive feedback, Robin and Richard went ahead with their idea anyway and 13 years later, O Veleiro does booming business, luring guests as diverse as members of the Queen of England’s staff to hardcore birdwatchers (who were pleasantly shocked to find an impressive number of rare specimens in the B&B’s backyard).

In subsequent years, dozens of other B&Bs have sprouted up throughout Rio, giving the city’s largely overpriced, underwhelming, and often impersonal hotels – particularly those concentrated in the coveted beach neighborhoods of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon – a much-needed run for their money.

Many B&Bs are located in the charming, hilltop neighborhood of Santa Teresa. In the 19th century, wealthy Cariocas built gracious villas along steep winding streets of this bucolic residential bairro, with terraces and balconies overlooking the city and Baía de Guanabara. After a long period of decline, artists, followed more recently by foreign expats, moved in and began renovating the crumbling old homes. In many cases, they transformed them into boutique hotels and, increasingly, into intimate guesthouses and B&Bs.

I spent a couple of nights at the new and already very popular Casa Cool Beans, owned and operated by a U.S. couple, Lance and David, who live on the premises. Before settling in Rio, Lance spent years working for various Four Seasons hotels. while David toiled in the technology sector.

Their combined professional experiences, along with their American background, give Casa Cool Beans some unique edges. Lance is terrifically efficient and detail oriented – a relative rarity in Rio – while David makes a point of chatting to guests during breakfast to find out what they’re interested in doing before creating customized print-outs (including descriptions, instructions, and maps) of how they can spend their day and/or night. And although Casa Cool Beans incorporates lots of Brazilian elements – from the lush tropical vegetation in the gardens to the funky homegrown art that decorates the rooms – it’s hard to resist Americana such as seriously fluffy cotton towels and morning waffles topped with Aunt Jemima syrup.

While Santa Teresa has no shortage of B&Bs, finding one in the lusted-after, upscale, and touristic Zona Sul beach neighborhoods is still quite a feat. A welcome exception to the rule is the Rio Guesthouse, another pioneering B&B that occupies the top floors of a 1940s Art Deco penthouse apartment on Avenida Atlântica.

The charming Carioca owner, Marta, presides over her home like a Brazilian mom, handing you keys, reminding you to double lock the door before you go out, offering you fridge space for your beers, and encouraging you to mingle with the other guests at breakfast. This communal morning meal takes place on a terrace with insanely photogenic views of the entire sensuous curve of Copacabana beach backed by Sugar Loaf (for this reason, Marta has guests that never leave their adopted home during their entire stay in Rio).

Marta also tells tales of despondent foreigners who call her up from neighboring beachfront behemoths operated by international hotel chains, and beg her for a room because, despite the equally enticing views, the often lackluster digs and service is getting them down. Interestingly, almost all of Martha’s guests are gringos; she doesn’t court Brazilian tourists, claiming that they just don’t get, or appreciate, the B&B experience.

Although many of Rio’s B&Bs are charming and comfortable, few are as luxurious as the one owned by Matt and Susan, a couple of native Californians who spent five long years transforming the hilltop villa they purchased in the upscale resort town of Búzios (two hours north from Rio) into a “luxurious tropical Asian style inn”.

The couple spent years living in various parts of Asia – which accounts for everything from the intricately hand carved four poster beds shipped over from Thailand to the Buddhas in the bathrooms – before deciding to switch gears and open a guest house above Búzios’ horseshoe-shaped beach of Ferradura. While the four guest rooms look out onto a brilliant blue bay, the most astonishing aquatic feature of the Cachoeira Inn are the nine cachoeiras (waterfalls) built into the property’s beautifully landscaped cliffside. Astonishingly “life-like” (i.e. you feel like you’re in a national park), these cascades and rivers transform this B&B into an adults only water world (no kids are allowed).

While Matt and Susan prefer to think of their property as an inn, guest house, or micro-resort, Cachoeira Inn has racked up accolades in the bed and breakfast category, including being ranked as one of the Top 10 International B&Bs 2011-2012 by And, indeed, despite the lavish trappings, what really register are home-away-from-home aspects: curling up on a comfy couch with the couple’s cats and dog to read a borrowed paperback; having Matt (a former telecommunications wizard) tweak your laptop settings so you can access the free Wi-Fi; being called “sweetie” by Susan as she plies you with homemade chicken soup and crackers during an afternoon rainstorm in which the weather suddenly grows cold, grey, and un-beachable.

It’s likely that Rio’s B&B revolution will continue – particularly as the city struggles to keep up with demand for new hotels spurred on by upcoming events such as the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Rio can be a complicated place for foreigners to navigate, especially during a first visit. In the end, the personalized treatment – not to mention the memories – offered by many of these B&Bs surpasses that proffered by the most abundantly starred hotels.

Map of Rio de Janeiro City, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro City

Rio’s Alternative Points of View

Rio de Janeiro scenic view
Photo © Michael Sommers.

At the top of any To Do list for first-time visitors to Rio de Janeiro are two obligatory ascents:

1. To the top of Corcovado (to take in jaw-dropping panoramic views of Sugarloaf and the city).

2. To the top of Sugarloaf (to take in jaw-dropping panoramic views of Corcovado and the city).

There’s no denying that the sweeping vistas gleaned from both privileged perches are worth every last centavo of the (lofty) prices of admission; R$44 for the train to the base of the Christ the Redeemer statue and R$53 for the cable car ride up to the summit of Sugarloaf. More daunting than the heights, or the prices, however, are the vast number of other first (and second, third, fourth)-time visitors to Rio intent on making the same obligatory ascents.

[pullquote] Although unknown to many tourists, there are happily many other Carioca summits that offer alternatively impressive views far from the multilingual madding crowds. [/pullquote]

It sucks some of the joy out of what, in theory, could be an experience verging on the sublime when you have to line up for hours to catch the trem for Corcovado (tip: wake up early in the morning to catch the first departure at 8:30 a.m.) and perform delicate maneuvers around throngs of topographical paparazzi, all jostling for the best spots from which to capture the chiseled features of famed geographical landmarks such as Dois Irmãos, Pedra da Gávea, and Copacabana beach.

Although unknown to many tourists, there are happily many other Carioca summits that offer alternatively impressive views far from the multilingual madding crowds. Access to these hilltop vantage points is easy – and free. Because these morros (“morro” is Portuguese for a large hill) are occupied by military bases and special UPP or Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora (Pacification Police Units installed in favelas to keep violence and drug traffickers at bay), safety is assured.

Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro.
Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro. Photo © She Paused 4 Thought, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.


Morro do Leme

The big rock that juts out at the end of Leme beach (an extension of Copacabana’s white-fringed crescent) is known as Pedra do Leme. At its base is a military complex, which you pass through before embarking on a 20-minute hike along a cobblestoned trail that winds through patches of native Atlantic forest up to the summit of Morro do Leme. The hill is crowned by the Forte Duque de Caxias, a whitewashed fort built in 1779. From its sprawling rooftop festooned with cannons, Copacabana beach stretches out its languorous curves seductively while the backside of Sugarloaf is so close you can lick it.


Morro Dona Marta

Rising up from Botafogo, the Morro Dona Marta shelters the favela of Santa Marta, which has been occupied by UPP since December 2008. As part of the city’s program to integrate favelas into the fabric of the city and provide basic services for its residents, an elevator was installed to ferry residents – and tourists – up and down the steep hill. From the lookout point at the top, you’re close enough to Corcovado to reach out and tickle Christ the Redeemer’s exposed arm pits. At your feet, Sugarloaf is near enough to step on (see accompanying photo). A 5-minute walk through the favela’s narrow alleyways brings you to a square where a mosaic fresco and bronze statue both pay homage to Michael Jackson who shot the Spike Lee-directed video for his song “They Don’t Care About Us” in the community.


Morro do Cantagalo

Straddling the Zona Sul beach neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipanema, Morro do Cantagalo is covered by what were once two of Rio’s most infamous favelas, Cantagalo and Pavão/Pavãozinho, which between them are home to 10,000 people. In 2009, both favelas received UPP units and a year later, a brand new elevator was inaugurated that sweeps passengers up from the tony Ipanema street of Rua Teixeira de Melo (just behind the General Osório/Ipanema Metrô station) to the top of the morro. Another two flights up from the elevator is the Mirante da Paz, a look-out that provides incredible 360-degree views of the open Atlantic, Zona Sul beaches, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, and the twin peaks of Dois Irmãos.


Morro da Catacumba

Not far from Cantagalo (in fact, only a 15-minute walk from the Cantagalo Metrô station in Copacabana), along the shores of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, lies the Parque da Catacumba, a preserved patch of native Atlantic forest, part of which was replanted following the 1970 removal of a favela of the same name. From the park’s entrance at Avenida Epitácio Pessoa 3000, a trail winds its way up the Morro da Catacumba (the reference to “catacumbas” (catacombs) alludes to the fact that the area was believed to be a sacred indigenous burial ground). It passes a zipline course and a series of striking sculptures wrought by Brazilian artists, before climbing through lush jungle. A steep 20-minute climb brings you to the top where you’re treated to a choice of two look-outs; one facing towards Ipanema, Leblon and the Atlantic and the other staring down at the Gávea racetrack and Jardim Botânico with Corcovado hovering behind.

Highlights of Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro

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