By Gretchen Richter de Medeiros
Rio de Janeiro – the Marvelous City – the first time I came it was 1987, and people warned me to “be careful, it’s the most dangerous city in the world”. The second time I came, I spent a week in a youth hostel and celebrated New Year’s on the beach with newly-made friends from all over the world. Like mine, their friends and family were quite worried about their plans. Then, when Bella was 16 months old, some folks said “you’re crazy to take a baby to Rio”. The next time we came, it was with family friends, 7 of us, and we heard the message “it’s scary, are you sure you want to go?” This time… “Well, Rio’s better now, but it still isn’t safe”.
But here’s our reality: it’s truly MARVELOUS, and we’ve never had a single moment of fear, worry or unease during any one of our visits. We’ve been greeted with smiles and jokes, gorgeous scenery, and quirky stories of the city’s history. Tourists and locals alike are laid-back and enjoying the sunny beaches, fresh juice bars and world-famous sights. Rio’s amazing, people!
One of my favorite parts about Rio is the beach culture. With its miles of gorgeous coastline, most of Rio’s beaches are great for swimming and lounging. Cariocas, as Rio-born-people call themselves, always have their suits on hand, and the city is set up to accommodate folks in dripping suits with sandy feet. Restaurateurs, bus drivers, and magazine sellers don’t blink any eye when you show up wearing little more than a suit, flip-flops and sarong.
It seems that most everyone goes down to the beach daily, even if only for an hour or two. Mahogany grandmothers with their leopard-print suits and bangle-stacked wrists gossip in trios. Damp toddlers become kids-a-Milanesa rolling in the sand. Sweethearts meet after work at Arpoador, applauding as the sun sets behind Ipanema’s Two Brothers Mountain. Even business deals are made by old guys in speedos sipping beers along the curbs of Copacabana’s famous black-and-white cobblestone beach-walk.
Folks walk, run, ride, and work out by the sea. Strategically placed billboards squirting a fine mist of water provide a tiny bit of relief from the sun and heat. Companies sponsor work-out stations where body builders, middle-aged people fighting time, and cross-fit fanatics do their “ups” (sit-ups, chin-ups and push-ups). Nurses and caregivers are also there, strolling with their charges – the elderly, the sick, the small children – in the early morning and evening when the heat abates a bit. Although what’s “cool” is relevant, some days it hit 38°C/100°F by mid-day, which meant mornings of 30°C/85°F.
I’ve never seen a better urban-beach infrastructure. Umbrella and chair vendors begin setting up around 7:30 AM, for $15 our family of 5 rented plenty of shade and kept the sand out of our suits. Ice guys deftly maneuver their three-wheeled-wagonified bicycles through the crowds delivering huge bags of ice; ensuring beach-goers can enjoy a “stupidly cold” beer or a super-hydrating, cold, fresh, green coconut water. Vendors with zinc-oxide-smeared lips sell sunscreen, sunglasses, sarongs, and sunhats, tromping up and down the sand all day long in their own long-sleeved shirts and broad hats. Lemonade, popsicles, and made-to-order caipirinhas are yours for just a few cents more than they cost “in town”. Our favorite was cheese skewers rolled in garlic and basil and roasted over a small tin of hot coals.
Rodrigo calls Brazilian beaches “the great equalizer”. In Rio, like throughout Brazil, almost all of the beaches are public, where folks from all walks of life and different social classes play side-by-side. Tourists mix with locals, rich mix with poor, old mix with young. This was our experience, 100% positive. From the day-to-day to celebrating New Year’s Eve on Copacabana with over one million people, Rio’s beach culture makes it one of my favorite cities in the whole world.