“Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking.” Everyone knows the song, but did you know that it was written about a real person? I didn’t either. I did know, however, that Ipanema, alongside Copacabana (which is also a famous song title, but about a club in Miami), is one of the most famous beaches in the world. In fact, the city of Rio de Janiero basks in the glory of its several world-famous beaches. It is even has the nickname of the “Marvelous City.”
Undoubtedly one of the most unique and recognizable cityscapes on the planet, Rio de Janiero is home to the world’s largest urban jungle. Green hills flow seamlessly into the city. Sugarloaf Mountain pokes out into the sea. Several famous beaches line the coast. The Maracanã is one of the most famous soccer stadiums in the world, and the Sambadrome is home to the madness that is Carnival. All this is overlooked by Christ the Redeemer, one of the 7 Wonders of the World.
Each of these landmarks add to the city’s fame and mystique, but for me, a look from inside the city revealed a different story. To be honest, I thought I would love Rio de Janiero, especially after watching the colorful cartoon movie called “Rio.” Yet when I arrived in the “Cidade Maravilhosa,” I did not feel the charm I thought I would. Anna and I even stayed in “the best hostel in South America” according to HostelWorld, which was nice, but not “the best” on our list.
The hostel staff were careful to remind us about carrying cameras and phones, and not to wear any jewelry, including $10 watches from Target. They pointed out the areas in the city that were safest to walk, and told us to pay extra attention to our belongings while on the beach. Even though we had been traveling for nearly 11 months, we could tell that Rio was probably the most dangerous place we had been. With these (and many more) safety precautions freshly on our mind, we walked the entire length of Leblon beach, Ipanema beach, and most of Copacabana, but were not totally impressed. Though they are nice beaches, I personally think there are better beaches in Brazil. In my opinion, theses famous beaches make the city of Rio look prettier, but the city buildings do not reciprocate. Plus, the higher risk of danger, and dirtiness of the city took away from a potentially very charming place.
It was not until Anna and I took the cable car up to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain, the famous, tan rock formation that is in nearly every photo of Rio de Janiero, that we began to see the beauty of the city. Just like Huayna Picchu is in every photo of Machu Picchu, Rio de Janiero would not look the same without the “Pão de Açúcar.” Once atop, the real beauty of Rio shined, like the sun in our face. It was almost magical to be removed from the stress of constant vigilance and watch the city lights begin to twinkle on as the sun set over the urban forest that encompasses the city. For a moment, we almost forgot about the potential dangers down below. The pictures do not do justice. This is a must see for anyone visiting Rio.
The next day we wanted to climb to the top of Corcovado so that we could visit the Christ the Redeemer statue. Before we started to hike the trail, we were again reminded of the violence in the city when a group of tourists came down from the trail and warned us not to climb that way. They had just been mugged by 4 men with knives. Even though we had travel insurance, we decided to take the tour van up to the entrance since it was much safer. Christ the Redeemer was looking over us the whole time.
When we arrived at the top and looked out over the city, I was again moved by the natural beauty of the city’s landscape. There was also a paraglider floating above us and above the 98 ft. statue of Christ. Looks like we were not the only ones enjoying the escape.
When we came down from Corcovado, Anna and I met up with our Couchsurfing host, Cristiano, at an all-you-can-eat Brazilian Steakhouse. It was awesome to see the waiters carry around sabers of every different kind of meat for you to choose from. This was our first time Couchsurfing and had a great experience with Cristiano.
Like the unreachable charm that is alluded to in “The Girl from Ipanema,” the beauty of Rio at the time of our visit was much easier seen from afar; in photos or from lookouts atop the Pão de Açúcar or Christ the Redeemer hill. Rio de Janiero has a lot of things going for it and may even have the potential to be one of the prettiest cities in the world, but in our opinion, there is still a lot of work to be done. Was it everything I had hoped it would be? No. Would I go back? Yes. Would I recommend it to others? Yes, but go prepared.