Rio’s infrastructure may be creaking at the prospect of the Olympic Games, but its beaches are set to dazzle the world, writes Neil Geraghty
Pohhidge, pohhidge”, says a young waiter at the Copacabana Palace Hotel breakfast buffet. Like so many Brazilians, he’s brushing up on his English in the run-up to the Olympic Games but the letter r is notoriously difficult to pronounce for Brazilians and a colleague who is teaching him is losing patience.
“Não, porridge, po-rr-idge,” he says, carefully rolling his rs.
“OK, pohhidge, po-hh-idge,” says the young waiter.
“Não, não,” says his colleague slapping his forehead in exasperation.
I catch their eyes and we all break out laughing; pronouncing porridge correctly is clearly going to be an Olympic challenge for Rio’s hospitality industry.
Sports mad and with a cult of the body beautiful, in many ways Rio de Janeiro is a natural Olympic city and the Copacabana Palace Hotel was a pioneer in establishing Rio’s world famous beach culture. Built in 1923 to add a slice of Cote d’Azur glitz to Rio’s then neglected beaches, the hotel quickly became a playground for Hollywood stars. Upstairs on the first floor, a corridor runs past elegant marble reception rooms, lined with signed black and white photographs of silver screen legends that include Errol Flynn, Fred Astaire and Marlene Dietrich. The Hollywood jet set brought with them a Californian beach lifestyle and along with it beach volleyball, which in the 1930s had become a craze in Santa Monica.
Brazilians quickly adopted the game as their own and in a nod to the Copacabana Palace’s role in introducing it to Brazil, the Olympic beach volleyball event will be held on the beach, a stone’s throw from the hotel’s entrance.
And what a spectacular location it is. I arrive in the evening into a sweltering thunderstorm and the next hour and a half is spent crawling along infernal traffic jams in the pouring rain.
On the TomTom global traffic index, Rio is ranked the fourth-worst city in the world and my first impressions of the city are not favourable. Disheartened, I crash out at the hotel and sleep like a log. With the time difference, I wake up at dawn, draw the curtains and rub my eyes at the beautiful view. The storm has cleared and a misty pink sunrise is lighting up the South Atlantic. Copacabana Beach sweeps past my balcony in a perfect 4km crescent of pale golden sand fringed with rustling coconut groves and is already busy with pre-work joggers and surfers. It’s a magnificent and energising view and after breakfast I don a pair of flip flops and set out to explore the most famous stretch of sand in the world.
I immediately resolve to redouble my efforts in the gym. Along the beach, workout stations are full of buff bodybuilders of all ages busily doing pull-ups while groups of lads playing football in the soft sand take the beautiful game to astonishing heights of grace and artistry.
All my doubts about this traffic-clogged city are soon dispelled as I walk barefoot along the sand with the warm Atlantic surf washing around my feet. As Copacabana curves round towards the rocky Arpoador headland, panoramic views open up of Sugar Loaf Mountain framed beautifully by graceful frigate birds circling in the sky and paddle boarders gliding serenely in the sheltered waters. At the end of the beach a huddle of brightly coloured fishing boats and a ramshackle fish market are all that remains of a fishing village long since vanished under a sea of waffle-fronted apartment blocks. The market is full of elderly ladies doggedly bargaining down the price of fat, glistening tuna fish.
I cut down a busy street lined by seriously cool surfing shops that send out delightful blasts of icy air conditioning onto the pavement. It’s an effective tactic often used by Rio’s shops to attract potential shoppers, and over the next few days I find myself browsing in shops I normally wouldn’t dream of setting foot in. Across a park planted with shady purple jacaranda trees I reach Ipanema Beach and the view here is even more dazzling than Copacabana’s. At the end of the beach, the twin conical peaks of the Dois Irmaos (two brothers) rise up in front of Sao Conrado Mountain whose flattened summit resembles a swept-back cockatoo’s crest.
By now I’m suffering from the heat. Rio is roasting in an unseasonal heatwave caused by el Niño and temperatures are hovering in the mid-30s. I stop at a beachside bar and order an iced coconut. The barman is having a lively football discussion with a friend, and barely looking at the coconut, he deftly hacks a hole into the shell with a machete, making me wince with trepidation at his exposed fingers.
The cool coconut water is the perfect pick-me-up for the sweltering weather and this spot seems an ideal place to stop for a swim. On the beach I’m waylaid by Ana, one of dozens of small-scale entrepreneurs who rent out umbrellas, deck chairs and run bars on the beach. I’ve fallen into good hands and over the next week she becomes a firm friend, greeting me with warm hugs, fussing over my umbrella so it gives maximum shade and rustling up the most delicious caipirinhas that I come across in Rio. The beach is a lifeline for vendors from Rio’s impoverished favelas who walk up and down selling snacks, drinks, swimwear and trinkets.
Many of them are much loved, larger than life characters, and I soon get to recognise the stars of the beach, from the fruit salad man who never tires of posing for photos in his giant sombrero piled high with plastic fruit, to the smiling iced acai seller who sings delightful samba songs every time she strolls past.
Down by the water’s edge, Rio’s beach novices are making some classic mistakes. The South Atlantic breakers are notoriously unruly and locals never take their technology anywhere near the sea. A bronzed lad stands grinning with a selfie stick when a giant wave hits his knees and knocks him backwards. With a shriek he disappears under the water and his smartphone is consigned to oblivion. I dive head first under a breaker, the best way to reach the calmer waters beyond, and floating on my back facing the shore I see the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer appearing above Ipanema’s luxury hotels. Over the next week I hike through pristine Atlantic rainforest on the slopes of the Sugar Loaf, enjoy sublime coffee at the palatial Belle Époque Café Colombo and explore the pulsating Samba bars of the effervescent Lapa nightlife district. Despite the chaos, congestion and heat Rio fully lives up to its nickname of Cidade Maravilhosa, the marvellous city, but it is the beaches that I’m always drawn back to. At sunset there is a sudden influx of locals as they finish work and head to the beach for chopps (small beers) with friends. I’m surrounded by laughter, smiles and the lilting singsong refrains of Rio slang and it’s the natural laid back charm of the local Cariocas that will make the 2016 Olympics so memorable.
• Journey Latin America (0208 600 1881, journeylatinamerica.co.uk) offers a nine-day holiday to Rio de Janeiro staying four nights at the Belmond Copacabana Palace Hotel and three nights at the Porto Bay Hotel, including private transfers and breakfast, from £1,968 per person. Price includes international flights with Lufthansa from Edinburgh via Frankfurt as well as a full day’s jeep-tour of Rio visiting Sugar Loaf, Corcovado & Christ the Redeemer, Tijuca Forest and the Botanical Gardens.