Rio de Janeiro seems to be what Brazil is all about. Most of it can be safely ignored except for the beaches - Copacabana and, of course, Ipanema ('Oh, that girl from Ipanema...').
At almost any time of the year Copacabana is crowded for about 30 metres back from the waterline. The rest of the beach is simply too hot to walk on anytime between sunrise and sunset. Therefore, an aerial view would show water, a strip of people, a strip of desert, and then the pretty swirly pavement of Avenida Atlantica.
The Avenida is an experience in itself - it consists of two triple lanes. Depending on the time of day, traffic rushes in either one or both lanes, in one or the other or both directions. This can be rather confusing when trying to cross the road, particularly as the adjacent cycle lane is bi-directional and the traffic lights are considered optional by most of the cyclists. To make life interesting, every now and then the police decide to cone off a couple of lanes and pull over drivers for questioning. Recent observation suggests that the stopping criterion is 'white cars with a seven in the registration number'.
Eating and Drinking
Along the city-side of the Avenida are all the international hotels and lots of restaurants. Manoel and Juaquim's ('We close for lunch') is highly recommended. Order lots of munchies (bolinhos de bacalhao - deep fried codfish balls, gurjoes de peixe - fish) and caipirinha (rum drink - see below). Expect to queue for up to an hour at busy times - after eight or nine at night. Next door is the recently opened Arab restaurant which still has a severe case of bistromathics1 in the calculation of its bills but the food is ok. Either of these places, and lots of others, will provide you with a good feed for two for 50 Reals or so - about US$25 dollars. If you're willing to spend a little more, try Churascaria Rodizio for freshly barbecued meat, which is brought to you on a sword until you can eat no more.
On the other side of the road are 48 kiosks where basic snacks can be obtained as well as the standard fare of green coconuts (coco gelado), beer (um chopp), caipirinha, and coke. Snacks and drinks for two will cost around ten reals. While sitting there you will be approached by kids wanting to sell you peanuts - a small square of paper will be placed in front of you and a couple of peanuts solemnly placed on it. The kid will then wander around the other tables and repeat the task before returning to you. If you've eaten the free samples, you'll be expected to buy a paper cone of nuts, freshly heated. Otherwise the nuts go back in the sample case.
Cerveja is somehow different from chopp but it's hard to work out where the difference lies2. Whatever you ask for, you seem to get the same thing. The recommended brand is Antarctica Beer which is good for Linuxheads as it has two penguins for a logo. Brahma is another well-known local brand.
Made from limes, ice, sugar, and cachaca - a sort of cane rum- this should on no account be missed.
A strange drink, almost but not totally unlike cold tea. Try it with lime (com limao) but don't say you haven't been warned.
Another strange but highly recommended drink, based on an Amazonian berry. It's softer than coke and should be drunk very cold. It will keep you awake or make you quite hyper if you overindulge. The Antarctica version is sharper than the Brahma and can occasionally even be obtained in the UK.
A green coconut, just before the flesh forms. Note that um coco gets you a coconut, uma coca gets you a coke. Having ordered a coco, watch with awe as the seller uses an axe or machete to slice the bottom off. Gasp as he dextrously flips the nut over and makes three slashes in the top. Wince as you see how close the machete gets to his fingers... do not try this at home. After you drink the juice - every one tastes different - you can ask the man to split the nut for you to get at the meat. This time he hits even harder with the machete while holding the nut on the palm of his hand...
The beach path has kiosks and is 4km long. Every morning and evening it is full of people taking gentle exercise. To participate, walk to one end of the path, have a coconut, walk to the other, and repeat until bored... The path itself is made of the world's smallest paving slabs - about two inches across. These are fixed in black and white stone to make interesting patterns which are even more interesting after a few caipirinhas. Policemen are scattered along the path to watch the young ladies - many of whom appear to have an interesting anatomical variation of an extra joint at the base of the spine. In the evening the walking is a little slower - it's been called the biggest singles bar in the world. Don't take obvious valuables - jewellery, credit cards, cameras unless you're trying to claim on your insurance.
Once you leave the Avenida and make the trek across the desert - air temperatures can exceed 40°C in December - you'll arrive at the beach strip. The first thing you'll come across is an entrepreneur renting chairs and parasols at 2 or 3 Reals each. You then need to find a spot near enough to the water for the sand to be cool but not too close to the edge of the tide. Once settled, you spend your time alternating between the sun and the sea. It is reported that there's nothing too unpleasant in the water though it's not the cleanest in the world. A word of advice - remember that sunscreen and, be warned ladies, last time someone tried to go topless they sent in armed police to arrest them.
When in the 'sun' stage, you can engage in wildlife spotting. A frequent sight is the vendor, which can be recognised by the cry 'agua mineral, cerveja, matte leao, cocacola um real!' - 'water, beer, iced tea, Coca Cola for one Real each!'. Other members of the species sell ice cream, biscoitos (biscuits), shrimps (on a stick) or grilled cheese. Everything is either one Real or two foodstuffs for a Real. The vendor engages in territorial posturing with the parasol renters, who will also try to satisfy all your needs in the snack/drink department. The better vendor is more creative and will offer delights such as inflatable animals, beach wraps, sunglasses, football shirts ('We have Manchester!'), and hats. Beer and coke cans are valuable commodities and one must be careful that your can is empty before putting it on the sand; for it will be snapped up, squashed, and put in a large sack to be resold later.
At new year, the beach is even more crowded than the rest of the year and the beer doubles in price. Wear white and don't stand too near the fireworks.