Just Back From… the Beaches of Rio


Writer Kai Wright and graphic designer Jedd Flanscha explore Brazil's pretty coastal city during spring, when the sunshine's strong but the prices are low.

Our favorite part… watching the sun drop behind the favelas (slums) and into the Atlantic while sitting on the rocky point that connects the Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. At that moment, my boyfriend, Jedd Flanscha, and I realized why there are so many idyllic sunset postcards of Rio. [PHOTO]

We should have packed… a set of six-pack abs and a large supply of flattering swimsuits, because this coastal city bustles with beautiful people. On Sundays, Rio kicks the cars off its beachfront boulevards, and the whole town descends on Ipanema and Copacabana. Each group has its spot: surfers at Post 7, youths from the favelas at Post 8, gay males at Post 9. Cariocas (as the locals call themselves) can't pinch an inch from their collective waists, but luckily they leave their judgments at home—along with nearly all of their clothes.

Wish we'd known that… São Paulo's not worth the six-hour bus ride. Rio's nightlife is just as fun, for less money and with less fuss.

Moment when things got tense… rush hour in Rio's increasingly hip Lapa district. We hopped on a tram—the last of the once-plentiful streetcars—and rode along the top of the old aqueduct. From below, the aqueduct's stout arches are gorgeous urban ruins. But the creaking tram barely fit atop the narrow arches. [PHOTO] When we looked up from our open-air seats, there seemed horrifyingly little room for error. The self-assured youths weren't fazed; they hung off the tram's side rails, with a casual, one-handed grip separating them and death.

Total rip-off… describes just about anything you might buy in a store in Rio. Most retail goods are imported, and the prices are marked up to two or three times what we'd pay in our neighborhood in Brooklyn. For local arts and crafts, shop elsewhere in Brazil. Dance, drink, sunbathe, and sightsee, but don't come to Rio to shop.

You've simply got to taste… a caipirinha made the right way: on a beach. Brazil's signature cocktail is a simple drink, meant to be cheap: sugarcane-based liquor cachaça, muddled limes, and lots of sugar. And it can be truly enjoyed only under a hot sun. We got solid advice: Buy one from someone elbow-deep in fresh limes. When made from a mix instead of fruit, it's a taste-bud disaster. Our vote for best caipirinha goes to the barraca Ana, near Post 9 in Ipanema beach (the city is formalizing these stands, but for now just look for "Ana" scrawled across her tent). Careful, it's got a kick. [PHOTO]

Worth every penny… a bus ticket, a ferry ride, and a guesthouse to explore nearby Ilha Grande, an island that feels like a mountainous rain forest plucked off of a Hollywood set. [PHOTO] We hiked through jungles to find a couple of the island's 102 beaches. Some are spits of secluded sand and crystal blue water. [PHOTO] Others are long, white stretches, like Lopes Mendes beach, on the Atlantic side. It was an ideal counterpoint to our days on the crowded urban beaches of Rio and Salvador.

Fun surprise… the unexpectedly delightful urban landscape of Rio's Centro district. On any block, a brightly colored, restored colonial façade may rub shoulders with a sleek, modern tower that stands next to a decaying ruin. [PHOTO] While roaming around, we stumbled on a 19th-century library, the Real Gabinete Portugues de Leitura, a stunning one-room temple to knowledge. We walked into this oasis off of Centro's bustling streets, craned our necks to take in the sight of towering shelves of 100-year-old books, and literally gasped. [PHOTO]

Never again… would we visit Rio's Centro de Arte Helio Oiticica, which had sounded in a guidebook like a good spot for an overview of the city's cutting-edge artists. Instead, it was more of a sparse, unimaginative gallery than a museum.

Hotel I likedO Pescador guesthouse (011-55/24-3361-5114) on Ilha Grande, right off the dock in the main village. We got a room with a balcony and a hammock above the beach and slept to the waves crashing. The Italian owner, Marcos, knows the island well and recommended hikes and beaches for us. But more important, his inn's attached restaurant offered the best meal we had in Brazil—a giant grouper, picked out of the bay 10 feet from our table and grilled to perfection. The room wasn't cheap (even in low season, it was about $70 per night), but it was worth it. [PHOTO]

Still laughing about… the PDA! Brazilians are an affectionate people, which is something we are generally fond of. But on more than one occasion, we looked at the dinner table next to ours and found a woman sitting in her lover's lap, making out rather than eating. Bashful's not on the menu, apparently.

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