Rio de Janeiro—Beautiful and Challenging
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN BRAZIL
RIO DE JANEIRO has it all—beaches, hills, lakes, tropical forest. “Its scenery is so attractive that it is hard to know where to look first!” exclaimed one visitor. Rio de Janeiro, or just Rio, is considered by many to be one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Although the word “rio” means “river,” the city actually sits on a bay.—See the box on page 18.
Of course, with 11 million people living in the metropolitan area, Rio has its share of problems—violence, unemployment, and a housing shortage, not to mention pollution and chaotic traffic. Despite this, Rio’s inhabitants proudly refer to it as Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City). In the words of one Carioca:a “Rio is a happy city. The beaches and hills we see on our way to and from work on a sunny day make us feel good.” A romanticized view? Let us take a look.
Bays, Beaches, and Lots of Sun
Our starting point is Guanabara Bay—the birthplace of Rio. Its 150 square miles [380 sq km] are peppered with forested islands, and it is surrounded by hills and mountains, the most famous of which are Corcovado (meaning “Hunchbacked”) and Sugarloaf Mountain (Portuguese, Pão de Açúcar). Corcovado’s peak, 2,310 feet [704 m] above the bay, is crowned with a 100-foot [30 m], 1,145-ton open-armed statue of Christ. Sugarloaf Mountain, a mere 1,296 feet [395 m] tall, gets its name from a cone-shaped form that was used by colonial sugar refiners. Visitors can go up Corcovado by small train or by automobile, and a cable car ferries sightseers to the top of Sugarloaf. The view of Rio, sandwiched between the deep blue sea on the one side and the rich green forest and the sinuous contours of Rodrigo de Freitas Lake on the other, is breathtaking.
Beaches with fine white sand along with sun—lots of it—make Rio a tourist’s dream. As you might expect, with summer temperatures reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit [40°C], the more than 70 beaches along Rio’s 50-mile [90-km] coastline are packed. Which beach is the best? The answer depends on the beachgoer. For Cariocas the beach is a rendezvous, reading room, soccer field, volleyball court, bar, restaurant, playground, concert hall, gymnasium, and office as well as a place to go for a swim. Every morning Rio’s promenades are packed with joggers and cyclists. And on a sunny day, the beaches are always full. However, in spite of their seemingly easy life-style, Cariocas have to work hard to earn their place in the sun.
Until the end of the 19th century, the city of Rio crowded around the beaches of Guanabara Bay. Then, tunnels built to link the bay to ocean beaches channeled the city’s growth southward. With the inauguration in 1923 of the Copacabana Palace Hotel, one of the first luxury hotels in South America, the first beach to become famous was Copacabana, the “Little Princess of the Sea.” Later on, in the ’60’s, Ipanema beach became a meeting place for intellectuals and bohemians. If something was not considered to be in at Ipanema, it simply was not in. The latest and largest of Rio’s beaches to be developed was Barra da Tijuca (11 miles [18 km] long), nicknamed Brazilian Miami. It is home to the city’s largest shopping centers and many new residential buildings.
A Forest Surrounded by a City
Greenery is an important part of Rio’s scenery, and its peaceful, 350-acre [141 ha] botanical garden, located in the city center, is just a few minutes from the hustle and bustle of the beaches. Formed in the 19th century, the garden houses more than 6,200 species of tropical plants and trees.
Another haven within the city limits is the Forest of Tijuca. Located about 12 miles [20 km] from the center of Rio and covering over 39 square miles [100 sq km], it is perhaps the largest urban forest in the world. It contains part of the Atlantic Forest, which once stretched along the whole Brazilian coastline. Visitors can see the majestic pink jequitiba together with beautiful, yellow flowering canelas-santas. There are also eye-catching blue butterflies of the Morpho species. As for birds, colorful green-headed or red-necked tanagers are a common sight.
A Visit to the Center
The center of Rio is all bustle—with people hurrying everywhere and lots of noise and heat. Pedestrians jostle for space with peddlers, who sell practically everything, from imported electronic goods to clothes, spices, and corn remedies. You can enjoy the tram ride over the 42 solid granite arches known as Arcos da Lapa. Built by Indians and slaves between 1712 and 1750, it was originally an aqueduct that transported water to the center of Rio. However, in 1896 a tram service started to run on the aqueduct, transforming it into a viaduct.
Included in the center is the European part of the city. The National Museum of Fine Arts, built between 1906 and 1908, has a facade reminiscent of the Louvre Museum in Paris, and its colored panels and mosaics remind one of the Italian Renaissance. Another important building is the Municipal Theater, inaugurated in 1909, which seats 2,357 spectators and was inspired by the Paris Opera House.
Soccer and the Samba
Cariocas enjoy a good soccer match, and when important league games are scheduled, the Maracanã Stadium becomes the center of attention. Known as the largest soccer stadium in the world, it has hosted matches with up to 200,000 in attendance. At the moment, maximum capacity is limited to 100,000 for security reasons and for the comfort of the fans.
A favorite dance among Cariocas is the samba, of African origin. Throughout the city samba schools attract thousands of dancers—men, women, and children—often from the same neighborhood. During carnival, just prior to Lent, these schools—with up to 5,000 dancers each—file through the Sambódromo, a huge specially built parade ground, passing between two parallel concrete grandstands that hold up to 100,000 people. Unhappily, carnival has become noted more for its excesses, ranging from drunken driving to drug abuse and sexual promiscuity.
Rio Has Its Problems
For decades, until it was overtaken by São Paulo in the ’50’s, Rio de Janeiro was Brazil’s industrial center. The dream of better living conditions led many to abandon rural life and move to Rio, forcing part of the city’s population to cram into apartment blocks while those less fortunate took to the hills and built groups of improvised dwellings—shantytowns, or favelas. At first, these were made of dismantled boxes and tin and were covered with sheets of zinc. They had no electricity, drainage, or running water, but at least their location close to work made life easier for their residents. Today, huge shantytowns cover the hillsides right beside the fine apartment buildings that skirt Copacabana and Ipanema. Few places in the world present such a visible contrast between the haves and the have-nots.
Newer shantytown dwellings are built of bricks. By creating streets and installing amenities, urban planners have attempted to make improvements; but this is no easy task. According to a recent survey, upwards of 900,000 people live in Rio’s more than 450 shantytowns. Rocinha, the largest, has 150,000 residents. “It is like a city within a city,” explains Antônio, who lives there but works at a bank in Ipanema. Residents have cable TV, community radio, and an FM radio station as well as a professional soccer team and a samba school. But life in the shantytown has a harsher side. Summer rains cause landslides on the hills, which result in injury and even death. A recent reforestation program has removed houses built in some dangerous areas, thus improving the situation.
Another major problem is organized crime. Its chief victims are youths who make a career as drug dealers. The relationship between drug dealers and residents is governed by certain rules. “There are practically no robberies, holdups, or rapes in the shantytowns. No one risks committing these crimes. People know that they will be executed if they do,” explains João, who has lived in a shantytown for 40 years. Drug dealers punish nondrug crimes to gain the support and sympathy of the residents. “Although things have changed somewhat,” João adds, “it is still common for residents to ask drug dealers to pay for funerals, buy medicine or food, care for unpaid rent, or pay for entertainment.”
Sitting between the sea and the mountains, Rio has grown up on a swampy plain—a location that hardly favors the development of a big city. Over the years, it has been necessary to fight a “battle against these three elements: swamps, the sea, and the mountains,” explains the book Rio de Janeiro—Cidade e Região (Rio de Janeiro—City and Region). To win this battle, countless tunnels and landfills have been made that connect different neighborhoods. The railways have also played an important role in the populating of suburban areas, although train travel nowadays is an adventure. “There are so many people trying to catch the train that you do not need to make any effort to get on. You are pushed on by the crowd,” explains Sérgio, who has to catch a train in the suburbs at five o’clock in the morning to arrive at work at seven. The trains are so full that they often leave the station with their doors open and passengers clinging to the sides of the carriages. The most daring Cariocas even perch on top of them, train-surfing, as it is called. Any mistake while dodging the electric cables means almost certain death.
Another challenge is the preservation of Guanabara Bay, a symbol of the city’s beauty. According to a World Bank report, in some places its waters are “little better than raw sewage because of the heavy discharges of industrial wastewater and untreated (or partially treated) sewage.” The damage is huge and includes a reduction in the number of species of fish, which affects 70,000 fishermen who depend on the bay for their livelihood. Polluted beaches also frighten off tourists. The government has tried to expand the sewerage system and supervise industry. Rio’s antipollution campaign has adopted two dolphins as its symbol. Organizers predict that there will be dolphins swimming in Guanabara Bay before the year 2025!
Rio Is Still Beautiful!
After this quick look at Rio, what is your verdict? To most tourists and Cariocas, Rio is still beautiful! And what about the challenges? It would be nice if they could be met. But until that happens, all that Cariocas can do is adapt as best they can to the city’s problems and enjoy its beautiful surroundings. That is what they have learned to do, with creativity and humor.
a “Carioca” has come to refer to any native or inhabitant of Rio de Janeiro.
[Box/Picture on page 18]
Landmarks in Rio’s History
1502: On January 1, André Gonçalves, a Portuguese sailor, mistakes the entrance to Guanabara Bay for a river mouth and names the body of water Rio de Janeiro (River of January).
1565: Estácio de Sá, chief of the Portuguese forces, founds a small settlement between the hills of Sugarloaf Mountain and Cara de Cão, to combat the French, who have also claimed the region. This settlement becomes the city of Rio.
1763: In an attempt to control the huge quantities of gold and diamonds that pass through the port en route to Portugal from neighboring Minas Gerais State, the Portuguese elevate Rio to the status of capital. The African slave trade gains impetus.
1808: The Portuguese court arrives, fleeing from the imminent invasion of Portugal by Napoléon I, and Rio becomes the temporary seat of the Portuguese monarchy. Rio continues as capital until the construction of Brasília, in 1960.
[Picture on page 16, 17]
Barra da Tijuca Beach
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Maracanã, the world’s largest soccer stadium
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Arcos da Lapa, the aqueduct that became a viaduct