Mountains and beaches, city and nature, rich and poor. Rio is a city of dynamic contrasts, and bright-looking future.
The most striking thing when you first enter Rio is the massive granite hillsides seemingly dropped randomly throughout the city. The lush, green vegetation, untouched by millionaire McMansions, frame every neighborhood in the Zona Sul (southern zone). One cannot proceed from Copacabana to Ipanema, or Botafogo to Lagoa without squeezing through a natural, narrow pass, or traveling through a tunnel. An urban planner’s dream, the result is well defined neighborhoods ripe with charm and history. So I decided to take a little exploratory walk.
Walking through the city allows one to enjoy the different neighborhoods. Starting at the Jardim Botanico (Botanical Gardens), visitors can wander in the calm of the urban garden. Much like the Portuguese culture that founded Rio, the garden has a combination of geometric Persian design in its center, expanding into a free-form garden on its perimeter.
The thick vegetation lets you get lost in the large fronds, and really reminds you that you are in the tropics. The garden features meandering streams, secluded park benches, an environmental education center, and monkeys. Oh yes, there are monkeys.
Leaving the secluded, quiet Jardim hillside neighborhood, one walks along the Lagoa (lake), ringed with swank hi-rises and the sizable Flamengo Sports Club. Think of it as a lakeside gym/resort that sports its own competitive sports teams. I stopped for a bit to watch local skateboarders, rollerbladers, and BMX cyclists share a lakeside drained pool. Old-timers, moms with kids, and plenty of teenagers are all welcome to watch or skate. Everyone cringes when a cyclist flies out of the bowl, over-rotates his landing, and hits the ground, spine first. (He was ok).
Finally, I arrive in Ipanema, one of the nightlife centers of Rio. The opposite of the sleepy Jardim area, Ipanema is lined with shops, açai juice stores, steakhouses and department stores. Of course, just two blocks off the glitzy, polished shopping strip is the southwest facing beach, home to dozens of futébol, volleyball, handball, and even pickup American football games. Ipanema beach is bookended by two peaks – one at each end (with the famous Copacabana Beach lying one peak to the east), another perfect example of geological features defining urban features. The beach at sunset is peaceful, especially in the dead of winter (average temp: 75 degrees).
Rio is absolutely a city defined by its natural features, where a busy and bustling metropolis is carved out from between mountains, beaches and lakes. The vibrant neighborhoods nestled in valleys and along coastlines exist with, instead of in spite of, the natural features. Of course, there is so much more to explore, so come back soon!