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published on August 28, 2004

Rio Beaches: A User's Manual

by Bill Hinchberger

Erick Barros Pinto (RC&VB)
Footvolley (futevolei), a popular pastime on Rio beaches
Rio de Janeiro - If anywhere they take seriously the adage Life’s a Beach, it is in Rio de Janeiro. “The beach is an extension of home, school, and the workplace for local residents, especially in the southern zone and the Barra da Tijuca,” wrote Scarlet Moon de Chevalier in a book entitled Areias Escaldantes (Scalding Sand: Inventory of a Beach).

“Cariocas (locals) go to the beach as if they were making love to their city,” an opera director once told a Brazilian reporter.

* Surfing lessons in Rio de Janeiro through WLH Travel, a company that shares our concern for sustainable and responsible tourism.
* Check out the BrazilMax Travel Guide to Rio de Janeiro

On a hot summer Saturday or Sunday as many as 500,000 can crowd onto the 70-meter wide stretch of prime sand that runs for eight kilometers from Leme through venerable Copacabana and chic Ipanema to fashionable Leblon. All told the city sports 90 kilometers of beaches.

The beach is where things happen. Shoreline socializing has engendered leading Brazilian books, stage plays, films, TV programs, political parties (like the Green Party), “and many separations,” noted writer Ruy Castro in his review of Moon de Chevalier’s book.

The beach is the place where hits are made – as far as Rio is concerned. “You establish what’s successful in the city based on beach banter,” Moon de Chevalier told BrazilMax.

The beach is the place where celebs mix with plebs. There’s little challenge in star spotting. Just sit tight. Soon a familiar face – maybe Caetano Veloso’s, maybe Chico Buarque’s - will turn up. “You run into these people all the time, especially on the sidewalk on a Sunday,” said Moon de Chevalier. But the celebs rarely need to dodge autograph seekers or paparazzi. “There’s a certain nonchalance (among the locals),” noted the author.

The beach is the great equalizer. “You never know who’s rich,” said Moon de Chevalier. “Everyone’s naked, after all.”

One can buy or do almost anything on the sand. Among the more popular activities recommended in the Rio For Partiers guidebook are paddleball, volleyball, soccer body surfing, jogging, beer drinking and people watching. Or you can get a massage. Many locals, like 1994 World Cup hero Romário, enjoy a soccer-volleyball hybrid game called “futevolei,” a no-hands style of volleyball that even has its own website and World Cup. Without getting up from their beach chairs, hip cariocas can hire people to pay their bills at the bank, make photocopies, or deliver food – all while they’re scheduling volleyball lessons.

Working from fixed stalls or trudging through the sand with styrofoam coolers, vendors earn both cash and notoriety. A former maid named Dilma Ana Abdia improvises to meet the needs of her clients in Ipanema. Selling sunblock by the squirtful and renting sunglasses for the day, she caught the attention of a Brazilian business magazine. Joel de Oliveira Vidal pulls pineapples from a basket balanced on his head; he peels and slices them in 15 seconds. The business daily Gazeta Mercantil, Brazil’s “Wall Street Journal,” noted with admiration that customers cheerfully paid a markup of six times wholesale. Moon de Chevalier and her friends would run up tabs at a stall run by a fellow know simply as Baiano. “Everyone’s pal,” Baiano willingly watched his customers’ stuff when they took a dip in the Atlantic.

The real success story was the guy who had a beach named after him. Pedro Paulo Carneiro Lopes was a professional hang glider and surfer known by his nickname, Pepê. The beach out front of his stand in Barra da Tijuca, frequented by beautiful women, soccer players and TV stars, went by the name “Barraca do Pepê” (Pepê’s Stand) well before he was killed in an accident during a professional hang gliding competition in 1991.

Knowing and trusting your local vendor is pretty standard stuff. People tend to hangout at the same spots. Cariocas are defined by the stretch of sand they frequent. There are “points” for teenyboppers, gays, surfers, and just about any special interest group you can name. Points are unofficial and unsupervised. They have even been known to migrate. But turn up tomorrow at the same spot, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by the same familiar faces.

Surfers used to gravitate to Arpoador in Ipanema, but most have kicked out to avoid weekend crowds. A few might paddle out from there during the week, but the main surfing spot can now be found further south at Prainha beyond the Barra da Tijuca. Not only is the surf good, but also the nearby kiosks stock energy drinks, natural food, wax, straps and other necessities.

Rio’s most famous beach point, then called Sol Ipanema, is now identified by the nearby lifeguard station - Posto 9. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Sol point became the epicenter for the Brazilian counterculture and the country’s self-denominated “festive left.” For reasons nobody can remember, apparently for no reason at all, as Moon de Chevalier tells it in her book, Rio’s up-and-coming artists, intellectuals and semi-clandestine opposition politicians (the dictatorship would only end only in 1985) began to gravitate to a section of sand in front of a hotel called the Sol Ipanema. Occasionally they would be joined by a gringo or two, like Traffic drummer Jim Capaldi. Nobody would ever stretch out on a towel or lounge in a beach chair; everyone remained upright. That led someone to coin the line, most often attributed to habitué Caetano Veloso: it was like “a cocktail party without the ashtrays.” This was where actress Leila Diniz, her pregnant midsection bulging our from a bikini, helped break stereotypes about the dress code and behavior of expectant mothers. It was where, with his crochet speedo, former urban guerrilla Fernando Gabeira (now a successful environmentalist-politician) challenged prevailing notions of male sexuality and fashion.

The battles over social and moral codes continue to be fought on Rio’s beaches. In 2000, a novel form of civil disobedience emerged after a woman was arrested for topless sunbathing. Removing one’s top became a political statement, and even relatively modest women joined the protest. The police backed off. “Topless doesn’t bother anyone,” announced the mayor.

Much of the history of Rio de Janeiro, if not Brazil, can be read in the sands of the city’s beaches. The section in Copacabana in front of the new Marriott hotel has long been known for its beach soccer. Moon de Chevalier, who grew up nearby, recalls watching Nilton Santos, star of Botafogo and the national team, who retired in 1964, play on the sand as a young girl. Current stars, Brazilians or foreigners on vacation, still show up at the sand pitches.

Copacabana’s sidewalks also have their own story to tell. The two-toned, black-and-white design made of small basalt stones weaves its way along the beachside. The late landscape artist Roberto Burle Marx authored the design, which symbolizes the waves just beyond the sand. Burle Marx was inspired by a similar mosaic on the walkway to the Amazon Theater in Manaus which. The Manaus walkway was, in turn, inspired by the famous meeting of the waters near Manaus, where the coffee-colored Solimões River and the black Negro River come together to form the Amazon but remain separate for kilometers due to different densities, temperatures and rates of flow.

Finally, at the far end of Copacabana there’s a fishing colony, a remnant of that not-really-so-distant time - when today’s urban beach was nothing but the boonies. Not far from the colony, sitting on a pedestrian bench astride Burle Marx’s sidewalk, his back to the ocean, is a life-sized statue of poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. A native of native Minas Gerais, Drummond moved to Rio and lived nearby until his death in 1987. Vandals have broken the rims of his glasses and sprayed him with graffiti, but he’s been repaired and cleaned up. There he sits, calmly, as if eternally contemplating a line in his poem Maralto: “The sea – what are the high seas?”

Travel to Rio de Janeiro

The Surf Bus Beach Tour, urban transportation for car-less surfers, skirts the coast. It is furnished with surfboard racks, air conditioning and video screens that play surf and music videos. The bus makes four round-trips daily. Tourists – even non-surfers are welcome.

Order Areias Escaldantes: Inventário de uma praia (Scalding Sand: Inventory of a Beach) by Scarlet Moon de Chevalier (in Portuguese) from the Livraria Cultura.

Order Antologia Poética, which includes the poem Maralto, by Carlos Dummond de Andrade (in Portuguese) from Livraria Cultura.

by Carlos Drummond de Andrade in English translation.

Rio Beaches

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