Brazilian beaches by nature’s design and reputation are extraordinary. Thousands of miles of changing landscape and scenery replete with crashing waves for the ardent surfer and calm emerald coves for the leisurely traveler. Up and down the thousands of miles of Brazilian coastline lie literally thousands of beaches, from the internationally famous to the seductively secluded. Reappearing vistas of sand dunes stretching their way to the waters edge, rows of coconut trees lining the sandy shores, long deserted sections of black, white, and even red shimmering sands hollowed out by natures years of relentless crushing of colorful corals.
All of the beaches of Brazil though are not for all of the people wishing to visit them. Each has their own quirks and characteristics. Many are easily accessible by public transportation and are surrounded by creature comforts we’ve come to expect and enjoy. Others are extremely remote, isolated, pristine and unspoiled by the hands of man. Each has its own sense of history and appeal. Exploring the opportunity to touch the confluence of sun, sand and sea in so many unique and original ways can be not only invigorating but also relaxing, enlightening, spiritually refreshing and just plain fun. It is said that Brazilians just don’t go to the beach, they make love to it! With the innumerable blessings of year round climate, sparkling shore lines, primordial sands and countless activities, who could blame them. And who can join them? You can.
Beach tourism to Brazil attracts thousands of foreign travelers each year as the Brazilian people eagerly and enthusiastically strive to accommodate each one, combining a pleasant mix of hospitality, congeniality, great food, spectacular scenery (natural, man made, and human) and a genuine desire to provide awesome value to the people on which their livelihood is dependent.
Beaches of Rio de Janeiro
One cannot even think of a beach on Brazil without the world famous Copacabana first coming to mind. Located within the city confines of Rio de Janeiro, this four kilometer strip of beach serves up an animated menu of activities and sights as lengthy as its coastline. Swimming in its crystal blue waters, tanning in its sun baked sand, kicking around a futbol in a game of sand soccer or beach volleyball, with or without your hands, can all be deliciously tempting your round (though June-August does see its share of rain) at this prominent South American retreat.
Named after the conspicuous (you can’t miss it) and still distinguished Copacabana Palace Hotel which opened in 1920, to this day attracts the rich and famous. The allure of the wide, white sand beach, the affable locals or Cariocas, round the clock parties, bikini clad beauties (don’t worry ladies there’s a pile of bronzed back beef cake too) sumptuous restaurants, lively bars and music and night clubs all at very reasonable prices, will instantly gain and keep your attention through out your stay.
There are however some things to know about Copacabana.
High season runs from approximately mid November to mid March (summertime). Prices are generally higher and crowds can be substantial. If you’re driving, parking can be an issue, therefore public transportation is recommended and is really quite reliable and cheap.
As with any large city with a highly condensed populace safety should be given consideration. Take as few valuables as possible to the beach and don’t leave any in the sand when you go to take that quick dip. The local police are pretty good but they can’t watch everybody looking to rip off the unsuspecting novice. Avoid jewelry (no one there is looking at it anyway) and expensive watches (no on there cares what time it is) and save your camera for your next photo op. If you must take prized possessions ask someone near you, who you think you can trust to watch them briefly until you return. It wouldn’t hurt to learn a few phrases of Portuguese, and strolling along a dark beach at night is not recommended.
Beach vendors are everywhere offering up a deluge of goods and services. From freshly cut pineapple to applying your sun block. They are usually unobtrusive and won’t hound or harass you into buying something. Simply say no thank you and they’ll go away.
Don’t miss an opportunity to patronize the small local beach bars along the main street. They are quaint, fun and serve cold beer and refreshing fruit drinks, snacks and sandwiches.
Lifeguards are stationed along the beach at various posts or ‘postos’. 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. is their standard occupation but in the off-season those hours can be shortened. These posts also unofficially serve as ‘points’ for gathering factions of people. Young teens tend to want to congregate together as do surfers, gays and others with commonalities.
Surfing was once popular at Copacabana but the combination of light surf and crowds has sent most of them in search of better conditions. There are plenty of better surf spots than Copacabana, most of them further south at Prainha.
Copacabana beach is the ideal place for those who wish to be exhausted in their relaxation. Don’t hesitate to try it all. Wear a bikini or a speedo, everyone else does. Women going topless however is generally frowned upon but tolerated.
Leme beach is part and parcel to the same 4 km stretch of Copacabana, It draws far fewer crowds compelling many families to bring their children. Caution should be taken when walking thru the Tunel Novo which connects Leme to Botafogo as it is notorious for thieves.
Riptides, strong currents, powerful waves are sometimes present at Copacabana along with unexpected drop-offs. Know your capabilities, watch your kids and exercise good judgment.
Sunday is shopping day at Copacabana as the main street is closed to drivers allowing pedestrians to roam freely at the Sunday market. Everything imaginable is available from these portable sidewalk stands at this South American swap meet.
Just up the coast from Copacabana sits the more upscale and chic though equally lively beach of Ipanema. Brazilians have known for years this is the place to find the tall, the tan, the young and lovely garotas (young women) even before being immortalized by the composer Tom Jobim.
Repudiated as the birthplace of the tanga (tiny bikini) fashionably conscious sleek and tanned vixens along with their equally seductively male counterparts, parade the white sands in full admiration of their surroundings. Despite the fashion statements Ipanema affords the same bevy of activities as Copacabana,‘ Fruitvale’ (no hands volleyball) soccer, belly boarding are all transpiring but in a more sedate and relaxing atmosphere. The water is calmer and more inviting to the casual swimmer. There is even a separate area for mothers with their babies.
The kiosks, bars, cafes and stands which are so pronounced at Copacabana are also accessible at Ipanema but not as prevalent. Juice bars are everywhere, apparently the fashion cognizant are equally fitness minded. Bookstores, art galleries, cyber-cafes, and theatres serve the locals as well as the tourist along side the burgeoning chi-chi boutiques hawking all the latest in designer apparel.
Ipanema beach is beyond trendy, it’s trend setting. For over fifty years contemporary statements have emanated in music, fashion and dance. In the fifties and sixties it was the Bossa Nova, in the seventies the first pregnant lady to wear a bikini. By the eighties men were sporting their own bikinis, women went topless and the tanga became the rage.
Ipanema is a marvelous beach and should not be missed especially around Carnival when many opt to celebrate on the streets of Ipanema forgoing the parades on the Sombrodromo.
Right next to Ipanema and on the same stretch of sand lies an extension of Ipanema. Same stylish atmosphere but significantly less crowded (except on the week-ends when they’re all crowded) and even more family oriented. Very popular with single female tourists as the continuous flow of people moving about the area establishes a sense of security and comfort. Female tourists may feel awkward or anxious around the female Cariocas looking to hustle the male tourist at a beach like Copacabana. Lablon is an idyllic escape without sacrificing the amenities.
Families with small children migrate to a play area of Leblon called Baixo Baby. Corporate sponsors have equipped a fully stocked playground for the kids. Its become a very popular spot for nannies of the rich to bring the ones entrusted to them down for a few hours of fun in the sun and sand.
Not known to tourists is a point at the end of Lablon called “Setimo Ceu” or “Seventh Heaven”. A lookout point high above the gigantic granite rock with an overwhelming view of the beaches and mountains. In the interest of safety no directions are being provided here as the area can be a little rough and getting lost could prove eventful. It is though only a short cab ride from the beach and well worth the trip. Your driver will know where it is.
Popular with surfers not willing to trek the distance to find bigger, faster swells Arpoador is none the less spirited. Positioned between Ipanema and Copacabana, Arpoador forms a natural border dividing the two beaches by a huge rock formation. Standing on either side of the rock affords a glorious view to its neighbors of more notoriety depending on which side of the rock you’re standing. Access to this 600 yard strip of beach is be foot traffic only. Many families and the elderly patronize this area as an escape from the suffering crowds. Losing some of the man made accoutrements hardly phases them as none of the natural ones are lost. It’s the surfers though who gravitate here for its accessibility and lively surf.
If you’re new to surfing and want to give it a try there are surf schools here which are reasonable and accommodating. You can even surf at night courtesy of the large floodlights. The rock formation is a sought after spot to watch the glamorized Ipanema sunset.
This area of Rio is more of a bay than a beach. True, you will find numbers of kids enthusiastically playing the usual beach sports along the small strip of sand at the base of Sugar Loaf Mountain, but this once renowned retreat of an ex-King’s wife is now regarded more loftily as a historical and cultural center rather than a beach hot spot.
Many locals still come here because of its central location within the city. Boats by the bevies moor themselves within the bay maintaining easy access to the yacht club. Because of its geographical presence photographers can have a field day snapping shots of Guanabara Bay, Christ the Redeemer, and Sugar Loaf Mountain. Riding a bike around the city (a fun thing to do) affords many more opportunities to film the rich heritage and cultural highlights. Historic old mansions, many still occupied and museums are dotted thru-out the city. Stop at a café or the farmers market, listen to some music, take a rest stop under a shady tree may all be better alternatives than a day at the beach (which this one occasionally has issues with pollution) in Botafogo.
Sao Conrado Beach
What a genuinely beautiful area and only a few minutes from Leblon. Seasoned surfers relish the chance to challenge the swift water that comes crashing onto the shore. Probably not a good place to practice your backstroke on a leisurely afternoon, but a great place to be for its diversity of activities. Soaking up the rays on a sun-kissed beach, drinking a beer or catching some tunes at a nearby bar are only the beginning at this once very fashionable beach.
Make no mistake it still draws large crowds (week-ends even larger) of the habitual soccer and volleyball players, those fit and courageous enough to defy the assault of the invading waves and a steady diet of tanga clad lovelies. Same rules for security here apply as in Copacabana.
Towering above Sao Conrado, having thrust itself up from the Atlantic, is Pedra da Gavea. A solid granite formation with a wind etched face of a stone giant. Flying down from these surrounding hillsides are hang gliders soaring along the jet stream thermals in search of a landing spot on Sao Conrado. Are you up for a tandem ride? It’s available here. If the thought of that exhilaration is too harrowing, paragliding may cure your hunger at the Pepino beach area of Sao Conrado.
Bathing suits and beach towels may be the appropriate attire for one day at Sao Conrado but hiking boots are in order for the next. Pedra da Gavea is climbable but not recommended for the novice. The mountain behind it, Pedra Bonita is still challenging but immanently safer and will reward your effort with a scenic look of the city, the mountains and a view into the face of the stone giant.
Should you elect to tackle Gavea there is an all day tour available with trained, qualified guides starting you out thru lush rain forest and then up and into the treacherous rock formations. Weak of heart, mind or body beware.
Sitting above the city and beach of Sao Conrado is what looks like another city but is actually a Favela. Rocinha, famous for its size in population (est. 100,000 to 200,000) dominates the hillside and is in stark contrast to the rich and elegant lifestyle of the conjoining city beneath them. Though a peaceful coexistence prevails a guided tour is the only safe way to get a look at the lives of the less fortunate. Be advised also that following a heavy rain polluted water from the favela is often swept into the beach waters below rendering it temporarily unsafe for swimming.
Time allowing you may want to dust off the sticks and play a round of golf in Sao Conrado. Gavea Golf Club is a well manicured, challenging layout with part of its track extending out near the beach.
Barra da Tijuca Beach
Certainly one of the best, longest (11 miles) and cleanest beaches to be found around Rio. Barra (as the Cariocas call it) sits on the west end of town (about a twenty minute cab ride from Copacabana) and attracts both the avid surfer and the casual swimmer. Pollution is never a problem and its shear size mandates that even on crowded weekends the choice is yours to join the beach action or slip away to a secluded spot of relaxation.
The town of Barra da Tijuca itself is reminiscent of many state side beach communities (it reminds me of San Diego California USA). Rows of high rise condos, rapidly expanding neighborhoods of upper middle and higher income residents. Shopping centers and Mega malls (with their own special busses for tourists) upscale trendy nightclubs and restaurants, spacious and reasonable housing all contributing to the migration from older sectors to this area of explosive growth and modernization. If you’re seeking cultural experiences, this is not this place. International executives and American retirees throng to Barra for its transitional ease and amenities they were accustomed to. Movie theatres, bowling alleys, tennis clubs, shopping, security, proximity and affordability are just some of the quality factors influencing their choice.
And the beach is fantastic. Sweltering summer heat around Rio often sends beach occupiers scurrying for the water or even the enclosed respite of an air-conditioned café. Barra has both, but it seems to have captured the franchise on a steady, gentle Atlantic breeze to compliment its other natural geographic features. At the end of the beach is a calm cove with placid water and a tranquil ambience, perfect for small children. Barra is also known to have a larger percentage of Cariocas who speak some English. Who knows, you make some new friends.