As Brazil prepares to step onto the international stage this month as host of the World Cup, much has been said about the country’s readiness.
But my first trip to Rio de Janeiro in April made me wonder whether it’s we who are ready to be the guests. My husband and I brought our three daughters to visit my sister’s family, who live in the Leblon section of Rio.
Visiting Brazil’s second-largest city requires a lot of mental recalibration. Life here moves on Carioca, or native Rio, time. It’s a low-key, more relaxed pace that requires patience with serving staff at most restaurants. And there’s less organizational infrastructure, even at tourist attractions such as Maracanã Stadium, where a ticket to a soccer game means only that you can watch from a designated section, not the specific seat you bought.
It also demands being mindful of safety. According to official state statistics, there were more than 37,000 muggings in Rio last year, and popular tourist areas (including Copacabana and Ipanema) saw an increase of 49 percent from previous years in that type of crime. It’s no wonder we hardly ever saw anyone talking in public on their cellphones. My sister warned me the first day to take off my gold necklace; tales of cloned US credit cards are not uncommon. After much debate, we allowed our 13-year-old to take her phone out only twice: to take a selfie with some monkeys during a mountain hike, and to capture some street scenes on the last day of the trip.
Visitors should also expect the occasional show of force by military riot police in light of recent antigovernment protests. Seeing them on the street with assault rifles and riot shields is yet another reminder that this country is at a very different stage of development than most Americans recognize.
But for those who adjust, Rio delivers. There is bittersweet beauty in the brightly colored favelas (slums) built into sides of the mountains, and the black-and-white-tiled geometric mosaic sidewalk that makes up the Copacabana Beach promenade is mesmerizing. At Ipanema Beach, rock formations on the horizon call to mind the TV series “Lost.”
Many come to hike the mountain peaks in and around Rio, but our novice family of five chose the most popular, Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf). TripAdvisor ranks it Rio’s number one attraction for a reason: The 2- to 3-hour trek is well worth discovering. The two mountains that make up Sugarloaf are connected by cable cars, which can be taken up both peaks. We chose to hike the first mountain, Morro da Urca, which took about 30 minutes to climb and was challenging but manageable, even for our 6-year-old. But beware. Brazilians are relaxed about everything — even their tourism. The entrance to the trail is marked by a sign in Portugese only, and we were incredulous that there were no signs at various forks in the trail. Somehow we managed to make only one wrong turn.
The reward at the top of the first mountain was a restaurant, a few cafes, and stores. Visitors can relax on a chaise and sip coconut water fresh from the shell while marmosets jump onto your table. The scene atop the second mountain is the holiday card shot with a view of the tremendous expanse of the sprawling coastal city of 6.3 million.
Rio boasts tremendous beach options. Surfers were out in force at Ipanema, where the Atlantic waves are as lively as the beach scene and often the water is red-flagged for swimming. Our kids loved Barra De Tijuca, where we rented chairs and umbrellas on the beach. Everyone loved watching the hawkers stroll the beach with everything from bikinis displayed on umbrellas ($10 per piece) to congas (bright beach cloths, which Cariocas substitute for towels) and Biscoito Globo (onion ring-shaped crunchy snacks made from mantioc root flour). The beaches are divided by lifeguard posts (which also house public restrooms), and every 300 feet or so are huts selling juices, fresh coconut water, fried fish and other tourist-friendly staples like hamburgers and fries.
It seemed only fitting that our trip to Rio in advance of the World Cup should include a visit to the stadium where the championship game will be played. The newly renovated (to the tune of $500 million) Maracanã offers daytime tours, but we gamely decided to see a live match.
The sweltering evening was a bargain. Kids are free, and our adult tickets ran about $4 apiece. That said, we purposefully chose a game between Fluminense, one of Rio’s major clubs, and a lower-division team, Figueirense, in hopes of avoiding the hooliganism that often comes with big rivalrys.
Local fans will tell you games were better pre-renovation, when 120,000 fans stood shoulder to shoulder screaming for 90 minutes. Now the stadium has 80,000 seats, although screaming and drums are still very much part of the scene. For my soccer-loving family, the fun was watching the fans as much as the players. Friendly Fluminense supporters seated in front of us generously shared their popcorn, then moments later were screaming and making obscene gestures to Figueirense fans in the adjacent section.