It was a dream come true for me, having longed to visit Brazil — one of the most diverse countries on the planet and home to the wonderful Amazon forest and the Iguazu Falls. After a long grueling flight, we reached Rio De Janeiro Airport early in the morning and immediately started for Copacabana.
With its white sandy beaches, soaring mountains and picturesque beachfront, it’s no wonder that Rio de Janeiro is known as the “marvelous city.” Facing the South Atlantic coast, Rio de Janeiro is one of the most visited cities in the southern hemisphere, and is blessed with one of the most beautiful natural settings — beaches like Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon.
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We spent the very first evening in the downtown section of Rio, specifically the Lapa neighborhood, known for its vibrant nightlife. Most of the architecture dates back to the 1800s, providing a scenic backdrop. We relish Brazilian coffee and just seeped in the ambience from one of the numerous sidewalk cafes.
One afternoon, we drove through the beautiful Tijuca National Park — one of the largest urban forests in the world with a huge area of a mostly mountainous forested landscape, and also spent some time at the Parque Lage, a beautiful park at the foot of the Mt Corcovado. Surrounded by rainforests, it boasts walking paths and gardens rich with sculptures.
We then availed a glass-walled cable car from a ground station at the base of Morro da Babilônia, to reach Morro da Urca and then to Sugarloaf’s summit. Rising above the mouth of Guanabara Bay, Sugarloaf Mountain is a monolith of quartz and granite. The name “Sugarloaf” was coined in the 16th century by the Portuguese during the heyday of sugar cane trade in Brazil. According to historians, blocks of sugar were placed in conical molds made of clay to be transported on ships. The shape of these molds was similar to the peak, hence the name.
From there, we took a second cable car up to the Corcovado mountain’s summit and finally availed an elevator to reach the giant statue of “Christ the Redeemer.” A symbol of Christianity across the world, the statue has also become a cultural icon of both Rio de Janeiro and Brazil. We were awed to see the giant statue with arms outstretched, which has also been named one of the new seven wonders of the world. The statue is considered the world’s largest in the genre. The most panoramic views of Rio can be best appreciated from the summit. Simply stunning!
Rio is famous for its inviting beaches bathed in the azure blue waters of the Atlantic. We found time to explore a few, and stayed by Copacabana. Visitors indulge in the sun, sea, and various beach sports, particularly football and volleyball as vendors hawk their wares of fruits, drinks and snacks from kiosks that line the beach. The walk along the white sandy beach is lovely. There are numerous closely-packed multi-storeyed hotels and apartments along the beach too, and the food, like the delicious fried sea fish and French fries we had from a wayside kiosk. Of particular interest was the makeshift night market along the Copacobana beach which remains open till the wee hours with vendors selling all types of boutique items, handicrafts, art, toys and food.
Close by is the Ipanema Beach, one of Rio’s most popular tourist spots. With its long expanse of soft white sand and rolling waves, Ipanema routinely tops the best beaches of the world lists every year. The beach is bordered by a parade of shops, cafes and restaurants as well as an array of art galleries, theaters and clubs. To boost our energy, a cup of hot Brazilian coffee was enough. The Barra da Tijuca Beach nearby, the longest in Rio, boasts clean white sand and tends to attract active beach goers, and many surfers were spotted here.
We took a city tour one day and came across a few fascinating places of interests. First we visited the Carioca Aqueduct — built in the mid-18th century as a way to supply Rio de Janeiro with fresh drinking water from the Carioca River. One of the features of the aqueduct was a segment that consisted of two storeys of huge arches, the top of which carried a tram that connected the city center to the neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Presently, the arches are a popular meeting spot for locals, especially at night, when the area comes alive with street vendors, music and dancing.
We then moved to Maracanã Stadium, one of Rio’s most important landmarks and currently the largest stadium in South America. Football is by far the most important sport in Brazil and Pele and Brazil are two sides of the same coin. Being a die-hard Brazil football fan myself, naturally, we were very excited to have visited one of the world’s largest football stadiums. Next on our list was the Sambadrome, a permanent grandstand-lined parade avenue which is used during the well-known annual Brazilian carnival. However, because it was not carnival time, we had to be satisfied by driving through the barren avenue.
As evening fell, we visited the Cathedral of St Sebastian of Rio de Janeiro, the See of the Metropolitan Archbishops of Rio. An architectural marvel, it was designed based on Mayan pyramids. The cathedral’s four rectilinear stained glass windows soar from floor to ceiling in a conical form to symbolize the equidistance and closeness of people in relation to God.
Rio is famous for innovative and creative street art and the entire city looks like an art gallery.
Street art is very popular and the city fathers have made use of every wall to depict history, culture and lifestyle through brilliant display of colours.
The big bird then flew us to São Paulo, the largest and the most populous city in Brazil in the southern hemisphere. The city is a mega cosmopolitan drawing immigrants from all over the world. The influence of Portuguese, Spanish, German, Jewish, Arab and Japanese residents on their life and culture are visible. Historically attractive to immigrants, it’s one of the most diverse cities in the world. The local population is very much outnumbered by residents of European countries, and to us, it felt more European. From the 16th to the early 19th century, Brazil was a colony and part of the Portuguese Empire, and Portuguese has remained the national language as well as Latin. São Paulo also has one of the world’s largest concentration of street art murals, thanks to an innovative group of dedicated artists who continue to refine the art.
We lodged at Avenida Paulista — one of São Paulo’s most popular postcard features. It is one of the largest business centers, and probably the largest cultural region in the city. Its architectural contrast reflects the fact that the avenue is located between the “old” and “new” parts of the city. The avenue and its surroundings, such as Rua Augusta, Alameda Santos and Rua Oscar Freire, contain numerous shops, art galleries, movie theater, pubs, hotels, coffee shops, bookstores, gourmet restaurants and museums, including the São Paulo Museum of Art ( MORE P). It was a pleasure to stroll leisurely in the evening at the nearby Parque Trianon, which provides a foliage-dense oasis right in the city centre.
The São Paulo Museum of Art, known locally as MASP, has the most representative and comprehensive collection of western art in Latin America. This is one of the first art museums on the continent to focus on artists of the mid-20th century and later, as well as on contemporary artists in Brazil. The building itself is an architectural gem.
An entire day was spent at the Ibirapuera Park, the city’s largest park and an immense urban green space. With its monuments, museums, playgrounds, gardens, trails, lakes, and performance spaces, it is a leisure paradise, as well as a showcase of modern architecture and culture. It includes several museums, including the Museu Afro-Brasil and the Modern Art Museum. The park’s entrance is marked by a huge sculpture called Monumento as Bandeiras (The Monument to the Flags), which commemorates the multi-ethnic pioneers who opened up Brazil. An impressive obelisk nearby commemorates those who died in 1932 in the struggle for a new constitution.
São Paulo is a city of architectural wonders. Among them is the dome shaped Oca, one of the several buildings that make up an interesting architectural complex in Ibirapuera Park. Designed by one of the 20th century’s best-known architects, Oscar Niemeyer, the buildings houses exhibitions on three floors. Auditorio Ibirapuera, the ultra-modern music hall is considered one of São Paulo’s best concert venues. A marquee, executed in red painted metal, covers the main access and gives identity to the building, characterizing it and differentiating it from other buildings.
In São Paulo’s Ipiranga district, is the popular Independence Park. Overlooking the formal gardens of roses, topiaries and fountains, is the Museu Paulista. Inside are large collections of costumes, decorative arts, paintings, and furniture of the Imperial Period.
One fine morning, we hopped to the Igreja Nossa Senhora Do Brasil. This unique Baroque-style church is dedicated to Our Lady of Brazil. The design of the church draws upon aspects of other amazing churches and brings them together into one design. Its ceramic panels look like St Basil’s in Moscow; its towers bear resemblance to Muslim minarets; the interior recalls churches in Portugal, while the ceiling is covered in reproductions of the Sistine Chapel’s paintings.
Our next station was the Mesquita Brasil, a mosque located in Cambuci, district of São Paulo city. It is the oldest mosque in Brazil and one of the oldest mosques in South America. Unfortunately, the doors were found closed, and we were told that the mosque remains open only during prayer time. We had to content ourselves with sumptuous lunch in the vicinity of the mosque with fried fish, shrimp, mixed vegetables with mushroom, fried chicken and lentils.
Brazil amazed us with its richness of culture and natural beauty, and the memories will be cherished forever.
Photo: Dr Shamim Ahmed