Rio de Janeiro gleams like a dusty diamond on the stunning east cost of Brazil. From Copacabana beach to Ilha Grande, TNT’s Tom Sturrock explored…
The road winds steeply, ever-upwards, deeper and deeper into Tinjuca National Park. Below, Rio de Janeiro is still visible, its slums intertwined with ribbons of lush foliage; shacks scattered, like playing cards borne away on a gust of wind to precarious resting places.
Giant slabs of jet-black granite rupture the earth throughout the city centre, violent, storm-cloud monoliths soaring defiantly into the sky at alarming angles. They are ever-present reminders of how this sprawling city was hewn roughly from the rainforests, from the hills themselves; reinforcements of natural order set hard against the man-made chaos foaming at their skirts.
At the summit, though, the mist is so thick it obscures everything, ushering in a sense of oblivion and impenetrable whiteness. Paved steps lead to an observation deck and there, towering above, is Christ the Redeemer, the giant, 130ft-high statue of Jesus.
“The head is actually a little bit out of proportion,” our guide remarks, before gesturing to a small church tucked under one of Jesus’ sandalled feet. “That’s where you can go to confess your sins,” he says. “It’s OK – we can pick you up tomorrow.”
Brazil’s Costa Verde
A week earlier, I find myself in Trindade, a tiny fishing village about 100 miles around from Rio on Brazil’s Costa Verde. Cobbled streets open out on to a spectacular beach, where the sands rise sharply into thick rainforest on all sides of a small bay. Stray cats snooze in shady piles while dogs bullock headlong into the surf to retrieve hollowed-out coconut shells. It’s impossibly idyllic; impossibly, that is, anywhere apart from Brazil.
Up from the shoreline, a line of rusty shacks pockmark the dunes. The cafe strip. I catch a waiter’s eye – he’s barefoot and wearing only boardshorts, but is no less industrious. He introduces himself as Ivan and immediately exudes cartoonish, long-limbed, manic energy. His English is broken but I’m able to order a round of coconuts by pointing to a dog fetching a trophy from the shallows.
Ivan’s eyes light up. “Ah, coco,” he exclaims, clapping his hands twice above his head and scuttling into the dark recesses of his beachside kitchen so quickly you can almost see the animated brushstrokes in his wake.
He emerges with two armfuls of coconuts, straws rattling in holes punched in their tops.
Later, the coconuts drained of their strange milky-fruity goodness, it’s time to hit the road. All aboard the rickety bus, leaving Trindade behind, accompanied by the sense that this peculiar little enclave and its ragtag inhabitants might simply cease to exist once we depart.
Off the coast of Ilha Grande, the sun is hidden behind a smear of cloud; the sky neon-white, the landscape jungle-green, the sea gun-metal grey. The island, accessible by ferry from Porto Angra, is a secluded paradise but today a wreath of fog clings like cigarette smoke to its hills.
There’s an old helicopter wreck out here. We’re going down to check it out. Masks on, flippers on, breathing apparatus attached. Before we dive, our instructor offers one final note: “There are divers who pee in their wetsuits and there are those who lie.” And then it’s over the back of the boat, into the depths.
The bottom of the ocean is how one might imagine outer space – there’s no sound in these infinite, watery expanses; no gravity, no corners.
The crashed helicopter comes into view, encrusted with barnacles and surrounded by shoals of tropical fish, shimmering like sequins in the brine. Off to one side, the reef; on the other side, the fish gush, ripple as one, massed together, thick and sleek like water from a fire hydrant.
Back on deck, a course is charted for Ilha Grande and, as the last bend is turned, with the colonial buildings of the island’s foreshore coming into view, a school of dolphins appears alongside our boat. There are six, maybe seven, of them, silver fins planing, breaching, not five metres starboard of us, a consort for the final leg of the journey. Then, as the dock nears, they peel off, pivot and are soon gone, vanishing without a trace in the half-light and the surf.
Late at night, the bars along Copacabana Beach hum with samba. I ask a taxi driver to take me somewhere busy. We pull up next to a stretch of beachside cafes; their yellow parasols bloom like concrete daisies, jutting up and out between lonely volleyball nets and spindly palms. I cross the square, where street vendors hawk their wares, and pick my way through the tightening mesh of scantily clad bodies.
The women are beautiful, dolled up with deep tans and plenty of skin on show. The men, on the other hand, mostly tourists, are scruffy and wide-eyed. I’m deep into my second mojito before a wisp of conversation snakes its way across from one of the bar’s dark corners, where an American guy has his arm around a local girl. “One hour,” he says, holding up a finger and then reaching for his wallet, “200 real.”
The penny drops. She’s a working girl.
I look around. They’re all working girls. All of them. Regrettably, it’s time to leave.
Stepping out into the warm Brazilian night, I sense I have dodged an embarrassing, albeit memorable, experience. Copacabana is now bathed in the ethereal yellow glow of streetlights, illuminating the thick haze that hangs like a halo around the whole scene. And there, on the hills in the distance, sitting sentry over the entire city and its central lagoon, is the unmistakeable silhouette of Christ the Redeemer. Arms outstretched. Beseeching us all to repent.
It’s a big statue, no doubt. Just as well, too, because down here on the strip, down here in the streets of Rio, there’s more than enough sin to go around. Indeed, this city seems built for it.
WHEN TO GO: There’s not really a bad time to go to Brazil but if you want stinking hot beach weather, head across in summer or late spring.
GETTING THERE: Most airlines fly into Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo.
GETTING AROUND: Taxis are the way to get around Rio de Janeiro – if you’re going further afield, the local coaches are reliable and the routes are surprisingly easy to figure out.
VISAS: Nationals of the EU and New Zealand do not need tourist visas, but Australians do.
CURRENCY: Brazilian Real. 1 GBP = 2.75 BRL.
GOING OUT: You’ll find beers for 5 or 6 real.
ACCOMMODATION: There are hostels for maybe 25 to 30 real per night. Hotels are obviously more expensive, but outside Rio, prices drop.
GET MORE INFO: braziltravelinformation.com.
» Tom Sturrock went on the 17-day Rio to Buenos Aires Unplugged tour with Intrepid Travel (0203 147 7777; intrepidtravel.com), which costs from £1195 (excluding flights) and travels through Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Price includes transport, accommodation in simple hotels and haciendas.