Copacabana is an almost sensual experience.
All your senses are invigorated as you fall in love with the most famous beach in Brazil. Everything you have heard about Copacabana is true. The striking blue sky contrasts with the deep blue of the Oceano Atlantico, the sand is sugar white and as soft as snow - kid's run in the surf, middle-aged men jog along it's length, hawkers cry their wares and backing it all are the Art Deco hotels and jungle covered mountains.
Copacabana is a golden corner of the world.
I suspect the sunworshipping Carioca's know how lucky they are. Imagine being brought up with this beach in the vicinity from the cradle to the grave? How many summers have the locals spent on the world's most famous beach? How many sunsets have they seen from the Copacabana boardwalk?
The people are absolutely gorgeous. Granted the profusion of all ages means abit of cellulite here and there - which I democratically approve of - but the real beach bums are spectacularly good looking. I was also surprised what a male beach it was. After work, you can see them climb out of their beachbuggies, strip down to their speedo's and take on their workmates for a game of futbol or softball on the sands. You can see why they head down from the impoverished Northeast of Brazil to live in the famous favela's (slums). They may not have electricity and running water but they have the sunshine and the beach is free. And crime? Rio has poured alot of money into security and I felt very safe. Cuidade Muncipal patrol cars growl up the Avenida Atlantica and there seemed to be lifeguards every fifty yards. I spent day after day lying back and enjoying the free show that they call beach life in Rio de Janeiro.
It also has to be one of the biggest beaches I have ever seen and stretches along a great half moon for 4 kilometres. At it's western end is Ipanema, this is separated from Copacabana by the Aproador headland which houses a military fort still in use. At it' s eastern end is the Morro de Babilonia, a jungle covered ridge of mountains which separates Copacabana from the Sugarloaf. Here Avenida Princess Isabella travels through a tunnel which connects Copacabana to Bortafago, Flamengo and the rest of Rio. The great road which travels the length of Copacabana is the Avenida Atlantica. The great multi-coloured Art Deco hotels of Rio line this avenida, each competing to be more extravagant with the other. Restaurants dot the Avenida Atlantica and at the Aproador end there is a night-market which is very impressive and sells T-shirts, plastic Christo Redentor's, beach towels, bikini's and souvenirs of Brazil.
Copacabana may attract tourists but they are outnumbered ten to one by the local carioca's. People spend their lives here and the population is a mixture of young and old. Copacabana had it's heyday in the forties/fifties and many of the population who moved in then are still here living in the five blocks between the beach and the mountains. The main drag is one block up from the beach - Avenida Nossa Sonora de Copacabana. This is workaday Rio catering to the local populace rather then the tourists and it is lined with supermercado's, farmacia's, restaurante's, banco's, churrascaria's (meat restaurant's) and suco bars (juice bars). Buses to Centro leave from here and return two blocks north along the east-west Rua Berata Ribeiro. The excellent subway ends at Arcoverde and is only two blocks south along Avenida Dante to the beach. Buses stop every fifty yards along Avenida Atlantica allowing you quick access to Centro, Flamengo and Ipanema.
But let's be honest, it is the beach you have come for.
It is quite a thrill to cross the four-lanes of traffic and set foot on it's famous sands. Before it is a boardwalk stretching the four kilometres along it's length. This Brazilian icon is a mosaic of black/white tiles (see photo) designed by Burl Marx and is constantly being travelled by men in speedo's, women walking dogs and joggers and cyclists. Interspersed along its length are barraca's (kiosks) which sell coco verts (green coconuts) and refreshments with a few plastic chairs and tables scattered around so you can soak up the sun. The first bit of sand I came to made me just sit down and watch a volleyball match on the white sand (see photo). One nutbrown guy must have spent his life on the beach and had such a washboard stomach it was criminal.
Then it is off with the shoes, shirt and on with the tanning oil, and a walk along the seashore with feet brushed by soft waves. The sand on Copacabana beach is very special. It is as white as new cream and so soft that your feet subtly sink into it's folds. All around me were Cariocas enjoying the first real sun of spring. Size did not matter as they squeezed themselves into speedo trunks or piano wire bikini's. Feeding off them were hawkers selling blankets, sun oil, chop beer, agua, prawns on skewers or whatever your heart desires. My advice to you is to take the bare minimum to Copacabana - just a couple of reals for provisions. Leave the valuable camera, wallet and passport back in the hotel room safe. You can buy whatever you need from the hawkers. Their cries ring the beach like medieval street-sellars.
Of course each part of the beach belongs to a different social group. The men generally hang around the Aproador western end where the volleyball courts are near the Aproador fort. Here, futbol fields are set up and there are gym bars and hoops. The trendy young things tend to stick to the middle in front of the Rio Othon hotel and the best bikini's and fashions are on display. Paulistas and those from the south of Brazil prefer the Leme end of Copacabana where they can walk to the Rio Sul Mall. And gay men have their own rainbow flag in front of the Copacabana Palace hotel. The Copacabana Palace really looms over Avenida Atlantica and is the most famous hotel in Rio. This hotel started the craze - flying down to Rio - in the thirties. This is also the best place to change up American express checks. The rumours that you have heard about the difficulty changing up 'exotic' currencies such as pounds, yen and Euro's in Rio are absolutely true.
But back at the beach I was stunned how fit and healthy Carioca's looked. And after a while you begin to notice the sensual nature of the beach - couples kissing in each others arms, one lad adjusting himself in front of his woman when coming out of the sea and bikini's so tiny that they seemed to vanish into the flesh. There is alot of flirting going on in Copacabana and gangs of girls watch the boys with many a backward glance being thrown. The beach can get very crowded in January/February and at new year over a million people dance on it's sands but the same time it is exceptionally friendly. If you lie there for any length of time then your neighbours will talk to you. Well, as well as they can - most Brazilians only speak Portuguese.
And what of the sea? The waves coming straight off the Atlantic were huge and not for swimming in. This is surfer territory and there are always a number of them bobbing in the water. As I watched them a feeling of adoration washed over me for Copacabana. With it's azure sky, white sand and deep blue of the sea - I thought it was the most beautiful beach I had ever seen.
And the Carioca's get to spend their lives here. Never before have I envied another peoples lifestyle - but this time I came so damn close...