Tom Jobim, the composer of Brazil''s bossa nova, has alot to answer for.
It was his composition "The girl from Ipanema" that put this beach on the worldwide map and every visitor to Rio has to visit. Supposedly, he coined the words and tune from senora''s wandering past his seat at a beachfront cafe. The tune is just as applicable today as the beautiful people come to shop, eat or be admired in one of Rio''s most spectacular beaches.
If Ipanema had comparisons with other cities then it would be with Beverley Hills or Hampstead. This is the abode of filmstars, footballers and millionaires with some of the property the most expensive in Brazil and it''s main drag Rua Visconda Piraji is the chicest shopping street in Rio. While Copacabana has aged with it''s population with flashes of madness in summer or new year, Ipanema is still classy and stylish as it was in the 40''s, and is many Carioca''s neighbourhood of choice.
It is a long way from Centro Rio. Buses 119, 154, 413, 415, 455 zoom through Copacabana to get to Ipanema from Centro. If you see the word ''Aterro'' at the front of a bus this means express - not stopping between the beginning and end of it''s destination. The fare from Centro will only cost 0.40 reals. The subway is due to be extended to Ipanema and it''s termination at Placa General Osorious is still being completed. The nearest metro station is 2km away in Copacabana, buses run west from Arcoverde all the way to Leblon and beyond to the Barra di Tijuca. But it is the geography of Ipanema which is the most impressive. The beach ends after three miles at the vast mountains that squeeze Rio. Most prominent is the Morro de Rochina (Rochina mountain) which is a gigantic granite piton with it''s capped by twin peaks. In it''s shadow is the Rochina favela, the largest slum in South America, with a superb view over the ocean. The juxtaposition of extreme wealth and extreme poverty is the epitome of Rio de Janeiro.
You will probably begin your exploration from the eastern Copacabana end. Good starting points are the Aproador beach or the Praca General Osorious. The Praca is a pretty green square where buses terminate and is surrounded by bars and restaurante''s. Leading off it is Rua Visconda Piraji to the west and all roads lead to the beach to the south. On Sundays there is the Feira Hippie (hippy market) which is a touristy market with plenty of T-shirts, jewellry and stuffed bird-eating spiders. The beach itself is lined not so much by hotels but by apartment blocks. This is the district for the wealthy and each has high-security in the form of watchful guards stationed outside. You will notice the affluence while in Ipanema - old ladies with poodles and sunglasses, sports cars purr up and down the boardwalk and expensive beachwear is on show everywhere.
But the beach will draw you in. The city of Rio takes great care of it''s beaches - and they are absolutely spotless. Early in the morning you can see cleaners out in force and there are rubbish bins every thirty yards. When you walk along the shoreline on the snow white sands you can feel all stress drop away from you. The tanned gods that are called Carioca''s moved around you - joggers overtake, women spread towels on the beach and middleaged men with speedos far to tiny for their applicable age start games of volleyball. They have lifeguard stations which double as toilets/showers every thirty yards and each stretch of the beach is numbered and appeals to a particular section of the population. Interllectuals and artists head for the area near the Jardim de Allah, families make for the gentler Aproador end and gays spread their towels around Farme Amedeo.
One trick the Carioca''s have perfected on the beach is not to face the ocean, but to lie towards the city to catch the suns rays. This makes sense as the way Rio is positioned when you face the sea only your head and shoulders catch the sun. As you relax you will be bothered by hawkers selling sunglasses, beers or fake jewellry. In fact you need the bare minimum at the beach, everything you need is on sale. Of course it is one of the best places for people-watching - the mohaghany couple next to you may be making up after a tiff the night before, old men sip coco verts (green coconuts) while watching youths kick footballs around the sand. They must be remembering that it was them doing exactly the same forty years ago.
If you visit Ipanema then try and make time for Rua Visconda Piraji which is one block north of the beach. This is exclusive Rio with it''s bars, fashion stores, boutiques, gyms and travel agents. From here you can pick up a cheap excursion to Iguacu Falls or up to the Amazon and there are plenty of bargains advertised. But Ipanema is primarily a residential area and you will see the well-heeled shop, eat and flirt all day long. It''s just the same at night. They floodlight the beaches so games of futbol go on all night and the surf looks luminescent in the darkness.
But most magical is the view from the boardwalk towards the Morro do Rochina and it''s favela. As there is no electricity the inhabitants use lanterns. The whole favela shimmers and twinkles in the darkness.