Sunday, October 29, 2017

A free walking tour of Rio’s most famous beaches

Rio de Janeiro may be best known globally for its beaches, so on my first afternoon in the Brazilian city of more than six million people I enlisted the services of Free Walker Tours to show me around the two most famous ones.

But before hitting Copacabana Beach, we were first taken to one of the oldest houses in the neighbourhood — and its decrepitness was well-suited for this Halloween weekend. It’s no longer occupied and is owned by the government, and it would be nice if it could be refurbished to its former grandeur.

The four-kilometre Copacabana Beach wasn’t particularly crowded for a Sunday afternoon, probably because the skies were somewhat overcast. And it was a far cry from New Year’s Eve, when about 1.5 million people crowd the beach for a bacchanalian celebration and to wish for a better new year.

We continued along to the far south end of the beach and Forte Copacabana. It was built in 1914 and is no longer used for military purposes, but houses the Army Historical Museum. The fort was also used at the starting and finishing point for the road bicycle race, as well as for the triathlon and marathon swimming, during the 2016 Olympics. I didn’t have time to pay the R$6 (about $2.40 Canadian) to go in and look around, so a photo of the entrance was the best I could do.

From there it was on to Ipanema Beach, where the small Dos Hermanos (Two Brothers) mountains dominate the west end. Down below, drinks, food and more are sold on the sand while foot volley (a combination of volleyball and soccer) players demonstrate some impressive athletic skills.

There are several small statues dedicated to people of significance to Rio along both Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and they’re popular attractions for photo opportunities.

The neighbourhood of Ipanema is one of the most expensive in Rio to live in, and its bars, restaurants, shops and hotels make it a magnet for tourists. Our walk gave us a taste of the neighbourhood, including the large Sunday hippie market, which I passed on, and Garota de Ipanema. The latter is where Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes would sit and drink in the early ‘60s, and they were inspired to write “The Girl From Ipanema” after seeing 17-year-old Helo Pinheiro walk by them every day on her way to the beach. It’s now a high-priced restaurant geared toward tourists.

Our walk concluded at Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, the home of 2016 Olympic rowing events. You wouldn’t want to go in the polluted water, which is connected to the Atlantic Ocean by a thin channel to allow sea water in, but it’s a picturesque spot in Rio’s Zona Sul (South Zone). Fitness buffs walk or jog around it, but our personable guide Clara instead sat us down for a short picnic and let us sample some popular Brazilian snacks.

The 2.5-hour walking tour was free, but participants were invited to tip at the end. Clara was friendly and knowledgeable, and even sang the Portuguese version of “The Girl From Ipanema,” the bossa nova jazz song that’s apparently the second most recorded number ever (after The Beatles’ “Yesterday”) for our 15-person group. Most of us gave her R$50 (about $20 Canadian) for her efforts.

With the picnic snacks acting as my appetizer, I walked around Ipanema and decided to have dinner on the sidewalk patio of Galitos Grill. My R$24 (about $10 Canadian) order of garlic fried chicken on a bed of lettuce was very tasty and plentiful enough that I didn’t need a side dish. A 10 per cent gratuity was automatically added on to the bill, which I found was also the case at my next two stops.

Boring but thirst-quenching lagers are the beer of choice in Rio, and they’re available for a reasonable price in bars, restaurants, stores and street stands. Walking around with a drink in your hand isn't uncommon here. However, I came across a bar called Play Growler that had 11 Brazilian craft beers on tap. It was pricey, which may have been why I was the only customer, but I paid R$10.30 for a half-pint of the very solid Antuerpia Trigo Hefeweizen, which I drank on a sidewalk patio while listening to The Smiths, Jesus and Mary Chain and The Cure emanating from the bar.

A short distance away I discovered Shenanigan’s Irish Pub and Sports Bar and decided to climb up to its second floor location and give it a shot. It was your typical old school-looking pub, and it was showing NFL and NBA games. Most of the small crowd in the bar seemed to be American, and I paid R$18.90 (about $7.50 Canadian) for a pint of Shenanigan’s Weiss. It wasn’t as good as the wheat beer I’d just had, but was enjoyable. It was also one of the cheaper beers available, as a pint of Guinness was going for R$41.90 (about $16.75 Canadian). This place is obviously aimed at tourists.

I got back on the clean and efficient Metro and took it to Gloria, a two-minute walk from Discovery Hostel, where I’m staying for my three nights in Rio. I have a private bedroom and shared bathroom for R$150 (about $60 Canadian) a night. And I can buy a tall can of watery Antarctica Pilsner here for R$6 (about $2.40 Canadian) without a mandatory gratuity added on.

I’d been warned about the potential threats and danger posed by street crime in Rio, but I got through day one without any issues and am feeling more confident (though I’m still being more cautious here than in any other place I’ve visited) about my next two days of exploring what the city has to offer.

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