With Norwegian’s new route from Gatwick means Rio de Janeiro is more accessible than ever, James Litston heads to the home of Carnival to check out its many highlights.
Not for nothing is Rio known as Cidade Maravilhosa – the Marvellous City. As well as being home to legendary Carnival and New Year’s Eve celebrations, it’s been blessed by geography, climate and a generous share of global icons, from Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer to the great, sandy sweep of Copacabana – and from up here, I can see them all at once.
We’re hovering way above the golden curve of Copacabana looking towards where Sugarloaf Mountain towers over the Atlantic. In the other direction are forested peaks and, at Corcovado, their highest point, the statue of Christ gazing down benignly in all his oversized, art-deco glory. It’s a phenomenal sight: but things are about to get even more marvellous still, for this is no ordinary helicopter tour. “OK,” says the pilot as he holds the aircraft in a stationary position, “now you can stick your feet out for a shoe selfie!”
Yes, that’s right: a shoe selfie. Admittedly it’s not something I had ever considered before, but then I’d never taken in a tour in a helicopter with no doors. Fortunately, I’m attached to a double harness so there’s no risk of falling out, but even so it takes a moment before I’m brave enough to comply. As I dangle my feet over Copacabana and capture the one-of-a-kind, epic shot, I realise that normal sightseeing will never again be the same.
This quirky and unforgettable tour with local company Vertical Rio is new this year for Abercrombie & Kent, whose business to Rio is booming. “Rio is one of Brazil’s must-see highlights,” says Graeme Bull, the company’s Latin America product manager. “The heli-selfie excursion is proving a big hit with our guests, as are boat trips on Guanabara Bay and behind-the-scenes tours at a samba school.”
Beyond such signature experiences, Rio is in the spotlight this year thanks to Norwegian Airlines, which began operating non-stop flights from London Gatwick in March. The four-times-a-week service brings lower fares to a route long dominated by British Airways, which operates from Heathrow. And with Rio being nominated as next year’s inaugural World Capital of Architecture, the Marvellous City’s star will continue to rise.
I get to appreciate some of the city’s architectural riches on a visit to Centro, the historic downtown district and former colonial capital. I exit the speedy, air-conditioned metro in Cinelândia, one of Centro’s main squares, and I am instantly blown away by the opulent buildings that surround it.
Cobbled streets nearby are lined with faded, pastel-painted shopfronts sitting cheek-by-jowl alongside modernist masterpieces and 70s eyesores. It’s a skyline as chaotic as the energy in the streets, but it’s a fascinating area to explore. I pop into colonial churches to eyeball their over-the-top interiors, then continue to the futuristic Museum of Tomorrow on the waterfront.
There’s more impressive architecture to be found in Parque Lage, a green space in the urban rainforest at the foot of Corcovado. Here, I find the historic School of Visual Arts, a classically elegant building with a courtyard pool that’s popular with Instagrammers. I watch, bemused, as people line up to snap the exact same shot of themselves; then I head up the road to the equally verdant but somewhat more peaceful Botanical Gardens.
Here among the giant trees and stately avenues of palms, I soak up the ambiance while keeping my eyes peeled for local wildlife. It doesn’t take long to spot capuchin monkeys crossing one of the paths, followed soon after by a family of fluffy marmosets. Best of all though is a sloth – an unusual sighting even here that happens to catch my eye as it clambers slowly but purposefully through the branches.
Such brushes with nature are a highlight of any trip to South America, so the Botanical Gardens work well for single-centre clients or those with limited time. Most clients will, however, combine Rio with Iguazu Falls or a trip to the Amazon. Hayes & Jarvis offer a four-day add-on to the Pantanal to see jaguars, while those unwilling to travel so far can take beach breaks in Buzios or Ilha Grande. Both these resorts lie within a couple of hours’ drive of Rio and are favoured for their lovely beaches, leafy backdrops and encounters with dolphins and turtles.
Moving on from the gardens, it’s time for a closer look at some of the icons that I’ve already glimpsed from the helicopter tour. Both Corcovado and Sugarloaf Mountain are worthy of a visit, so I plump for the latter and ride the cable car to its peak. The view from up here takes in Centro, boat-filled Guanabara Bay and the full length of Copacabana. Bear in mind that clients can pre-book such experiences: a convenience for them and a chance for agents to boost earning potential.
But, of course, the main attraction in Rio de Janeiro is the beach. Clients certainly have a healthy choice of sandy shores, each with its own distinct vibe: from bustling Copacabana to laid-back Leblon and lively Ipanema. The hotel scene is no less varied. Perennially popular is Belmond Copacabana Palace, a landmark hotel with a glamorous history and 239 contemporary rooms and suites. New properties for this year include Janeiro Hotel, a design-friendly, beachfront bolthole in Leblon, and Hotel Arpoador, an affordable option that’s right on Ipanema’s patterned promenade.
Arpoador headland also happens to be the best place for catching the sunset. At the end of each day, crowds gather on the rocky promontory to watch the sun sink behind the twin peaks of Dois Irmãos – the iconic mountain at the far end of the beach. I join them and observe the sky turn from rosy to peach to vermilion, enjoying the buzz and sipping a cold and locally brewed craft beer. It’s a wonderful finale to a sun-filled Rio day.
As the crowd disperses, I find myself thinking. Marvellous City? It’s certainly apt, but in all honesty, it’s a colossal understatement.