Right after getting off the plane, sweat beads will start to gather on your forehead. That’s just Rio de Janeiro’s ever-present humidity saying “hello.”
You will be enveloped by shades of green — lush tropical forests jammed between buildings of all sizes — and tones of blue along miles of inviting coastlines.
Towering over the 2016 Summer Olympics host city is the Christ the Redeemer statue. After a few days, you might chuckle when a hotel brochure or tour guide tries to sell you something by saying it “includes” a view of the statue.
In Brazil, prostitution is legal, though that doesn’t mean that you will see women and men hawking their bodies all over the city. Walking around, you are more likely to come upon churches, especially of growing evangelical denominations like Pentecostals.
Up in the hills, you can see small dwellings that look like stone huts jammed one after the other, in red and green and pink and orange. The slums of Rio, known as favelas, are the most colorful places in the city, culturally vibrant and filled with interesting people. They are also the city’s poorest areas, often controlled by drug-traffickers and plagued by violence.
Across Rio, you might hear gunfire. It could be drug dealers battling it out for turf, or military police conducting an operation. Firefights mostly happen in favelas, but sometimes spill out into the “zona sul,” or southern part of the city, home to more well-heeled Brazilians and where tourists flock.
You will be tempted to capture all the vibrancy on your smartphone. But take a good look around before pulling it out. The “Cidade Maravilhosa” has long been plagued by violent muggings and robberies that can happen at any time of day and in any neighborhood.
A walk along the famed beach in Copacabana reveals both luxury and seediness: Rio’s iconic area of yesteryear still shines but also has its share of hobos, panhandlers and hard-luck cases.
Keep walking west to get to the Ipanema beaches. And if you are in the mood to see and be seen and spend more money, go a little further to get to Leblon, Rio’s most expensive neighborhood.
It’s winter in the Southern Hemisphere, the equivalent of February up north. But the beaches still have plenty of people, both local and foreign, taking dips. And with good reason: Temperatures are frequently in the mid-80s and sometimes even low 90s.
Here you will see some of Rio’s stereotypes: dental-floss bikinis for women, tight speedos for men and bodies that ooze fitness and sensuality. But the beaches have so much more than that. There are pickup soccer and volleyball games and capoeira martial arts. The beats of the drum circles will make you feel like you’re in a movie.
Speaking of rhythms, in cafes, food stands and bars, it’s common to hear the soothing sounds of Caetano Veloso or Gilberto Gil, just two of the country’s talented musicians known worldwide. The classics are embraced but there is so much more for the ears: pop, funk and everything in between, especially in any of the thousands of yellow cabs circulating in the city.
At the beach or anywhere close to a waterway, you could smell something rank. Your sniffer is not off. That’s sewage. How strong it smells depends on where you are, how recently it rained and many other factors. Currently Rio only treats about 60 percent of its sewage, which means the waste from millions of residents finds its way into the water. Olympic athletes competing on that water are taking a host of preventative measures to avoid getting sick.
If all this made you tired, just about any corner on the city offers the perfect pick-me-up: fruits. It would be impossible to exaggerate the variety or all-around scrumptiousness of what you are about to eat or drink.
If you don’t speak Portuguese (and most Rio people don’t speak English), just point at the reddish mangos, the green guavas (with pink insides) or fruits you may have never heard of like jabuticaba, which look like oversized grapes.
Sit back and enjoy.