Last updated: 09:50 AM ET, Thu November 12 2015

Dispatch: People Watching in Rio

Destination & Tourism | David Cogswell | November 11, 2015

Dispatch: People Watching in Rio

PHOTO: The procession along Avenida Atlantica in Rio. (Photos by David Cogswell)

Avenida Atlantica, the shore road of Copacabana Beach in Rio across the street from the Arena Hotel where I am staying, is a constant procession of people. They are walking, jogging, bicycling, skateboarding, pushing strollers. They are young, old, single, couples, families, groups of friends, dark, light. Almost no one is wearing long sleeves. Most are wearing shorts, some are in swimsuits, some in shifts. A few are carrying crafts or merchandise they are selling. It’s constant motion, and vigorous. To themselves they are just ordinary people. To me they are exquisitely beautiful.

They represent a wide range of ethnicities, of European, African, Native American and Asian origins, but they all share something unmistakably Brazilian. There is certainly a distinct Brazilian character that transcends the diversity of ethnicities that make up the roots of the population. And in addition there is a distinct Rio character, exclusive to the city and the Cariocas, its inhabitants. I would not attempt to define it. But you can sense that thing when you are among them in concentration on their own turf.  

My second day in Rio I have gotten into the rhythm here, gotten into the flow. I don’t stick out quite as sorely as I did the first day, at least I hope not. I had spent about a week in southern Brazil, where it was abnormally cold for this time of year. But in Rio it is seriously hot, in the high 80s Fahrenheit or 31 Celsius, then down to the low 70s or 23 Celsius at night.

The heat was a shock when I first experienced it. I went out of the hotel with a long sleeve shirt and seemed to be the only person in the city with long sleeves, at least here in the area near the beach.

I felt like I was going to suffocate after many days of wearing a sweater and a fleece. But by the second day in Rio I was starting to get into the flow. And part of the rhythm of life here is this great vigorousness. There is plenty of relaxing and lounging going on at the beach and in the restaurants and elsewhere. It’s a relaxed vibe. But at the same time there is this great mass movement going all the time.

At any given moment there are people jogging by, others walking strongly and purposefully. On the beach, people are playing volleyball. You see people around just exercising. And there is that ocean breeze and the smell of the sea wafting over the beach. The shore road is a six-lane thoroughfare, with a bike lane, constantly busy with cars, buses and taxis.

My friend Joao took me to the downtown business district, the new revitalized waterfront area at Porto Maravilha where we saw the stunning Museum of Tomorrow, designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. The port area is undergoing a major revitalization with the new museum as its centerpiece. It’s hard not to be invigorated when you are standing in the wide open area looking at the museum against the backdrop of the water and behind you the downtown skyscrapers looming high over the waterfront park.

PHOTO: The Museum of Tomorrow.

In the city streets of the business and commercial section of town is another great procession of Brazilians, mostly office or retail workers and shoppers. It’s different from the procession along the beach, obviously more businesslike, but still very vigorous. And the Cariocas are as stunning to observe there as on the shore drive.

With the current exchange rates, the prices are astonishingly low and it makes it easy to take a bit of Brazilian style back home with you in the form of shoes or a leather jacket.  

We concluded the day with dinner and a cachaça tasting at the Academia da Cachaça in the Leblon district of Rio. The restaurant stocks 400 labels of cachaça, Brazil’s national liquor distilled from sugar cane. The Academia da Cachaça in Leblon is an offshoot of the original one in Barra da Tijuca, which claims to keep 2,000 labels of cachaça on hand.

At the tasting I sampled four varieties of cachaça, including a basic clear version, two varieties aged in wooden barrels and one blended with honey. It was a little dangerous, but I heard that cachaça had actually been used as medicine in times past.

I think it actually worked with me, helped to push the cold that I picked up in the south out of my head. Or maybe it was the Champagne I was served as a free bonus at the breakfast at the Arena Hotel. Or maybe it was the combination. You can never be sure of such things.

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