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Rio: Beyond Its Reputed Beach Culture

by Radha McLean

Rio and its joie de vivre culture have been immortalized for decades by nostalgic songwriters and filmmakers plagued with envy for its beach-bum, reputably carefree lifestyle. Such inspirers include Marcel Camus, who released “Black Orpheus” in 1959, the film version of the Orpheus-Eurydice legend set to the sounds of bossa nova and sights of Carnival, and Barry Manilow, who set the boys running for the seaside when he sang longingly for archetypal Cariocas woman named Lola in the 1970s tune “Copacabana.” Such renditions of life in paradise have none other than fundamentally shaped our visions of this alluring south-of-the-border destination.

There’s much more to Rio, however, than sand, sea and Carnival. There is cultural and natural gold mine to be found in this sprawling metropolis of almost 50,000 square miles bordering Brazil’s Atlantic coast. With a massive forest, botanical garden, numerous museums and cultural institutions, and restaurants serving regional Brazilian cuisine, and crafts fairs abound, Rio is poised to serve as an attraction for the Millennium traveler who’s in search of an educational, cultural experience rather than a mind-numbing party of a time. 

Cultural Highlights
Rio’s spectacular city center is proof that Brazilians appreciate valuable architecture as much as the next culture with a five-hundred-year colonial history. The Theatro Municipal (Opera House) is an incredible landmark if ever there was one. The century-old structure, whose exterior was built in London and transported to Rio in 1908, set the stage for the city’s cultural development. Its size—over 2,000 seats—and décor—Impressionist painter Visconte hand-painted most of the wall and ceiling murals—rival its Parisian counterparts. Other cultural highlights in the city include the Museo do Indio, or Native American museum, and the Instituto Moreira Salles, an architect’s home-turned modern art museum.

A Touch of Nature
Believe it if you dare; there is a rain forest in the center of Rio. Such a spectacular and novel natural phenomenon speaks for itself. Take a tour of Tijuca Forest, situated in Tijuca National Park, and you won’t be disappointed by the overwhelming sense of departure from urbanity amid a city with a multi-million population. The city’s botanical garden is a must see as well: 140 hectares of tropical flowers, trees, and shrubs from around the world, not to mention wild star monkeys scaling the tops of Jaquera (jack fruit) trees.

Brazil boasts a wealth of tasty meats – and just as many vegetarian dishes – to make a expansive repertoire of food options. Most restaurants serve the myriad dishes buffet style. You won’t have to pay much – between $5 and $10 – for an all-you-can-eat meal comprising of meats, salads, vegetable dishes, traditional side dishes such as feijao mulato (black beans) and couve mineira (spring greens) and, if chance is on your side, an added bonus on the menu: a classic Brazilian desert of doce de leite (milk and sugar pudding), and Romeo and Juliet (guava cake and fresh cheese). Lastly, don’t dare miss ordering a swig of the fresh mango juice, as thick as a milkshake, served in just about every dining venue.Your desire to return to this unexpectedly dynamic city will be inspired by the sumptuous taste of its freshly squeezed fruit alone.

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