Rio de Janeiro is a city of co-existing extremes: wealth and opulence adjoin poverty and squalor; sensuality shares space with spirituality; courtesy counterbalances crime.
The topography pulls you abruptly from sea level to cloud level and beyond, as mountains seem to burst up randomly through the cityscape. It's like resting in the hollow of a giant hand, whose massive fingers curl protectively upward. At the mountains' tips may be television towers, cable car stations or hang-glider pilots launching themselves into the wind on brightly colored wings.
Or it could be Christ the Redeemer. Cristo Redentor, the famous statue of Christ with arms outstretched, sits atop Corcovado Mountain, almost a half-mile above the city. It is visible from nearly every quarter of Rio, blessing beaches and boulevards.
In our first visit to the city, more than three years ago, my wife, Janice, and I viewed the city from the base of that statue. We also skittered carefully along the edges of the notorious favelas, where hundreds of thousands of poor people live in shanties that appear to be glued to the hillsides.
We walked Copacabana Beach in the morning sunlight, when its only inhabitants were yoga classes contemplating the surf and sand.
And we left Rio feeling deliciously frustrated, for as much as we had loved it, there was so much more to know about it.
Rio is on Brazil's southeast coast, inside the Tropic of Capricorn. Europeans got their first look at the area on New Year's Day 1502, with its discovery by Portuguese explorer Gaspar de Lemos.
It gained economic prominence in the 18th century as a major center for shipment to Europe of gold mined inland. In the 19th century, when Brazil had an emperor, he lived in Rio.
The city population is estimated at about 6-million, but between 13-million and 15-million in the surrounding, densely populated, state also named Rio de Janeiro. These Cariocas, as they call themselves, all seem to be in cars on Avenida Atlantica at any given moment.
Flying down to Rio
Although it is a major industrial city, Rio also started attracting tourists in the mid 20th century. They were drawn to the beaches and to the most enticing of the city's rocky fingers, Sugarloaf.
The cable car trip to Sugarloaf _ first on our list of must-sees on our second visit _ was done in two hops. The first stop was Morro da Urca, a hill 725 feet above the bay that opens to the Atlantic Ocean.
From Urca, central Rio, the upscale Botafogo district and quiet Botafogo Bay spread dramatically below us, and a series of sightseeing helicopters landed for a few seconds and then flew off like patrolling dragonflies. We chose to dangle like spiders as our car inched up the cable to Sugarloaf.
At 1,300 feet high and commanding a point at the water's edge, Sugarloaf is a natural skybox. From it, we could see the beaches that are central to Rio's personality: Leme, Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon. In another direction stood Cristo Redentor. .
In another direction is little Santos Dumont Airport, off central Rio. Beyond the airport, two ferry boats coming from opposite directions traced thin, straight wakes in the bay. (Gaspar de Lemos mistakenly named the spot "January River." There is no river, just Guanabara Bay.)
The tranquility seemed at odds with Rio's reputation as a dangerous place, not just for muggings but for drug-related violence and alleged police "death squad" raids against the homeless.
That is probably why so many people in Rio took us through a recitation like a flight attendant's safety lecture: We were routinely advised to leave valuables in the hotel safe, to telephone for cabs rather than hail one, to avoid walking alone on the beach, and to stay the heck out of the favelas. And to keep our eyes open.
Which we did. On the street, we walked close together, keeping my wallet pocket and Janice's purse between us. We assessed the mugger potential of each approaching person and steered clear of crowds. We experienced not a single threatening episode. It did seem, however, that since our previous visit, Cariocas had become more cautious and more residents in beach areas had put bars over their windows.
Fred, Ginger and Tom
Lots of the locals had dogs. Not Rottweilers or German shepherds. The dog of choice at the beach was a little white poodle, unclipped but freshly washed and fluffed. They looked like cotton candy with eyes.
On Sundays, dogs and their owners promenade along the beaches, when major streets are closed to all but pedestrians. Kids play soccer in the sand; people crowd beachside stands to buy coco gelado, a chilled whole coconut with the top lopped off, so you can drink the refreshing contents through a straw.
Some folks do go into the water, but most seem happy just to sunbathe. Though there's no outright nudity, Rio's famous "dental floss" bikinis show substantial quantities of skin.
Janice and I walked from Leme (the north end of Copacabana) southwestward along the patterned mosaic sidewalks. We stepped into the Copacabana Palace Hotel, celebrated in 1933's Flying Down to Rio, when it hosted Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Maurice Chevalier also stayed there, as did Orson Welles. In a mezzanine gallery we studied their photos, as well as those of Anne Rice, Robert De Niro and a very young Mick Jagger.
There is a nearly unbroken line of hotels and condos down the Leme-Copacabana strand. They are interrupted briefly at Arpoador, where the beach makes a sharp right turn, then continue westward along Ipanema. Both stretches are narrow. Copacabana squeezes between sea and mountain, Ipanema between sea and lagoon.
We veered away from the beach to find a record store where we could buy bossa nova CDs. Though Brazil has launched other styles of music _ the samba and tropicalia, for example _ Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova is Brazilian music for many Americans.
In 1962, smitten by the daily passage of a young girl on her way to the beach, Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes sat in the Veloso Bar and wrote The Girl from Ipanema, a song of lust and longing. Soon the whole world knew about her _ tall and tan and young and lovely.
Jobim (known locally and affectionately as "Tom") died in 1994. Rio's international airport is named for him. The bar where the song was composed is now named after the "girl," and its street is now Rua Vinicius de Moraes.
At 11 that night, Janice and I returned to the area and a smoky, second-floor club also called Vinicius. Singer Claudia Telles and her partner, guitarist and vocalist Paulinho Tapajos, alternated strains unfamiliar to our North American ears with 1960s classics _ Quiet Nights, One Note Samba.
Claudia shimmied, Paulinho strummed, and I sat there savoring the sugary residue of my caipirinha, listening to The Girl from Ipanema and thinking, "How cool is this?"
Of course they sang in Portuguese, the wonderful language that seems to blend Latin intonation with Slavic pronunciation. S becomes "esh," and, oddly, R's are spoken as H's. Thus, the Brazilian unit of currency, the real, is pronounced something like "hell."
In the mountain jungle
For our four-wheel-drive tour of the Tijuca Forest, guide Anna Maria first sent me back to my room to get a jacket. Although horizontally we wouldn't be traveling far from sultry Copacabana, vertical movement was another story.
Tijuca is a mountain jungle inside the city limits. Laced with streams, waterfalls and trails, the forest covers 46 square miles of hills. The highest is at 3,300 feet, taller than Corcovado.
As the Jeep climbed the steep, winding road, Anna Maria gave us a running commentary on the flora _ pink impatiens, hibiscus and a nonconformist white leafy tree that interrupted the otherwise waxy green landscape.
Stopping suddenly, our driver pointed into the branches high above the road: A pair of capuchin monkeys scrambled through the foliage, staying tantalizingly out of camera range. Alas, that was our experience with Tijuca's fauna: We saw brilliant butterflies, but the toucans apparently had the day off, the marmosets were bashful and the poisonous coral snakes snubbed us (not that I minded).
But there still was plenty to look at. At the Asia-themed Vista Chinesa (1,300 feet), we could see Corcovado's summit, the twin peaks of Dois Irmaos ("two brothers") and, between, the kidney-shaped lagoon (surrounded by high-rises).
We left our vehicle to walk the Caminho do Saudade, roughly "the longing trail." The path runs along the edge of a wooded ridge, about 50 feet above the forest floor. We could hear a stream and waterfalls gurgling below but couldn't see them through the thick growth.
Anna Maria thumped the trunk of a eucalyptus tree, and water squeezed out from its spongy trunk. She also pointed out an impromptu shrine: A puddle of congealed candle wax indicated that followers of Candomble, an animist faith created in Brazil and derived from African beliefs, had made an offering to the god of the forests.
Then back to the four-wheel and a slow, brake-burning descent to sea level. At Sao Conrado Beach, we watched hang gliders push off from the 1,700-foot top of Pedra Bonita. The gliders circled like multicolored gulls before sailing down to the sand. Anna Maria said the winds were perfect, allowing the gliders to stay aloft for 30 minutes.
I asked about the kiosk where vendors sold something that resembled chocolate pudding. Anna Maria smiled as she explained that it was acai, a juice of palm fruit. Served frozen, it tastes like a gritty, vaguely berry-flavored sorbet.
Food for the body, soul
I can imagine going to Rio just for the juices. Numerous juice bars serve fresh pineapple, mango, papaya and some you seldom encounter at home, such as caldo de cana, sugarcane sap. Juice bar clerks feed lengths of cane into steel crushers that squeeze the juice as you wait. Accerola tastes something like a rhubarb and tomato mixture.
The food in the ubiquitous standup establishments is satisfying and cheap. For a couple of bucks we ate spicy, chicken-filled turnovers, beef pies and cheese puffs.
For glorious gluttony, nothing beats a churrascaria, the Brazilian barbecue house where waiters cut beef, lamb, chicken and sausages from skewers at your table. My favorite is picanha, beef steak cut so that, though the texture is tougher than we're used to, the flavor is pure essence of cow.
We finished our stay with a Mass marathon, studying church schedules carefully, then dashing from church to church so we could see their interiors during their limited open hours.
Sao Bento is a baroque festival of a building on a hill overlooking downtown Rio. Except for the homily, the Mass was sung or chanted. The dark interior of the nave is almost entirely gilded carved wood. Figures are in the curlicues: pontiffs looking appropriately pontifical, muscular brunette cherubs.
The Nossa Senhora de Candelaria is a big 19th century church downtown. The decorative medium is stone; stone cherubs pose on each other's shoulders inside the great arches like acrobats. Art nouveau stained glass complements little trees of lighted lamp globes.
The hilltop Nossa Senhora da Gloria do Outeiro, toward Sugarloaf, is the simplest of the three. Built in 1714, it can hold maybe 200 people. Calla lilies grace the carved wood altar; blue and white Portuguese tiles accent some walls. A choir sang forcefully, seeming to shake the walls and wide plank floors of the small church.
Three Masses in one day, so can we sleep in for a few Sundays? No, I don't suppose it's possible to stockpile spiritual points any more than you can ever get enough Rio.
Jerry V. Haines is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va.
If you go
GETTING THERE: Many airlines offer connecting service from Tampa to Rio's Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport.
VISAS: Brazil requires U.S. citizens to obtain a visa before entering the country. The fee is $100, which mirrors the fee the U.S. government charges Brazilians wishing to enter this country. Obtain a visa from the Brazilian consular office in Miami; go to www.brazilmiami.org or call (305) 285-6200 for requirements.
Visas generally are presented the day after application if applied for in person; allow seven business days plus transit time for applications by mail (which cost an additional $10).
Do not apply too far in advance of your trip. You must enter Brazil within 90 days from the date your visa was issued.
STAYING THERE: Copacabana Palace, 1702 Avenida Atlantica; www.copacabanapalace.com.br. Legendary and still luxurious, the Palace has a prime spot on Copacabana Beach. During the high season (Brazilian summer, our winter), listed rates can run about $1,000 per night for a double, but deep discounts are available.
Everest Rio, 1117 Rua Prudente de Morais; www.everest.com.br/. Modern hotel in Ipanema neighborhood but not on the beach. Still, it has great aerial views of the beach and the lagoon from its top floor restaurant (where they mix a dandy caipirinha). Doubles from $180.
Rio Copa, 370 Avenida Princesa Isabel (Copacabana neighborhood); www.riocopa.com/ingles/ rio/index.asp. On a busy street about three blocks off the beach, but the low room rates are a compensation. Clean, comfortable doubles from $66.
INFORMATION: The city of Rio's tourism authority is at www.riodejaneiro-turismo. com.br/pt.