If you want to know why people come to Rio de Janeiro, and came even during its years of bloody, decadent decline, stand on the Arpoador Beach promenade at day’s end. Before you lies an orchestral finale of a sunset: iridescent water, pastel-streaked skies and hazy silhouettes of cliffs to the west. Behind you are swarms of Cariocas, as Rio natives are known: men with phones tucked into the fronts of their bathing suits, swimmers shaking off droplets of water before ordering caipirinhas at an outdoor bar. At the moment when the neon-pink sun slips below the horizon, everyone stops, stands and claps: a nightly salute to city, beach and sky.
This was part of why my 7-year-old daughter and I traveled to Rio in December, to experience urban beauty so intense that even the locals pause to applaud it. Rio may be the most voluptuous city in the world, with soft beaches, dramatic mountains, waterfalls, a rain forest, lagoon and orchids — planted by residents — peeking out of lush old trees lining the streets. Papayas and jackfruit drop from branches all over town, symbols of the city’s overabundant sweetness. The place makes Miami look like Cleveland.
I had another reason as well: I wanted to test out the new, supposedly safer Rio. Until recently, it had been considered a laughably inappropriate destination for a mother-daughter trip, with a highway from the airport that closed sometimes because of drug-related shootouts and warnings to tourists that began with phrases like “to minimize the chance of kidnapping ..." But in the past several years, a strong national economy combined with the double honor of hosting the World Cup (throughout Brazil in 2014) and the Olympics (in Rio in 2016) has prompted the city of 6 million to remake itself. Brazilian authorities have boasted that Rio’s murder rate has plunged to the lowest point in decades, supposedly below those of U.S. cities like Baltimore and St. Louis. Drug gangs have been chased from their former strongholds in the coastal neighborhoods favored by tourists. Travel magazines describe Rio as a place to be, and for children it seemed as if it could be paradisiacal, with bird-size monkeys, sorbets made of mysterious Amazonian fruits and only a few hours of time difference from the East Coast. I booked two tickets.
But once I started reaching out to friends and travel agents who really knew the city, I stiffened with apprehension, worried that Rio’s rehabilitation was more public-relations coup than reality. The bad Rio stories are really quite bad; many involve tourists, and some are uncomfortably recent. You would never know from looking at the alluring website of the Santa Teresa Hotel, one of the loveliest and priciest establishments in the city, for example, that its guests were robbed at gunpoint in 2011. The year before that a drug gang took 30 people hostage at the InterContinental Hotel. I also started to hear anecdotal tales of muggings and pickpocketing from friends, along with warnings about Rio’s still-weak emergency services — i.e., good luck getting an ambulance.
So we flew off with a question: Would it be possible to experience Rio with maximum pleasure and minimal risk?
A few hours after we landed, we were sitting on the beach in the calm, upscale neighborhood of Leblon being schooled by Brazilian-American friends in the art of Rio beachgoing. Americans take a minivan’s worth of gear to the beach; Cariocas take almost nothing, just flip-flops, sunglasses, phone and a soft little wrap called a canga. Vendors rent out chairs and umbrellas and sell everything else you could possibly need, from cheese grilled on portable hot coals to bikini tops, which they twirl from umbrella-topped rods like tropical maypoles.
As the buffet of options passed by, we did everything our friends Christina and Sundeep told us to do: Try this fresh litchi, have some coconut water served in a green shell, look at that 70-year-old guy jogging in the 90-degree heat. Leblon is at the western edge of the city’s famous double crescent of beaches, quieter and with pricier real estate than Ipanema and Copacabana to the east. Each stretch of beach is a small world unto itself and our hosts pointed to spots for stoners, gay men and other crowds.
The beach at Leblon certainly seemed secure that afternoon, with the only commotion coming from children — now including my daughter — shouting as they hopped around in shallow waves. Yet even here, I was warned to be on guard: Never wear jewelry, and carry only a day’s worth of cash. My jumpy will-we-be-safe feeling returned.
Here’s a travel cliche that comes to life in Rio even more than in many of the world’s other great cities: Spend as much time as possible with people who really know the place. Email your sister’s college roommate who lived there five years ago, or your colleague whose cousin lives in Copacabana. See what Facebook and Twitter can do for you. And if all else fails, hire a private guide or two, as we did. I’ve navigated plenty of foreign cities before with only some advance research, a guidebook and a map. But Rio is different, with relatively few English speakers, a language that cannot be faked and a reputation for street crime that makes you reluctant to linger on a corner squinting at a map.
Hot and confusing
When my daughter and I struck out on our own, we often found the city hot and confusing, with little air-conditioning to be found (even in pricey restaurants) and service that could best be described as languid. One afternoon we set out to explore Ipanema, the beachside neighborhood of the famous song, figuring we’d wander through its markets and shops, maybe buy some flip-flops and get lunch. Nope: We stood at the front of restaurants whose maitre d’s never came to seat us, jammed my ATM card into a series of machines that didn’t work and finally retreated back to the hotel pool in defeat.
But every time we were with members of our loose new network of Carioca friends, a far friendlier metropolis emerged, with rooftop hide-outs and delicacies we would not have known to order. Which is how we ended up the next day at Clube dos Caicaras, a private swim club on the lagoon, or lagoa, nestled just inland of the Leblon beach. The temperature had hit an unspeakable 109 degrees (usually Rio tops out in the 90s in summer), and Christina’s friend Claudia had taken pity on us, inviting us to her club for refuge.
To get there, we were ferried across a small channel to a verdant floating enclave with tennis courts, swimming pools and views of Rio’s famous Christ statue. Claudia, a petite, thoughtful handbag designer, ordered me a caipirinha, and as we moved to the pool, I realized we were enjoying the ultimate Rio luxury: the ability to leave our bags carelessly on chairs without worrying about theft, an irresponsible act elsewhere in the city.
When we left the club, my daughter asked me what the word “exclusive" meant. It is hard to be in Rio these days and not think about money and class, in part because everyone sits around and talks about the soaring prices: the equivalent of $20 for cocktails, $40 for entrees and $80 for children’s bathing suits. You can still travel there without paying absurd prices — we stayed at two lovely hotels during the December holidays for less than $250 a night, and my daughter ate lots of cheese pastries for about a dollar a pop.
But Rio has become a city where people talk without irony about how cheap the apartments are in New York. And although the economic boom that lifted Rio also lowered poverty and expanded the country’s middle class, the gap between Brazil’s new ultrarich and its perpetual poor is impossible not to feel. The rooftop pool at the Philippe Starck-designed Fasano hotel, where rooms go for $750 and more per night, overlooks the democratic panorama of Arpoador Beach on one side, and on the other a favela, or urban shantytown, setting up a scene in which plutocrats relax while gazing at the homes of laborers.
Halfway through the week we switched hotels, from the Promenade Palladium, a tidy and comfortable hotel in Leblon that had only been available for the first few days, to the Gavea Tropical, a small house-turned-inn in the leafy green hills above the city. The neighborhood of Gavea looks like Beverly Hills but is sandwiched among favelas, and the hotel is home to a small population of friendly monkeys who munch on bananas that guests feed them. That was it for a certain 7-year-old. She could have spent the rest of the vacation right there, beckoning to her new friends. From the hammock on our balcony looking over a dusky blue and green panorama, the rest of the city seemed at a safe and manageable remove.
In our wanderings, we could see how hard Rio was trying to make itself ready for visitors, with construction projects and cleaning crews roaming around in orange jumpsuits. Newness was everywhere: a new subway stop under construction in Leblon, new umbrellas on the beach, new rapid-transit bus stations.
But at moments I felt we were in a city that had not fully capitalized on its own vast potential. I had wanted to teach my daughter about Carnival, which would be taking over the city in two months, but aside from the empty concrete viewing stands near downtown and a dusty shop where she tried on a costume, it was hard to find a toehold. Where were the samba workshops with dance teachers and best-of-all-time Carnival performances on an IMAX screen? (Rio does have a Samba Museum, it turns out, but it’s obscure enough that we didn’t hear about it until we returned home. And tourists can attend rehearsals for the samba schools that compete at Carnival, but the events only get cooking at midnight, in far-off neighborhoods, many of them favelas.)
I asked the tour guide who was taking us around the city that day why Rio didn’t do more to showcase its cultural treasures. He rolled his eyes. “Brazilians do the minimum, they don’t invest," he said, a sentiment I heard a few times during our weeklong stay.
Worth the trip
On the final day of our trip, I set out to visit the favela of Rocinha, just next door to Gavea. I ended up leaving my daughter with new friends for a few hours; security concerns aside, a sociology lesson that lasts hours in the broiling heat seemed a bit much to ask of a 7-year old.
That was probably the right decision, but I’m sorry she missed Rocinha, a bustling, byzantine world of shops, patchwork houses and do-it-yourself electrical systems, crisscrossed by alleyways with the smallest stores imaginable, some just vitrines carved into notches in a wall. My guide — another friend of a friend — was Leandro Lima, a walking personification of how Rocinha was changing. The son of an electronics repairman, he was slowly working his way through journalism school and had started a community news website, faveladarocinha.com.
As we walked up the hillside, motorbike taxis whipping past, he showed us the neighborhood’s new banks and florist, the still-spotty trash collection, posters of smiling light-skinned politicians embellished with spray-painted gang tags, a gleaming new government-built library, and even some ever-present Rio joggers happily bouncing past. As we got to the top, sensational views peeked out from between trash heaps and knots of overhead wires: Corcovado in one direction, the ocean in another, with hang gliders looking like small, colorful insects suspended in the distant air.
We talked about the shifts in the favelas, welcome and unwelcome — the B&Bs that were opening, the houses that had been marked for pre-Olympics demolition with residents given little say. For visitors who want to explore favelas, Leandro had some advice: Go with a local guide, and while jeep tours are fine in other parts of the city, skip them in favelas, where residents find them insensitive. “The jeeps are almost like a safari, taking photos out of the window," he said.
From a security point of view, the visit to Rocinha seemed like a nonevent, a sunlit walk through a busy neighborhood with police officers posted every few hundred yards. Around the same time, a friend sent news that a mass robbery had taken place on Leblon Beach just 24 hours after we’d been there. A gang of thieves had surrounded beachgoers, taken their belongings and run off before the police could get them. So which was the unsafe neighborhood, Leblon or the far poorer Rocinha?
We flew home that night, our Rio experiment at an end. There was no way the city had lived up to the here-come-the-Olympics, everything-is-awesome-now hype I had seen in some travel magazines. Still, Rio was easily the most visually dazzling city I had ever seen. We’d gotten acquainted with one of the world’s only other great multiracial democracies, experienced strange and wonderful new fruits, fed those monkeys, tried our tongues at Portuguese and bought fabulous sandals. And we were fine. I hope my daughter had learned the beginnings of an important travel lesson: Just because a place is not perfect doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the trip.