What you see is what you get. Few famous places live up to expectations but Copacanana and Ipanema do. Alright, I didn’t visit during the winter … but I’ve been there several times and the two famous bairros never disappointed me.
This is what the famed picture-postcard Copacabana beach delivers: a long and wide stretch of sand, a swimmable beach with waves, a long, paved avenue along the beach—stroller-pushing rating: A+—divided into segments delineated by postos, or lifeguard towers. Walking the entire Avenida Atlântica at a leisurely pace takes about an hour and a half, a bit longer if you stop at one of the quiosques to buy a drink—enjoying it will take time, and so does the ordering process, even if you just need a can from the fridge. Feel free to walk on the pavement in your swimsuit even if it covers next to nothing—everybody parades half-naked—and if you forgot your Havaianas sandals, just buy a pair from the store on the avenue.
At the end of the beach, there is the Forte de Copacabana. You can keep on walking on Avenida Atlântica, which will become Rua Francisco Otaviano, then Avenida Vieira Souto—you made it, you are now in Ipanema. Same amazing scenery, drinks slightly more expensive. See the statue of the dude right there? No, that’s fine, he won’t steal your wallet, don’t call the police, it’s Ipanema, I said. This is Tom Jobim who wrote the song “Garota de Ipanema” (“The Girl from Ipanema”)—now it’s stuck in your head, don’t thank me. Ipanema delivers the same awesome beach experience as Copacabana with a few minor differences. The beach is shorter, bordered at the far western end by the Dois Irmãos mountains, but cleaner. Sunsets are amazing and so is the light at dusk. The neighbourhood is more affluent and there is more police patrolling.
This is the miscellaneous FYI info that won’t be on the postcard’s caption. Both Copacabana and Ipanema are designed for beach bums and convenience. Along the promenades and on the beach there are lifeguards, free showers, exercise equipment, paid showers and toilets hidden underground (going rate is 2.5 reais and yes, they are clean but it feels like 50º C down there), maps, interactive screens, small quiosques serving elaborate foods (don’t get fooled by their size, the kitchen is hidden underground). Don’t look for Avenida Copacabana by the beach—it’s the other one, one block from the beach, parallel to Avenida Atlântica. Copacabana and Ipanema are probably the safest places to be in Rio de Janeiro. There are almost no businesses on the city side of Avenida Atlântica, the commercial street is one block up.
This is how you may feel in Copacanaba and Ipanema. Sweaty, because it’s freaking hot and humid in Rio in the summer. Horny, because there is a constant parade of girls in bikinis and ripped guys. Self-conscious, because you aren’t as tanned, waxed and fit. Amazed by the scenery.
And this is what travel guides won’t tell you. Copacabana and Ipanema are small, stiflingly humid and crowded neighbourhoods. It’s crazy how much residential space in packed in this tiny pocket of land between the mountains and the beach—the population density is 20,400 people per km². The beach side I described above is open and breezy but there are only two main avenues parallel to the beach—Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana and Rua Barata Ribeiro. Then it’s the mountains, the tunnels. The atmosphere feels slightly oppressing. Or maybe it’s just me, maybe it’s just the guilt of knowing that right there, a few blocks from the polished and posh streets are the favelas, on the hills, looming behind you. You feel stuck in Copabanana. You walk back and forth like a rat in a cage. Traffic is awful and it takes forever for pedestrian lights to turn green. Running across the street is tempting but it’s not a great option if you value your life, as cars and buses will not slow down. There are close to 100 hotels competing for their share of tourist money, while middle-class residents walk around blasé, a slightly puzzled look on their face as if they couldn’t believe the world comes over to stay in their backyard.
I love for beaches. The neighbourhoods … not so much, after all.