Brazil, a rich mix of culture and natural beauty
It was a dream come true for me, longing to visit Brazil – one of the most diverse countries on earth and home to the beautiful Amazon rainforest and Iguazu Falls. After a long exhausting flight, we reached Rio De Janeiro airport early in the morning and immediately departed for Copacabana.
With its white sand beaches, towering mountains, and scenic waterfront, it’s no wonder Rio de Janeiro is known as the “Marvelous City.” Facing the South Atlantic coast, Rio de Janeiro is one of the most visited cities in the Southern Hemisphere and boasts one of the most beautiful natural settings – beaches like Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon.
We spent the very first evening in downtown Rio, more specifically in the Lapa district, known for its lively nightlife. Most of the architecture dates back to the 1800s, providing a picturesque backdrop. We savored the Brazilian coffee and just soaked up the vibe at one of the many sidewalk cafes.
One afternoon we drove through the beautiful Tijuca National Park – one of the largest urban forests in the world with a large area of mostly mountainous forest landscape, and also spent time at Parque Lage, a beautiful park at the foot of of Mount Corcovado. Surrounded by tropical forests, it has walking paths and gardens rich in sculptures.
We then took a glass-sided cable car ride from a ground station at the base of Morro da Babilônia, to reach Morro da Urca and from there to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain. Rising above the mouth of Guanabara Bay, Sugar Loaf Mountain is a monolith of quartz and granite. The name “Sugarloaf” was coined in the 16th century by the Portuguese during the height of the sugarcane trade in Brazil. According to historians, blocks of sugar were placed in conical clay molds to be transported on ships. The shape of these molds was similar to the woodpecker, hence the name.
From there we took a second cable car to the top of Corcovado mountain and finally enjoyed a lift to reach the giant “Christ the Redeemer” statue. A symbol of Christianity around the world, the statue has also become a cultural icon of Rio de Janeiro and Brazil. We were impressed to see the giant statue with outstretched arms, which has also been named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The statue is considered the world’s largest of its kind. Rio’s most panoramic views can best be enjoyed from the top. Simply stunning!
Rio is famous for its inviting beaches lapped in the azure waters of the Atlantic. We found time to explore a few and stayed in Copacabana. Visitors indulge in the sun, sea and various beach sports, especially soccer and volleyball, while vendors sell their wares of fruit, drinks and snacks at the kiosks that line the beach . The walk along the white sand beach is pleasant. There are also many tightly packed multi-storey hotels and apartments along the beach, and the food, like the delicious fried sea fish and chips we had at a roadside kiosk. The makeshift night market along Copacobana Beach, which stays open until the early hours with vendors selling all types of boutique items, crafts, art, toys and food, was particularly interesting.
Nearby is Ipanema Beach, one of Rio’s most popular tourist spots. With its long stretch of soft white sand and rolling waves, Ipanema consistently tops the list of best beaches in the world every year. The beach is lined by a parade of shops, cafes and restaurants as well as an array of art galleries, theaters and clubs. To boost our energy, a cup of hot Brazilian coffee was enough. Nearby Barra da Tijuca Beach, Rio’s longest, has clean white sand and tends to attract active beachgoers, and many surfers have been spotted here.
We did a city tour one day and came across some fascinating places of interest. We first visited the Carioca Aqueduct, built in the mid-18th century to supply Rio de Janeiro with fresh drinking water from the Carioca River. One of the characteristics of the aqueduct was a segment composed of two floors of huge arches, the top of which carried a tram that connected the city center to the district of Santa Teresa. Currently, the arches are a popular meeting place for locals, especially at night when the neighborhood comes alive with street vendors, music and dancing.
We then moved to Maracanã Stadium, one of Rio’s most important landmarks and currently the largest stadium in South America. Football is by far the most important sport in Brazil and Pelé and Brazil are two sides of the same coin. Being a die-hard fan of Brazilian football myself, we were understandably very happy to have visited one of the biggest football stadiums in the world. Next on our list was the Sambadrome, a permanent parade avenue lined with grandstands that is used during the famous annual Brazilian Carnival. However, as it was not the carnival period, we had to content ourselves with crossing the deserted avenue.
As night fell, we visited San Sebastian Cathedral in Rio de Janeiro, seat of the Metropolitan Archbishops of Rio. An architectural marvel, it was designed on the basis of the Mayan pyramids. The four rectilinear stained glass windows of the cathedral soar from floor to ceiling in a conical shape to symbolize the equidistance and proximity of men to God.
Rio is famous for its innovative and creative street art and the whole city looks like an art gallery.
Street art is very popular and the city fathers used every wall to portray the history, culture and way of life through a brilliant display of colors.
The big bird then transported us to Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest and most populous city in the southern hemisphere. The city is a mega cosmopolitan attracting immigrants from all over the world. The influence of Portuguese, Spanish, German, Jewish, Arab and Japanese residents on its life and culture is visible. Historically attractive to immigrants, it is one of the most diverse cities in the world. The local population is much larger than residents of European countries, and for us it felt more European. From the 16th to the early 19th century, Brazil was a colony and part of the Portuguese Empire, and Portuguese remained the national language along with Latin. São Paulo also has one of the largest concentrations of street art murals in the world, thanks to an innovative group of dedicated artists who continue to refine the art.
We stayed at Avenida Paulista – one of São Paulo’s most popular postcard features. It is one of the biggest business centers and probably the biggest cultural area in the city. Its architectural contrast reflects the fact that the avenue lies between the “old” and “new” parts of the city. The avenue and its surroundings, such as Rua Augusta, Alameda Santos and Rua Oscar Freire, contain many shops, art galleries, cinema, pubs, hotels, cafes, bookstores, gourmet restaurants and museums, including the Museum of Art of Sao Paulo (MASP). It was a pleasure to take a leisurely evening stroll to the nearby Parque Trianon, which offers a leafy oasis right in the city center.
The São Paulo Museum of Art, known locally as MASP, has the most representative and comprehensive collection of Western art in Latin America. It is one of the first art museums on the continent to focus on artists from the mid-20th century and later, as well as contemporary artists in Brazil. The building itself is an architectural gem.
A whole day was spent in Ibirapuera Park, the largest park in the city and a huge urban green space. With its monuments, museums, playgrounds, gardens, trails, lakes and performance spaces, it is a leisure paradise, as well as a showcase of modern architecture and culture. It includes several museums, including the Museu Afro-Brasil and the Modern Art Museum. The entrance to the park is marked by a huge sculpture called Monumento as Bandeiras (The Monument to the Flags), which commemorates the multi-ethnic pioneers who opened Brazil. An impressive obelisk nearby commemorates those who died in 1932 fighting for a new constitution.
Sao Paulo is a city of architectural marvels. Among them is the domed Oca, one of many buildings that make up an interesting architectural complex in Ibirapuera Park. Designed by one of the most famous architects of the 20th century, Oscar Niemeyer, the building houses exhibitions on three floors. Auditório Ibirapuera, the ultra-modern music hall is considered one of the best concert halls in São Paulo. A capital, executed in red painted metal, covers the main access and gives the building an identity, characterizing it and differentiating it from the other buildings.
In the Ipiranga neighborhood of São Paulo is the popular Independence Park. Overlooking formal gardens of roses, topiary and fountains is the Museu Paulista. Inside are large collections of costumes, decorative arts, paintings and furniture from the Imperial period.
One fine morning, we jump to the Igreja Nossa Senhora Do Brasil. This unique baroque-style church is dedicated to Our Lady of Brazil. The church design takes inspiration from aspects of other amazing churches and brings them together in one design. Its ceramic panels resemble St Basil in Moscow; its towers resemble Muslim minarets; the interior is reminiscent of the churches of Portugal, while the ceiling is covered with reproductions of paintings from the Sistine Chapel.
Our next station was the Mesquita Brasil, a mosque located in Cambuci, a district of the city of São Paulo. It is the oldest mosque in Brazil and one of the oldest mosques in South America. Unfortunately, the doors were found closed, and we were told that the mosque only remained open during prayer times. We had to settle for a sumptuous lunch in the surroundings of the mosque with fried fish, prawns, mixed vegetables with mushrooms, fried chicken and lentils.
Brazil has amazed us with its cultural richness and natural beauty, and the memories will remain etched forever.
Photo: Dr. Shamim Ahmed