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Rio’s Other Beaches

by Alan Ryan

Let’s say you’re in Rio de Janeiro. Of course, you’re staying at the beach, in Copacabana or Ipanema.
     And let’s say that you’ve seen the sights, admired the beautiful men and woman, sunbathed on the beach in front of the Casesar Park Hotel, bought gemstones at H. Stern and “dental floss” swimsuits at Bum-Bum.
     You’ve eaten the national dish at Casa da Feijoada, stuffed yourself at Churrascaria Porcão, and lounged at the cafes of Ipanema afternoon, evening, and night.
     Now it’s time to escape, just for a day, from what poet and lyricist Vinícius de Moraes called Rio’s “adorable disorganization.”
     Here’s a leisurely and beautiful one-day trip out of the city (though you’ll still be within the large municipality of Rio) and one of the few good reasons to rent a car in this car-crazed city.
     Does it make sense to leave the city’s famous beaches to explore other beaches? In Rio, it does!

Getting away
In Ipanema, drive west along the beach on Avenida Vieira Souto, which becomes Av. Delfim Moreira in the next beach area, Leblon. The twin granite peaks you see ahead are Dois Irmãos (“the two brothers”) and the flat-topped mountain is Gávea.
     Follow signs for the Sheraton Hotel, Av. Niemeyer, and Praia (“beach”) Vidigal. The Sheraton is Rio’s only hotel actually on the beach, but the beach itself, like all others, is open to the public. Past the Sheraton, the driver should pay close attention to the narrow, twisting, climbing road. Passengers may stare at the view.

São Conrado
After some local color and broad seascapes, the next development area is São Conado, a world of high-rise and pricey apartment complexes. Rising above it is Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela, or shantytown. From the heights of Rocinha, hang-gliders take to the air currents, float above the expensive real estate, and then glide onto the sand at Praia Pepino at the far end of São Conrado. You’ll see them.

Barra Da Tijuca
After São Conrado, Av. Niemeyer joins the coastal highway. You’ll speed through two tunnels beneath Gávea, then come around the mountain to see spread out before you the immense suburban sprawl of Barra da Tijuca (named for the Tijuca forest, which is nowhere in sight). This area, recently developed, is a world of shopping malls, housing developments, and franchise restaurants.
     Get off the highway and head to your left, over Av. Sernambetiba, which runs right along the beaches for about 12 kilometers. Stop at any of the countless food stands along the beach for a coco verde or maybe some shrimp.
     The far end of this long straight stretch, another 2 kilometers, now called Estrada do Pontal, is Recreio dos Bandeirantes (which means something like “Pioneers’ Playground”). The residential area of Recredio is inland but the beach area is mostly undeveloped: an endless expanse of sugary white sand shining in the sun. And more opportunities for a cool coco verde.

Prainha
After Recreio, the road becomes Estado da Guanabara. At the end of the beach, it climbs high and curves around a rocky projection. At the highest and farthest point of the curve, there’s a scenic viewpoint with plenty of room to park. You’ll see the spot just as you glimpse ahead and below a short beach with very rough surf and another high headland beyond.
     This beach is Prainha (“little beach”). The long rolling waves make it a favorite for surfing. There’s a good chance you’ll see a TV crew filming scenes for a telenovela here. The breaking waves, the beautiful beach, the green hills all around, and the lack of crowds make it a natural.
     When you’ve driven past the beach itself, as the road climbs up again, you’ll come to a pretty hillside restaurant on your left. It’s inexpensive, informal, outdoors, and has a beautiful view of the hills, beach, and ocean. Sit beneath a red umbrella or a lime tree on the breezy terrace. Eat. Drink.

Grumari
Keep driving on the coastal road. The next beach you come to is Grumari, a long curving stretch of slightly reddish sand. There are services available and plenty of shade from the trees that line the beach. Wooded hills in the background make it especially pretty.
Grumari is used by local people for family outings. It’s very relaxed and a good place to spend a couple of hours in the late afternoon.

Dinner with a view
If you continue a little past the beach at Grumari, you’ll come to a point where Av. Estado da Guanabara turns upward and becomes Estrada do Grumari. Uphill at Estrada do Grumari, 710, you’ll find Restaurante Pont de Grumari (tel.: 021.410.1434).
     Prices are moderate, the menu varied (with excellent fish), the terrace casual and pretty, and the view — hills to your right, flatlands before you, and the sandy peninsula of Restinga de Marambaia stretching into the ocean — is spectacular. They’re open every day from 11:30 to 7:00 (i.e., just after nightfall), and take most credit cards.
     There’s live music on the terrace every afternoon. Lulled by Brazilian sun and song, you won’t want to leave.

Words to the wise
Winter or summer, this is a trip to make on a weekday. Local people have to battle weekend traffic, but you don’t.
     On a weekday, it will take perhaps 60–90 minutes to drive more or less directly between Ipanema and Grumari.
     By the time you get to Prainha and Grumari, you’ll probably be the only tourists. If you don’t speak Portuguese, bring a phrasebook and a smile. And expect people to be friendly and curious.
     Note that all of these beaches can have very rough surf, sometimes deceptively so.
     And be careful of the sun. At this latitude, you’ll be baked before you know it.
     Most maps of Rio do not stretch this far along the coast. Buy the book of Rio street maps and bus routes published by Quatro Rodas, about $12.00 at all bookstores and most newsstands.

Alan Ryan received the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award for The Reader’s Companion to Mexico. He writes widely on international literature, music, and culture for USA Today, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Washington Post, among other publications. He lives in New York City.

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