At Copacabana

Rio de Janeiro boasts the most famous beach in the world. From dangerous muggers to skimpy ball hangers, the title was hard won.

Published March 25, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Friday, noon. Two things hit me the moment I approach the most famous beach in the world:

1. Every woman I see looks naked. Completely naked. It's an optical illusion of sorts because I am wearing my nonprescription sunglasses and squinting from 40 yards away at a dozen female forms that line the point where sand meets surf. Turns out, as I edge closer, that said females are showing off -- though "showing" seems a wildly misleading verb -- the famous Brazilian bikini. You know, the bikini you see on all those outri Rio postcards. The bikini that has crept its way onto the cover of almost every men's "general interest" magazine in America. The bikini that shows everything without quite showing everything: sliver of a thong downstairs, spaghetti straps upstairs -- vermicelli, really -- anchored by a pair of nipple badges.

2. With the exception of the beach vendors touting their biscuits and beer, I am the only man in sight wearing a T-shirt. The clothing of choice favored by the men is, well, let's just say this is ball-hanger country.

Welcome to Copacabana, the mother of all beaches. The Cote d'Azur has its sophistication (plus a recent outbreak of jellyfish); Anguilla, its incomparable white, powdered sand; the Hamptons, its conspicuous consumption; Santa Monica, Calif., its silicone. But Rio de Janeiro's fabled stretch of seaside is in a class of its own, not least because of its fairy-tale topography: a two-and-a-half-mile golden crescent, buffered by a backdrop of priapic green mountains.

What made Copacabana the epicenter of Rio's razzmatazz, however, was the spectacular public relations hoopla launched by the Copacabana Palace when it opened in 1923. The Copa was South America's first luxury hotel and, to this day, remains its glitziest. Located slap-bang in the middle of Avenida Atlantica, the oceanfront road that runs the beach's entire stretch, it's the kind of hotel that likes to measure out its greatness in boldface names -- a calculated campaign that in its heyday attracted Walt Disney, Noel Coward, Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich.

The Copa, people still insist, is where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers first danced together for the shooting of "Flying Down to Rio." Truth is, the whole film was shot on the set of RKO Studios and Malibu Beach. No matter. By the '40s, Hollywood was dancing to the tune of "Brazilian bombshell" Carmen Miranda, whose cartoonishly fruity turbans managed to permanently cement the fantasy of Rio as the capital of the exotic tropics -- despite the fact that her compatriots considered her a gringo sellout.

3:15 p.m. A lean black man sits perched atop a set of lifeguard steps. He holds just the right earnestness in his gaze to suggest he knows how to do his job. He is also flanked by two attractive young women.

"Excuse me, do you speak English?"

Quizzical looks from the women. The man, though, lights up with a smile and starts chatting away in what is possibly English, though his accent borders on the unintelligible. His name is Michael and he is not a lifeguard at all. He is, astonishingly, an English teacher.

"I don't like the beach, no," he says when I ask him what he likes about Copacabana. "I come to keep the ladies company. I don't need no sun, no. Sun is not for me. No thank you." To complete his dedication to ironic lifestyle choices, Michael tells me he has a nice little pad right on Avenida Atlantica, directly overlooking the beach.

Michael would have been right at home here around the turn of the century. When Rio's first tunnel opened in 1892, cutting through the mountains and opening up the coastline to the rest of the city, the rich barely showed any interest in the beach as a form of pleasure. The only reason they came in the first place was to escape the endless epidemics that then plagued Rio.

The first oceanfront houses were actually built to face away from the beach. Swimming in the sea was considered to be a strictly therapeutic activity, not a pleasurable one. And as for sunbathing -- who wanted to cultivate dark skin, just like all the poor people? But here's my favorite part: Mayor Cavalcanti thought bathing in the sea was so diclassi that in 1917 he outlawed it beyond the hours of early morning and dusk. Failure to refrain from "any noise or shouting on the beach or in the sea," or to comply with the modest-dress stipulations, and you'd be looking at five days in the slammer.

Even as I write this, I still cannot begin to fathom how the de facto raciest metropolis on the planet gravitated (or degenerated) from woolen jackets and shawls -- which is what the Euro-posturing elite would wear in the height of summer -- to ball hangers and nipple badges.

5:20 p.m. Across from the Meridian Hotel a group of high school types stands under a four-head shower station, provided for a small fee by a one-man pump-and-bucket operation. One of the boys wears a permanently cheeky grin, as if he were pulling one over on the whole world. His name is Charlie, a 20-year-old from Holland.

"I come here every day at 12," says Charlie, who is something of a "Trustafarian" playboy. He doesn't work. Just travels between Rio, Miami and Cuba -- places that are hardly known for their dearth of beautiful people. Or hookers.

"I was with her," Charlie says, nodding to a girl who smiles back at him in a baseball cap. "And that one there," he says, picking off another bronzed teen. "I was with her two days ago." Without prodding, he adds, "She's a prostitute. But I don't pay; they come to me."

"So then, they're not prostitutes, really?"

"Yes, they are. They charge you $50. All the men, they pay. But not me, I never pay."

You know the way Manhattanites bang on about Central Park's being the city's backyard? Mother Nature's oasis for all the nuts jammed together on one tiny island? Fugeddaboudit! Copacabana -- one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the world -- is everybody's backyard and then some. It is, as John Steinbeck said of New York, "all of everything." It is all places, all people, all things. Young and old. Black and white. Rich and poor. Love and death. Night and day.

For the vast majority of health-conscious Cariocas -- Rio's natives -- it's the gym. For the countless kids who dream of becoming the next Ronaldo, it's the soccer field. For the old-timers dealing blackjack all day long, it's the casino. For the cruisers, it's the pickup joint. For the kids who fly on the 60-foot bungee swing, it's the playground. For the samba kings and queens, it's the nightclub. For the big families who come with their big grills to cook their big feasts, it's the dining room. For the down-at-the-heels teenage couple, it's the date (and the bedroom). For the man who sculpts the 5-foot sand sphinx, it's the gallery. For the down and dirty, it's the bathroom. For the early-morning evangelists, it's the church. For the hookers, it's the office. For the tourists, it's paradise. For the gangsters, it's paradise. And for the fishermen, it's life.

7:55 p.m. The sun's gone down now over Copacabana. Along the water's edge at Posto Three -- the beach's central strip -- I notice a row of nine or 10 fishing rods poking out of the sand. Slumped in a low picnic chair, commandeering one of the rods, is George, who literally jumps to his feet as I introduce myself.

"I love England," he says, hands shaking jubilantly above his head. "It is best country."

"When were you there?" I ask.

"I never been there," he admits. Then he shoots me a smile and starts reeling off -- as Brazilian men invariably do upon learning that you're English -- a litany of random English soccer teams. "Liverpool! Manchester United! Queens Park Rangers!"

George tells me he's a Carioca, that he's a lawyer, that his wife hates fish. Then he casually mentions that he has been fishing here, in the same spot, every weekend for the past 40 years. Which adds a little something to the charm of Copacabana and its myriad possibilities when his friend comes over with a dazzling zebra-striped fish.

"What's this one called?"

George looks at me and shrugs. I assume it's because he knows the name only in Portuguese. But no. In all the 2,000-plus evenings he has set up his rod and tackle on Copacabana, George says, he has never seen such a fish. He has seen other things, though, things less salubrious than the poetic solitude that comes with staring out into the Atlantic void, as is usually his custom from late afternoon to late evening.

"Don't walk here at night," he warns. "Walk by the road. They come here with knives and guns, and they put it like this and take your money." He clocks his forefinger and thumb squarely to forehead, then adds, "I've seen them."

"Who? They mugged you?"

"No, not me," he says, as if the answer were blindingly obvious. "I am a fisherman."

By the '60s, Brazil had fallen into the hands of a military dictatorship. The capital had been transferred from Rio to the original set of Woody Allen's "Sleeper" -- also known as Brasmlia. Gambling was gone, the Copa's celebrated casino a distant memory. Rio's shantytowns, or favelas, were on their way to housing one-third of the city's population. The most promising growth industries were prostitution and street crime.

And it just got worse. Never mind the fact that parts of Rio had become notorious no-go zones. Alice Cooper and friends had managed to demolish four suites at the Copacabana Palace, smashing up windows and showering the pool with broken glass. Wearing its rough-around-the-edges smile like a battered old whore still trying to glam it up for the boys, Rio had become the kind of town one suspects Tom Waits would approve of.

12:45 a.m. I'm slurping down my second acerola -- a marvelous local berry juice revved up with vitamin C -- outside Help, Rio's sleaziest of sleaze clubs. According to my "Lonely Planet," it's the biggest "disco" in South America and, at least from the street side, the most well "serviced." The hookers who click-clack their high heels across the crazy mosaic sidewalk, however, serve more as a deterrent than an enticement to be escorted inside. To wit: latex skirts stretched impossibly tight across blubbery thighs like a second skin. As for first skin -- and there is simply no kind way of saying this -- you'd be forgiven for thinking this was an appeal for Acne Awareness Day.

Across the road, on the paved island intersecting the two traffic lanes, the market vendors are packing up for the night. I forgo my last chance to snag overpriced crucifixes, crappy jewelry, erotic paintings or tie-dye shorts and wander down to the water instead. The entire beach is floodlighted -- as it has been every night for years -- in a blazing white moonscape. In the summertime (our winter), Copacabana burns all night with what Cariocas call lual ("party under the moon"). The lual on Dec. 31 was probably the biggest party on earth. But right now, I am on my own, seeking a more mundane mission: I need a wee.

As I attend to my toilet, I notice several random pissers fanned out across the sand. Don't people have any respect around here? I zip up and turn back toward the road. Twenty yards in front of me, shadowed by a dune, is a young couple making love. And in that moment -- of seeing them and them seeing me -- there's a complicit understanding of having shared one another's secrets of the night. Of having been co-conspirators in the dark. Or at least, that's what I'd like to think. Truth be told, I don't think they even noticed me.

My favorite Portuguese word -- virtually the lexicographical copyright of Cariocas -- is otario. I'm introduced to otario by Bob, a British painter who helped make the models for Stanley Kubrick's "2001" straight out of college before winding up in Rio. Shortly after his arrival here in 1972, he found a wallet, which he handed in to the police. His friends called him "otario," which he took as a compliment. "I just thought it meant 'honest person,'" Bob tells me over lunch. "It wasn't till a couple of years later that I found out it actually meant 'stupid fucker.'"

Crime in Rio, I'm told, had been cleaned up in recent years, despite
the fact its homicide rate remains six times higher the New York's. The Copacabana Palace is bustling again, following a $40 million
paint lick (and a three-month bill signed by Ricky Martin). And during my four-day visit -- which includes a transcendently riotous outing to the Maracana, the world's biggest stadium, to witness the world's biggest soccer team -- I see nothing in the way of theft or violence. Yet Copacabana has not, thankfully, whitewashed its fading glory.

3:10 a.m. I'm polishing off my first-ever steak and pineapple sandwich at Cervantes, a tiny hole-in-the-wall joint that somehow transcends its armpit status via a) its surly waiters, b) its late-night buzz and c) its exotically trashy locale (three blocks from the beach, along the main artery of sex clubs). Did I mention Cervantes also makes the most delicious sandwiches you've ever tasted?

On my way back to Hotel Rio Atlantica, I pass the Copa, which has been tarted up not just by extensive renovations but by a burgeoning transsexual-prostitute scene across from its entrance. The beachside kiosk here has been affectionately renamed the "gayosk" and is a frequent nexus for spontaneous parties. But as the giant weather clock tells me, the temperature has now dipped to the low 60s -- too chilly for most Cariocas -- and only a few trannies are still circling the gayosk. In fact, save for a lone game of soccer, the beach has slipped into a rare sedation. Or so it seems.

As I near the hotel, I hear an explosion of beating of drums. It's the kind of scene you pray for, having pitched your editor a piece on Copacabana's 24-7 lifestyle: a group of ecstatic party kings and queens driving a samba deep into the night. The setting might suggest that they are street musicians, but that would be misleading, because they are drumming, strumming, singing and dancing for themselves and for the love of music.

There's also a sense of historical correctness to the whole thing. Bossa nova may have reached its commercial apogee one beach over, via "The Girl From Ipanema," but it was born in the back streets of Copacabana. You can feel the electricity in the air -- literally, from the beaming floodlights. Yet what makes the sound even sweeter -- what makes this music for the soul to any self-respecting journalist -- is the fact that it's completely free.

While some of the city's elite still tend to think of Copacabana as the South American outpost of the Riviera, most locals are anything but French in their relationship to foreigners. English isn't even a second language for many Cariocas -- even young, educated Brazilians. And yet they will always persist in trying to understand and to be understood, even when the shared exchange of meaning per conversation peaks at 5 percent. There's nothing beguiling, nothing inscrutable, about their openness. You can see it even in the way they sunbathe: no parasol, no hat, no sunglasses and -- the surefire way of distinguishing Cariocas from tourists -- no frowning. Exposed to the elements, open to all outside forces.

Astonishingly, my straight-off-the-boat "oi" ("hi") pulls conversational milestones. Oi gets me in on a game of footvolei -- a '90s bastard child of soccer and volleyball, conceived in Copacabana and played with every part of the body but the arms. Oi gets me a playful lesson with a bunch of teenage boys in the basics of capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art-cum-dance. Best of all, oi gets me welcomed by several young, beautiful women in bikinis who are only too happy to practice their appalling English.

9:30 a.m. A dozen young men playing soccer -- nothing strange about that. In fact, it looks like the literally hundreds of soccer matches played up and down Copacabana every day. It looks magnificent. The only difference here is the veneer of professionalism to the game: proper goal posts in place of scrunched-up shirts, blue tank tops worn by one side to differentiate it from the other, a coach screaming for what in my nonexistent Portuguese I understand to be the requisite "110 percent commitment to the ball."

But the professionalism, it becomes clear, is no veneer. The coach, who speaks perfect English, tells me who I'm watching: the national beach team of Brazil.

"But this isn't the actual team, is it?" I ask, assuming I've misunderstood him.

"Yes. We're training for next week's game against Spain."

Our venerable coach, Marco, tells me how five years ago he helped found the International Beach Soccer League, a federation of teams that plays barefoot in the sand. My first thought is this: He can't be serious. But it's an uncharitable thought, and also incorrect. The man standing next to him on the sidelines is Junior, soccer superstar of the past two World Cups.

The Cariocas' physical creativity is a marvel to behold. Besides the endless games of soccer, volleyball and footvolei, there's always somebody, somewhere on the beach, redefining the active life. Early-morning tai chi lessons draw the old boys, many of whom have also taken to peteca. Peteca, a badminton-volleyball hybrid, is in wonderfully dreamy contrast to the die-hards pumping the parallel bars posted in the sand every few hundred yards.

But it's futebol that's the life force of all Cariocas, the passion that runs through the blood. Pelé, the greatest of all players, who happens to own an apartment on Copacabana, called it "the beautiful game." In England, the birthplace of soccer, it's often called "the people's game." To witness the beach kids turn, dribble and run with the ball -- the kids who see futebol as their ticket out of the favelas -- you realize that it's both: a triumph of aesthetics and of the democratization of leisure.

Soccer is that most perfect of metaphors for life on Copacabana: beauty and happiness. It also completes the mighty Brazilian trinity from which the rest of the city, indeed the rest of the country, reaps its magic: samba, soccer and sex.

By Mark Jolly

Mark Jolly is a New York writer. The story of his second trip to Rio will be published in the May issue of Condé Nast Traveler.

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