Photo: rio de janeiro overview

The beaches of Rio de Janeiro earned plaudits for being well maintained in a crowded environment.

Photograph by Antonino Bartuccio, Corbis

By Jay Walljasper

From the November-December 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

(Score: 66)  Rio’s beaches—Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon—qualify as world wonders for two reasons: their heart-stopping setting along the bold hills that rise up from Guanabara Bay—and for maintaining their appeal despite contending with the ever present blights of slums, traffic, sewage problems, and crime in the surrounding city of six million.

“These are some of the best urban beaches on the planet,” says Canadian sustainable-tourism expert Edward Manning, “because they’re very well maintained; so are the neighborhoods behind the beach, where high density is done about as well as possible.”

Rio knows what it’s doing: These popular playgrounds are meticulously cared for because they remain both star attractions for the city’s tourism industry and the center of local culture. “For Cariocas [Rio residents] the beach is where you meet your friends. It’s where you make contacts for your next job. It’s like a neighborhood bar in Boston,” says Bill Hinchberger, a longtime foreign correspondent in Brazil and founder of Brazilmax.com, an online guide to the country.

Clean-up crews scour the beaches for litter every morning, special police units patrol the area, and the city has invested millions in the latest sewage-treatment technology to protect these sand-blanketed assets. The nearby streets, lined with chic shops, restaurants, and apartment buildings, feel more like a congenial neighborhood than an area developed for tourism.

Strolling along the trademark black-and-white-paved beach promenade, you can feast on a cornucopia of street food, choose from an infinite menu of straight-from-the-blender smoothies, and check out the fearless surfers, adrenaline-pumped volleyball teams, supermodel wannabes, smiling street musicians, and sand castles that make this piece of coast unique. You’ll notice that everyone, from teenagers to septuagenarians, dons Brazil’s famously skimpy swimsuits, managing to sport them with a natural elegance and nonchalance.

“The rich Carioca beach culture,” notes Kathryn Wannan, a sustainable-tourism outfitter, “is thriving. The beauty and liveliness here offers visitors a different perspective on what life is all about.”

Of course no one will mistake Rio for paradise. “It’s a heckuva fun place to visit, but major social issues lie just below the surface,” notes Ken Lindeman, professor of Marine and Environmental Systems at Florida Institute of Technology. Impoverished favelas (slums) sprawl just beyond the seaside hills, and crime remains an issue throughout Rio. The beach is among the safer spots in the city, but travelers are still advised to use their street smarts, especially at night.

Some observers also worry about the architectural heritage of neighborhoods, including some of Rio’s most fashionable, near the beaches. Handsome old buildings routinely fall to make way for shiny new ones. Still, you can almost feel the ghosts of Mary Pickford, Errol Flynn, and Orson Welles at the refurbished Copacabana Palace Hotel. And winsome beachgoers still parade past the bar where bossa nova master Tom Jobim was inspired to compose the music for “Girl from Ipanema.”

Rio is scheduled to host the soccer World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016. This imminent influx of visitors, and the almost constant global spotlight that will accompany these mega events, should mobilize the city’s greatest resource—its proud citizens—to come together and ensure that Rio lives up to its moniker of Cidade Maravilhosa: Marvelous City.

Contributing editor Jay Walljasper writes about sustainability issues.

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