Beaches are to Rio what cafes are to Paris. And while each beach has its own particular traits, there are some general rules to help you take the waters like a true Carioca.
Be Prepared -- First and foremost: Get a Brazilian bikini (though perhaps not if you're male). No matter how funky or fashionably teeny your swimsuit looked up north, on a Rio beach it's guaranteed to scream gringo. And if you're thinking your figure's not quite bikini-ready, relax. In Brazil everybody and their grandma wears a two-piece. (Note, however, that no matter how small they may shrink that top, Brazilian women never go topless -- that's for the heathen French.)
Second: Don't be a pack rat. If you observe your fellow beachgoers you'll note that Brazilians bring neither picnic basket nor backpack full of stuff and gadgets. Why bring anything when everything you could possibly want is for sale on the beach? Blankets, inflatable mattresses, and quilts are likewise no-nos. A foldable beach chair is acceptable for women; Brazilian men stand or sit on the sand. All you really need is a towel, sunscreen, and a little bit of cash for beer, food, and other incidentals.
Third and most important: Relax. Go for a little swim, chat with the one that brung ya or the cutie on the towel next door, have a beer and some snacks, and soak up those rays.
Water Conditions -- The beaches facing Guanabara Bay (primarily Flamengo and Botafogo) are nearly always too polluted for swimming. Thanks to a substantial current, the ocean beaches (Copacabana, Ipanema, and Barra) are much cleaner, but even so, sometimes after a heavy rain the fecal coli form count rises beyond acceptable levels. The newspaper Globo prints a daily beach report listing all beach closings. Consult that or ask at your hotel.
Safety Issues -- Another argument for traveling light to the beach is security. You're unlikely to get mugged on a Rio beach in the daytime, but leaving that iPod, wallet, or pocket camera on the sand while you head off for a swim is an open invitation to be relieved of your valuables. I would also advise against moonlit strolls by the waterline. At night the sand is dark and deserted; stick to the large sidewalk fronting the beach -- it's well lit and patrolled often by the tourist police.
Know About the Beach Entrance -- Maybe it's to keep sand from tracking in the lobby, or maybe it's to avoid having the Speedo-clad squeezing into an elevator full of suits. For whatever reason, many beachfront hotels have a separate entrance and elevator for those going to the beach. Normally marked ENTRADA DE BANHISTAS or ENTRADA DE SERVIÇO, these elevators lead to the hotel service entrance where -- as a bonus for following the local etiquette -- you can pick up a beach towel, chair, and umbrella. Returning from the beach you enter the same side entrance and drop the stuff off again.
Baywatch Rio-Style -- On hot summer days, Cariocas take to the ocean like fish to water, except of course, that many Cariocas can't swim. On days when wind and waves get rough, this can lead to some exciting beach theater. One day on Leme beach a helicopter zoomed down along the surf line from the direction of Copacabana, stopping to hover over a spot some 15m (50 ft.) offshore. We could see a swimmer in the circle of water beat flat by the helicopter blades. A rescue jumper appeared in the open door of the chopper, then plunged into the ocean. The helicopter lowered a big net and scooped up swimmer and diver. It hovered over to the beach and plopped the swimmer unceremoniously on the sand. The rescuer was then raised on a line and the helicopter sped off; the swimmer skulked into the crowd. Five minutes after it began the beach was back to normal again. On a busy weekend, helicopters can perform up to 200 such rescues.
Botafogo and Flamengo are fine and picturesque for an afternoon stroll, but too polluted for swimming. Off by itself in Urca, Praia Vermelha faces the ocean and is often fine. It offers a fabulous view of the Sugarloaf, and next to no tourists. On the other hand, it's completely lacking in waves.
The first of the ocean beaches, Copacabana remains a favorite. The wide and beautifully landscaped Avenida Atlântica is a great place for a stroll. (The wavy landscaped sidewalk mosaic is the work of landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx.) When the feet start to tire, pull up a chair at any of the countless beachside kiosks, grab a chilled coconut or a cerveja, and spend some time admiring the picture-perfect view. (The new kiosks also offer modern, clean bathroom facilities, at a cost of R$1.) The far end of the beach near the Forte de Copacabana is where fishermen beach their small craft; it's a good place to find freshly grilled shrimp or other seafood. For those with other fish to fry, the area in front of the Copacabana Palace around the Rainbow kiosk is a well-known gay area.
The postos (lifeguard stations) along Copacabana and Ipanema beaches are open daily from 8am to 8pm. They offer first aid (free if needed) and changing and toilet facilities for a charge of R$1. Postos are numbered 1 through 11 starting from Leme and ending in Leblon. Cariocas often use them as reference points.
Ipanema Beach was famous among Brazilians even before Tom Jobim wrote his song about the tall and tan and young and lovely girl he saw and sighed over. Stretching almost 3km (2 miles) from the foot of the Pedra Dois Irmãos to the Ponta Arpoador, the beach at Ipanema is a strand like nowhere else. Part of the attraction does involve observing the self-confident sensuality with which the Ipanema garotas (girls) stroll the sands. (Equal-opportunity purists should note that there's an equivalent amount of male beefcake on hand -- it just doesn't inspire songs or poetry.) But more than anything, Ipanema is a carnival. Watch the games of volleyball or futvolei (like volleyball, but no hands allowed), beach soccer, surfing, and wakeboarding. Forgot your bikini? Wait a moment and a vendor will stop by with one for sale -- along with towels, sarongs (called kangas in Brazil), hats, shades, peanuts, beer, cookies, Walkmans, suntan lotion, Styrofoam airplanes, Winnie-the-Pooh books, sticks of grilled shrimp, shelled coconuts, even deep-muscle massages. Claim a piece of sand on Ipanema, and all of life's essentials will come to you.
The section just around the point from Copacabana -- called Praia do Arpoador -- is a prime surf spot and a great location for watching the local dudes take to the waves. One of the surf schools also runs lessons for kids from the local favelas. The area around Posto 8 (opposite Rua Farme Amoedo) is Ipanema's gay section.
Farther down into Leblon (still the same beach, just a different name once you cross the canal) you will find the Baixo Baby. This play area, equipped by corporate sponsors with lots of playground equipment and beach toys, is a popular gathering place for nannies and parents to watch their kids run around and play with sand.
Off on its own surrounded by mountains, São Conrado Beach offers some fine scenery and a (relative) sense of isolation. Its other main claim to fame is as a landing strip for all the hang gliders (asa delta in Portuguese) who leap from nearby peaks.
Farther from the city is the beach at Barra de Tijuca. The main reason to go out here is if you're a surf-head desperate for a wave. The surfing is said to be the best in Rio, particularly around the Barraca de Pepê (Pepê's Shack) where surfers like to gather. The only reason to go even farther beyond Barra is to get to Grumari, a lovely small beach set in a nature reserve. Grumari has no high-rises or beachside restaurants, just lush vegetation and a few kiosks by the side of the road. However, don't expect to get away from the crowds even this far out; on weekends the place is packed.
Know the Beach Rules
Certain unspoken, gender-specific rules govern the public behavior of men and women on the beach at Ipanema -- and by extension, on all Brazilian beaches. What follows is a tongue-in-cheek rundown of beachgoing do's and don'ts.
Sunbathing 101, A Tongue-in-Cheek Guide: The most important rule is that nothing shall come between a man and the raw, hot sand. Someone who uses a beach chair, a towel, or a kanga is not a man but a gringo, and shall be shunned. A Brazilian man must plant his Lycra-covered butt down in hot white silicon, making sure his lower back and thighs are covered in sticky white grains.
There are certain exceptions. A man may sit on a sheet of folded newspaper. A man may sit on a tiny corner of a woman's kanga, provided the woman is beautiful and he occupies no more than 3% of the total kanga surface. A man may also stand, drinking a cerveja (beer), looking around manfully and sharing the company of other men.
A woman must sit on a kanga. Beach chairs are also acceptable. Women do not touch the sand, nor do women stand. Women do not join in beach sports such as soccer or foot volley, nor do they plod sweatily down the beach pretending to be joggers. The acceptable positions for women are lounging on their backs, lying dreamily on their bellies, or sitting cross-legged in a circle with at least three other women.
When rising from the sand -- or newspaper, or corner of a woman's kanga -- a man may not brush the sticky white sand from his butt. A man may not touch his butt. A man who touches his butt is not a man but a bicha (sissy) or a gringo.
A woman, when rising from the sand, must brush herself voluptuously, making sure both glutes are thoroughly massaged from waist down to lower thigh. Particular attention must be paid to readjusting the bikini bottom so that it rests comfortably between her butt cheeks.
Water Frolicking 101: Men must swim or at least pretend to swim (many Cariocas actually don't know how to swim but will fake it). A man who dibbles his toes or contemplates the waves with a far-off look in his eye is not a man but a gringo, and must be shunned. Men approach the sea in a series of angry stomps, stopping at the waterline to regard the surf with a steely glare before sprinting forward and diving into a breaking wave. Once immersed, a man may swim farther out, or he may bodysurf. A man may not play in the waves.
Women may play in the waves, turning their backs to the surf and giggling as the water breaks over them. This, however, is rare. Generally, a woman dips her toes, advances as deep as mid-calf, and then waits for a breaker, at which time she squats and allows the surf to immerse her bikini bottom. If this is found to be too traumatizing, a woman may also bring a cup to the beach, dip it in the frothy foam and pour the water over various parts of her body, thoroughly massaging each part for at least 30 seconds afterward.
Beach Flirting 101: Men and women do not enter the water together. This is not to say they do not interact. For instance, a man may approach a group of no more than three pretty women sitting cross-legged on their kangas and ask them to watch his shorts and sandals while he manfully attacks the ocean. Their agreement obtained, the man will then place his stuff on the sand near their kangas and stomp angrily toward the surf, which he will regard with a glare all the more steely for the fact that he knows three pretty women are admiring the manful way he's attacking the elements. The women will ignore him, missing the determined plunge into the roiling surf and the angry stomp back up the beach. But at least they will never call him a gringo!
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.