Recently the world tuned in to see Brazil host the World Cup and got a glimpse of the lush rainforests, the mighty Amazon and the crowded, golden beaches. The largest South American country boasts a landscape as diverse as the look of its people. Tourists are attracted to the laid-back attitude the Brazilians seem to possess,and the idea of sipping sugar cane caipirinhas while lounging by the azure water. If you fall in that category, most likely you’ll end up in Rio de Janeiro.
As if this city needed to win more points for popularity, it will bring in even more onlookers when hosting the 2016 Olympics. It is easy to see why people love to come to Rio; the place is simply stunning. Gorgeous beaches kissed by lazy, clear waves invite visitors to hang out all day and try an impromptu massage by a professional who will help you relax right on the sand. Rio is filled with trendy restaurants, pumping nightlife, and silver skyscrapers that complement the forest-clad cliffs standing vigil over the city. Rio de Janeiro, or January’s River, is the second largest city in Brazil and is occupied by the country’s wealthiest and poorest citizens. This dichotomy plays itself out along the streets where posh cars owned by the rich are parked in front of groups of locals who make their living betting on “Futevolei” or beach volleyball. The players use impressive aerial kicks only legal in soccer to get the ball over the net. As awe-inspiring as the city is from block to block, the real way to see Rio is by air.
Growing up in the Northern Hemisphere, I always resigned to celebrating my January birthday indoors – usually crossing my fingers that it wouldn’t snow on the day of my party. So when I had the opportunity to cross the Equator and be on the beach for once on my big day, I didn’t hesitate. The two world famous beaches – Copacabana and Ipanema – basically converge at the Sofitel Hotel where I stayed. Every day I would walk the beaches, watching the confident locals – of all shapes and sizes – flaunt their bronze-based bodies without a care in the world if anyone was looking. I must have stood out as wearing too many clothes because a man approached me and asked if I had any interest in hang gliding. I’d never given it much thought, but I figured since it was my birthday and the first time I’d ever spent it on a beach, anything I tried would add to the newness of the day.
The man, who worked for an adventure company with a stand nearby, made me sign a waiver – right there on the beach – before hustling me in his car. Before I knew it, I was zooming up a mountain, switching back and forth on the curvy road as I silently second-guessed my decision to do this and felt a pang of instant regret. Much to my relief, we reached our destination only to be greeted by several other tourists who, like me, had all been suckered in by fast-talking salesmen on the beaches miles below. The man hitched me to his oversized kite, harnessed me on to his gear and told me we had to move fast before the wind changed. I asked him what I needed to do and he looked at me blankly, “RUN!” With that, we took off and sailed over the cliff.
Down below, Rio opened herself to us. We floated over Sugarloaf Mountain hanging out solo in the sea looking majestic and boasting one of the best places to see the sunset in the city. Later I would take a cable car up there and dance the night away to a Brazilian band that played in an open air pavilion by the restaurant at the top of the mountain which gets its name because it looks like a mound of refined sugar.
The wind took us over the water where my companion – on whom my life depended – pointed out the city of Neteroi across the Guanabara Bay from Rio. That’s where the locals go to shake it, he told me. I made a mental note and once on land, I took a bus over the bridge to witness street parties on full display with samba dancers who moved their bodies to music in ways I never knew possible.
Just as I thought we were venturing too far out to sea, the wind turned our glider back to the shore and that’s when I saw it for the first time: Christ the Redeemer – the famous statue that stands 100 feet above Mount Corcovado. As the chaos and liveliness of a vibrant city continued on below, I couldn’t help but focus on his calming, open arms that seemed to welcome me to the sky we shared. A sense of peace and belonging came over me – I knew I had made the right choice to hang glide that day. Turning a year older had never felt more freeing; not only was it summer on my January birthday, but I was literally flying high in Rio.
Story and Photo by Krisha Chachra