The 2016 Summer Olympics are coming, and the temperature is already rising in Rio. Jonathan Franklin explores a city that's fast evolving and always exciting. 

It’s difficult not to be envious of “cariocas”, as Brazilians refer to Rio de Janeiro’s locals. Their city was once the capital of Brazil and though it lost that honour to Brasília in 1960, it remains the capital of cool – a global trendsetter for surf and fashion and a leading light in all things football.

There are other cities where 15 year olds surf at sunrise then sprint home to trade a wetsuit for school clothes and a surfboard for a backpack but Rio alone boasts those gigantic fingers of granite, forested hideaways, near-naked locals and a raging beach culture.

While Carnival in February draws hundreds of thousands of visitors, it was the 2014 Football World Cup that put Rio squarely in the spotlight. This August’s Summer Olympics will cement its reputation as a truly global city, adding a level of sophistication to what was already a notoriously delightful playground.

The secret to seeing the real Rio

Nothing moves fast in Rio except the hips of a samba queen – everything else seems to follow a slow-motion rhythm that makes this beachside metropolis of 6.5-million people a paradise for those who seek a break from the rat-race. So why, when I’m on holiday in this laidback city, am I out cycling at 7am? The secret to seeing Rio is to wake before other tourists and mix with the locals.

And until you’ve cycled, walked or jogged the pathway that links Copacabana in the north with Leblon beach to the south, you can’t claim to understand the diverse urban tribes that make Rio feel so alive. I’m forced to leave my passport with the incredulous bike-rental guy who can’t understand why I want two bikes overnight. The reason is simple: My wife and I want to watch the sun rise from Copacabana beach and that means hitting the path long before his shop opens.

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From the beach, we watch locals unloading pick-ups overflowing with green coconuts and hauling carts stacked high with footballs. Before 9am, volleyball courts are alive with spirited games, personal trainers are working their troops into a sweat and teenagers rush to get out of the ocean and make it to school on time.

When I repeat the ride along the oceanfront bike path after lunch, it feels like I’m cycling past a new circus of performers. Adolescent boys earn coins and cheers with whirlybird capoeira backflips, while teenage girls ride long skateboards and giggle at the lobster-red tourists who stumble between joggers, cyclists and fellow pedestrians.

I plant my bike in the sand on Copacabana, transfixed by a group of middle-aged Brazilian men playing volleyball without using their hands. The spectacle, known as “foot volley”, is equal parts performance art and sporting match. During rallies that stretch to more than a minute, the ball thumps off chests, ankles, thighs, foreheads and feet. One big-bellied man wearing a sunga – the Brazilian swimwear that makes budgie-smugglers look modest – holds a beer. He casually flicks the ball over the net without spilling a drop. Neither football nor volleyball is a new sport – but the Brazilians fused the two and created their own twist that feels both modern and classic.

In the afternoon I meet friends at Ipanema beach, between Leblon and Copacabana, by Posto 10 – one of the numbered lifeguard towers along the beachfront. A simple grilled sandwich and cold Bohemia beer at the nearby kiosk never tasted so refreshing. Given the recent devaluation of the local currency, the Brazilian real, it’s also economical.

Hire a concierge at night 

I finish my beer as the afternoon light slips away then return the bikes and prepare for a night out on the town with my private concierge, Santiago Mejia from Rio All Access. There’s never a shortage of live music and samba shows in Rio but the Lapa neighbourhood is at the heart of it. A mixture of colonial architecture, twisting alleys and a thriving downtown scene, it’s best negotiated with local intel. Thanks to Rio All Access I’m able to skip the lines at Rio Scenarium and weave through three floors of antiques, paintings and ornate balconies to my table inside a samba hall crammed with a deliriously joyous crowd of all ages.

Lapa is known for arts and crafts, street festivals and high-end galleries. The mix of a traditional Brazilian neighbourhood (the Carioca Aqueduct was finished in 1723) with the latest Brazilian music craze booming from inside refurbished mansions is magical. 

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Why you must see a favela at night

The next day my wife and I put on beat-up sneakers and leave our mobile phones and valuables in our beachfront room at the Sheraton Rio Hotel & Resort, before going to see a very different side of Rio. We walk from five-star luxury down the curving coastal sidewalk and meet Ricardo, our guide for a favela tour.

Much of Rio’s upscale accommodation is so close to these ramshackle hillside communities that locals tell of a horse that leapt from a craggy ledge onto the 12th-storey balcony of an apartment building. It’s probably an urban myth but Rio is a nonstop collision of rich and poor; enclaves of luxury encroach on the poverty-stricken favelas that crawl up the sides of the granite slabs serving as landmarks.

Ricardo, founder of CaRiocafreeculture, is a resident of the Vidigal favela. We first glimpse his neighbourhood from the back of a motorcycle, as we zigzag to the top of the mountain in what feels like an amusement-park ride of tight S-curves. We wind around corners until we’re at a lookout high above the famous beaches of Ipanema and Leblon. Few people outside the local communities enjoyed these million-dollar views until Rio was awarded an unprecedented double victory: the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

With an estimated 400,000 tourists expected to visit this year, the Olympics have pushed rents in Vidigal to record prices. Locals forced to get by with sporadic electricity and limited fresh water now wonder if they can afford to live in their own homes. “We are seeing more and more foreigners and tourists buying properties here,” says Ricardo. “I think the government should do more to protect the locals. There are now private house parties in the favelas where they charge 100 reais ($40) per person. Locals can’t even go to a party in their own neighbourhood.”

We continue our tour with an hour-long hike through what was once a thick coastal forest. As we hike higher, the jungle thins and fields of tall grass lay smothered by clouds. We sit atop Morro Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers Hill), high above a city both gritty and glamorous. I ask Ricardo what he makes of the $20-billion makeover brought on by the World Cup and Olympics. He shrugs and tells me, “Here we struggle every day; I like to share this struggle with you because to understand the favela is to understand Rio.”

In the favela, I buy a couple of handbags fashioned from aluminium tabs popped off the top of Coca-Cola cans. The handiwork is impeccable, the design original and I don’t purchase out of guilt or misplaced sympathy but as an expression of respect for hard work and ingenuity.

Discover the architecture of Rio

On our final day in Rio we visit Casa das Canoas – the former home of noted Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer – in the affluent southern suburb of São Conrado.

Niemeyer designed the UN Headquarters in New York and major buildings in Brasília, influencing a generation of architects. With his swirls and whimsical curves, he managed to make huge concrete structures feel playful and daring – a fitting feat for a man who worked in an office above Copacabana beach and claimed his designs were inspired by the curves of the female body. Niemeyer broke ground for new works until his death at the age of 104.

Today’s Rio is being reinvented, not only by the practicality of accommodating the Olympics audience but also through an intrinsic vitality that assures much of its history is yet to be written. For visitors with the patience for this city’s quixotic chaos, Rio offers much more than the classic tourist experiences of sightseeing, samba and beaches. It’s also a chance to observe the pulsing energy of a populace as it strives to improve what many locals already call “Cidade Maravilhosa”, the Marvellous City. 

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