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When visitors to Rio ask me what I recommend, the reply is always the same… go to the beach. Ipanema might not have the calmest waters nor the most turquoise, but it is by far the most incredible beach I have ever been to. It is tantalizing to the senses! All you have to do is show up and the magical world of Rio will come to you. The best part is it all unfolds in a very relaxed fashion. You won’t find insistent vendors or pushy people here. The beautiful bodies, happy grandmas, sexy couples, futebol (soccer), volleyball, and paddleball games, live samba music, colorful bikinis for sale, hot beach snacks, ice cold drinks, handmade toys, fragrant sunscreen and oils, will all walk by. Your options are simple: either give the thumbs-up sign (meaning thank you but no) or the ‘psiu’ sound, indicating that you want to participate. So here is your little instruction guide to a happy day at the beach.
A Carioca (Rio de Janeiro native) arrives at the beach early and stays all day - sometimes up to ten hours in the summer. Look for a wet path from the sidewalk to a beach stand, this means the sand will be cooler to walk on and the owner of the beach stand ‘barraca’ is thoughtful and hopefully more honest. Walk up to the stand that feels good and rent a chair and an umbrella, which rents by the day and not the hour. Everything on the beach costs about 5-6 reais, except a caipirinha and an umbrella, which are about 10-15 reais. You might pay per round; however, most often the barraca keeps a tally which you pay for at the end of the day. From then on you can either order drinks from your chair or go up for prompter service if the service boys are busy flirting. Locals say the ideal time to be directly in the sun is before 11 am and after 3 pm. In between is excellent for long chats under the umbrella ‘guarda-sol’ or a small snooze after the morning round of ice cold beers.
Everything for sale on the beach will walk by you every few minutes, so if you miss it, know that another opportunity will arrive shortly. Each vendor has an individual call that he sings out loud to try and entice you to buy his product. Some make up songs with samba rhythms and some with funk (a style of music from Rio that is similar to hip-hop). Locals have their favorite vendors and are faithful to them. The songs make it easier to not miss them if you are making that night’s plans with your new Carioca friend.
A MUST: Order a matte (iced tea with lemonade) and a bag of globo crackers (green is salty, red is sweet). This is the ultimate classic Carioca tradition. The matte vendors will be wearing orange outfits and have a large metal barrel under each arm, one with tea and one with lemonade. You choose how much of each one you would like. If you have ‘boa energia ("good energy"), the vendor might offer you a complimentary top-up chorinho, which literally translates to "little cry." But be careful. According to Brazilians, if lime gets on your skin whilst in the sunshine, it will stain. So best to put a little lemonade in first and then fill up with tea. Remember when Brazilians feel good around you, it is their pleasure to share all that they have.
Another beach gem: You will see men walking up and down the beach swinging small grills used to bbq cheese (queijo coalho). This is a type of cheese, similar to Halumi, that is very dense and lends itself perfectly to the small bbq. You can order it with oregano or natural, but both will come charred black and delicious!
Swimsuits: The men with hundreds of tiny pieces of fluorescent fabric fixed onto an umbrella are the bathing suit vendors. Bouncing up and down the beach, like jelly fish, these boys have nothing but time in the world. Flag one of them down and they will be happy to have you try on everything they have and will also be glad to hold up a sarong ‘canga’ while you shimmy in and out of them. The bikinis and ‘sungas' (small male bathing suit) are cheap and cheerful! Brazilians own what they have on the beach. In translation, there is no shame in sporting a eensy weensy bikini no matter what your size. From personal experience, there is very little difference between the small and extra-large bikinis. In short, we all wear the same bikini!
Tips for Grooming & Tanning: The average Brazilian swears that it isn’t their natural skin tone that lends itself so well to tanning. The secret to that golden tan is keeping wet the entire time on the beach. This involves the effortless and graceful dunking in between the massive waves and strong undertow or the much easier frequent runs to the saltwater beach showers. You can also expedite the process by drinking carrot/beet juice daily from a ‘suco’ stand and applying layers of carrot ‘cenoura’ or urucum oil while at the beach (which you can find sold in small brown bottles alongside the sunscreen). A Brazilian woman will also bring to the beach a comb and a bottle of conditioner. She will give her hair a hydrating treatment while enjoying her ice cold beverage and catching up on that week’s gossip.
MOST IMPORTANTLY: Don’t be shy! Brazilians aren’t uncomfortable making friends even if you don’t speak the same language. They find these differences charming. It will make your day incredibly beautiful if you befriend locals, who will be more than happy to share their food, teach you about Brazil and laugh all afternoon with you.
What to bring:
What not to bring:
MY FAVORITE BEACH: Posto 9 is the most interesting and trendy part of Ipanema. It is where the fashionistas, celebrities, gays, tourists and classic Cariocas all come together.
MY FAVORITE BEACH STAND: Barraca do Uruguai (#80) has the deserved reputation for the best drinks, food (chimichurri sandwiches) and eye candy. Anthony Bourdain even visited during his Rio episode. This family has been running the stand for over 30 years and has even received an award from the government for being an Ipanema beach Institution. This is a stand with dignity, even the sandwich bread is delivered fresh every hour. Tell them, Lauren, the California Girl, sent you. You will be treated like family!
VIDEO: What's in an Ipanema Beach Bag?