At the Copacabana: The People's Beach

It’s my first day on world-famous Copacabana beach, two miles of shimmering sands, super-fit bronzed bodies and itsy-bitsy swimming costumes. And I’m already feeling like a fish out of water. “You’re not wearing those, are you?” my Brazilian friend Renata asks me as she points to my baggy shorts. “Why not?” I ask her as I butter my pale skin with a thick coating of SPF 100 sunscreen lotion.

Cariocas, Gringos and Brazilian Bikinis

She doesn’t answer. But I get her point as I look at the mostly tanned, fit cariocas (Portuguese for people born in Rio) who are enjoying what, for many of them, is their local beach. 

Almost all of the women wear Brazilian bikinis, which, as Renata has explained to me, are much smaller than the bikinis their French sisters wear. And some wear tiny, barely there thongs, which cariocas refer to as “dental floss” tangas. 

While some of the men wear surfer shorts, many more—of all ages —sport tight sungas, Brazilian trunks that are somewhat larger than Speedos but much smaller than the shorts I’m wearing; the ones that unmistakably mark me as a “gringo”. 

Because I’ve come to Rio for a week to explore Copacabana beach and the fascinating role it plays in the life of Rio’s cariocas, I make a mental note: “Work on my tan, lose the baggy shorts and buy a sunga.”

 

Old, Young, Rich or Poor: No one Cares

Copacabana is a picture postcard come to life; a crescent of fine white sand backed by an arc of high-rise buildings. To the north is the 1,299-foot high Sugar Loaf Mountain and to the south the majestic Christ the Redeemer statue. And like all the beaches in Rio, it’s enjoyed by everyone. 

“The most important thing you have to understand about Copacabana beach, and our other beaches, is that they’re one of the few places in Brazil where there are no class distinctions,” renowned Brazilian anthropologist and author Roberto DaMatta tells me as I visit him in his home just outside Rio. 

“The poor residents of the favelas, the business executives and the students are all equals on the beach,” he explains. “Because everyone is nearly naked, there’s little to tell the classes apart, and because all the beaches are public places, everyone is welcome. The beach is Brazil’s most democratic space.”

It doesn’t take me long to discover that on Copacabana, as Michael Palin has noted, “the gap between the favela and the favored almost disappears”. Among the throngs of beachgoers who are jogging, playing volleyball, frescoball, exercising, swimming, surfing, sunbathing, and just plain people-watching, I bump into Magno, a tall, lean resident of one of the nearby favelas.

“This is the people’s beach,” he tells me before he dives into the water for a long-distance swim across the bay with a group of fitness fanatics. “No one cares whether you’re rich or poor here; it’s the beach that matters.”

 

The People's Beach

Close by, journalist Fernando Moraes is in an outdoor capoeira class (a mixture of dance, sport and martial art popular throughout Brazil) and explains that the beach also owes its eclectic nature to the densely populated high-rise neighbourhood itself. 

“It‘s just a very interesting area. Today we have a 24-hour nightlife with all sorts of people from different parts of Brazil—rich and poor. You can find everyone here.”

Rio’s police regularly patrol the beach and have helped cut down the “sweeps”, where large groups of young men reportedly from the favelas swarm to rob locals and tourists alike. Nevertheless, beachgoers are constantly warned to take as little as possible to the beach and to watch for suspicious activity, and more recently riots. Some of the high-rise hotels even have security guards on their roofs with walkie-talkies, watching their guests at the beach through binoculars. The historic Copacabana Palace Hotel has a staff of 32 highly trained guards. 

I learned the hard way during my first day on the beach that it pays to be watchful. 

 

Keeping an eye out for trouble

“Shoeshine, mister?” asked the under-five-foot youth with a wooden shoeshine kit slung over his shoulder. He then pointed to my shoes, which now somehow sported a large glob of yellow mustard. Before I could refuse, he was on his knees brushing away. 

He finished and, pointing to a sign on the side of his shoeshine kit, said, “That will be 50 dollars!” Suddenly I realised he, or an accomplice, must have snuck up behind me a few minutes ago and squirted my shoes with mustard—an age-old scam. I was somewhat amused with his brazenness but his manner changed when I refused to pay him more than a few dollars. He grabbed the money and slunk away, cursing me in Portuguese. I learned later that I was lucky; he’d attacked other tourists for not ponying up the money.

 

Entertainment on the shore

Copacabana’s role as “the people’s beach” is most evident at weekends and during large public events. When Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope in history, visited Brazil last year he celebrated a papal mass on the beach. More than three million flag-waving people poured on to the beach to greet him. Many of them slept on the sand in a massive night-long slumber party.

Rod Stewart reportedly outdrew the Pope; more than 3.5 million turned up for his beach concert in 1994. The Rolling Stones drew 1.5 million in 2006. The beach is also home to the world’s biggest New Year’s celebrations when more than two million revellers gather for a fireworks extravaganza and the chance to honour Iemanjá, the Afro-Brazilian goddess of the sea. 

On Sundays so many of Rio’s 6.5 million residents head for Copacabana that town officials close Avenida Atlântica, the majestic beachfront promenade, and turn it into a pedestrian, bike, skateboard and rollerblade zone. Here, cariocas leaving the beach call out to acquaintances just arriving Boa praia! (“Enjoy the beach!”) 

 

 

 

People Watching

This Sunday the beach is packed—it’s almost impossible to see any free sand between the throngs and the thongs. As I walk along the curving shoreline, I see an army of hawkers weaving between the sun lovers, peddling everything from bikinis to cold drinks to hats to footballs to, believe it or not, timeshares. As a Brazilian friend said, “Just sit still and whatever you need will eventually come by.”

After baking under Rio’s blistering sun, I find the 20C water is surprisingly cool as I wade in and then take a brief swim. The sea is calm, but that’s not always the case; sometimes large waves and riptides make swimming a challenge. And the sea is not crowded; many people seem content with merely wading or just staying on the beach. 

“Pay attention to the cariocas,” Roberto DaMatta had told me. “No one is reading. Instead, they’re people-watching. It’s one of our national pastimes.” 

He’s right. Seeing and being seen is what Brazil’s beaches are about. I ask a beautiful woman who’s just emerged from the sea if she minds the hundreds of people, men and women, that seem to be watching her. “Not at all,” she says. “We consider it a compliment when people look at us. Latin people appreciate beautiful bodies. Don’t you?”

How could I disagree? 

 

Is the Copacabana PassÉ?

According to some beach aficionados, Copacabana may be past its prime. Admittedly, it’s lost a lot of its lustre compared with the days when Brigitte Bardot, Cary Grant and a host of jet-setters visited its now-closed casinos and swanky hotels. “Flying down to Rio” was long celebrated in films and songs. And the in-place was Copacabana beach.

Many claim the nearby beaches of Ipanema or Leblon have eclipsed Copacabana but don’t tell that to any of its locals.

“Ipanema? It’s snobby,” says local resident and realtor Lirian Rodrigues as she raises a finger aside her nose to reinforce the point. “Copacabana is more real. It’s more Brazil!”

Further proof that Copacabana is unique among Rio’s 70 beaches lies at its southern tip, just beneath the 100-year-old Forte de Copacabana. Shoehorned into this palm-tree-studded corner is a fleet of small wooden fishing boats owned and manned by a colony of fishermen, proud reminders of the area’s history as a small fishing village.

Each morning at around 5.30am, before sunrise and long before the beach fills with visitors, these hearty, weathered fishermen help one another pull their boats from the sand to fish the waters off Copacabana. 

 

Living the Life 

“We’re proud we’re maintaining this way of life,” José Manuel Pereira Rebouças, vice-president of the fishermen’s colony and president of a nearby favela, tells me. “Most people come to the beach to play. We come to work.” On a good day Rebouças and his fellow fishermen can each haul in 200lbs of fish, which they sell in their local shop. 

After a few days exploring Copacabana, I’ve learned a lot about what makes it one of the world’s most famous beaches. I’ve also come a long way from my first day here when my pale skin and baggy shorts screamed gringo.

Well, my skin is not exactly nutty brown, but even if I don’t look like one, I’ve learned to come to the beach like a true carioca; carrying just a few Brazilian real; enough to rent an umbrella and a beach chair and pay for a few caipirinhas, Brazil’s potent traditional drink.

And about those baggy shorts. I ditched them and bought a green and yellow—the colours of Brazil’s flag—sunga, which I started wearing to the beach. Admittedly, it was XL but I didn’t care if anyone stared at me. After all, as the beautiful woman told me, “It’s a compliment when people look at us.” Boa praia!