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The question on everyone’s lips these days is: “Will Rio be ready?”

After our visit there in May, I found the more pertinent question might be: “Are you ready for Rio?”

But just two months out from the Olympic Games,  you’d never know the world’s biggest global event was about to take place. Nowhere did we see any Olympic flags, symbols or signs of the impending extravaganza. There appeared to be no attempt to market the games to the local population, or to foreign tourists, despite reports of poor ticket sales.

I put this puzzling aspect to Eugenio Souza, the genial owner of Rio Native, a local tour company, who was guiding us around the city. Eugenio shrugged with the weariness of a Brazilian who has seen it all. He complained that the tourist authorities were “clueless”, and to illustrate their cluelessness had decided to employ 50,000 volunteers  to “help out” during the Olympics. The volunteers, he said, had one common denominator: “no experience at all and just a few had some English skills.”

As Brazil reels from one political crisis to another – the Petrobras scandal, the Zika virus, and condemnation of their state of preparations for the games – the citizens of Rio appear to have put the Olympics to one side while they continue with daily life in one of the world’s most contrasting cities.

Eugenio explained that people are so fed up and cynical about the political scandals that support for the Games takes a distant second place to that of the 2014 World Cup, when 80% of Brazilians supported that mega event.

He told us this as we sat in Rio’s traffic gridlock along Copacabana Beach, watching scaffolding being erected for the beach volleyball event. Workmen were silhouetted against the sky on the giant structure like birds on a wire. I felt pretty certain it would be ready in time. No beach volleyball on Copacabana really would be beyond the pale.

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Copacabana, all four kilometres of it, may be the most famous beach in the world, but given the choice between staying in a hotel there or on Ipanema Beach around the headland, I would plump for the latter any day. I found Copacabana, or at least the hotels and high-rises that overlook it, rather tired, while the beach, if you can avoid the vendors and hustlers, was overhyped and simply not as classy or beautiful as Ipanema.

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Ipanema has a gorgeous stretch of golden sand pounded by strong surf with two striking mountains at the western end called Dois Irmãos, or Two Brothers, which resemble enormous, upturned incisors. Around the base of the Two Brothers the favela of Vidigal winds its way upwards, at night twinkling like an oversized necklace overlooking the smart suburbs and hotels along the seafront.

From our hotel we looked down directly on surfers riding Ipanema’s impressive waves. At first light people were out cycling, jogging and walking their dogs along Ipanema’s mosaic pavements, while roasted coffee aromas wafted on the tropical air from tables set up by the sea.

At weekends Ipanema really comes alive with beachfront stalls dispensing coconut water, coffee and caipirinhas, Brazil’s national cocktail. Beach volleyball appears very popular, and footvolley (keeping the ball off the ground with feet or head) very tricky, while poseurs and beautiful people swing by in swimsuits only Brazilians can get away with.

Of course, while in Ipanema, you can’t help humming that song, so we went to the Garota de Ipanema, the bar where bossa nova legend Tom Jobim was inspired to write “The Girl from Ipanema” after seeing a beautiful girl waltz past. It’s an establishment that milks as much as it can from the association.

With its with wealth of bars, great restaurants and shops, the stretch of coastline that encompasses Ipanema, Leblon and Copacabana could see you happily fill your days in Rio slurping caipirinhas and chilling to the city’s rhythm of life. But that would be a waste.

To get around Rio don’t attempt to drive anywhere. Unless you really want to compete with budding Ayrton Sennas on Rio’s traffic-clogged streets, take a cab. There are thousands, but pick the metered yellow and black ones. They may occasionally take you, ignorant tourist, on a suspiciously circuitous route, but they are safe, reliable and cheap. Alternatively, the metro system is really inexpensive, efficient, modern and clean. For about NZ$3.60 you can get wherever you need to.
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Eugenio escorts tourists to Rio’s main attractions as well as offering specialities like a favela tour. Some of these attractions you can do yourself by getting a taxi to Sugarloaf Mountain and its cable car, or Christ the Redeemer atop the Corcovado. But the favelas and areas like historic Santa Teresa’s cobbled streets are best left in the hands of those who know the way and what they’re doing.

We didn’t ask Eugenio to take us to Christ the Redeemer, which I am sure he was glad of. He reckons he’s been to the top over 3,000 times. Here’s a tip: take the 4.30pm train to the summit (they run every 30 minutes) – a steep 20-minute ride through the Tijuca Forest which hugs the side of the mountain.

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As the sun sets the Redeemer is illuminated by floodlights, the incredible art deco sculpture taking on a truly heavenly appearance against the morphing sky. All around the 360-degree panorama spread out below, lights come on and twinkle about the mountains, reflections colouring the bays and lagoons of the astonishing landscape.

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The financial and historic heart of Rio can be found in the Centro district, easily accessible by the metro. The best train stop is Carioca, where you’ll emerge into Carioca Square. Here you will be confronted by a classic example of the worst of Rio’s rampant development, where new buildings have shot up with no regard for what went before.

The lovely Monastery of Saint Anthony of Rio de Janeiro overlooking the square was built between 1608 and 1620, but it is surrounded by a hideous collection of high-rises, swamping it. And this is the pattern you will find as you embark from here on a fascinating, extensive walking tour of historic Rio.

IMG_0159Graffiti and wall art in Rio is something too behold

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Centuries-old buildings, in varying states of repair, jostle with high-rises along narrow streets teeming with people and clogged with traffic – some streets have been dug up, with metro lines being laid for the Olympics, and looked a long way from being finished. Hidden among baroque facades, ’60s apartment blocks and shiny new glass edifices are modest-looking churches, some daubed with graffiti – Rio does graffiti and mural art on a scale I never imagined. But step inside those churches and any sense of the ordinary is blown away.

Extravagantly ornate and golden, with intricate stone and woodwork, stupendous altar pieces, poignant statues and carvings in pretty alcoves, stained glass and exquisite murals adorning walls and ceilings, these churches mark the epitome of Catholic flamboyance and are simply wonderful.

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To which of Rio’s attractions would I award the gold medal? It’s a strong field with favourites like Christ the Redeemer and Sugarloaf obvious frontrunners. But there’s competition in the picturesque, hilly streets of Saint Teresa with its views of the city and favelas creeping up the hillsides. And below Saint Teresa the famous Selaron Steps made of colourful mosaic tiles built by Chilean artist Jorge Selaron in 1990. But I’ll give Jesus on the mountain the bronze medal, for pure spectacle and theatricality.

The silver medal goes to the Rio walkabout in the heart of the city, because nowhere else are the contrasts so great or the surprises so many. Besides, the churches deserve special medals for retaining their beauty and grace in defiance of the madness about them.

“. . . Oh, but I watch her so sadly
How can I tell her I love her
Yes, I would give my heart gladly
But each day as she walks to the sea
She looks straight ahead, not at me . . .”

Yes, the gold medal belongs to Ipanema Beach, in my version of the Olympics anyway.

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CHECKLIST

Accommodation: We stayed at the Arpoador Inn Hotel in Ipanema, the only hotel in either Ipanema or Copacabana located directly on the beach –www.hotelarpoador.com
Tours: Rio Native offers personalised tours of all Rio’s attractions –www.rionative.com

IMG_0015Dois Irmãos, or Two Brothers mountains and the favela of Vidigal

IMG_9992From the Corcovado looking down towards Ipanema and Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon

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IMG_0178IMG_0195The Selaron Steps

IMG_0104The Corcovado mountain (it means hunchback) and Christ The RdeemerIMG_9973IMG_0219Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro, above, and cross, belowIMG_0217IMG_9922Museum of TomorrowIMG_9950The largest painting in South America

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