Rio de Janeiro is famous for its beaches. Most famous of all is Copacabana, star of a billion photos, setting for innumerable movie scenes, subject of countless songs and favourite haunt of tourists and Carioca (people of Rio) alike.

If the statue of Cristo Redentor represents Brazil’s conservative Catholic soul then Copacabana beach represents its totally unabashed body. Its wide golden sands are domain of the bronzed, the bold, the beautiful and the not quite so beautiful, in bikinis that are barely there.

Copacabana Beach at Sunset
Copacabana Beach at Sunset

The body beautiful, and even not so beautiful, is high maintenance and from dawn and dusk, thousands of Carioca jog, bike and skate along the pavements of Copacabana. Thousands of others tan, or belt volleyballs over nets on the sands. Some swim and surf the waves.

On the weekend Copacabana is a city of beach umbrellas and deck chairs. Business booms in tent cafes and chairside peddlars ply everything from ice-creams to colouring books. For millions, locals and tourists alike, the year begins and ends at Copacabana, with one of the world’s greatest New Year parties. Fabulous fireworks light the sky at midnight and big name bands play through the night. The beach police, in runners, shorts and caps, keep Copacabana safe at all times, doubly so at New Year.

But Copacabana is more than just the stretch of sand that runs from Posto Dois or Lifeguard Tower Two to Posts Seis. At either end of the beach are two historical forts. At the north end Fort Duque de Caxias, was built in 1779 by the Portuguese colonists. Fort Copacabana, at the south end, was built in 1914 and went down in Brazilian history in 1922 when 18 officers (Os 18 do Fort) mutinied. Today, a giant ferris wheel turns above the old fort building which houses an army museum and the Café do Fort, an institution among Rio Cafes.

The fort looks back across the beach to the promenade. Here is one of Copacabana’s most striking features and one that has come to symbolise the beach – the black and white mosaic pavements in the pattern of stylised waves.

At the north end of Copacabana’s promenade, a Feira Hippy, or hippy market, does a roaring trade in crafts, art, food and souvenirs, including pareos, printed with the famous Copacabana wave pattern. Apartment buildings, restaurants, clubs, bars and hotels line the promenade. Star among them is the stunning Copacobana Palace, an Art Deco icon built in 1923.  Here Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made their dancing debut in the film Flying Down to Rio. Today, the red carpet still rolls out for celebrities, royalty and the fabulously rich.

But while there is extreme wealth in Copacabana, there is also extreme poverty. While there are streets lined with opulent apartments and de luxe hotels like the Copacabana palace, there are also favelas or shanty towns like Morro dos Cabritos, Pavão-Pavãozinho, Chapéu Mangueira and Babilônia Leme. High walls and heavy security defend the former from the latter. In this, Copacabana mirrors Rio and even Brazil.

The beach, however, is another country, open, boundless and free and Copacabana is just the beginning of miles of glorious coast and many more stunning beaches.