Rio de Janeiro locals are more likely to say “tenha uma boa praia” (“have a good beach”) than “have a good day”. They wake up wondering whether rain or clouds will ruin their time in the sun, and rather than ask what you do for a living, fun-loving Cariocas (locals) will want to know which part of the beach you are going to.
With dramatic, iconic landmarks such as Sugarloaf Mountain towering above, there is no bad beach on the city's more than 40km-long coastline. But with an influx of travellers heading to Rio for the World Cup in June 2014 and the Summer Olympics in August 2016, you will want to know your way around the shore as well as the locals do.
Rio’s main beaches stretch across 8.5km of coastline and are divided by 12 postos (numbered lifeguard stations), all of which offer changing rooms and toilets for a small fee. The stations are useful markers when giving or taking directions, but more importantly, some postos are known for attracting particular crowds and offering specific activities.
Postos 1 to 6: Good for sunrises, sports and views of Sugarloaf
Reaching about 4km from Leme beach to Copacabana beach, postos 1 to 6 stand across from some of the city's most glamorous hotels, and attract domestic tourists, older cariocas and business travellers. They are a great place to watch the sunrise over Sugarloaf Mountain, and tend to be busier than other beaches in the evening due to the brightly-lit kiosks selling caipirinhas, Brazil’s national cocktail, made from cachaca (sugar cane liquor) sugar and lime.
The 4km long Copacabana beach – postos 2 to 6 – will be one of the official 2016 Olympic venues for beach volleyball. It is also the setting for a variety of other sports, such as yoga and boxing. The sport of frescobol, a type of tennis played with wooden bats, originated at posto 5, while posto 6 is a popular spot for stand-up paddle boarding. Football games are ubiquitous, but do not expect to join a team unless you are really good. You might also see people balancing on ropes tied between palm trees, practicing an increasingly popular sport known as slack lining.
For a charming reminder that the area around Copacabana beach used to be a fishing village, head to the Copacabana Fort at posto 6 before 11 am to see fishermen selling their catch directly from colourful wooden fishing boats. The fort, built in 1914, now houses the Historical Army Museum, and its cafe is a great spot for breakfast or lunch while gazing at the sea. The fort will also host the marathon swimming and triathalon events at the 2016 Olympics.
Posto 7: Good for sunsets, surfers and quiet romance
Wedged between Copacabana and Ipanema is Arpoador, posto 7, a 500m-long beach that is popular with families and surfers. As such, it tends to be a bit quieter than the other postos, and at sunset it has a laid-back, romantic vibe.
The beach’s main attraction is the vast, mainly flat Arpoador Rock, which was named after the harpoon-throwing Portuguese settlers and Brazilian natives who would hunt whales from there (arpoador means striker in Portuguese). Take one of the short walking trails up to the top to watch the sunset silhouette the Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) peaks, and join the crowds cheering when it finally goes down. Known locally as the birthplace of surfing, floodlights keep the waters lit for after-dark wave riding.
Despite Rio's long shoreline, there are not many beachside places to stay around Ipanema and Copacabana. The closest you can get is Arpoador Inn, a comfortable and simple hotel where it is worth paying for a seaview room. A few metres away is the Philiipe Starck-designed boutique hotel Fasano, frequented by the well-heeled Rio crowd and international celebrities. Teenagers are often seen waiting outside with autograph books and cameras at the ready.