Behind a wire fence, workers wielded hammers and maneuvered equipment as they laid down a new light rail line in downtown Rio de Janeiro. In the Barra neighborhood, jackhammers echoed, drilling tunnels through the mountains for expanded highway lanes. Orange cones were ubiquitous.

“It looks like a mess right now,” said my Brazilian guide, Rodrigo, as we walked by the light rail development in the central business district, Centro, a mishmash of Baroque churches and gleaming office towers. “But don’t worry. All of this will be finished in time for the Olympics.”

Rio will host the Summer Games in August, and the buzz — of excitement and construction — dominates parts of the city.

Soon, though, we headed out of the construction zone to one of the city’s most iconic spots.

It was impossible to visit Rio and skip its beaches. More than a mere tourist hot-spot, Rio’s sugar sand provides a playground for the locals, called Cariocas. Young and old, rich and poor, fit and not so fit, Cariocas spend time on the beach, playing, people-watching and posing for people-watchers.

It’s part of what has earned Rio its nickname, Cidade Maravilhosa, Marvelous City.

Rio de Janeiro wasn’t always recognized as a beach bum’s paradise. It took the construction of a luxury hotel and the outbreak of World War II to make that happen.

When local businessman Octávio Guinle swung open the doors to the Palace Hotel in 1923, he was hoping to compete with the storied resorts of the French Riviera. In fact, the Palace bears a striking resemblance to Cannes’ Carlton Hotel.

His was a bold plan, given Brazil’s remoteness. But once World War II erupted, the Côte d’Azur no longer seemed such a great vacation destination. And Guinle looked like a genius.

In 1964, Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz released “The Girl From Ipanema.” And with that, Rio’s beaches were in the spotlight to stay.

I had several beaches to choose from: Leblon and Conrado, set near Rio’s wealthiest neighborhoods, good spots for trendy post-beach cocktails; Prainha and Grumari, undeveloped surfing locales; Flamengo, a perfect place to take the kids; and Abrico, where clothing is optional.

But I couldn’t resist Copacabana and Ipanema.

Spend an afternoon at Copacabana Beach and you’d never know the world’s largest sporting event was coming. A temporary arena will enclose the Olympic beach volleyball court in August. Until then, Copacabana remains as always, busy with sunbathers, playing children and pickup volleyball games.

A black-and-white mosaic promenade led me along the seashore, designed by Brazilian architect Roberto Burle Marx to mimic Portuguese designs. While I walked, Rodrigo explained Rio’s beach etiquette.

“We can always tell Americans when they visit our beaches,” said Rodrigo. “They head to a little spot in the sand, as if they wanted to be alone!” Then he laughed wildly.

Apparently this was not the way of locals.

“Cariocas go to the beach specifically to see people,” he said. “And so when Cariocas go to the beach, we carefully choose our beach section.”

Designated by numbered postos, these sections assure beachgoers that they will meet like-minded people. Head to posto 6, he said, for stand-up paddleboarding, to posto 7 during the day to find families and in the evening for sunsets. Posto 8 was the place to meet gay friends, posto 10 to meet the rich and posto 11 for the super-rich. There’s even a posto for artists and intellectuals (posto 9).

As a writer, I headed there.

Mountaintop landmark

Rio has beach-going perfected. But I couldn’t spend all of my time with my toes in the sand. I wanted to visit the city’s other key landmarks. And chief among them was Cristo Redentor, the towering statue of Christ the Redeemer who is synonymous with Rio itself.

Looking down over Rio de Janeiro from his perch atop the 2,300-foot mountain Corcovado, Christ the Redeemer spreads his arms over the city in perpetual and monumental blessing. As long as the clouds stayed away, the T-shaped statue was visible from almost any point in Rio’s city center, serving as a useful point of reference.

Christ the Redeemer was dedicated in 1931, a symbol of Brazil’s Christian roots and a monument to the independence Cariocas won from Portugal in 1822. When the design was unveiled, many thought construction of the statue would be impossible. All 13 stories of Christ’s reinforced concrete core and the thousands of triangular soapstone mosaics that cover it had to be transported via a 19th-century incline railway in severe wind and weather. But something, whether Brazilian determination or providential will, pulled it all together.

It was only atop Corcovado that I got a sense of the size of monument. The world’s largest Art Deco statue soars overhead, each year drawing a million visitors up the concrete stairway to Christ’s feet. Many pose for smartphone photos with arms outstretched, mimicking the statue’s stance. Others just admire Cristo’s contented gaze.

The bird’s-eye view might be one reason for Christ’s smile.

It is undoubtedly the spectacular city vistas that bring thousands of visitors to another mountaintop across town, Pão de Açúcar, the Sugarloaf.

Jutting nearly 1,300 feet up from of the waters of Guanabara Bay, oddly bullet-shaped Sugarloaf gave me a perspective on Rio de Janeiro that left me speechless. A glass-enclosed cable car swept me briskly up the summit, depositing me sweaty-handed at a landing area frequented with tiny marmosets looking for snacks.

Once past the little beggars, I joined a crowd of shutterbugs on the observation deck. Beneath us stretched a 360-degree view of Rio de Janeiro. Sailboats and container ships floated in the bay, the location for the Olympic sailing events. Steel-and-glass hotel towers clung to the shore. The city’s placid Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon is speckled with plastic swan boats most of the time but will be busy with Olympic rowers next year. The bulk of Rio’s remaining buildings flowed like liquid between pointy green peaks.

And along Rio’s edges, in every direction, lay the golden scallops of the city’s beaches.

Tijuca National Park

I’d been told by numerous Cariocas that to understand what Rio de Janeiro once was, I should head into the jungle as it now is, a swath of green space largely designated as Tijuca National Park. Located entirely within Rio’s city limits — Christ the Redeemer is actually in the forest — Tijuca ranks as the world’s largest urban forest.

I arranged an excursion with adventure outfitter Rio Eco­esporte.

Riding through the city’s congested rush-hour streets in the back of a truck wasn’t what I anticipated. But here I was, strapped into one of two bench seats in the open back of a heavy-duty Land Rover beside a smiling young German named Martha.

Martha and I got acquainted while our driver navigated Rio de Janeiro’s traffic jams, shouting introductions over the sound of street traffic, inhaling the scent of auto exhaust. Pre-Olympic road construction in a city of 6 million caused a sizable tangle of cars.

But once our truck swerved inland and up the serpentine, forested entrance to Tijuca National Park, we grew quiet, absorbing Brazil’s coastal rain forest. Palm and ficus trees lined our route, growing ever taller and thicker. Red trumpet flowers and woody vines wrapped around overhead limbs, reaching toward our open truck bed. Pink impatiens grew wild along the road and a cacophony of birdsong rose above the truck’s rumble.

Tijuca endured a particularly unforested era in the 18th and early 19th centuries when this landscape was stripped to make way for cotton, sugar cane and coffee crops. In 1861, Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro II blamed the city’s growing soil erosion and water quality problems on deforestation and hired thousands of workers to replant the mountains by hand.

Brazil’s forest hasn’t yet reclaimed every abandoned colonial building — a handful of drooping, hollow-eyed houses peered out at me from the choking green jungle — but the success of Dom Pedro’s reclamation is undeniable. Hundreds of indigenous plant and wildlife species thrive in Tijuca, including sloths, pumas, monkeys and coati.

When our Land Rover headed back to the city, traffic had eased and our driver took us along Avenue Niemeyer, along the Atlantic coast, past the beaches of Conrado and Leblon. Dusk had settled on the city and from the back of the Land Rover I watched a million lights begin to blink on. Soon the jagged mountains of Rio de Janeiro would be enveloped in darkness.

I imagined Christ the Redeemer, arms outstretched. Blessing the city in the dark.


Travel writer Amy S. Eckert lives in Holland, Mich.