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Rio de Janeiro today

Capital of Rio de Janeiro state, the city of Rio is a cosmopolitan metropolis full of joie de vivre; a huge Garden of Eden of awe-inspiring natural beauty with a mixture of forested, curvaceous hills and miles of sunlit beaches; and a cultural center with a history influenced by Europe, South America, and Africa alike.

Evolution of the City

The establishment of Rio de Janeiro by Estácio de Sá on 20 January 1565 was primarily a strategic act. The Bay of Guanabara was the best natural harbor between Bahia and the Rio de la Plata and, given the number of successful French incursions, the main preoccupation of successive Rio governors was defense. They built a fortified castle on the Morro do Castelo and the city grew around it, constrained by the undulating landscape and clinging to the fortress like a medieval town.

Although Rio de Janeiro went through three major makeover periods—once when it became the sole capital of Brazil after 1767, a second time with the arrival of the Portuguese royal family in 1808, and finally during the first part of Dom Pedro II’s reign in the 1850s and 1860s —its colonial aspect did not significantly change until the beginning of the 20C. In 1902–1906 mayor Pereira Passos began to carry through the biggest urban transformation of the city. At the time, Rio de Janeiro had about 500,000 inhabitants, concentrated around the primitive nucleus of Morro do Castelo that had hardly changed in 300 years.

Pereira Passos and his health secretary Oswaldo Cruz started a program of fumigation, slum clearance, and compulsory vaccination against smallpox (which was misinterpreted by the poor and led to prolonged riots in November 1904). Passos adopted the Haussmann model in fin-de-siècle Paris by opening up big boulevards: two great diagonal avenues, the Avenida Central (currently Avenida Rio Branco) and the Avenida Mem de Sá, cut through the colonial grid of the Centro; the Avenida Beira Mar ran parallel to the coastline and served as the basis for the development of the Zona Sul; and the magnificent Avenida Atlântica was inaugurated in 1906. Finally, in 1920, the Morro do Castelo was excavated, providing space for the reconstruction of the city center. The hill was used for landfill that joined the coast to the island of Villegaignon where the Santos Dumont Airport stands today.

In 1938, work began to relieve the congested city center. In order to link the North and South zones, and to ensure free movement of traffic, the tunnels that are now characteristic of the Rio road system, were constructed.

The designs were executed in two phases. The first was carried out under Enrique Dodsworth from 1942–1943, and consisted of the opening of the Avenida Presidente Vargas, the greatest artery of the city that still absorbs the bulk of the traffic between the center and the North Zone. The second phase was completed during the administration of the governor Carlos Lacerda (1960–1965) with the opening of two large tunnels that bind the North and South Zones: Santa Bárbara and Rebouças. The park of Flamengo, a masterpiece of urban design by Robert Burle Marx, was inaugurated in 1961, completing Rio’s facelift.

The final growth of the city westward was conceived in the late sixties and early seventies by Lúcio Costa. This was a staged urbanization which, unlike previous attempts, sought to preserve the natural lagoons and the shape of the coast. It proposed the creation of urban nuclei throughout the long Avenida das Americas, separated from each other by large, open spaces. At the same time industrial zones were designed-in rather than be left to grow unchecked. Although it has not been strictly followed, this pilot plan has guided, in general, the urban middle-class expansion into Barra da Tijuca and Jacarepaguá.


After the Federal District and São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro state has the third-highest per capita income in Brazil, standing at US$13,500 per person and contributing 12 percent to the country’s GDP. Roughly two-thirds of the economy is based around services. Tourism is the obvious cash generator, especially during Carnival when Rio de Janeiro welcomes around 400,000 foreign revelers for a week, but it is not its sole source of income.

The desirability of living in the city has turned it into a major financial, commercial, and media center, being among others the headquarters of O Globo, South America’s biggest media conglomerate; Petrobras, the country’s state oil monopoly; and Vale do Rio Doce, Brazil’s largest energy and mining company. It is one of the world’s major textile manufacturing centers with many US and European houses outsourcing their clothing production to Petrópolis, Nova Friburgo, or Valença; and with its many institutes, colleges, and universities, Rio de Janeiro is Brazil’s second-largest research center, corresponding to 17 percent of the country’s research output.

Surprisingly for a state that accumulated its wealth from coffee, it owes only just over one percent of its GDP to agriculture: around 30 percent of Rio de Janeiro’s income today comes from the industry sector. The state is the second-most industrialized in Brazil after São Paulo, with the country’s largest petrochemical complex at Macaé, north of Rio de Janeiro; South America’s largest steelworks in Volta Redonda; and shipbuilding works in the south that account for 90 percent of Brazil’s naval output.

Finally, ever since the 18C, the city of Rio de Janeiro has been prominent in the trade and manufacture of jewels, precious rocks, and metals stemming from the interior of Minas Gerais; one can still trace this tradition to the modern jewelry shops of Copacabana and Ipanema.

Rio de Janeiro has had a long connection with sports, having been the host of the PanAmerican Games in 2007. In 2009 the economy was strong enough to see Rio de Janeiro selected as one of the final four possible hosts for the 2016 Olympic Games. The city is also expected to host Brazil’s 2014 FIFA World Cup.


Rio de Janeiro was the sole capital of the Portuguese colony of Brazil from 1763 onward and the capital of independent Brazil from 1822 to 1960. In 1892 it formed the city-state of Guanabara. In 1976 the surrounding state of Rio de Janeiro was merged with the state of Guanabara for administrative purposes, forming today’s state of Rio de Janeiro with the city itself as its capital.

Brazil’s federal state system resembles closely that of the USA. The state of Rio de Janeiro is administered by a directly elected governor for four years; it sends three senators to the Federal Senate in Brasília, as well as 46 federal deputies to the House of Representatives. The current governor, Sérgio de Oliveira Cabral Santos Filho, is keen to emulate the “zero tolerance” crime policies of former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

The city of Rio de Janeiro is governed by a mayor who serves a four-year term. The term of the current mayor, Eduardo da Costa Paes, ends in December 2012.

People and Population

The population of Rio de Janeiro state is 15.4 million of which 6.1 million live within the greater metropolitan area of Rio de Janeiro (estimated 2007), the second largest in Brazil after São Paulo. The population increase varies between 0.8 and 1.4 percent per annum, much of it due to immigration from Europe, mainly from Portugal, and from the northeast of Brazil. Yet all of them are affectionately called “Cariocas.”

The “Carioca”

The appellation “Carioca” indicates not only a person who was born in the city, but also, more inclusively, those who have adopted Rio de Janeiro as their home. Its origin is still being debated, but the prevalent consensus is that the word is of Tupi origin and means the “white house,” an allusion to the first dwellings of the Portuguese. Some writers even pinpoint which white house it refers to: an old hovel left behind in 1503 on Flamengo beach by Gonçalo Coelho.

The typical characteristics of the Cariocas are their warm natures, their extrovert temperaments, and their disarming spontaneity. Like all Brazilians they are very demonstrative, using physical contact through embracing or kissing, not only within the family but also in greetings between friends. They are immensely proud of Rio de Janeiro and its beauty. The rapport with their bodies is very different from that of Western Europeans and North Americans. No one is scandalized when a woman appears on the beach in the tightest pair of shorts or a “dental floss” tanga swimsuit and no one bats an eyelid or even notices the groups of youths who walk around bare-chested and barefoot.

Dress is also informal. Men would only wear a tie to work in some offices in the city center: jeans and T-shirts are the norm in most places. Bermuda shorts are common for men and women, and the universal footwear is sandals or flip-flops, even at night. Due to the heat, cleanliness and personal hygiene are of great importance—this is the land, after all, where European sailors learned to have baths in order not to offend the native peoples.

Cariocas are a blend of three main races: the native Indians, Europeans, especially the Portuguese, and black Africans who arrived as slaves for the exploitation of sugar in the 17C, gold in the 18C, and coffee in the 19C. Every race contributed to the constitution of the Cariocas, be it through their physical features, the elements of their cultures, the language, the cooking, the religion, or their general attitude.

Indigenous Population

The original Amerindians who lived on the coast of Rio de Janeiro were the Tupi. Extensive ethnographic material comes from the Franciscan friar André Thevet and the Calvinist priest Jean de Léry who lived among them in the 1550s. We know that they moved about “as naked as they came out of the womb,” and that they were extremely hospitable to these strangers who were considered allies. Unfortunately the native Indians disappear from history around the beginning of the 17C, having been decimated by the Portuguese in combat, or through imported diseases against which they had no immunity. What survives from the Tupinambá, however, are the local toponyms: from the Bay of Guanabara (“Bay That Looks Like the Sea”) to the beach of Ipanema (“Bad Water,” i.e. not good for fishing because of the surf) and the national park of Tijuca (“Marsh”), the places the Amerindians named so long ago still define contemporary Rio de Janeiro.

African Ancestry

About four million slaves reached Brazil over the 300-odd years of the slave trade. Aside from influencing the language—many Brazilian children’s terms are of African origin—their religious traditions, which amalgamated with Christianity, created today’s syncretic religions of Candomblé and, especially in Rio de Janeiro, Umbanda. The slaves also brought with them their cooking —a heavy influence in traditional cuisine—their dances, and their strongly percussive music which mutated into samba and today dominates the city’s airwaves.

During the late 20C the immense contribution the African and mixed-race population has made to the life and culture of Rio de Janeiro has been recognized and celebrated as something that makes the city unique and special.


The Portuguese were the victors against the Indians and the French. As such it comes as no surprise that it is their culture that prevailed: their Christian Catholic religion; their Portuguese language, albeit mixed with Tupi and African terms; and their art which was founded on European principles. In the state of Rio de Janeiro other European groups are also prevalent, such as the Finns in Penedo and the Germans in the mountain region of Petrópolis and Freiburg.

The racial breakdown in the metropolitan area (2000 census) is 53 percent white, 35 percent mixed race (pardo), 10.5 percent black, and of the rest only 0.3 percent identify as indigenous.

It is worth noting, though, that this racial predominance is a fairly recent phenomenon. By 1600 Rio de Janeiro had a population of some 2,000 souls (with almost no European women), by 1700 it had reached 10,000, and by 1800 the city numbered close to 45,000 people composed mostly of African slaves and free citizens of mixed heritage. It was only through a late 19C and early 20C immigration strategy to attract Europeans to work in the city—and the country—that the current proportions came about.

Urban landscape

Every visitor will immediately notice the huge social differences found within the city’s landscape. The usual problems associated with economically challenged neighborhoods exist here. Government programs are improving the services and the basic infrastructure for the approximately two million people living in the poorest neighborhoods and slums. The majority of the residents of the favelas are hardworking and law-abiding citizens; the areas should however, only be visited by organized tours.


For the second-largest city in the most populous Catholic country in the world, Rio de Janeiro is surprisingly religiously diverse: in the 2000 census only 54 percent identified as Roman Catholic. The historically prevalent religion in whose name the country was colonized has long been in retreat. Equally surprising is the percentage that identify as atheist (16.7 percent), a proportion twice as large as in the rest of Brazil.

Evangelical churches have been growing fast in the last two decades. Twenty-two percent of Cariocas belong to one

of the many variations of evangelical churches established in the city with a large majority (14 percent) favoring the Pentecostal variety.

Finally, around 5 percent believe in one of the African religions such as Candomblé and Umbanda, or belong to one of the minor spirit churches—whose congregation believe in immortality of the soul and reincarnation and have no relation with the African religions.

Both Candomblé and Umbanda are characterized by a syncretism of Christianity and African beliefs whereby Catholic saints and their images are fused with deities of the African continent, called orixás, such as Xangô, the god of thunder and lightning; Oxóssi, the god of forests; Ogum, the god of war; Yemanjá the goddess of the sea; and Exu, the devil. Although these African religions have been persecuted down to recent times, not only did they survive, but they are also responsible for Rio’s second most spectacular participatory festival after Carnival. On the night of 31 December, it seems that the whole population of the city descends on Copacabana Beach to launch candlelit paper boats into the sea in honor of Yemanjá.

Food and Drink

The cosmopolitan character of Rio cuisine is evident in the great variety of dishes from all over Brazil that are served in thousands of restaurants in the city. You can easily find moquecas (fish stews) and vatapás (mash made out of bread, shrimp, coconut milk, and palm oil), traditional dishes of the north and the northeast with African and Indian ingredients and seasonings, churrascos (barbecues) typical of the south of the country, and cozidos (stews) of Portuguese and Spanish influence. As becomes the frenetic pace of a big city, however, quick meals are also popular, usually accompanied by tropical fruit juices or soft drinks, eaten standing at the counters of lanchonetes, snack-bars that have multiplied at least as quickly as the big international fast food franchises.

The feijoada is the most characteristic dish of Rio de Janeiro. It is traditionally eaten on Saturdays; a distant echo of the times when a pig was slaughtered on the plantations. The cheap cuts were left for the slaves who cooked them in a black bean stew. Today, the feijoada still contains cuts that range from cutlets, sausages, and belly to trotters and even ears, cooked in a stew with oil, garlic, onion, and bay leaves. The indispensable accompaniment is white rice, couve (sautéed collard greens) with crackling, and farofa (manioc flour cooked golden in butter) with some drops of appetizing pepper sauce. Similar to the feijoada, the cozido is a Carioca institution: a large pot with different kinds of meats (beef, chicken, pork, and sausage) and vegetables (pumpkins, carrots, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, and onions) is allowed to cook very slowly for up to eight hours, the various ingredients being added at set intervals depending on cooking time.

Plates of Portuguese origin are common in Rio de Janeiro, location of the Lisbon court after 1808. As a first course one may try caldo verde, a soup made with greens, paio (a type of dried pork sausage), and potatoes. As dessert, one can sample several sweet dishes of Portuguese origin. Some have a base of egg yolk (quindim de côco), as well as fruit compote. Tropical fruit (pineapple, mango, watermelon, for example) and even European fruit acclimatized to Brazil are enjoyed as dessert.

Because of the climate, Cariocas are not as tempted by wine. Beer rules—and the locals like their beer icy cold: you will often see them carry bottles and cans in foam coverings so that the heat does not warm up their drink as they sit back and enjoy it. You can ask for beer in two ways: as chopp, when you get it on tap and as a cerveja, when you get a bottle or a can.

Caipirinha, the archetypal Brazilian cocktail, consists of white rum (cachaça), sugar, and mashed limes mixed over crushed ice. Its popularity has led to a variety of combinations made with different spirits such as vodka and saki and also cocktails called batidas which are mixtures of fruit juices, cachaça, and sugar. There is an enormous range of flavors: passion fruit, coconut, caju (which is not the nut but the green, bitter cashew fruit), peach, banana, and pineapple to name but a few.

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