Copacabana and Leme
Although its glamour days are long gone, Copacabana still manages to live up to its legend as the world’s most famous strip of white sand. Originally a tiny fishing village, it didn’t gain neighborhood status until the 1891 dynamiting of the Túnel Velho through the mountains opened up the deserted beaches of the Zona Sul to the beginnings of urbanization.
With the construction of the Mediterranean-style luxury hotel Copacabana Palace in 1923, the wealthy and fabulous came flocking. A slew of gorgeous deco apartment buildings soon rose up along the beachfront’s Avenida Atlântica. Before long “Copa” was not just the place to live but the place to party. Tycoons, movie stars, royalty, and the international jet set transformed its sweeping carpet of sand into their personal playground.
A Copa address became so coveted that by ’60s and ’70s, the long but narrow neighborhood (hemmed in by mountains) was the most densely populated urban area in the world. To this day, Copa is not unlike a tropical Manhattan: People fork out absurd amounts of money to live in one of the thousands of closet-sized apartments located in the ugly high-rises that have mushroomed in the streets behind the oceanfront. The most populous of them all is the Edifício Richard, located Rua Barata Ribeiro 194, which has 507 apartments (45 per floor).
While many of Rio’s rich and fashionable have since moved on to the more chic neighborhoods of Ipanema and Leblon, Copa has become—for better or for worse—one of Rio’s most eclectic, vibrant, and democratic neighborhoods, a place where street kids and millionaires, models and muscle men, doormen and nannies from the Northeast of Brazil and American tourists from the deepest, darkest Midwest all rub shoulders.
While during the day senior citizens swarm the beaches and the dozens of bakeries along the main drag of Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana, by night the stretch of Avenida Atlântica towards Ipanema is a hot spot for prostitutes and for the (many foreign) johns who travel to Copa in search of more piquant forms of R&R. There is also the complication of four major favelas covering the steep hills behind the middle-class condos. Shoot-outs between drug traffickers and police mean that it’s not uncommon for shots to ring out (and stray bullets to fly).
Although Copa is not the safest place in the world, the oceanfront is well-policed, and if you’re aware and don’t flash your valuables, you will be fine. It’s best to stick to well-populated areas, particularly at night, and it is also advisable to take a taxi unless you’re strolling beneath the well-lit hotel exteriors on Avenida Atlântica. Despite its darker and seedier sides, Copacabana is full of a vibrancy and diversity that is unrivaled by any other Rio neighborhood.
Although its glamor has definitely faded, it’s hard to resist the charm of the local restaurants and traditional bars that coexist alongside the multitude of 24-hour gyms and juice bars. Copa may be a little decadent and tacky in places, but it is also, quite simply, fun. And whatever you may think of the bairro itself, there is no denying the allure of Copacabana Beach, the magnificent crescent-shaped sweep of sand that is a world unto itself.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition