By Lindsay Spratt, Sub Editor
RIO DE JANEIRO – Although the beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon are a must on any Gringo’s list, in the summer months they can get so full that the ‘sea’ is one of tanned bodies rather than the Atlantic Ocean.
Offering respite from the sun worshiping crowds are the beaches in Rio’s West Zone, in the neighborhoods of São Conrado, Barra da Tijuca and Recreio. This zone is one of Rio’s newest, with apartment blocks and shopping malls springing up year after year and lining the central highways. Offering more room than the crowded neighborhoods of the South Zone, the West Zone is rapidly filling up with those looking for more breathing-space and brand-new facilities.
The beaches also reflect this sense of fresh, open air and expanse: Barra da Tijuca’s beach is eighteen kilometers long and one of the longest in the whole of Rio state. It is in Barra that the Athletes’ Village will be built for the 2016 Olympic Games, and one beach will be made private for the complex, that which is known as Praia da Reserva.
Access to the West Zone is by bus or car via the 1.5 kilometer Zuzu Angel Tunnel or by taking the scenic route along Avenida Niemeyer which snakes around the Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) mountain and the Vidigal favela. Arriving from Avenida Niemeyer, the first beach you come to is that of São Conrado.
It is a favorite for hang-gliders and paragliders who land here after take off from the flat-topped Pedra da Gávea (Gávea Rock). It is also popular with surfers and those craving a peaceful spot, especially on weekdays when it is largely empty. Nearby Joatinga beach is also great for surfing.
Next on the route west is Barra da Tijuca beach. Longer and much more easily accessed than São Conrado beach, it provides one of the best options for sun and sand in the area and in some people’s eyes, in all of Rio. Framed by mountains and often much cleaner than the South Zone beaches, Barra beach offers space and a view of the shoreline even in the summer months.
The long, straight strip of sand is orderly broken up by kiosks serving fried fish and coconut water, cold beer and soft drinks. Vendors also walk the length of the beach offering anything from snacks to jewelery and sarongs, just as in the South Zone.
The crowds thin out as you reach Pepê beach, popular with the young and trendy. It is also a magnet for water-sports enthusiasts, namely surfers, windsurfers and kite-surfers. Many surf schools offer lessons for beginners here and the surf bus leaving from Largo do Machado stops here before heading on to Prainha on weekdays and Macumba at weekends.
Further along from Barra beach is Praia da Reserva, which does not offer parking facilities or kiosks and is thus an excellent place to get away from it all. Praia do Recreio, the beach named after the surrounding neighborhood is similar in style to Barra beach, with its sandy strip backed by kisoks.
Macumba beach is next on the coastline and also offers little in the way of kiosks and beach vendors. It is clean and has a great view of the mountains rising from the shore and those cropping out of the ocean. For lunch, a short car-ride into the neighborhood of Recreio offers snacks and more substantial meals at reasonable prices.
The last beaches falling in the West Zone neighborhoods are Prainha (Little Beach) and Grumari. Smaller than Barra beach and bordered by the Atlantic forest, the sense of having left the urban hustle and bustle is complete.