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By Hakan Almerfors, Contributing Reporter

View of Dois Irmões from Ipanema Beach, photo by Hakan Almerfors.
View of Dois Irmões from Ipanema Beach, photo by Hakan Almerfors.

RIO DE JANEIRO – The first beach in Rio de Janeiro to capture the world’s attention was Copacabana Beach. In the 1930’s it became fashionable for famous Hollywood actors to stay at the new luxurious Copacabana Palace Hotel. Everyone wanted to be where the stars were. Word got out. Not long after a literal construction boom took place and tourists started to flock to the beach. The neighboring Ipanema Beach remained in Copacabana’s shadow for most of the century.

Copacabana started out as an affluent neighborhood but soon the wealthier people continued their outward mobility and settled into Ipanema. As a result the beach culture that developed was a bit more refined as opposed to Copacabana Beach, which increasing became more middle class and a daytime destination for the suburban working class. Ipanema’s notoriety began in the early 1960’s when the military dictatorship took control of Brazil. Ipanema became an alternative stronghold for the opposition. Musicians, artists, activists and other cultural dignitaries met on the beach as well as in local bars and book shops to discuss and fraternize. What the Copacabana Palace did for world recognition of Copacabana beach it was the hit song Girl From Ipanema by Tom Jobim and Vinicious Morais that carried the Ipanema style and genre to the rest of the world.

The gay section on Ipanema Beach, photo by Hakan Almerfors.
The gay section on Ipanema Beach, photo by Hakan Almerfors.

As time went on peculiar divisions of Ipanema beach became designated for different social subcultures. The area around lifeguard post number 9, or posto 9, is where the young leftist intellectuals and bohemian hippies smoked joints, played music and discussed politics. Closer to Posto 8 was where gay people dared to show their sexual orientation in a heavily Catholic country run by a military dictatorship. Arpoador beach, or posto 7, on the far east end of Ipanema has the best shaped and most consistent waves. So naturally it was where all the surfers gathered. There were very few tourists until the end of the 1990s. This division is still present today, although there are more tourists and the politics are long gone.

The tide has turned since the glory days of Copacabana Beach. It is Ipanema Beach that is now the most sought after beach in Rio by international tourists and Rio’s hipsters. Why? Copacabana has lost much of what used to make it special. The neighborhood itself has been in a state of decline for more than 40 years. Although still beautiful, unique and worth a visit, the tourist boom combined with the city’s rampant poverty has attracted prostitution, scoundrels, thieves and not so genuine establishments. Sitting at a “quiosque” having your coconut water you are more than likely to get hassled by various unreliable characters.

Crowd at Posto 9, photo by Hakan Almerfors.
Crowd at Posto 9, photo by Hakan Almerfors.

In Ipanema you also have vendors and a few scoundrels but it is on a completely different level. The working girls are not so common. The beach front is residential as opposed to the commercial one in Copacabana. The height of the buildings making it more aesthetically pleasant and less shady, the geographic angle of the beach allows for celebrated sunsets for most of the year (Copacabana has the breathtaking sunrises). Ipanema also has cleaner water because of the strong passing currents and less proximity to the polluted Guanabara Bay. Let’s hope Ipanema does not follow in Copacabana’s path of degradation. Thankfully it is unlikely. The beach front real estate restrictions are stringent, which keep foreign corporations from buying real estate and building hotels and commercial establishments along the beach front.

Just like in Copacabana sports is a dominant feature. The percentage of perfect bodies around Posto 9 and 10 is really high. There are open air free gyms, volleyball courts and football fields marked in the sand everywhere you look. Below I have described where you can find the different tribes on Ipanema Beach.

Arpoador – Posto 7 This is the surfer part. Between Posto 8 and 9 is the gay section. Posto 9 is where the young and hip hang out. In front of Cesar Park Hotel you have the wealthy gringos. Posto 10 is where the really wealthy hang out.

Hakan Almerfors is Swedish and has been living in Rio de Janeiro since 2003. He has been working with tourists ever since, in 2007 he created the Rio travel information site Gringo-Rio.com

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