By Clarissa Butelli, Contributing Reporter

Urca's Praia Vermelha beach, photo by Renata Rocha.

RIO DE JANEIRO – Urca is known by most tourists as the point of departure for the world-famous cable cars, leading up to the Sugarloaf Mountain. What many don’t know is that if things had gone differently in the neighborhood in 1565, Brazilians just might be speaking French today.

It was at the base of the Sugarloaf Mountain and Morro da Urca hills that Estácio de Sá, a Portuguese soldier and officer, disembarked with his companions in 1565 to wage war on French invaders. There, he founded the first Portuguese settlement in the city, São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro – in homage to the Catholic deity Saint Sebastian.

After successfully evading the French, the Portuguese build the São João Fortress, a military base at the foot of the Sugarloaf mountain to protect the city from further maritime attacks. For the next eighty years, the peninsula remained a strictly military area.

It was only after the shallow areas of the Botafogo Bay were land-filled that Urca as we now know it was born. The same landfill that changed the face of the city center and created the Aterro do Flamengo Park also gave birth to its most secluded residential district.

While the richer middle class headed for Copacabana and Leme, Urca was the arrival point for Portuguese immigrants of relatively modest means.

Urca has a stunning view of Guanabara Bay, photo by Priscilla Jordao.
Urca has a stunning view of Guanabara Bay, photo by Priscilla Jordao.

Just beside Botafogo and Copacabana and only a few minutes from Flamengo, Urca now boasts a wealthy population of nearly 7,000 inhabitants. It might be the smallest district in the city, but within its perimeter are three hills, two fortresses and three beaches: Praia de Urca, Praia de Fora, and Praia Vermelha.

Eight military units and the absence of favelas make this district the safest in Rio. And it is second only to Santa Teresa in its small-town feel.

Urca’s space is limited, and the number of people searching for properties there is growing every year. At an average square meter rate of R$8,000, the laws of supply and demand see this price rising. Real estate consultant and researcher Fredie da Urca predicts a steady yearly increase of 19% in value.

According to Fredie’s findings, eighty percent of Urca is made up of houses, the majority of which are three bedrooms or larger. That only leaves twenty percent that have one or two bedrooms, and most are not for rent. With luck and good timing, one can find a one-bedroom property to rent from R$3,500, or to buy starting at R$350,000. Two-bedroom apartments start at R$6,000 per month, with sale prices at R$600,000. A three bedroom will set one back upwards of R$10,000, although there are some deals to be had. A three bedroom house costs R$1 million or more.

At this rate, only the wealthiest newcomers can take advantage of the quietness and safety Urca can provide. Roberto Carlos, Lenine and Zelia Duncan are among the well-known artists that can afford to follow the tradition of the first celebrity to set foot in Urca, Carmen Miranda.

Despite the limited number of streets and the restrictive rates, this neighborhood has countless stories to tell. From the Casino building that gave way to TV studios to its mile-long Embankment, Urca’s landmarks, natural wonders and prime location are a big draw for investors and individual property owners alike.


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