Copacabana beach is just dreamlike. You walk down to the water’s edge and gaze out over the ocean to these fairy tale islands that look like they’ve drifted in from another plane. The sky begins to melt with the sunset and this great feeling of peace and wonder descends upon you.
It’s about then that you realise that some small black kid has grabbed your camera and run while you were busy having an experience.
Copacabana is the hub of tourism in Rio de Janeiro and is the ugliest, sleaziest neighbourhood you’re likely to see in Rio. Along the ocean front are endless hotels that block the sea view and imprison the rest of the neighbourhood. Directly in front of all the hotels are the strip clubs and brothels which all got to make Copacabana the biggest sex tourist capital in South America. Walk along for a while and you’ll see middle aged German and English men in boyish shorts, patting their bellies and leering at their 19 year old black ‘girlfriend’ from the nearby favelas.
Roadjunky saw three fat American businessmen with their hired prostitutes, sitting at a bar. Whilst the girls laughed at their every joke, the chief came back from the bathroom and shook his fat ass in front of the girls’ faces. They laughed but when we heard them leave they giggled amongst themselves:
“Ninguem merece!” (‘No one deserves it!’ A popular Rio slang)
Some of the cafe terraces along here are filled with girls for hire and they sit alone at tables, waiting hopefully. Or else they stroll up and down provocatively, trying to catch your eye. You can’t blame them – selling their body for one night is the equivalent of washing houses for some rich family in Leblon.
The Lonely planet and other guidebooks like to recommend that travelers go along to Help, the biggest tourist prostitute pick-up joint. It only costs $5 to get in and then the tourists make their own deals with the prostitutes inside. Presumably the Lonely Planet imagines this to be a rather risque experience but it’s a pure tourist trap fueled by the lowest vibes that there are. Whilst the girls from the favelas try to make a buck from lustful Westerners, some of the guys wait in the shadows for some dumb gringo to come staggering along drunk. Obviously, sometimes the girls are in collusion with them.
All in all, Copacabana is not a place you want to be strolling around after midnight unless you know exactly where you’re going and where’s good to avoid. To get from Ipanema to downtown you have to pass through Copacabana and the main street here is a contender for one of the most congested streets in the world. Sometimes there are as many as 20 buses all shunting along together in a pack. it can take 45 minutes to traverse the main street of Nossa Senhora de Copacabana and you’re almost better off walking.
Crowded, noisy and filthy, Nossa Senhora de Copacabana is interesting from the anthropological point of view though as you see people trying to make a living one way or another. Those who don’t turn to crime or vice turn to selling their wares on the street. Known as camelos, the street merchants don’t have legal status and keep all their stock on a blanket or stall that can be folded up fast. At the first sign of a white Volkswagen van they hustle up all they have and make a run for it before the police come and beat them with their sticks.
If it doesn’t seem logical that the police should harass poor people trying to get by honestly instead of by selling drugs or robbing tourists then you’ve maybe missed the point. In societies like Rio de Janeiro where the rich and the poor are so abysmally divided, it’s necessary to persecute the poor to the maximum so that they know their place. Then any residual frustration is cured by distracting them with the lavish Carnival celebrations.
Really, you have little reason to come to Copacabana other than to go to a Jujitsu school, space out on the beach (with your belonging safely in your arms) or pass through on your way to downtown Lapa or Catete.