South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
Beach lovers are spoilt for choice in Rio. Joseph Leahy strikes out beyond Copacabana and Ipanema to find quieter, more secluded havens
It is a Sunday afternoon and all is quiet on Prainha, or Little Beach, on the south-western edge of Rio de Janeiro. The weather is cold by Rio’s standards – around 20C – if balmy to a redhead such as myself. This might explain the absence of bikinis, bathers and vendors who ply everything from beer to queijo coalho – a kind of barbequed cheese – on a typical Brazilian city beach.
The other reason for the peace is that this is far removed from Copacabana or Ipanema, the city’s most famous beaches immortalised in such bossa nova classics as the “Girl From Ipanema”.
Prainha is one of Rio’s alternative beaches — the city’s hidden havens that reward those willing to make the trek out of the more densely inhabited south zone, of which Copacabana and Ipanema are the central neighbourhoods.
Situated in the Pedra Branca nature reserve around 45km from the centre of Rio (it takes between one and two hours by car, depending on the traffic), Prainha makes it almost possible to forget you are in a megacity whose greater metropolitan region has a population of around 12 million people.
The approach to the 700m stretch of sand takes you down a little winding road with the nature reserve on your right and the waves on your left. As you roll down your windows and let in the fresh sea air, you begin to feel the city stress fading away. (Still, arrive early in summer if you want to get a parking spot and bring plenty of mosquito repellent.)
Even the beach kiosks here are a step up from the usual. On Copacabana, the gaudy booths are swamped with beer advertising and sell fish scraps deep-fried in yesterday’s oil. At Prainha you can sit on the boardwalk at the modest but tasteful Brother stall and munch on a delicious homemade banana and granola torte or quiche (with a beer, of course).
The waves are good enough to attract professional surfers, according to Surf Bus, a private bus service that stops at each of the city’s beaches, finishing at Prainha.
Staying within the nature reserve but continuing down the road from Prainha away from Barra, you come to Grumari beach, a 2.5km stretch of fine-textured sand. One part of this, Abriço, has apparently been reserved as a nudist beach.
Grumari is less crowded than Prainha and is a true gem away from the hustle of the city. Even more special, down the road towards the Barra de Guaratiba village is the Point de Grumari restaurant. This is a cheerful place with outdoor seating, offering grilled fish and seafood with spectacular views over one of the wonders of the Rio coastline, the Restinga da Marambaia. This narrow sandbank, with 45km of beach that stretches like a finger out from the mainland mass, is under military control and not easily accessible by the public.
If you do not have time to make the trek as far as Prainha or Grumari, slightly closer to Rio’s centre is another secluded though less spacious haven, Joatingabeach. At the end of Barra da Tijuca closest to Ipanema and Copacabana, this tiny 300m stretch on a headland is accessible through a gated community, the Costa Brava complex. (By law, the guards must allow access to the beach, which is about a 10-minute walk away.)
Closer again to the city but still less crowded than Ipanema and Copacabana is São Conrado beach. Thanks to its strong currents it has large waves popular with surfers. Other activities include paragliding and hang-gliding from the top of the immense Gavea Rock.