As the countdown to the World Cup 2014 begins, all eyes are on Brazil — the exotic, diverse, and edgy South American nation. In the land where soccer has assumed religious status and legendary players such as Pelé and Romario’s rank are elevated to Brazil’s pantheon of saints, the first World Cup to be held in Brazil in 64 years promises to be a mind blowing event, both on and off the pitch. Despite some rather unfortunate PR issues — stadium glitches, runaway budgets (we are talking $3.5 billion in the pot for 12 new of gussied up stadiums), and more than the odd tear gas marred protest — Brazil’s trademark passion and unbridled sensuality remains unsurpassable. From the beaches and mountains of Rio, to the cosmopolitan verve of São Paulo, the cowboy town of Porto Alegre, and the gold towns of Minas Gerais, Brazil’s host cities are fluffing their feathers for one hell of a samba party.
In part one of our host city rundown, we focus on the iconic metropolises and natural wonders of the south.
Rio de Janeiro
One of the world’s most fabled cities, Rio de Janeiro, the cidade maravilhosa (marvelous city) is an exotic playground of stunning natural beauty. Few cities on earth can boast a lake framed by black chiseled mountains, shimmering white sand beaches immortalized in Bossa Nova melodies, virgin Atlantic rainforest, timeless colonial villages, and, well, the biggest favela on the continent. You can take the cable car to the granite monolith that is Sugar Loaf Mountain or board the rickety train to the summit of Mount Corcovado (2,329 feet) where the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue — the largest Art Deco statue in the world — arms outstretched, casts his gaze upon the natural wonders below.
The famed beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana also need no introduction. While Copacabana’s glamorous 1960s allure has certainly faded, its two-and-a-half mile swath of dazzling white sand beach flanked by skyscrapers remains one of the world’s most iconic vistas. Ipanema invites indulgence at every turn, from sun worshipping to unbridled shopping — a Brazilian marriage made in heaven.