Sweepers, Samba, and Sugarloaf

Sweepers, Samba, and Sugarloaf
The flight was long  -  8 hours from Miami  -  and although it was a night flight, I was too excited about the upcoming tour to sleep well. Drowsy, I staggered from the plane. A morning brew of warm, humid air swamped my face. A curtain of gray clouds concealed the mountains of Rio de Janeiro.

Ricardo, a Brazilmoto employee, picks Christa and me up at the airport and safely steers the blue Land Rover through heavy city traffic. Small motorcycles pass, flitting by on our left and right, the riders in shorts and shirts masterfully maneuvering their 175cc bikes at high speed between the cars. Finally we arrive at the Ipanema Plaza Hotel, which is in the district of Ipanema, a very hip place to be in Rio. Today, a rest day, gives us time to settle in, explore some and let the jet lag melt away.

Rio de Janeiro

An hour later Christa and I are strolling along the beach promenade. The weather is clearing and we can spot blue patches widening in the white and gray clouds. The beach is almost empty except for a few expert surfers slicing the wild tide. A familiar smell tickles my nostrils. "It's coffee time," I say, pulling Christa into the next café. Strong, tasty espresso. I order another and open my guidebook.

Millions of tourists visit Rio de Janeiro every year. The first Westerner to enter Brazil was Amerigo Vespucci. The Italian contracted to sail for the Portuguese empire arrived in Rio on the first of January 1502, entering what he thought to be the mouth of a river, hence the name Rio de Janeiro or River of January. Vespucci's river in reality is a 147-square-mile bay, still known by its Indian name, Guanabara, "arm of the sea."

Unlike the establishment of other European settlements, this was a very peaceful action. Portuguese and Tamoio Indians shared the land in tranquility until raids launched by French pirates prowling the coast eventually broke the peace. In 1555, a French fleet arrived with the intention of planting their flag in the first French settlement in the southern half of South America, but their efforts to colonize the coastline were largely unsuccessful.

During the 1700s, the gold rush in the neighboring state of Minas Gerais turned Rio into the colony's financial center. In 1763, the colonial capital was transferred from Salvador to Rio in recognition of Rio's newly won status.

With Brazil's independence in 1822, Rio's title shifted to "Capital of the Brazilian Empire." But the twentieth century ushered in a surge of economic growth in the state of Sao Paulo. By 1950, Sao Paulo surpassed Rio in population and economic importance, a lead it hasn't relinquished. Then, in 1960, Rio lost more of its status when president Juscelinio Kubitschek formally moved the nation's capital to the city he had founded in the center of the country, Brasilia.

Supremacy may reside in Sao Paulo and the decisions may be made in Brasilia, but as cariocas note with pride, the plots are still hatched in Rio de Janeiro. Carioca refers to someone from the city of Rio de Janeiro. Named for the nearby river, settlers in its vicinity (which became the city of Rio de Janeiro) were known as Cariocas.

Later in the hotel lobby we meet the tour operator and our guide, Davis, and Paula and Henry, another US couple along for the ride. Davis is limping badly and he tells us on the way to the city's premier seafood restaurant, Marius' Crustaceo, about his accident at the BMW training center in the Enduro Park of Hechlingen, Germany. But he's quick to assure us his injury won't influence our trip, and that the entire tour route remains as advertised.