Brazil is guilty of a torrid love affair with the sun. When it's raining in Rio, locals hurry by with umbrellas cloaking expressionless faces like shocked victims of sudden infidelity. But when it's sunny, especially in the summer months (our winter), it seems the entire population can be found basking on the sand. Spanning the equator and nearly 5,000 miles long, the shimmering Brazilian coastline is host to regions as diverse as the arid northeastern flatlands of Salvador, the misty Atlantic rain forest of the Discovery Coast near Porto Seguro, and the mountainous tropical zone of Rio de Janeiro. So there's a perfect beach for everybody: lovers, divers, hang gliders, snorkelers, surfers, nudists, or dime-store mystery readers. Most big urban beaches, like Ipanema and Copacabana in Rio, and even some smaller beaches have sections primarily for gays and lesbians. New Year's Eve and carnival (the infamous four-day midsummer celebration during late February) are siren calls for travelers all over the world to drop their anchors and let the tide wash them onto Brazil's shores.
It was raining when I arrived in Rio last September, so I escaped driving north to Búzios, where cariocas (citizens of Rio de Janeiro) go to really cut loose. Búzios was a lazy fishing village until it was made famous by Brigitte Bardot, who spent a summer there in 1964 with her Brazilian boyfriend. Bardot's legacy has transformed Búzios into a resort town: Top-tier guesthouses and pampering hotels nestle in its hills.
As much as I liked my sunga (bikini), I couldn't wait to take it off and let the sun envelop me. I'd parked close to Praia Olho de Boi, a naturist beach on the eastern tip of the Búzios peninsula, at an adjacent fishermen's beach, Praia Brava. From here a red dirt path meanders up and over the mountain separating Brava from Olho de Boi. Along the way I met three proud fishermen carrying the morning's catch (this evening's dinner), a burnished mare grazing on hillside vegetation, and a small crab skittering down the basalt that frames the beach. The morning sun smiled on me as I windmilled down the steep path, tore off my sunga, and raced across shell fragments worn smooth by the waves to float in the warm tidal pools that make this cozy cove a bather's paradise. Though not specifically a gay beach, Olho de Boi is popular with gay men and straight couples, resulting in a relaxed mix of blissed-out nudists.
If Ipanema is where Brazilians go to cruise, and Búzios is where they go to relax, then Porto Seguro is where they go on honeymoon. Here in the Bahia, 600 miles north of Rio, Brazil was born. Pedro Cabral, a Portuguese explorer, discovered this coastline in 1500, and it retains a rustic, historic authenticity. Small pousadas (guesthouses) are the rule in the neighboring beach town of Arraial d'Ajuda. The beaches here are narrow and tranquil, the waters clear and green. The surf is calm, tempered by a long offshore reef system, and when you wade into the waves the sand is so soft that your ankles sink into the seabed. You literally become one with the beach as the water cascades ashore in a cool, gentle froth.
Just south of Porto Seguro is the Atlantic rain forest, large parts of which are still protected. I wanted to see the savage coast and booked a trip through Selvagem Adventure, a gay-friendly company that specializes in taking visitors to the remote cliff towns that date to the earliest Portuguese missions. Eduardo, Selvagem's owner, put his Land Rover into four-wheel drive, and we chugged through arroyos cut deep into dirt roads from the recent rains. A swath of blue appeared to the east. As we approached the last hill before the coastal town of Espelho, the Atlantic wind pushed the southern clouds behind us into the forest. We trekked down a wild oceanside bluff and found ourselves facing a lashing steely sea. To our right was infamous Praia do Amores.
"How did it get the name?" I asked.
"In the 1950s, before TV," explained Eduardo, "Teenagers used to come down here at night. Now away from their families, they would light bonfires, talk, and have sex for the first time. And even now"--his eyes lit up--"it is very private."
Bordered by sharp coral formations that were left behind when the seas last receded, Praia do Amores was uninhabited this cloudy morning. But our presence there triggered the sun to fight its white cover and cast it away. I pretended I was a castaway as we wound north down the flat white virgin sands to Praia Espelho. I stood on the veranda of a gracious guesthouse and watched the sun advance from the sea. A great band of vibrant green striped the cobalt cloud shadows one cresting wave at a time, until what came crashing to the shore was not just meringue foam--or salt or wind or sand--but the very soul of Brazil, the equatorial inferno of the bright spring sun.
In an open-air café that night in Arraial d'Ajuda, a bossa nova singer swaggered to my table and handed me a gourd to shake in rhythm to his fingerpicking. "Tall and tan and dark and lovely," he sang gently, "The girl from Ipanema goes walking / And when she passes, each one she passes goes, ‘Ah.' " I understood then the true nature of saudade, my longing deep as ocean blue for Rio de Janeiro. For if you could bring together the finest aspects of every urban beach you'd ever been to, you'd wind up on Praia Ipanema in Rio, a mile-long strip of soft natural sand blessed with tropical weather virtually year-round. It has the surf of Waikiki--and its surfer mentality--with the diversity and tolerance that comes from big-city life and centuries of cultural blending.
Ipanema shares with Waikiki a glorious vista of natural beauty (Rio has Sugarloaf, Honolulu has Diamond Head) and a promenade of luxurious hotels ringing the ocean. Yet Ipanema--and its more famous neighbor, the curvaceous Copacabana--also contains the playground athleticism, contented faces, and gleaming hard bodies of Mediterranean beach towns. There's the happy backbeat of lapping surf, soccer balls smacking off thighs, the slap of paddleballs on wood. Silent capoeira dancers leap to these rhythms and to the laughter that accompanies another Brazilian invention, futevole, which resembles beach volleyball (only it's played with a soccer ball, and you can't use your hands).
Rio's beaches are a wonderful mix of locals and tourists, as in Barcelona or on Venice Beach in Los Angeles, with room on the sand for necessities like jungle gyms and free weights. Brazil promotes a culture of the body, and the most beautifully honed muscles in the world are here. Ipanema has inherited the drumming counterculture of Holland's Zandvoort, and like the Caribbean beaches of Montego Bay, Jamaica, it is fragrant with bonfires, incense, and marijuana without Montego's homophobia or violent hustling. It has the open gay life of parts of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Sitges, Spain, with an entire section dedicated to gays and lesbians. Cariocas practice the "any excuse for a party" joie de vivre of boozy Midwestern lakefronts, giving it a cruisy down-home feel with plenty of beer and boom boxes, even steamed corn on the cob. This close to the equator, the Atlantic is warm and welcoming year-round, and if the surf's high, it only means it's happy to see you and wants to take you for a ride.
My friend Rostand, cofounder of Rio G, a gay and lesbian travel center just off the beach, was not impressed.
"There's nobody here," he protested. I looked around. There were at least 200 people on the gay beach: coupled barbies (gay yuppies) lounging with friends and small children, single buffies (muscular machos) strutting from parasol to parasol, a happy threesome of two guys and a girl toweling each other off. "Today it is completely empty. It is like having sex without an orgasm. You must return in the summer when there are 2,000 of us."
I didn't agree with him then, but now that I'm back in the States I know he's right about one thing. I have to go back--and the sooner the better.
Rio: Even the simplest rooms offer a veranda with a keen beach view at gay-friendly Praia Ipanema Hotel (706 Veira Souto Ave., Ipanema, 011-5521-2141-4949, $143–$199). Rising 16 stories on the edge of upscale Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro, close to the tony neighborhood of Leblon, the marquee on the building's side is a beacon for wandering beachgoers who would otherwise get hopelessly lost. Recently renovated with spacious closets, luxurious beds, and Internet access; the gay staff, especially, are exceedingly helpful. Buzios: the Perola Buzios (222 Jose Bento Ribeiro Dantas Ave., Buzios, 011-5522-2620-8507, $136–$393) is a beautiful hotel just off the Rua das Pedras, the main beach drag in Buzios. With a two-level ellipse orbiting a convivial pool, it's impossible not to fall in love with the hotel's design and sophistication. Each room offers a stone waterfall shower, backyard garden, and poolside cabana with a hanging bed for outdoor cuddling. Hernan Saucedo, the hotel's gay-friendly Argentine manager, has infused the Perola Buzios with international cool: You can sip a cold fresh-squeezed passion fruit juice while you kick back to the house DJ and wait for your chocolate mascara facial. It also offers two Finnish steam baths and the best fitness center in Buzios. Arraial d'Ajuda: Lesbian-owned and operated Pousada Verde Agua Praia (1893 Est. do Arraial d'Ajuda, 011-5573-3575-1453, $32–$50) is a romantic and warm Portuguese mission-style guesthouse in Arraial d'Ajuda on the Discovery Coast. Each rustic apartment has a small balcony or porch, and the house cats will be glad to walk you down the stone pathway to the beach. Close to the ferry from Porto Seguro and a five-minute bus ride away from the surfer shops and Bahian restaurants of downtown Arraial d'Ajuda. Perfect for an idyllic getaway.
Rio: It would be crazy not to avail yourself of the many juice stands in Ipanema, of which Jugo Suco (the corner of Garcia d'Avila and Prudente de Morais streets) is the best and cheapest: Order mango, coconut, or the luscious acai berry. If you like to be serenaded with sausages by beefy Brazilian waiters all night, try Porçao, a well-appointed churrascaria (218 Barao da Torre St., Ipanema, 011-5521-3389-8989). In Buzios, the Perola Buzios's resident chef, Marcello Sokolowski, whips up Brazilian-spiced seafood fresh from the Atlantic to the house DJ's drum and bass. Also try Sawasdee (422 Jose Bento Ribeiro Dantas Ave., 011-5522-2623-4644), an intimate Thai restaurant in the heart of Buzios, for authentic Thai dishes and piquant Brazilian-Thai fusion. For after-beach crepes and coffee, hit Chez Michou (90 Rua das Pedras). In the old downtown of Arraial d'Ajuda, savor the historic Afro-Brazilian delicacies of Delicias Bahianas (along Rua do Mucugê, 011-5573-3575-3908), an open-air café, and watch the surfers mend their boards and the tourists wander freely as you savor menjorca (crispy yucca dumplings filled with meat and cheese), moquecas (stew) and feijoada (the Brazilian national dish, a hearty pot of ham and black beans over rice).
There's a party every night in the Brazilian summer, and in Ipanema there's a party on every block. For early evening caipirinhas (limes and sugarcane liquor: Think of a sweet but mintless mojito), follow the Speedo boys from the gay beach to Bar Bofetada (87A Rua de Farme de Amoedo, Ipanema, 011-5521-2227-6992). Then cab it to Copacabana to trash it up at Le Boy (92 Raul Pompea St., Copacabana, 011-5521-2513-4993) or Le Girl (102 Raul Pompea St., Copacabana), where you can slug down local lagers and get down and dirty with the city kids. Track the latest happenings of gay and lesbian Rio at riogtravel.com or stop by the Rio G offices in Ipanema (25A Teixeira de Melo St., 011-5521-3813-4548). Patio Havana (101 Rua da Pedras, 011-5522-2623-2169) in Buzios offers a sharky whiskey club, a cigar bar, and live music, including salsa, samba, and blues. Meanwhile, romance is king on the Discovery Coast, where nightlife is only a prelude to bedroom athletics. Nuzzle the suede at Estrela Aipim Restaurante (Beco do Jegue, Arraial d'Ajuda, 011-5573-3575-3222) over ginger-pepper cachaças in a slick minimalist open-air lounge surrounded by lush banana trees.
In Rio you can take the subway to Estádio do Maracanã (Portão 18, Professor Eurico Rabelo, 011-5521-2568-9962) to watch an intense soccer match with 100,000 newfound friends. Cheer for Fluminense, Botafogo, or Flamengo, the local clubs it hosts. Or take the incline train (and then 222 stairs) to the top of Corcovado, the granite mountain in Tijuca Forest that overlooks Rio's coast. Corcovado is graced by an enormous statue of Christ the Redeemer, who blesses the city below for its many sinful pleasures. Go early in the morning on a clear sunny day for the best experience (and leave early: the train stops running at 6:30 p.m.). For culture and history, the Discovery Coast offers several clifftop Portuguese churches that date to the 1500s. Cidade Alta in Porto Seguro was established in 1526, and the replastered and vividly painted houses that surround it are variously occupied by souvenir vendors, capoeira schools, and descendants of original Portuguese settlers. Trancoso's Quadrado is a wide grassy plateau on a bluff facing the ocean, the whitewashed walls of its sanctuary still calling to sailors searching for a friendly port.
WHEN TO GO
New Year's Eve and Carnaval (in late February) attract the biggest crowds and also the highest prices for hotels. For the cheapest airfares and hotel bills, visit between June and October, during Brazilian winter, although the weather may not be wholly cooperative. Between December and March is high summer season, and reservations should be made well in advance. If you can, plan your trip for the shoulder season months of May or November, when the weather is agreeable and the crowds have thinned enough for elbow room but not so much that you're alone on a misty beach. Brazil now requires an entry visa for U.S. citizens, so make sure you have two weeks to acquire it. Go to the Web site of the Brazilian Embassy for information on the Brazilian consulate nearest to you. If you do not live in a major U.S. city, you may have to hire a courier or travel to the closest consulate for visa processing. Visa-related costs will run approximately $200.
There are no direct flights from the United States to Rio de Janeiro; you will have to stop in São Paolo and connect to Rio from there. TAM Airlines (888-2-FLY-TAM) provides good service and competitive fares internationally, and is very good for domestic travel within Brazil. Unless you are a serious control freak, you will not want to rent a car in Rio, Buzios, or Porto Seguro. In Rio, traffic and parking problems will outweigh any convenience. Cabs and buses are plentiful and relatively cheap; take the Radio Taxi from the airport into Ipanema for $30. You can take the public bus from Rio to Buzios for $20 each way (three hours); catch it at the Copacabana depot. When you are in Buzios, you can rent a dune buggy to go from beach to beach, or just take the walking tour. If you drive between cities in Brazil, make sure your paperwork is in order and be prepared to be stopped by military police looking for drugs. If they catch you with a joint, you could be fined hundreds of dollars or jailed. To go to Porto Seguro from Rio, you will have to fly into Salvador first (if there's more than an hour layover, take a taxi to lovely Praia Itapua, 15 minutes from the airport). Catch a cab from Porto Seguro airport to the passenger ferry that crosses the Rio Buranhem every half-hour to Arraial d'Ajuda. Then, hop on the public bus ($0.50) to find your guest house. Trips to the historic beach towns of Trancoso and Espelho can be arranged by contacting the gay-friendly, English-speaking ecotourism company Selvagem Adventure (011-5573-3575-3031); Selvagem also arranges trips to Indian villages in the Atlantic rain forest. Most secondary roads in this part of Brazil are unpaved, and get treacherously bumpy after rainstorms; if you insist on renting a car to explore the Discovery Coast, rent one light enough to carry out of the ditches you'll assuredly wind up in.
Brazilian cities and states have very progressive antidiscrimination laws: businesses can be fined for denying services to consumers based on sexual orientation. Officials have the power to shut down hotels and restaurants if they are found to consistently discriminate against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender clientele. There are no sodomy laws on the books (unless you're in the Brazilian military). There is no recognized gay marriage legislation, but the state of Rio de Janeiro gives domestic partner benefits to government employees, and civil unions are recognized in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. The official age of consent in Brazil is 18; authorities may choose not to prosecute adults who have consensual sex with persons 14 to 17 years old if the younger partner does not lodge a complaint (but we advise against this). Sex work is not illegal in Brazil, and sex workers' organizations have been on the front lines of HIV prevention efforts, most recently convincing the country to refuse USAID grants that stipulated an anti–sex work platform. Even better, the Brazilian government made a smart move in recent years by providing generic HIV medications free of charge to all its HIV positive citizens. That said, HIV is as much of a problem in gay Brazil as it is in the United States. Condoms and lubricant can be purchased at convenience stores and adult video stores, and they are occasionally provided to patrons of the many gay saunas in Ipanema and Copacabana. Brazilians are very open and pleasant, and gay and lesbian travelers should not encounter discrimination. Still, it is a Catholic country, and public displays of affection between couples of any orientation are uncommon. It will raise eyebrows if you're kissing your partner on the street--or anywhere in public besides the gay beaches--but walking arm-in-arm is perfectly fine.