Rio de Janeiro is an awe-inspiring city of contrasts. Impossibly steep granite mountains jut out of the ocean between glorious stretches of golden sand, impeccable colonial buildings nestle in between modern glass skyscrapers and verdant forests tumble down hillsides into densely populated residential areas. It is a city high on life, a city of beach worship, football, samba and Carnival. And high above all this fun and frivolity stands Rio’s iconic landmark, the statue of Christ the Redeemer – an ever-present vision. The continuing strength of foreign currencies against the Brazilian Real and the national football team’s success in the recent World Cup both have helped to make Brazil – and Rio in particular – an increasingly popular and affordable year-round destination. As well as the city’s well-known landmarks of Corcovado and Sugar Loaf mountains, Rio boasts a wealth of attractions and activities, plus great food, music and entertainment – enough to keep a visitor busy for any length of stay. Situated in southeast Brazil, on the natural port of the Baia de Guanabara (Guanabara Bay), Rio is a city of over ten million people squeezed between the ocean and the mountains. The cidade marvilhosa (marvellous city) is a melting pot of cultures and peoples in varying degrees of wealth or poverty. In Rio, the rich and poor live together and the exclusive areas stand in stark contrast and close proximity to the slum areas or favelas. But no matter what their background or economic standing, the Cariocas – as the citizens of Rio are known – are characterised by a passion and enthusiasm for life, which is on full show during Rio’s famous annual Carnival. Central to the Carioca lifestyle is the beach. From dawn until dusk and even after dark, the residents of Rio can be found enjoying the long stretches of sandy coastline with which the city is blessed. The beach is not merely a place to absorb the sun’s rays but also an important venue for sports, socialising and even business. It is a people-watcher’s paradise – clothing is minimal and bodies are bronzed and beautiful. The famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches are magnets for Brazilians and tourists alike. It has taken five hundred years for Rio to transform itself into one of the world’s greatest cities. On 1 January 1502, Portuguese explorers sailed into Guanabara Bay and named it Rio de Janeiro (River of January), under the mistaken impression that it was an enormous river mouth. The French attempted to gain control of the bay in 1555 but were finally evicted by the Portuguese in 1567. The Portuguese colony was based on sugar cane and agricultural products throughout the 17th century, until the discovery of gold in the nearby Minas Gerais region led to the city’s emergence as a control, export and taxation centre. Black slaves formed the majority of the population in these early days of trading and the African influence is still present in the city’s culture. The capital of colonial Brazil was moved from Bahia (now Salvador) in 1763 to Rio de Janeiro and the city began to flourish, especially when coffee became the predominant export in the 19th century. After the Portuguese monarchy were exiled from Portugal due to Napoleon’s taking Lisbon, Rio became their home and eventually the capital of an independent Brazilian Empire. Finally, Brazil became a Republic in 1889 and Rio de Janeiro remained its capital until 1960, when the Federal government was transferred to Brasilia in 1960. Rio has continued to grow and has become a popular destination not only for tourists but also for migrants from other parts of the country. Despite its development, the city still has more than its fair share of social problems. Strong divisions exist between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Attempts have been made to curtail crime, although both residents and tourists still must remain alert to petty thieves. Rio’s best season is undoubtedly the summer months, between December and February, culminating with Carnival. Temperatures can rise to around 40ºC (104ºF) or more, which, if tourists do as the Brazilians do and visit the beaches and not rush around, is ideal weather.