Rio de Janeiro, the second largest city in Brazil, is often called Cidade Maravilhosa, the Marvelous City. Squeezed by the Atlantic Ocean and the verdant hills of Brazil, Rio’s dramatic natural setting has impressed visitors for decades. The energy of its residents is legendary. No one dances more exquisitely or parties longer than the cariocas (residents of Rio). Even within Brazil, cariocas are known as fun, sensual, and easygoing. Their main playgrounds are the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, names that easily roll off the tongue.
Yet, Rio is a great city of extremes, often cruel in its indifference to the poor. Next to five-star hotels, the poorest cariocas live in cardboard houses. The great favelas, shantytowns, reach high into the hills, where many residents are lost to poverty, drug abuse, and a life of crime. In the early 1990s, cariocas were shaken from their complacency to social problems when the media reported that corrupt police officers—paid by business owners—were murdering homeless children. The city lost its luster, as well as many of its tourists. In one of the most famous incidents, roaming bands of youths from the favelas descended on Copacabana Beach, robbing tourists and cariocas alike. Cidade Maravilhosa (marvelous city)? Perhaps only in geography. Yet, cariocas no longer appear complacent about their problems. The city is slowly trying to regain its streets from criminals and years of decay. Many favelas now have basic city services. Its social problems are daunting, but cariocas have an uncharacteristic optimism.