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Page last updated at 08:35 GMT, Wednesday, 9 September 2009 09:35 UK

The Real Rio de Janeiro

Made famous by its carnival atmosphere, its samba rhythms, its beaches and its rainforest, Rio de Janeiro is one of the world's most exciting cities.

Few places can set pulses racing in the same way, with its mix of youthful exuberance and old world charm.

The statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooks Rio
The statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooks Rio

Some of Rio's well known set pieces are breathtaking - the rainforest-clad cliffs of Sugarloaf Mountain, the sandy beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer gazing benevolently down on the city. But it is a city defined as much by the spirit and vitality of its people as it is by its views and vistas.

Rio's inhabitants (called Cariocas) are well known for their spontaneity, their energy and their lust for life. These manifest themselves not just in large-scale events like Carnival or the New Year's celebrations of Reveillon but also in the impromptu celebrations and festivities which are such a feature of the city's life.

Turbulent history

Walking through the city's narrow streets you can see the history of its colonial past in its buildings and traditions. But Rio is a city that is constantly changing and has always embraced the new.

The Portuguese discovered Rio de Janeiro and Guanabara Bay on January 1, 1502 and its name translates as 'January River'.

After centuries of Portuguese rule, battles with the French, slave ships and, finally, independence, the history of Rio has often been violent and turbulent.

The city is commonly divided into the historic downtown (Centro); the South Zone (Zona Sul), with its world-famous beaches; the residential North Zone (Zona Norte); and the West Zone (Zona Oeste), with the rainforest in the Barra da Tijuca district.

Beaches

Image shows Ipanema Beach
The white sands of Ipanema beach

One of the more popular picture postcard sights are the white sand beaches of Rio.

In the South Zone of Rio you will find coastline of Sao Conrado, Leblon, Ipanema, Arpoador, Copacabana and Leme. This is the richest region of the city and it has long been a playground for the the beautiful, the rich and the famous.

The neighbourhood of Copacabana hosts one of the world's most spectacular New Year's Eve parties, Reveillon, at which more than two million partygoers crowd onto the sands to watch the fireworks display. The party goes all night as revellers enjoy hundreds of shows and events along the beach.

Carnival

The Carnival takes place each year at the beginning of Lent, when Rio comes alive with colour, rhythm and a sense of theatre.

In 1840, the first Carnival was a lavish masked ball thrown for the wealthy and powerful. As time passed and participation became more open, something similar to the parade of floats and costumes that we know today began to emerge. In the first half of the 20th Century, the Afro-Brazilian music and drumming that is now the Carnival's most distinctive began to be an integral part of the festivities.

For many it's the Carnival that sums up the city. But the same spirit can be found in the city all year round - lively, boisterous, spontaneous and vital.



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