RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — After years of steady economic growth in Brazil, the dream of an on-the-cheap exotic vacation in Rio de Janeiro has melted faster than a Popsicle in tropical sunshine.
Now, sipping something fancy in boutique bars dotting bourgeois neighborhoods like Ipanema and Leblon will run you a tab to rival any in New York, London or Paris. Even down-home finger-food and a cold beer at a corner bar come at eye-popping prices. But cariocas, as Rio residents are known, don't call their hometown the "marvelous city," or cidade maravilhosa, because of chi-chi eateries or faddish clubs. It's the stunning natural setting, the easy charm of locals and the culture that give the city its flair. And those can all be had for nada at the following spots:
BEACH, BEACH, BEACH
Rio boasts some of the world's most stunning urban beaches and they're worth several visits. Cariocas spend much of their free time sunning themselves, chatting up neighbors, toning their muscles and then showing them off on these long stretches of white sand, so beach-going makes for great people-watching. Go to Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon or Praia Vermelha, at the foot of the Sugarloaf Mountain, if you want to stay in the city. Leave behind the backdrop of buildings and go to beaches in the western suburbs of Barra da Tijuca and Recreio for a quieter experience. Prainha, farther out, makes for great surfing. Keep going west and you'll hit Grumari, the most remote beach, a jewel of a spot surrounded by a nature preserve.
PARQUE LAGE AND THE FAMOUS STATUE
About a half-mile away from the also-gorgeous but not free Jardim Botanico, or Botanical Gardens, Parque Lage has as much charm as its better-known neighbor. Like the Botanical Gardens, this park is a vast green space unfolding from the skirts of the Corcovado mountain, on which Rio's famous Christ the Redeemer statue is perched. It has two added attractions: an early 20th century mansion, which now houses an art school and a worthwhile little cafe that has good weekend brunches, and a steep trail that leads hikers nearly to the feet of the Christ statue. Getting close to the statue itself costs money, but hikers can take in the views from the platform below and hike back down for free.
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