Beach Culture in Rio: How to Blend in Like a Local

To most cariocas, the revered beach is much more than just a place to swim and soak up some rays. And if you want to blend in somewhat, there are a few things you should know about this city’s unique beach culture.

Get to know the “postos”

First things first, “postos” are used as a reference point for locating the different beaches; each beach has its own “posto.”  So if you are meeting people at the beach, they will often use postos to describe their location.

posto 9

Perhaps more importantly, all of the beaches (or postos) in Rio have their own characteristics and are frequented by different crowds.  As Frommers puts it, “beaches are to Rio what cafes are to Paris.”

While Copacabana may be the most famous beach in Rio, it is certainly not the coolest amongst cariocas or Rio residents.  Posto 9 (Ipanema beach) is the place to be and be seen, frequented by a diverse crowd of young people (and on a sunny weekend day, it gets so packed that you can’t even see the sand!).  It is also known for attracting all of the beautiful people.

Between Posto 8 and 9 (also Ipanema) is the gay beach, made distinctly obvious by the rainbow flags waving about.

Posto 12, in Leblon, is less packed than Ipanema. Located in the wealthiest neighborhood of Rio, this posto is (also) filled with many beautiful people, along with many families.

Posto 1 (Leme beach) is more low-key and also less crowded than the others.  Read more about the different postos here.

Update your swimwear 

It is always easy to spot the gringos on the beaches of Rio.  How? Simply put, they are the ones that do not show enough skin.

In direct contrast, the Brazilians are the ones flaunting their bodies.  It is quite refreshing to see that in Rio, women of all ages and sizes sport the bikini – and often a thong bikini or “fio dental” (also the name for dental floss).

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A typical Brazilian bikini (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Unlike in the US, where women generally stop wearing a bikini at a certain age, in Brazil, older, overweight women are just as likely to sport a bikini as younger, skinny women are.  It is actually extremely unusual for anyone to wear a full-piece to the beach.  Fortunately, Brazilian women do not seem to be burdened by the same body hang-ups that Americans are; for the most part, they seem to be comfortable in their own skin and liberated from society’s expectations of the ideal body type.  While the end goal is to show as much skin as possible…no one goes topless (or bottomless for that matter).

So if you want to blend in, be sure to stop by one of the many bikini shops in Rio before hitting the beach, if nothing else than to the avoid getting some looks for that “fralda” (or “diaper”, as Brazilians refer to the American bikini).

As for men, most wear the sunga, which is quite similar to the “speedo” bathing suit. Other guys (often surfers) wear regular trunks.

sunga praia
Sunga, the typical male bathing suit in brazil – and no, it’s not a speedo! (photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Get your bronze on 

Sunbathing is of course a major part of the beach culture in Rio.  But don’t hide those tan lines! Because in Brazil, the more tan lines (and the deeper they are), the better.

Hit up the “barracas” 

Along the beach sidewalk in Copacabana, there are many restaurants (all of which look the same), where you can sit down or take away food.

Sidewalks of Copacabana

On the beach itself, there are numerous small tents (or barracas) throughout, where you can buy drinks and snacks or rent chairs and umbrellas for just 5 reais a day.  You pay at the end, so just don’t forget to pay your bill before leaving.

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Barracas de praia

A trip to the beach in Rio is not complete without drinking the delicious agua de coco (coconut water).  Another popular drink of choice is matte leao, an iced tea that, on the beach, is served directly from a keg riding on the seller’s back.

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Lose the towel – trust me on this one 

Less is more in Rio (and I’m not just talking about bikini fabric). You definitely don’t want to bring any valuables to the beach.  My ex-roommate (who is English) made the mistake of bringing his iPad to the beach during one of his first weeks in Rio, and had it stolen (he got it back in the end, but not without a fight-another thing which is not recommended!).

Beaches in Rio are also frequented by arrastões, which is a type of crime in which a gang of people surround an area and steal everything in sight.  The beach turns into total mayhem.

So…you will never see cariocas at the beach with the hefty beach bags that Americans bring – many people just bring sarongs, also known as kangas, which can be used to sit on. These are sold all along the beach boardwalk.  Towels are an absolute no-go – after taking a dip in the ocean, people choose to air-dry instead (trust me – the heat will do that quickly!)

Lose your bikini top in the waves? Not to worry – hard-working men brace the sun’s scorching rays, pacing back and forth along the beaches selling everything from jewelry to bikinis to sarongs.

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If you look like a gringo (like myself), you will likely be approached by these eager vendors.

Stay active 

Introverts, be warned: You are unlikely to ever see a Brazilian reading at the beach or listening to music with headphones in. The beach in Rio is meant for socializing…playing sports…bronzing – and drinking coconut water of course…or maybe an ice-cold cerveja.  

While the females lounge on rented cadeiras (chairs), in the vain attempt to deepen those covetable tan lines, many men simply stand, hands on hips, and check out the scene (Can you blame them?).

For those who aren’t sitting or people-watching, engaging in sport is a popular pastime (especially for men).  Volleyball nets are set up with bronzed men in sunga competing against one another.  And surprise, surprise – there is almost always a group of guys kicking a soccer ball around.

copacabana
Futebol na praia (football/soccer on the beach) in Copacabana (photo courtesy of pixabay.com

For those who prefer more solitary activity, there are exercise stations set up at each posto sidewalk, that even come accompanied by glass-enclosed stretching guides for its users.

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In case you can’t already tell, in Rio, it’s pretty much impossible to get bored at the beach. Even just people-watching is entertaining enough. But if you want to get up and stretch your legs, it’s always relaxing to stroll along the boardwalk that runs parallel to the beach…especially on Sundays, when the street is closed off to cars and replaced by bikers, rollerbladers, joggers and the like. There are even a variety of bands set up, all of which are composing mellifluous tunes that rival your Spotify playlist.

Tip: After you’ve had enough of the beach (and hopefully not burnt yourself to a crisp), meander the street between Leblon and Ipanema, one of my favorite places to spend a leisurely Sunday afternoon.  Major plus if you can stay and watch the sun set…

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In case you aren’t convinced, this is a video I took that perfectly depicts the typical post-beach Sunday afternoon in Rio:

And last but not least…

Learn to bargain like a carioca

Chances are (at least if you have read this article), you will want to buy or rent something on the beach at some point.  The only way to not get the gringo price is to speak a bit of Portuguese (and know when you are being ripped off).  Use your best judgement – if it sounds unreasonable, it probably is. But note that the beaches in Leblon and Ipanema are going to be more expensive than its neighbors to the east (like Copacabana and Leme).

Here are a few words and phrases that you should know when hitting the beach:

cadeira – chair

guarda- sol – umbrella (for the sun)

kanga – sarong (the Brazilian version of the towel, which also doubles as a cover-up)

fio dental – thong bikini

maté – sweet iced tea

agua de coco bem gelada – ice-cold coconut water

Cuanto custa isso? (bonus points if you can pronounce it with a carioca accent – “quan- toh cush – tah) – how much is this?

Você ta me dando o preço gringo, cara? Are you giving me the gringo price, dude?

Me dá o preço carioca – give me the carioca price

Eu tenho apenas 5 reais – I only have 5 reais

Onde fica o banheiro mais proximo? Where is the closest bathroom?

And for all the rest…bring a dictionary!

 

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