If you want to know why people come to Rio de Janeiro, and came even during its years of bloody, decadent decline, stand on the Arpoador Beach promenade at day’s end. Before you lies an orchestral finale of a sunset: iridescent water, pastel-streaked skies and hazy silhouettes of cliffs to the west. Behind you are swarms of Cariocas, as Rio natives are known: men with phones tucked into the fronts of their bathing suits, swimmers shaking off droplets of water before ordering caipirinhas at an outdoor bar. At the moment when the neon-pink sun slips below the horizon, everyone stops, stands and claps: a nightly salute to city, beach and sky.
This was part of why my 7-year-old daughter and I traveled to Rio in December, to experience urban beauty so intense that even the locals pause to applaud it. Rio may be the most voluptuous city in the world, with soft beaches, dramatic mountains, waterfalls, a rain forest, lagoon and orchids — planted by residents — peeking out of lush old trees lining the streets. Papayas and jackfruit drop from branches all over town, symbols of the city’s overabundant sweetness. The place makes Miami look like Cleveland.