Rio revs up with revamps

Rio revs up with revamps
Brazil will host the World Cup finals next year and Copacabana Beach (above) marks the occasion. The Museu do Futebol pays tribute to soccer superstars, such as Pele.

BRAZIL - This is Brazil's moment. I see a festive country all dressed up, waiting to play flamboyant hostess to the world at a pair of mega events.

Next June, the World Cup finals will play in 12 cities across football-mad Brazil, where football is lovingly christened The Beautiful Game.

Then Rio de Janeiro will welcome the 2016 Olympics, the first Games to be staged in South America, belatedly.

Rio, as the main show, is revamping itself. It is safer and ritzier now, good news for any traveller stepping into a country of contradictions - First World economic star, much Third World rawness around the edges.

Police are now significantly present in gang- scourged favelas or hillside slums in Rio. New attractions are popping up on its waterfront - a new Museum of Tomorrow will portray a green future.

A city of blues and greens, Rio's vistas of curvaceous beaches and mountains are popular, and dreamier than I imagine.

Embedded in the metropolis are less-explored enclaves that tell a more textured story beyond Rio's carnivalesque reputation.

So earlier this month, I take in some classic sights first, and try to wander off the map here and there.

On the peak of Corcovado, the statue of Christ the Redeemer, arms outstretched over Rio below, forms an Art Deco crucifix that is visible from afar and known globally. At night, the 38m statue is illuminated.

I take a 20-minute tram ride over forested slopes to get up close to the icon (admission: 48 reals or S$26). It is a blazing day, but fog shrouds the statue, creating a moment of mystery and intimacy in a big city.

On the way down, samba musicians from a favela step into the tram and play joyously. I am content to video their quick footwork on my iPhone but the lead singer ushers me to try the samba, which ends with a twirl, a kiss on the hand and a few reals in the hat.

I love the towering perspective of high places and next seek Sugarloaf Mountain (admission: 63 reals), which I ascend by cable car on a sunnier day. This time, resplendent views of Rio lie at my feet.

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