Take a headlong dive into the surf, sand, and soul of Brazil's obsessively sexy beach culture. With 5,000 miles of coastline, there's a lot to choose from. Brazil is guilty of a torrid love affair with the sun. When it's raining in Rio, locals hurry by with umbrellas cloaking expressionless faces like shocked victims of sudden infidelity. But when it's sunny, especially in the summer months (our winter), it seems the entire population can be found basking on the sand. Spanning the equator and nearly 5,000 miles long, the shimmering Brazilian coastline is host to regions as diverse as the arid northeastern flatlands of Salvador, the misty Atlantic rain forest of the Discovery Coast near Porto Seguro, and the mountainous tropical zone of Rio de Janeiro. So there's a perfect beach for everybody: lovers, divers, hang gliders, snorkelers, surfers, nudists, or dime-store mystery readers. Most big urban beaches, like Ipanema and Copacabana in Rio, and even some smaller beaches have sections primarily for gays and lesbians. New Year's Eve and carnival (the infamous four-day midsummer celebration during late February) are siren calls for travelers all over the world to drop their anchors and let the tide wash them onto Brazil's shores.
It was raining when I arrived in Rio last September, so I escaped driving north to Búzios, where cariocas (citizens of Rio de Janeiro) go to really cut loose. Búzios was a lazy fishing village until it was made famous by Brigitte Bardot, who spent a summer there in 1964 with her Brazilian boyfriend. Bardot's legacy has transformed Búzios into a resort town: Top-tier guesthouses and pampering hotels nestle in its hills.
As much as I liked my sunga (bikini), I couldn't wait to take it off and let the sun envelop me. I'd parked close to Praia Olho de Boi, a naturist beach on the eastern tip of the Búzios peninsula, at an adjacent fishermen's beach, Praia Brava. From here a red dirt path meanders up and over the mountain separating Brava from Olho de Boi. Along the way I met three proud fishermen carrying the morning's catch (this evening's dinner), a burnished mare grazing on hillside vegetation, and a small crab skittering down the basalt that frames the beach. The morning sun smiled on me as I windmilled down the steep path, tore off my sunga, and raced across shell fragments worn smooth by the waves to float in the warm tidal pools that make this cozy cove a bather's paradise. Though not specifically a gay beach, Olho de Boi is popular with gay men and straight couples, resulting in a relaxed mix of blissed-out nudists.
If Ipanema is where Brazilians go to cruise, and Búzios is where they go to relax, then Porto Seguro is where they go on honeymoon. Here in the Bahia, 600 miles north of Rio, Brazil was born. Pedro Cabral, a Portuguese explorer, discovered this coastline in 1500, and it retains a rustic, historic authenticity. Small pousadas (guesthouses) are the rule in the neighboring beach town of Arraial d'Ajuda. The beaches here are narrow and tranquil, the waters clear and green. The surf is calm, tempered by a long offshore reef system, and when you wade into the waves the sand is so soft that your ankles sink into the seabed. You literally become one with the beach as the water cascades ashore in a cool, gentle froth.
Just south of Porto Seguro is the Atlantic rain forest, large parts of which are still protected. I wanted to see the savage coast and booked a trip through Selvagem Adventure, a gay-friendly company that specializes in taking visitors to the remote cliff towns that date to the earliest Portuguese missions. Eduardo, Selvagem's owner, put his Land Rover into four-wheel drive, and we chugged through arroyos cut deep into dirt roads from the recent rains. A swath of blue appeared to the east. As we approached the last hill before the coastal town of Espelho, the Atlantic wind pushed the southern clouds behind us into the forest. We trekked down a wild oceanside bluff and found ourselves facing a lashing steely sea. To our right was infamous Praia do Amores.
"How did it get the name?" I asked.
"In the 1950s, before TV," explained Eduardo, "Teenagers used to come down here at night. Now away from their families, they would light bonfires, talk, and have sex for the first time. And even now"--his eyes lit up--"it is very private."
Bordered by sharp coral formations that were left behind when the seas last receded, Praia do Amores was uninhabited this cloudy morning. But our presence there triggered the sun to fight its white cover and cast it away. I pretended I was a castaway as we wound north down the flat white virgin sands to Praia Espelho. I stood on the veranda of a gracious guesthouse and watched the sun advance from the sea. A great band of vibrant green striped the cobalt cloud shadows one cresting wave at a time, until what came crashing to the shore was not just meringue foam--or salt or wind or sand--but the very soul of Brazil, the equatorial inferno of the bright spring sun.
In an open-air café that night in Arraial d'Ajuda, a bossa nova singer swaggered to my table and handed me a gourd to shake in rhythm to his fingerpicking. "Tall and tan and dark and lovely," he sang gently, "The girl from Ipanema goes walking / And when she passes, each one she passes goes, ‘Ah.' " I understood then the true nature of saudade, my longing deep as ocean blue for Rio de Janeiro. For if you could bring together the finest aspects of every urban beach you'd ever been to, you'd wind up on Praia Ipanema in Rio, a mile-long strip of soft natural sand blessed with tropical weather virtually year-round. It has the surf of Waikiki--and its surfer mentality--with the diversity and tolerance that comes from big-city life and centuries of cultural blending.
Ipanema shares with Waikiki a glorious vista of natural beauty (Rio has Sugarloaf, Honolulu has Diamond Head) and a promenade of luxurious hotels ringing the ocean. Yet Ipanema--and its more famous neighbor, the curvaceous Copacabana--also contains the playground athleticism, contented faces, and gleaming hard bodies of Mediterranean beach towns. There's the happy backbeat of lapping surf, soccer balls smacking off thighs, the slap of paddleballs on wood. Silent capoeira dancers leap to these rhythms and to the laughter that accompanies another Brazilian invention, futevole, which resembles beach volleyball (only it's played with a soccer ball, and you can't use your hands).
Rio's beaches are a wonderful mix of locals and tourists, as in Barcelona or on Venice Beach in Los Angeles, with room on the sand for necessities like jungle gyms and free weights. Brazil promotes a culture of the body, and the most beautifully honed muscles in the world are here. Ipanema has inherited the drumming counterculture of Holland's Zandvoort, and like the Caribbean beaches of Montego Bay, Jamaica, it is fragrant with bonfires, incense, and marijuana without Montego's homophobia or violent hustling. It has the open gay life of parts of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Sitges, Spain, with an entire section dedicated to gays and lesbians. Cariocas practice the "any excuse for a party" joie de vivre of boozy Midwestern lakefronts, giving it a cruisy down-home feel with plenty of beer and boom boxes, even steamed corn on the cob. This close to the equator, the Atlantic is warm and welcoming year-round, and if the surf's high, it only means it's happy to see you and wants to take you for a ride.
My friend Rostand, cofounder of Rio G, a gay and lesbian travel center just off the beach, was not impressed.
"There's nobody here," he protested. I looked around. There were at least 200 people on the gay beach: coupled barbies (gay yuppies) lounging with friends and small children, single buffies (muscular machos) strutting from parasol to parasol, a happy threesome of two guys and a girl toweling each other off. "Today it is completely empty. It is like having sex without an orgasm. You must return in the summer when there are 2,000 of us."
I didn't agree with him then, but now that I'm back in the States I know he's right about one thing. I have to go back--and the sooner the better.