Encircled by long white-sand beaches, Rio takes your breath away. Lush forested mountains dominate the horizon, alfresco eating predominates, and the shopping is cool. What's not to like? – not least when just 12 hours earlier, you left London under a blanket of heavy grey skies. From the first day there, when we and our seven- and nine-year-old sons took our inaugural dip in Leblon’s warm, perfect waves, we were sold.
Beach life is so central here that it’s de rigueur to walk around town in wet trunks and flip flops. The locals, given an incentive by this bikini culture, are out getting fit from early morning: people of all ages run along the seafront, cycle round the lagoon, play beach and foot volleyball, and exercise at the outdoor gym stations on the beach.
We’d heard a lot about the dangers of the capital of Brazil, and yes, the favelas do sprawl up many of the city centre’s slopes. But we never felt threatened – indeed, Rio seemed friendly and welcoming, with the Brazilians queuing up to stroke our blond son’s hair. Locals were keen to tell us that the favelas are actually full of hard-working people and that relatively crime-free because those who run the communities don’t want police interference. We even took the boys to a samba nightclub without incident.
Our trip to Rio was the first part of our family adventure holiday. From the capital we were driven three hours along the coast to Buzios, made famous by a visit by Brigitte Bardot in the 1960s. Though you can still see the remnants of the sleepy fishing village, it’s now a popular destination among holidaying Brazilians and international tourists, with many of the latter descending on the town from cruise ships moored in the harbour.
Buzios is a peninsula with many small beaches around its coast, each with its own characteristics and attracting different beach-goers. We liked Geriba, where our children surfed on hired boards, Ferradurinha, where we kayaked and saw a turtle, and Ferradura, where we had Christmas lunch at a beach restaurant, seated amongst large festive gatherings of Brazilian families.
We’d decided to take a side trip to Iguassu Falls on the Brazilian border with Argentina, despite the two-hour flight and the fact that we could only spare three nights. We were glad we made the effort – the height, breadth and sheer force of the waterfalls is stunning. And since the park is only open to the public at certain times, by staying in the only hotel, the Belmond Hotel des Cataratas, within the Brazilian side of the National Park, you have the sights to yourself at breakfast time and in the evening. It’s well worth taking the guided walk with the hotel’s resident biologist, who helped us spot rare birds and animal footprints and was full of stories about the Indian communities who lived in the area.
A visit to the Argentinian side brought us into contact with more wildlife – caimans and coatis – and along walkways that take you close enough to be soaked by the biggest, baddest waterfall of all, the Devil’s Throat. However, the speed-boat trip to the very foot of some thundering waterfalls proved a bit too terrifying for our seven-year old and me…
Then it was back to Rio for New Year. The owners of our boutique hotel, La Suite by Dussol, organised a party in a penthouse apartment overlooking Copacabana, and we were invited. And so our trip ended with another unforgettable sight – that of two million white-clothed revellers filling the beach as fireworks exploded against the night sky above a cluster of brightly lit cruise ships offshore.
Read more about family holidays in Brazil, including hand-picked family-friendly places to stay.