Rhythms of Rio By Walt Wiley -- Bee Staff Writer RIO DE JANEIRO - "So this is what Rio is all about," I remember thinking as I watched the couples swaying together on the small dance floor. The band was filling the funky old room with so much samba, the air seemed to be getting thin. It was loud enough that you'd have to shout if you wanted to talk, just right if you wanted to soak up the music and dance. These people could have been my California neighbors. They had paid good money for a nice supper and an evening of dance. But this was Rio, the food was Brazilian, the music was samba, and these couples ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s had come to dance. They danced every dance - and they danced beautifully, as cool and liquid as the music. I had wondered if someone like me, a 64-year-old widower who had been down in the dumps, could be rejuvenated just by taking off and visiting Rio for a few days. In that samba joint, I discovered it was possible. Rio is magic. It should have been no surprise. My fascination with Rio had begun as a boy, when I discovered a Disney character who was about 100 times more hip than Mickey Mouse: Joe Carioca, a brassy green parrot from Rio. Then came a lifetime of positive Rio images. There's the oh-so-familiar Brazilian music: samba, bossa nova, "The Girl From Ipanema." There are the fabled beautiful women, the legendary Brazilian cuisine, the coffee. And that's not to mention scenery. Rio's harbor, overlooked by a huge statue of Christ the Redeemer and the hulking silhouette of Sugar Loaf mountain, is among the wonders of the modern world. So when my brother took a job in Brazil a while back, I knew I would have to visit. And since he lives in an industrial city near São Paulo, I had to go to Rio first. Blood may be thicker than water, but you can build a lot of pressure with a lifetime of longing. In a short week, based in a hotel on Copacabana beach, I got to explore every one of my Brazilian totems. I danced the samba, met the girl from Ipanema, saw the landmarks, grew addicted to the coffee, gorged on the food, even saw a green parrot that - well, it did seem brassy and irreverent. The impressions started building on the ride in from Tom Jobim International Airport - named for the composer of some of Brazil's most famous music, including "Girl From Ipanema." Does the United States have a George Gershwin International Airport? Brazil is a Latin American nation with an emerging economy, and Rio is a modern, world-class city. It has a subway system, good roads, freeways - and horrifying traffic. If there are four lanes marked on the pavement, Rio's drivers create five lanes or more once the traffic starts bunching up - and that's not to mention the extra lanes created between lanes and on sidewalks opened up by the ubiquitous "motoboys," helmeted messengers on zippy little motorcycles. For all that, I heard few horns and got the impression that everyone tries to get along, to help each other keep it moving. The only hand signal I ever saw was the universal Brazilian thumbs-up sign of approval and agreement. The ride from the airport to Copacabana goes past some of Rio's notorious slums or "favelas," where an estimated one-third of the city's 6 million residents live. But the first impression of Rio nevertheless is of a city beautiful and unique in the way San Francisco is. The route to Copacabana snakes from the airport's island across the harbor and along the city front with views of Sugar Loaf and the giant statue of Jesus, past one clean, busy beach after another. The city is divided roughly in thirds, north, central and south. "Centro" is the hub of the old city and still the commercial center. North, "norte," is the industrial area. South, "sul," is the beach and tourist area. Sul is where the locals, who call themselves "Cariocas," go for fun, too. The beach is Rio's public focal point. Beginning at dawn each day, people of all ages walk, jog, saunter, mosey, run and stride along the broad black-and-white mosaic sidewalks that line all the beaches. Each neighborhood's sidewalk mosaics are in a distinct pattern. Out on the sand at sunup, city crews are raking and cleaning the sand while tai chi and yoga classes begin and die-hard soccer and volleyball players gear up for another day. Later come the crowds. With Brazil's love of soccer, Cariocas play an especially wicked, soccerlike form of volleyball with no hands, dancing around in the sand to kick the ball back and forth. They also play a badminton-volleyball hybrid on the beach with a big shuttlecock made of leather and feathers. Just to make sure I really was in Rio, I took the cable-car ride to the top of Sugar Loaf, the 1,300-foot-high, black-granite mountain overlooking the city. From the summit, there are stunning views of everything from the big Christ the Redeemer statue to the harbor to the teeming city streets. The panoramas let you see how the city is laid out and get your bearings - after a fashion. Rio is not laid out in a grid but rather according to the loops and whorls of its waterfront and mountains. Add that to the fact that the city is south of the equator, and that the sun crosses the sky in the north every day, and accept the fact that you're probably disoriented. The stars are beautiful at night, but the only constellation I recognized was Orion, and it was upside-down - or something. I had to concentrate on directions because I wanted to find Ipanema. The 1962 hit record and bossa-nova classic "Girl From Ipanema" made Rio sound so pure and simple and beautiful. Ipanema must be a quaint village of thatched huts and coconut palms way off down the coast from the city, I always thought. Thatched roofs, right! Ipanema is an absolutely urban residential neighborhood, one of the most interesting parts of the city, densely populated and teeming with Cariocas looking for a good time in a beach setting. It's filled with lots of expensive shops. Jeweler Hans Stern has his world headquarters in Ipanema. Little boutiques have the latest and most stylish in clothing and shoes, especially those that could be categorized as casual chic. I hit the jackpot at a restaurant called Garota de Ipanema on Rua Vinicius de Moraes. That's "Girl From Ipanema" in English. Vinicius de Moraes is the revered Brazilian poet who wrote the words to the famous song. He wrote them right here, when the bar was named something else, and before they named the street after him. It was going to be great just to soak up the ambience of that place, I thought. It was a weeknight and not crowded, and a table of American and Canadian tourists let me join them for a light supper of Brazilian appetizers, washed down by a "chopp" or two. Chopps are Brazil's short draft beers, about 8 ounces. Some were having caipirinhas, a refreshing drink made with sugar, lemon juice, ice and cachaça, Brazil's high-octane, rumlike national booze. Appetizers included little empanadas of cheese, shrimp and beef; a sausage and onion dish called "calabreiza com cebola"; codfish bullets called "bolinha de bacalhau"; and some Rio-style pizzas, thin and light. There also was beef filet, cut small for eating with the little rolls that seem always to accompany Rio meals. Our meal was about finished when suddenly the place became quiet and our English-speaking waiter told us, "She's here." "She" was Heloisa Pinheiro, 40 years ago the inspiration for the song. She was the genuine original girl from Ipanema. I got to meet her and shake her hand. It turned out she was just passing through. She owns a shop in São Paulo and is doing well. And she still is "tall and tan and young and lovely," with blond hair and a stunning smile, even as she starts to push 60. The food that evening was a good introduction to Brazilian cuisine. On subsequent evenings there was a "churrascaria" barbecue dinner, a Bahian dinner and a Rio supper-club dinner. Breakfasts were at the hotel, the luxurious Copacabana Palace, where beside the huge pool they spread a buffet of the most wonderful fruits, breads, meats and egg dishes. Cariocas call breakfast "café da manhã," morning coffee, and best I could tell by snooping, they prefer little sandwiches made from cold cuts and rolls, backed up with a glass of pineapple or orange juice and lots of strong, hot coffee with milk. A recurring course at most meals is feijoada, the Brazilian national dish. It's a bean stew made with pork or beef, garnished with toasted manioc flour called "farinha." Farinha comes from the cassava plant, also the source of tapioca. It has a nutty flavor and retains its crunch. My favorite lunch was the buffet at Confeitaria Colombo, a still-original 19th century place popular with business people in the heart of old Rio, where streets teem with pedestrians and are so narrow that no automobiles are allowed. It was here that locals constantly warned me to guard the camera I had hanging around my neck. Cariocas are constantly on guard against thieves. Few people even wear wristwatches in public, and guidebooks warn not to display cameras or jewelry. As for panhandlers and beggars, I would put the level about even with midtown Sacramento. I felt safe walking in crowded areas of the old city, and at night, traveling in a group and using taxis. The samba joint that so impressed me, Rio Scenarium, is in a pretty seedy part of town, for example, but it teemed with people. The big threat was seduction by the devil rhythms of the music. In fact, that place will stay in my heart as long as it beats. For me, it exemplified Rio. The dancers were so ... Carioca, such as the little pink-faced guy whose date was a head taller and looked like an unhappy Grace Jones. They danced every dance with precision steps and utter joy. Some of the more serious female dancers in the place wore those super-duty high heels used by professionals. The music still rings in my head, although I didn't help matters with all the CDs I bought at a store in Ipanema that specializes in bossa nova. I did go on and visit my brother, but next time I'm going to have him and his wife meet me in Rio. Rio's mus-see sites stretch from sea to sky Beaches Beaches are the essence of Rio. The city shoreline is rimmed by 50-some miles of them. Copacabana and Ipanema are the most famous, and tourists often spend their entire visit without leaving these two strands and the densely packed residential areas adjacent. Try to have lunch at Barraca do Pepé both for the beachside people-watching and the unique and tasty sandwiches and shakes. Christ the Redeemer You can take a taxi, but it's more fun to ride the cog railway up to the 2,330-foot summit of Corcovado Mountain, where the world-famous statue of Cristo Redentor, or Christ the Redeemer, stands with outstretched arms. The views are stunning. The mountain is the middle of Tijuca National Park, a rain forest teeming with wildlife surrounded by the city. Sugar Loaf The views from Pao de Acúcar, or Sugar Loaf, are not as broad as from Corcovado, but the conical granite peak thrusts up right at the mouth of Guanabara Bay, often called the world's most beautiful harbor. Snack bars, patios and lookouts provide a variety of views. The rain forest comes right up to the edge of things, so watch for monkeys, parrots, toucans and the like. Cable cars have been running to the summit since 1912; the ride costs about $8. Sitio Burle Marx The late Roberto Burle Marx was a world-famous landscape architect and botanist whose magnificent estate was a historic ranch in the forest on the edge of Rio. It is now a park. His architectural designs provide a gorgeous setting for the Brazilian artwork he collected. The grounds are graced with trees and shrubs from around the world. The estate's logo is a gaudy heliconia flower in recognition of the 27 heliconia species Burle Marx discovered and named. Museums Rio has a museum for every taste, from the National Museum and the National Fine Art Museum to the National Historical Museum and the Carmen Miranda Museum. The Pontal Museum, Brazil's largest folk-art museum, is especially compelling for the dioramas with small handmade figures in scenes depicting such topics as Brazil's slavery period, a manioc factory and a disturbingly detailed view of the crucifixion. Churches Rio has its share of ornate churches, including a dramatic, cone-shaped municipal cathedral. Check out the Church and Monastery of Sao Bento, a Benedictine complex built in 1641 with beautifully ornate carvings gracing the whole interior. Sunday Mass is sung in Gregorian chant. Santa Teresa A cool narrow-gauge trolley goes from downtown Rio across the old aqueduct that used to carry the Carioca River's water to the city fountain and up a hill to the Santa Teresa District, a steep, leafy, artsy neighborhood of 19th century mansions and walled gardens. The Parque das Ruinas there is the preserved ruin of a famous mansion that in its time was a focal point of Rio's bohemian and intellectual worlds. Food Brazil's cuisine is a delight. Try to have dinner at a churrascaria, a Brazilian barbecue restaurant where waiters slice your dinner right onto your plate from full cuts of meat brought to the table impaled on a sword. And don't miss feijoada, the Brazilian national dish based on a black-bean stew, and farinha, a cornmeal-like flour made from toasted manioc root. Don't miss sorvet, either. That is Brazilian ice cream, made from local fruit you've never heard of. It's delicious. Look for a self-service place where you build your own sundae and pay by weight. Cachaca Brazil's national alcoholic drink is made from sugarcane (not molasses -- it's not rum). It's the key ingredient of the popular Rio refresher, caipirinha. Cachaca comes in many grades. In its highest form, devotees compare it to single-malt scotch or the finest tequilas in Mexico. To get a taste of the good stuff, go to a store/bar in Leblon called Garapa Doida ("crazy sugarcane"), where owner Antonio Gillett is enmeshed in a labor of love. Travel wise: Rio de Janeiro Visa: You'll need a visa, which costs $100, if you travel with a U.S. passport. For more information: Brazilian consulate in San Francisco, (415) 981-8170. Getting there: Varig, the Brazilian airline, offers the only same-plane service from the West Coast. Round-trip fares from Los Angeles run as low as $582. The 12- hour flights stop first in Sao Paulo. Hotels: Economy hotels that rate three stars from the Rio Convention and Visitors Bureau run $40-$50 per night. Moderatepriced hotels -- four stars -- run $71-$95. Deluxe hotels -- five stars -- are $140 and up. Beachfront properties carry the highest price tags. Health: Those who can afford it drink bottled water. All restaurants offer bottled water sim gas, not carbonated; or com gas, carbonated. Eating unpeeled raw fruit and vegetables is not advised. Security: As in large cities anywhere, muggings are not unknown in tourist areas. Don't wear watches and jewelry in public. Keep cameras out of sight. Try to travel in groups and stay with the crowd. Shopping: Rio has high-quality merchandise at modest prices. The currency is the real, worth about 33 cents U.S. Bargaining is expected outside the malls and Wal-Marts. Shoppers who are just quietly pondering a purchase can often hear the asking price plummet.