Why Rio loves conferences


Marco, the laid-back, softly-spoken, Italian ex-banker and co-owner of our hotel in Rio de Janeiro, was delighted that the fifth session of the UN World Urban Forum was being held in the city. This is not because he’s particularly interested in the challenges of global urbanization, but because international conferences attract business.

He took a gamble when he decided to up sticks and decamp to Rio from his banking job in London two years ago when the international financial system began its downward spiral. His gamble paid off, and today he’s happy that his charming ten-bedroom hotel, Castelinho38, in a picturesque and historical part of Rio, has a steady flow of guests.

“These conferences are good for us,” he observed, “Everyone is happy because we all benefit.”

According to available statistics, some 13,718 participants from 150 countries around the world attended the World Urban Forum from March 22 to 26. All the delegates had to be fed, watered, and entertained, and the city was more than ready to cater to their demands.

We were lucky to find a hotel at all and for this we have to thank a friend from London who recommended Castelinho38, and we managed to obtain the only room available. Another friend, a conference veteran more used to five-star luxury, was forced to scale down to a three-star hotel in Copacabana. To add insult to injury, only hours after his arrival in Rio, he was mugged outside his hotel by two youths on bicycles who made off with his phone and cash. Shaken, though unhurt, he was touched by the reaction of passers-by who rushed to his support and gave chase to the muggers. Both the young lads escaped, but the crowd managed to grab one of their bikes, which they attacked ferociously, reducing it to a mangled mess in minutes. One shudders to think what they would have done to the two youths had they caught them.

Given the number of visitors attending the forum, incidents like this proved to be rare, especially with hundreds of extra police deployed to maintain security. However, not everyone was happy about the stringent steps taken by the Rio authorities to clean up the city. A local woman we came across on a bus was concerned about the absence of street-traders who usually throng the city. “Where are they?” she demanded. The woman, an active civil rights campaigner, said, “I’ve interviewed 150 of them and know many of them well. I worry about where they have been taken; what are they getting to eat?” We didn’t get answers to these questions.

However, restaurants, shops, and other businesses welcomed the extra trade. It was almost impossible to find taxis. We nearly missed an important morning session I was due to chair at the forum, which was based in the port area by the sea. We rang four cab companies, but no taxi was available. A crisis was narrowly averted when one turned up just as we’d given up hope of getting to the meeting on time. One taxi driver we encountered had worked in the airline business for more than twenty years and decided to take up cab-driving after retirement simply as a way to keep himself occupied. For him, ferrying conference delegates to and from the airport to the city has proved to be a lucrative pastime.

Restaurants, cafes, and bars were crammed with delegates. In the short time that we were in Rio, groups of participants met for dinner or drinks every evening at one of the city’s lively venues. One of the most memorable was Rio Scenarium, a bar in the historic Lapa district noted for its nightlife and strong musical tradition. Four buildings were joined to create an impressive space with two top floors overlooking the heaving dance floor. Every nook and cranny was filled with antiques, sculptures, vibrant paintings, and quirky objects including clocks, radios, scooters, and even an antique car. However, the main attraction is the music. Brazil’s most popular bands give regular performances here, while experts and novices strut their stuff on the dance floor with equal vigor and enthusiasm.

With numerous restaurants to choose from and little time for research, we relied on advice from friends and acquaintances and were seldom disappointed. Aprazivel in Santa Teresa is worth visiting as much for its setting and architecture as its food. It is built on several floors down the side of a hill with a lush garden and striking views of downtown Rio and Guanara Bay. The menu offers a mix of Brazilian cuisine with tropical flavors. A popular main course was the peixe tropical, grilled fish in an orange sauce, served with coconut rice and baked bananas. Other tantalizing items on the menu included Delicious Little Buck – roasted with red wine with yam puree, caramelized onion, paris mushrooms, and broccoli; and fresh roasted heart of palm served on a bamboo tray with an olive oil and persil pesto and Rustic Chicken with okra and corn flour mush, part of Brazil’s Indian heritage widely used to feed slaves in the fields. Among the mouth-watering desserts were Marvelous Mango – a delicious cooked mango in a lemon sauce, served on top of a mango-flavored rocambole and mango ice cream; and Guava From Paradise – baked in passion fruit syrup and served with guava ice cream with sauce.

On our final evening in Rio, we were advised to go to Porcao, a restaurant located south near Flamengo beach, facing Sugarloaf hill. We were told you could help yourself to unlimited amounts of salads and sushi but were advised to leave space for continual servings of grilled and succulent beef, pork, and an array of other meats. We opted for the bar menu, which was more than adequate, serving generous portions of fresh grilled prawns, sizzling beefsteak, and a massive Caesar salad.

With only a weekend for sight-seeing after five days of serious meetings, we unwound by taking a local air-conditioned bus to the world-famous Jardim Botânico. Covering one square kilometer, the park features over 6,200 species of plants. You can amble along avenues lined with tall Imperial Palms and branch off into quiet lanes leading to tranquil ponds, fountains, and greenhouses filled with rare orchids and exotic plants from all over the world. There’s a surprise at every corner.

The Botanical Garden is located conveniently close to Copacabana and Ipanema and the less-crowded beaches in Botafoga and Leme districts. Although the end of March marks the start of autumn in Brazil, the heat was intense and humid, and the sea offered a welcome chance to cool off. One should, however, be prepared to be buffeted by strong waves on a windy day. Watching the sun set over Ipanema is an experience never to be forgotten.

We happened to be in Rio on Palm Sunday when long lines of palm holding worshippers were out in force in the city’s countless churches and the Cathedral. Some of the churches are more than a hundred years old and are built and decorated in a variety of styles – Portuguese colonial, Brazilian baroque, rococo, neoclassical, and eclectic masterpieces. Not to be missed is the modern Metropolitan Cathedral, which can accommodate 20,000 people.

We found a small company which offered a tour of the main sights of Rio in one day at a relatively modest price. Our guide, Sandra, a tough lady in her late fifties, confided that she had lost her husband just a week ago and had herself recently returned to work after taking six months off for an operation on her brain. She valiantly accompanied us on the cable car ride to Sugarloaf hill and other sites providing a non-stop commentary on the places we visited. The scene from the top of Sugarloaf is as breath-taking as promised in guide books, with sweeping views of Rio, including historical downtown, and Niterói – the city across the bay.

Of course, no visit to Rio, however brief, would be complete without including Corcovado, the 710-meter-high hill where you find the Statue of Christ the Redeemer blessing the city with outstretched arms. The statue itself is 30 meters tall and is instantly recognizable from the standard Rio postcard. From the summit of Corcovado, you can enjoy more panoramic views of the city, and many of Rio’s neighborhoods and landmarks can be identified with the help of the easily available maps.

In a soccer-mad country like Brazil, another must-see attraction is the Maracana stadium complex, described as one of the largest in the world and where Pele is reputed to have scored his 1,000th goal. During a major match, the main stadium regularly packs in more 90,000 people. Maracanã is also used for mega-shows and has featured performers like Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney, and the Rolling Stones.

We stopped off briefly at Rio Sul, one of Rio’s main shopping areas, which turned out to be stylish but pricey. Unfortunately, there was no time to fit in the numerous museums and art galleries – these will have to wait till our next conference or holiday.

If there was a contest to select the world’s most popular conference locations, there’s little doubt that Rio would be top of the list. It has everything – sun, sea, dramatic landscapes, history, diverse culture, and above all, samba. The city is to host two other international events – the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the Summer Olympics in 2016 – both of which are expected to attract even greater numbers of people than the World Urban Forum. Rio is more than ready to take on the challenge. Back at our hotel in Santa Teresa, Marco reclines in a hammock flanked by his attractive assistants and views the prospect with a contented smile that says “bring it on.”