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Rio’s race to the finish

Nearly seven years and three Olympics – Vancouver, London and Sochi – have come and gone since October 2009, when the International Olympic Committee sent most Brazilians into paroxysms of joy by naming Rio de Janeiro the host city for the Games of the XXXI Olympiad. The announcement meant that for the first time, the Olympics and Paralympics would be hosted by a South American City.

Following the announcement, a teary-eyed president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva declared, “I confess to you that if I died now, my life has been worthwhile.” However in the intervening years the outlook for the city, and the upcoming Games, has dimmed in the midst of political and economic turmoil.

These days, Lula, as he is known, has other things to cry about. The Sao Paulo’s prosecutor’s office has reportedly presented charges against the two-term president, accusing him of being embroiled in a bribery scheme involving state-owned oil company Petrobras. He staunchly denies any wrongdoing.

Lula’s troubles are just the tip of the legal iceberg in Brazil; his former chief of staff and successor, current president Dilma Rousseff is herself facing impeachment charges stemming from related bribery allegations.

Since the 2009 Olympic Committee announcement, work has been proceeding apace on the facilities and infrastructure improvements that Brazil promised in its $14 billion winning Olympic bid – a number that’s almost certain to rise when the final accounting is in; this is the Olympics after all, and ballooning budgets just seem to be as much a part of the spectacle as the torch run. And no Olympics in modern history would be complete without some pre-game media hand-wringing; who can forget Vancouver’s unseasonably warm winter, London’s traffic woes, Sochi’s barely-finished hotel rooms?

On the other hand, Rio has been plagued with a heap of other difficulties in the runup to the opening ceremony of the Games on Aug. 5. In addition to the political turmoil in Brasilia, the nation has been rocked by the longest running recession since the 1930s, and health officials are struggling to stem the spread of mosquito-borne diseases like the Zika virus and dengue fever which threaten to keep away athletes and spectators alike.

The economic downturn has put a damper on domestic ticket sales; at latest count only about half the tickets allotted for purchase by Brazilians have been bought, and international sales also appear to be lagging. Not only do poor ticket sales spell trouble for the operating budget, but there’s also an image problem – events held in half-empty stadiums televised to potentially 5 billion viewers around the world. Nevertheless, organizers remain optimistic, saying that Brazilians are just not used to purchasing tickets in advance.

Build It & They Will Come

However large the crowds may be, it looks like those venues dedicated to the Games will be ready for them. Already the main Olympic Park is almost done, and test events have already been held in more than a dozen sports. A few facilities are reportedly behind schedule, but with three months to go, it’s likely these will be completed.

Not so certain is the status of the largest infrastructure project associated with the Games, the 10-mile stretch of Metro tying the Copacabana and Ipanema areas to Barra da Tijuca, site of the Olympic Park. The line is intended to relieve about 300,000 Olympic-goers a day from the crush of Rio’s notorious traffic. In late February, news reports quoted Rio’s mayor Eduardo Paes warning of a “heightened risk” that the rail link would not be completed in time, a claim that was quickly countered by the state’s transport secretary Carlos Roberto Osorio. “The major engineering challenges have been overcome,” Osorio is quoted as saying. “We are in the final stretch.”

Even with a six year lead time, preparing a city like Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics is a daunting task, so it’s little wonder that some major projects would be down to the wire. In fact, Rio has a leg up on many other cities who have been tapped for the Games in the past. Events are scheduled for 34 different venues, 18 of which are already standing thanks in part to the city’s role in hosting the 2007 Pan American Games and the 2010 World Cup.

Of the existing venues, eight require some renovation. In addition nine new permanent venues are being constructed, along with seven temporary venues which will be taken down following the Games. With 74,000-plus seats, the Estádio do Maracanã is the largest venue and will serve as the official Olympic Stadium, hosting the opening and closing ceremonies as well as soccer finals.

The rest of the events will take place in three other Olympic zones, Barra, Copacabana and Deodoro, as well as five cities outside Rio – Brasília, Belo Horizonte, Manaus, Salvador and São Paulo – which will host more soccer matches.

The Road to Rio

If all the tickets get sold, that would mean an attendance of 7.5 million, somewhat under the number of tickets sold for London in 2012. Rio’s smaller venues account for much of the difference. In addition to over 10,000 athletes from more than 200 countries, Rio is expecting to welcome upwards of a half million foreign visitors.

Such a mighty tide would put a hefty strain on any city’s hotel supply, but thanks to the longer development time afforded by the World Cup and other major events, Rio’s hotel pipeline has been steadily adding new rooms for several years past.  

Despite the country’s economy downturn, STR’s February 2016 Pipeline Report shows Brazil was the most active country in the region, with 21,269 rooms in 116 hotels In Construction. That’s almost two-thirds of the rooms currently being built in all of Central and South America.

Standing aloof from the influx of five-star newcomers, the 1920s era Copacabana Palace is the undisputed grande dame of Rio. It has 241 rooms and has recently undergone a top-to-bottom renovation and now offers free WiFi and a dazzling outdoor pool. More recent additions include the 245-room JW Marriott and the 388-room Sofitel in Copacabana.

With the focus on the Olympics, there’s been a flurry of new openings centered in the exclusive Barra da Tijuca neighborhood, home to the Olympic Village and a cluster of event venues. Hyatt Hotels has announced the opening of the beachfront Grand Hyatt Rio de Janeiro, the second property to fly the Grand Hyatt flag in Brazil.

The hotel offers 436 guestrooms including 40 suites, plus two presidential suites and a penthouse suite. The property features three on-site restaurants and more than 21,000 square feet of event space, a 24-hour fitness center, a spa and an outdoor pool.

Starwood has brought the Sheraton brand back to Barra da Tijuca, with the opening of Sheraton Barra Rio de Janeiro Hotel. The 292-room property is undergoing a dazzling multi-million dollar renovation scheduled for completion by 2018.

Hilton Worldwide’s entrant in the race is the new 298-room Hilton Barra – the company’s first in Rio. The property offers approximately 14,000 square feet of flexible meeting space, a signature restaurant where the interior connects with the outdoor environment, plus an outdoor rooftop swimming pool and fitness center.

Not to be outdone, Donald Trump has his sights set on the Barra neighborhood as well, with the opening of the 13-story, 171-guestroom Trump Rio. Facing one of Rio’s most magnificent beaches, the property will be the Trump Hotel Collection’s first property in South America.

Besides its Sofitel Copacabana property, AccorHotels has a major presence here, with 19 properties across its brands, including, Novotel, Ibis and Mercure. Elsewhere the fastest-growing Brazilian chain is Windsor Hotels, with 11 venues in Rio.

Meliá Hotels International is undertaking the reopening of the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Hotel National. Built in 1972 in the upscale neighborhood of Sao Conrado, the hotel has been closed for several decades. The Gran Meliá Nacional Rio will have 417 rooms, a fine dining restaurant and bars in the lobby and on the penthouse terrace.

InterContinental Hotels Group is returning to the Rio market with two new-build properties, both in Rio de Janeiro’s revitalized downtown area of Porto Maravilha (“Marvelous Port”). The Holiday Inn Porto Maravilha and Holiday Inn Express Porto Maravilha together will offer a total of nearly 600 guestrooms – the Holiday Inn with 244 rooms while the Holiday Inn Express is a 350-room affair. Both are expected to open in time for the Games.

Let the Games Begin

Fans who are coming to town to take in some of the 306 medal events have a greater chance of finding accommodations than perhaps they might have a decade ago. Nonetheless, considering the number of out-of-towners, availabilities are likely to be tight – and expensive.

The good news is, if you’ve got time to spare between events, Rio has plenty of diversions to keep you entertained. After all, cariocas – that’s what residents of Rio are called – are famous the world over as folks who know how to throw a party. So go for the Games, but stay for the fun.

However, more than a world-renowned party town, Rio de Janeiro is a city of great cultural depth and stunning natural beauty where towering mountains plunge down to the water’s edge fringed by some of the globe’s most iconic beaches.

Rio’s two best known beaches are the Copacabana and Ipanema. Of the two, Ipanema is by far the hippest, where everybody meets, from well-heeled locals to kids from Rio’s favelas (slums). The beach is divided into postos and a stroll along the edge is the best way to take in the full flavor of the local scene.

Between Ipanema and Copacabana is a point that divides the two, where you’ll find Arpoador. Here Arpoador Rock juts out into the ocean inviting surfers to come and challenge the waves. Climb on top of it for a fantastic view – it’s a great spot for watching the sunset.

On the Avenue Republica do Chile you can’t miss Rio’s massive Metropolitan Cathedral. The building, which opened in 1979, has a capacity of 20,000 worshipers. The four floor-to-ceiling stained-glass panels that rise to the apex of the building form a cross. The play of the sunlight through the vivid glass casts an ever-changing kaleidoscope of color. Down in the basement, the Sacred Art Museum features the stately throne of former emperor Dom Pedro II and fonts used to christen royalty.

For a different kind of inspiration, head for the financial heart of Rio to Rua Primeiro de Marco 66 where you’ll find the CCBB – the Bank of Brazil Cultural Center. It’s formerly the headquarters of Brazil’s national bank, a magnificent neoclassical building that dates back to 1906 with soaring Corinthian columns, ornamental details, marble floors and sweeping staircases. The center hosts several gallery spaces, theatres and a movie theater.

For a close-up look at the lush flora that abounds in this part of the world, plan a visit to the Jardim Botanico, a few minutes drive from Copacabana. These gardens have been open to the public since 1822. Highlights of this serene oasis include the avenue of towering royal palms, the giant Victoria Regia water lilies and the superb views of Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer.

Finally no first time visit to the Marvelous City would be complete without a trip to Rio’s most awe-inspiring sight, the Cristo Redentor statue atop Corcovado mountain. You can reach the top either on the cog train that runs every half hour from 8:30 AM to 6:30 PM, or by car, a journey that takes you through the lush Tijuca forest. The statue attracts more than 300,000 visitors a year – just be patient; the views on a clear day will make you forget the wait. The 125-foot-high monument can be seen from all over the southern part of the city, but it’s here, standing at its feet that you’ll find a real sense of awe at its sheer size. Visit