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Rio's beaches and charm are endless

``Rio is a beach resort with 7 million inhabitants, of which 100,000 are tempted to go to the beach instead of work when the weather is good,'' said my guide, Ren'ee. When you go from one side of this city to the other -- driving in the carefree Rio style that assumes two objects can be in one place simultaneously -- you spend a lot of time whipping past these beaches. They go on and on: Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon -- wide, with nice sand, no pebbles, and pleasant views of small green islands.

At one end of this long stretch is Pao de A'ucar (Sugarloaf), a mountain that looks like a loaf of green Italian bread standing on end. It gives the beach a ``Lost Horizons'' look, high-rises across the boulevard notwithstanding.

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Copacabana was once considered very glamorous. It was the Monte Carlo of the Southern Hemisphere until 1945, when gambling was permanently banned. Today the ``in'' spot for sunning and shopping is Ipanema.

On weekdays the beaches are almost empty. But on weekends the natives, called ``Cariocas'' (a word pronounced with great pride, lingering affectionately on the ``o''), are out in force. Everyone is tan; everyone who looks good in one is wearing a tanga, a skimpy backless bikini that originated here. Some sun-lovers lie on the sand, but most people stand, walking about just above the waterline. Obviously, the main activity of this beach is to see and be seen.

According to Ren'ee, the place to relax after your day at the beach is the Garota do Ipanema caf'e off the Rua Vinicus de Mascus, a popular spot for local intellectuals and belles. Well-known landmarks

One of the most famous landmarks in Rio is the Cordovaco statue of Jesus, perched on an impossible pinnacle and visible from anywhere in the city. I liked it better from a distance where it looks gracious and welcoming. Up close, you find it surrounded by souvenir stands and mobs of people milling around taking pictures. You do get a good view of the city, but it's not as spectacular as the view from Sugarloaf.

Sugarloaf has two levels, both accessible only by cable car. The first level, nicely landscaped with hibiscus and banana palms, was once the location of the favela (squatters' settlement) where the movie ``Black Orpheus'' was filmed. The favela was torn down so that the area could be developed into a tourist attraction. Another cable car takes you up to the top of Sugarloaf. No one has ever lived up there; even a Carioca favela dweller would draw the line at its sheer slope.

Looking down, you can see the anatomy of Rio. The green hills that press the city toward the sea are steep and strangely shaped. The surrounding blue water is full of jagged little islands.

In the valleys are the high-rises. The adjoining hills, less sheer, are covered with the homemade shacks of the favelas. In most cities you visit, you never see the slums, but in Rio you can't miss them, because they hover reproachfully just above the tops of the main buildings. Streetlights in a favela wander up stairs and wind along muddy pathways, so in the evening they twinkle like stars in the night sky. Entertainment

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One evening Ren'ee and I went back up Pao de A'ucar to see a performance by Beja Flor, one of the most famous of the samba schools and a many-time Rio Carnival winner. It came in second this year.

Each favela boasts its own samba school; it's a kind of social club where rehearsals for the annual carnival competition (held each February) take place. Starting in October and November, you can go to certain samba schools on a Saturday night to watch the rehearsals (ask your hotel concierge about this).

I love the African beat of the Beja Flor drummers. Many Brazilian bands are virtually all drummers; seven or so competing with one guitar player is not unusual.

And the dancers are wonderful: Women in huge silver hoop skirts, and wearing silver crowns with white feathers foaming about their shoulders, whirl and whirl steadily, while their partners, also in crowns and white knee breeches, do a sort of kicking prance beside them.

But the audience-participation section is long and embarrassing, and I was a little startled by the appearance of a troop of tall narrow mulatas (combining black, Latin, and white blood) who did an energetic samba wearing only the occasional (very occasional) silver bead or spangle.

They dance so fast it's hard to figure out the steps, and anyway, Ren'ee says, ``you have to be born a samba dancer.'' But the mulatas' favorite is like the fast part of the cha-cha, done over and over in place with alternately swiveling hips. Beja Flor performs on Mondays.

Nightclubs with Las Vegas-type floor shows are a big part of the tourist scene here. One club, Plataforma 1, has a show that focuses not on naked bodies but on the dancers' magnificent costumes. Nightclubs are expensive; expect to pay $35 to $40 for a cover charge. Shopping

One of the special things to do in Rio is shop for jewelry. Brazil is famous for its colored gems -- such as emeralds, amethysts, aquamarines, topazes, tourmalines, and rubies. The main stores are H. Stern, Amsterdam & Sauer, and Rodiditi.

Most tourists take the tour at H. Stern, which handles, according to a spokesman, 60 percent of the high-quality stone production in Brazil.

Mr. Stern says that citrines, topazes, and amethysts are good buys for those interested in less expensive stones. ``The top grade costs much less,'' he says. ``You can also get emeralds and aquamarines at reasonable prices.''

Prices for semiprecious and precious stones start from $50 and climb to ``no limit,'' but an average sale is $300. ``Between $200 and $500 you can get something very nice,'' Stern says.

He recommends buying from a reputable firm. ``No one can be an expert in 24 hours,'' he points out. ``You must buy from someone who gives you a guarantee. Since you can't know your jewels, know your jeweler,'' he says, with the air of one quoting a well-loved saying. (Pay with traveler's checks rather than charging; you'll get a better exchange rate.)

All stones are duty free, set or not. Restaurants

There are many good restaurants in Rio. Ren'ee and I went to Nino's, for a fejoata lunch. Nino's is dark and discreetly decorated, with lots of tuxedoed waiters sweeping about; Michael Caine often ate here during the filming of ``Blame It on Rio,'' according to Ren'ee.

Fejoata, now Brazil's national dish, is made of beans and various kinds of pork, cooked very slowly to a remarkable tenderness. A side dish is manioc (cassava) -- ``most people call it sawdust,'' says Ren'ee; it adds an interesting grit to the pastiness of the beans.

Rio has Bahian restaurants, but Ren'ee insisted on going to a French restaurant called Le Menu, which has a Bahian cook. We ordered in advance (which you must, since it's not on the regular menu) a dish called muqueca de peixe, made of a fish (bodejo) with a sauce of shrimp, green peppers, onions, dende oil, and tomato, with a side dish of manioc and dende oil. The white fish, in a red-gold spicy sauce, is brought to your table in a ceramic pan. The chef ``cooks with her heart and her soul a nd her feelings,'' Ren'ee said. ``The majority of good cooks in Brazil are illiterate. They can't read a recipe.'' Schooner trip

A standard outing from the city is a schooner trip to Jaguanum Island. To get to the boat, a bus takes you out past tin-roofed houses with signs out front saying ``Coke'' and strings of bananas hanging from the eaves.

On the schooner with no sail hoisted, you putt-putt out while Rio's islands lie blue around you. You end up on Jaguanum, where you have a Club Med-style picnic. It's as much like Robinson Crusoe as an outing with three boatloads of tourists can be. The Botanical Garden

The Botanical Garden, which contains tropical plants from all over the world, is a pleasant stop (anoint yourself with insect repellent first). Particularly noteworthy are the spectacular avenue of royal palms and a pondful of huge waterlilies that measure a yard or more across. The garden is green and lush, but there are no flowers to speak of. It's mostly winding paths with fleshy trees on each side, some with roots that start in the waist of the tree, others with strange bulbous fruits. It has

a fragrance similar to a greenhouse. Practical information.

Varig, Pan Am, and Aerol'ineas Argentinas fly out of New York City to Rio.

Tourists are warned about the crime problem in Rio. The recommended way to cope is to store most of your traveler's checks, plus airline tickets and passport, in the safe-deposit box in your hotel. Leave valuable jewelry at home.

Don't wear jewelry while walking around the city, and don't take pocketbooks or wallets to the beach.

Because of the volatile exchange rate, only change a few dollars into cruzeiros at a time.

Your hotel can arrange the Jaguanum trip for you.

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