11 Fun Facts About Rio

Did you know that Rio de Janeiro does not exist? It is said that when the Portuguese found South America in January 1502, they arrived at the mouth of a river they named River of January (Janeiro in Portuguese). Today, it is no longer a river but a bay known as Guanabara. Here are 11 fun facts about Rio.

Rio is named after a non-existent river

According to legend, Portuguese explorers initially reached the area now known as Rio de Janeiro in January 1502, believing the bay they discovered (today named Guanabara Bay) was the entrance of a river. They named the location Rio de Janeiro, which translates as “River of January.” Although this etymology is commonly accepted, other academics suggest that in 16th-century Portuguese, a rio might have referred to any deep indentation along a coast, implying that the explorers were not as as perplexed as they appear.

It was once part of a colony called Antarctic France

Although the Portuguese were the first European explorers, it was the French who established the first settlements. Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon, a French aristocrat backed by Henry IV, erected a fort on an island in Guanabara Bay in 1555. (the island still bears his name). It was the start of a colony called France Antarctique, which was intended to serve as a strategic stronghold for France in the Americas while also providing a haven for persecuted French Protestants.

However, the colony was short-lived: Villegagnon was expelled to the mainland and later returned to France following a dispute with a second group of settlers about whether the wine consecrated in the Eucharist should contain water. The colony survived briefly without him, but sectarian turmoil caused internal strife, while the Portuguese posed an external threat. The Portuguese destroyed the colony in 1567, therefore securing their grasp on the country.

It was formerly taken hostage by the French

In the 1690s, prospectors discovered gold in Brazil, followed by diamonds a few decades later. Rio prospered as the closest port to the mines—and the French took notice. They sent privateers to strike in 1710, already immersed in a conflict with the Portuguese. That gang was unsuccessful, but others returned the following year better armed. They were successful this time, blasting Rio until the Portuguese governor fled, bringing with him the majority of the populace. Francisco de Castro Morais, the governor, eventually negotiated the return of Rio in exchange for 612,000 gold cruzados and 100 chests of sugar, but the Portuguese sentenced him to exile in Portuguese India for his cowardice.

It served as the Portuguese Empire’s capital for nearly seven years

Rio de Janeiro served as Brazil’s capital from 1763 to 1960, when the position was shifted to Brasilia. However, from 1808 until 1822, Rio was also the home of Portugal’s exiled royal court, which was escaping Napoleon’s invasion. In 1808, Prince Regent Dom Joo VI arrived in the Americas with the rest of the royal family and immediately began rebuilding the city, constructing a medical school, national museum, national library, and botanical gardens. In December 1815, Dom Joo designated Rio as the formal capital of the Portuguese empire, a position it held until September 1822, when Brazil declared independence from Portugal.

The city’s past as Brazil’s capital is commemorated on the country’s flag, which features a picture of the night sky over Rio on November 15, 1889, the day Brazil declared itself a federal republic.

Its residents might be named for a house, or maybe a fish

Rio’s indigenous people are referred to as carioca (a name also sometimes applied as an adjective to the city itself). The term’s etymology is disputed: some claim it derives from kari ola, or “white man’s house” in the indigenous Tupi language, possibly referring to a stone house constructed by an early Portuguese trader that stood out from indigenous huts. However, kari may derive from a fish called the acari, whose reflecting scales, according to some, resemble European armor.

Several times a year, lightning strikes its colossal figure of Jesus

Brazil’s proximity to the equator makes it a lightning-prone area, which means that Rio’s famed 98-foot statue of Jesus situated atop Corcovado mountain may not be the safest choice. According to the Brazilian Institute of Space Research, the statue, which was completed in 1931, receives between two and four direct lightning strikes each year. The statue’s lightning rod mechanism is intended to ground the electricity, although it is not always effective. Last January, lightning struck the statue’s right thumb, causing damage to the skull. The city is eager to fund successive restorations, despite the fact that the pale gray-green soapstone used to clad the statue is becoming scarce.

The city is ruled for five days a year by a mythical jester named King Momo

Rio de Janeiro erupts with vitality and color five days before Ash Wednesday, when millions descend upon the streets for the world’s largest Carnival. The festivities begin on Friday, when the mayor passes over the keys to the city to a man named King Momo, a fabled jester who serves as the festival’s host. Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is characterized by hundreds of booze-soaked bandas (riotous street celebrations, frequently themed) and lavish balls. The festival reaches a zenith at the Sambódromo, when the country’s best samba schools compete for top honors. (Consider a Brazilian version of Eurovision with an emphasis on samba and much more feathers.) The results are released on Ash Wednesday, the day after Carnival concludes and King Momo returns home.

It was the site of the world’s largest soccer match

On July 16, 1950, 173,850 paid spectators crowded the Maracan stadium, the world’s largest at the time, for the 1950 World Cup final game. Around 10% of Rio’s population watched when Uruguay grabbed victory from the Brazilians, an event termed the Maracanazo by local media (a term still used when a visiting team triumphs). The game holds the global record for the most people ever in attendance at a soccer match. The stadium has subsequently become a national symbol, dubbed a “cathedral of soccer” by The New York Times, and is poised to host the 2016 Summer Olympics’ opening and closing ceremonies. Apart from sports, the Maracan has hosted performances by Frank Sinatra, The Rolling Stones, and Madonna.

The city included QR codes in the design of its mosaic walkways

Portuguese pavement is a sort of beautiful stone mosaic that is often black and white in color and is found on sidewalks and other pedestrian areas throughout Portugal and its former colonies. The dramatic, abstract waves that cover the length of the Copacabana beach promenade, built by landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, are one of the most famous examples. In 2013, the city began embedding dozens of QR codes into the mosaics at Copacabana and other locations to give visitors with tourist information. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the concept originated in Portugal.

There is no prohibition on street art in that country

Rio de Janeiro authorized street art on a variety of city properties in 2014, transforming the already vibrant city into an outdoor art gallery. Street artists are permitted to embellish columns, walls, and construction siding as long as they are not listed as historically significant. The city has even established a quasi-government organization, Eixo Rio, to control the city’s urban painters, and annually commemorates Graffiti Day on March 27—the anniversary of Brazilian graffiti pioneer Vallauri Alex’s death in 1987.

It is home to a Carmen Miranda Museum

Carmen Miranda, dubbed “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat” by American audiences, dominated the silver screen in the mid-20th century as a singer, dancer, and actress in both Brazil and America. The Carmen Miranda museum, located near Rio’s Flamengo Beach, pays tribute to her with hundreds of pieces on exhibit, including her signature platform heels and towering plastic or sequined fruit turbans. (Contrary to common belief, Miranda never danced with actual fruit on her head.)