Brazil's hedonistic city will test out your stamina, says Kate Simon. Especially on a whistlestop tour

There are times when you can't help questioning the wisdom of being an atheist. Like when you find yourself hurtling towards a 30-metre-high lump of concrete fashioned in the image of Jesus. Swooping this way and that to get the best view of Christ the Redeemer is an unnerving experience, better enjoyed in retrospect (especially when you realise you're up there with vultures and frigate birds - imagine getting one of them stuck in your rotor blades).

But who would cross half the world to Rio de Janeiro and turn down the chance to buzz around the city's - no, South America's - greatest icon in a helicopter? There are times when you should just do the tourist thing. Especially when you're only in town for a few days, like me.

Sugar Loaf mountain is another must-see. And another hair-raising proposition, it seems to me as I stand at the base station watching the cable cars swing out above the afternoon rush-hour traffic. "Don't worry," says my guide, "the cable car has only crashed once, in the 1970s - when James Bond was in it in Moonraker. Ha Ha!" Ha ha, indeed.

We buy a ticket with five stubs, each essential for the passage to the top and back. It's a race against the clouds, which are rolling in fast and throwing into doubt the hope of a decent sunset. The first car takes us to the middle station on Morro da Urca, where we must take a six-minute walk (I am precisely informed) to a second station. There we will board another car to take us to the top of the lopsided landmark - named, says my guide, after the sugar cakes fed to slaves in unhappier times.

Cloud or no cloud, the view is awesome. We are more than a thousand feet above Guanabara Bay, which the Portuguese explorer Gaspar de Lemos famously mistook for a river when he sailed by in the first month of 1502, consequently naming the spot River January. For such a hot and humid place, for someone from the northern hemisphere the name sounds superbly inappropriate. (Fifty years later the French topped that when they holed up on an island in the bay and called it Antarctic France.)

Before us, great humps of land rise out of the sea like a leviathan lumbering under the weight of a million skyscrapers. To the north lies Centro, the business district, busy by day but dangerous out of office hours when the street children reclaim their territory. Moving closer, Flamengo and Botafogo are middle-class neighbourhoods and home to one of the world's largest urban parks. To the south, the grand sweep of Copacabana beach points the way to fashionable Ipanema, super-rich Sao Conrado, and Barra, the Americanised suburb that is footballers' wives country. And everywhere the unmistakable shanty towns, or favelas, tumble down the hillsides, woefully inadequate homes for the poorest Cariocas, as the locals call themselves.

But my guide is more interested in a game of peek-a-boo with Christ. He stands opposite on Corcovado mountain, above the Tijuca National Park, the remains of the Atlantic rainforest that once surrounded this city. "Look," he cries, "there's the statue of Christ. No it's gone. Look. No. Yes, there it is. This is a good view, despite the clouds. No it's gone again ..." I, however, have become transfixed by a mountaineer who is spread-eagled on the rock face below. My guide spots him too. "Yes, that's the other way up. That's why they have all the ticket stubs."

Another day, another trip upwards. I'm waiting to board the tram, or bonde, that has been climbing the steep, cobbled streets of Santa Teresa since Rio's rich made this hillside their home in the late 19th century. The only survivor of a transport system that once crisscrossed the city, it is the oldest tram in the world still using its original mechanisms, my guide informs me. In its heyday, the bonde took the well-heeled residents from their fine Portuguese colonial-style mansions to work in the Centro district below. Today it remains a vital link for the latest residents, a boho crowd who are regenerating the area, as well as the dwellers of the local favelas, but an increasing number of tourists are coming along for the ride, too.

I pay my 20p for the 35-minute round trip on the single-carriage wooden tram and squeeze on to one of its rickety benches. At the back sits a tourist policeman, an unnerving reminder that Santa Teresa is, like much of Rio, prone to crime and that its streets should be strolled with caution. My nerves are hardly steadied when a young man leaps on to the slim running board at my side. But hitching a ride on the bonde is a tradition - and a popular one at that, since it costs nothing.

On the way I stop for a drink in the Bar do Mineiro on Rua Paschoal Carlos Magno, where a string of crude toy bondes hang along the wall (you can buy one as a souvenir in the craft shop down the street). This bar was a favourite meeting place in the Sixties and Seventies for Santa Teresa's liberal opposition to Brazil's military dictatorship, my guide tells me. Down the road is Mike's Haus, where former resident Ronnie Biggs used to give tourists interviews over a beer for $50 a time when he was on his uppers. Would I like to see that too? Bar do Mineiro is buzzing with Carioca families tucking into feijoada, a Brazilian stew of black beans and pork, seasoned with garlic and bay and served with white rice. A bar full of atmosphere or a bar full of expats? I opt to stay put.

What next? The monastery? The cathedrals? The museums? The Maracana stadium? No, I skip more sightseeing for some people-watching on the beach. "Cariocas like to look after their bodies," my guide assures me. "But that doesn't mean they are all slim and beautiful. The Carioca just likes to make himself a little bit better than he was, whatever his size." No compulsory thong-wearing, then - that's a relief.

But there are plenty of bodies beautiful sporting the famous "dental floss" bikinis on Ipanema beach. For a town where they wear so little clothing so much of the time, it seems odd that topless bathing isn't allowed. No matter, everything else is. Brazilians take pleasure seriously. After all, this is the city that throws one of the biggest parties in the world, when it throbs to the samba beat during Carnival. And this is the country that has Love Motels, respectable establishments where Brazilians of all ages can grab some intimate playtime with their lovers, away from their cramped apartments, overextended families - and spouses.

All life is present on Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. Gucci-laden poodle-walking grannies chew the fat with their transvestite beach buddies. Street children play in the surf. A united nations of flag-bearers stake their claim to patches of sand amid the ubiquitous goalposts and nets where girls and boys play football and footvolley all day long. Joggers, skaters and cyclists dodge the street-hawkers who trudge along with heavy loads of Brazil football T-shirts. And at some point everyone stops for a beer or a coconut at the kiosks dotted along the famous promenade with its black and white cobbles laid out in the shape of the waves.

Beach life goes on 24 hours a day, and I have a view of it from my room across the road in the Copacabana Palace, one of South America's best hotels. Its brilliant white façade has loomed over the Avenida Atlantica since the 1920s, when Copacabana was the smartest address in town. Today it is a seedy neighbourhood, which merges into the red-light district.

Inside the hotel it is another world. My guidebook tells me that lounging by the pool is as much a must-do for the celebrity-spotter as flying around Christ the Redeemer. I am not disappointed. During my brief stay I spot David Coulthard - well, okay, someone had to point him out to me - and Naomi Campbell (not together, I hasten to add). Their photographs will no doubt be hung in the hall of fame on the mezzanine floor, alongside a stellar cast of former guests, from Marlene Dietrich to Bono. Rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous - not all Rio's thrills require aerial acrobatics.


How to get there

Kate Simon travelled to Rio de Janeiro courtesy of British Airways (0870- 850 9850; and Abercrombie and Kent Escapology (0845 0700603; British Airways operates a service to Rio de Janeiro via Sao Paulo three times a week. Fares start at £679 until 17 December.

A week at the Copacabana Palace with Escapology, in association with British Airways Holidays, costs £1,423 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights on British Airways, transfers and b&b accommodation.