R I O D E J A N E I R O, Brazil, Nov. 13, 2003 -- Ironically in a country known for skimpy bikinis that reveal more than they cover, Rio de Janeiro has balked for the past nine years at allowing a nude beach, but that is now changing.
The city is "as famous for its natural beauty as it is for Carnival reveling with televised samba parades and belles in their Olympic nakedness," said one Brazilian judge.
And with these words last month, he dismissed a 1994 ban on nudism at a beach called Abrico, ruling that arguments of immorality did not apply to well-behaved naked sunbathers on the outskirts of merry Rio.
On a recent sunny weekend after the lifting of a nine-year ban, dozens of nudists filled Abrico beach, the city's only nude beach which sits on a secluded strip of sand between the mountains and next to surfers' favorite spot of Grumari.
One man stands on a rock, talking on a mobile phone that makes his ear the only covered part of his body. Others play volleyball or jump in the waves.
Some swimsuit-clad bathers walk rather sheepishly along the shore, past a sign saying: "Beyond this point you may find naked people."
Victorious organizers don't mind the onlookers.
"The curious today are followers tomorrow," said Pedro Ribeiro, president of the Abrico Naturist Association.
Abrico is one of very few nudist beaches in an urban area in Brazil and the only one in the international tourist mecca that is Rio.
The drive to life the ban was motivated in part by nudists' arguments that foreign tourists, especially from Europe, will flock to Rio if they have a place where they can bare all.
"We just reopened and we already have foreigners from Germany, Spain and the United States, and people are asking for the address," Ribeiro said.
Nudist Numbers Growing
Brazil, with its nearly 5,000 miles of mostly beautiful sandy coast has only about 20 nudist beaches or colonies, while in Spain alone there are 400, according to court documents. Compared to an estimated 5 million nudists in France, a much smaller nation, Brazil's 500,000 followers of nudism pale, Brazilian nudist groups said.
But Elias Alves Pereira, president of Brazil's National Federation of Naturists, says that the number of nudists has doubled in the past three years and is convinced that the growth will continue.
Brazil is also way ahead of fellow Latin American nations Argentina and Mexico, with less than 10,000 nudists each.
Although Latin American countries are viewed as puritanical in many ways, Rio's nudists say the problem they had been fighting all those years was not public opinion or the country's habits, but just one person.
Abrico beach was first officially opened to nudists in 1994 under the mayor who is at the city's helm again now. But lawyer Jorge de Oliveira Beja filed a court challenge alleging Brazilian culture was not accustomed to "immoral" nudism in public places and he won an injunction closing the beach.
Despite the recent lifting of the ban, a cloud of uncertainty still hangs over otherwise sunny Abrico. Ribeiro said Beja would likely challenge the ruling in a higher court.
Despite Beja's objections, nudists insist Abrico will remain a wholesome spot. "The beach is not for those who are looking to get sexually aroused, although it may happen … In such cases people are supposed to get dressed or go for a splash to calm down, or members of the association ask them to do so or to leave," Ribeiro said.
Organizers sometimes have to talk sense into the curious when they go too far in staring at nude bathers.
"As for love games, a wee kiss or a hug is OK, but we try to restrain such things from going further as without clothes there is so little left to the real thing," Ribeiro added.
To the international philosophy of nudism that consists in unity between naked body and nature, Brazilian nudists add local flavor, arguing that native Indians met the arriving Portuguese in the nude 500 years ago.
Another pro-nudism argument in poverty-stricken Brazil is that nakedness strips people of their social differences.
"If you are nude, you start asking questions like 'Why don't I have the same right for good education if I'm equal to that other nude guy?' " said Ricardo Bezerra, who wore only sunglasses, a yellow cap and golden neck chain.