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River of January

Mountains frame the bay at Rio de Janeiro

Rio Rio

On the east coast of Brazil, the city of Rio de Janeiro hugs the steep hillsides that meet the magnificent Guanabara Bay and Atlantic Ocean.

Portuguese explorers are believed to have been the first Europeans to see the bay in 1502 -- the area was then occupied by Tupi Indians. Thinking they had reached the mouth of some immense river, the navigators called the bay "Rio de Janeiro" -- River of January -- in honor of the month they arrived.

It's difficult to imagine what they must have thought, gazing to shore past 1,325-foot (404-meter) Sugar Loaf Mountain which juts into the bay. Other mountains loom at the north and west.

True European settlement didn't take place on the bay until more than 60 years later, when the Portuguese -- who had claimed all of the region as a colony in 1494 -- built a fort to keep French traders away from their holdings. Today, Rio's harbor and beaches are crowded and, in some instances, polluted, but the natural beauty of Brazil's mountains by the bay is unquestionable.

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