Rogean Rodriguez was born and raised in a favella in Rio. As a child he would go downtown and shine shoes. One day, when he was 13, he came across Alonso Dias, who had built a city in the sand. Alonso had learned how to make sandcastles back in his native Columbia, where he perfected his art to the point that people would give him money to look at his sandcastles. He then started traveling around Latin America, building sandcastles on well-visited beaches. People would stop and admire them and give him some coins.

After a while, Alonso’s sandcastles attracted enough attention that he began to get commissions from hotels and even shopping malls to build big sandcastles for them as a promotional stunt. It was then that he decided to start traveling around Latin America, both for a change of scenery and for a chance to ply his trade in other places. One can hardly travel around Latin America without coming to Rio, and it was there, on Copacabana Beach, that young Rogean saw the Columbian’s sandcastles and was so mesmerized that he forgot all about shining shoes and would just come and stare at the cities in the sand.

Eventually, Alonso started showing the boy how to make sandcastles too. Rogean had no family, and neither did Alonso, so after a while they decided to make their way together. Rogean became the adopted son of Alonso.

I ran across them on the same beach upon which they had met, and, like Rogean 10 years before, I was fascinated by what they had built in the sand. There were towers and spires and windows and staircases and statues and belfries and flying buttresses and architectural wonders that I would have found impressive enough in stone, let alone sand. Alonso was proud of his creation, and he was proud of his adopted son. “He will take over when I’m gone,” he said. “And then his own son will take over.” Rogean beamed at me. “I have a wife,” he said, “and we just had a little boy.”

“Maybe one day, together, we will build my dream,” Alonso said. He then took out a book of drawings and photos and press clippings to show me a sketch he had made. “It’s a theme park, all built out of sand!” The theme park featured statues and castles and little booths to buy ice cream, plus a big banner over the entrance that said something I couldn’t read.

If I found it difficult to squint at Alonso’s drawing in the glare of the Brazilian sun, it was at least partly because my head was still pounding after the previous evening’s excesses. It’s so damn easy to exceed in Rio. I had been out all night in the company of a bunch of mostly Brazilian friends, sprinkled liberally with other Latin Americans, a couple of French, and a South African whose lack of samba skills was compensated by his unbounded enthusiasm and near-fatal blood alcohol levels. My own lack of samba skills was so complete that no amount of alcohol could make up for it, though Lord knows I tried.

We had spent most of the evening at Scenarium, a club in the old part of town where you can buy the paintings, baubles, and books that lie around while the entire crowd pulsates to the rhythms produced by a band of old-time samba musicians who appear to have developed a kind of symbiotic telepathy with the people swaying and shimmying in front of them. I spent most of the evening either watching the band or expounding on philosophy and international affairs in that kind of slurred, fevered enthusiasm one can only express when one is very drunk. I have no doubt that everything I said was seriously stupid, but then, I imagine no one remembered it any more than I remember their own incomprehensible replies. These conversations inevitably end up in flurries of giggles or with someone grabbing your hand to drag you onto the dance floor for an unsuccessful but enjoyable samba lesson.

An evening like that is hardly a proper precursor to a day of exploring a city, but if you plan to go to Rio just to spend your nights lounging in your hotel and then going to bed early, you might as well stay home in Podunk. Anyway, the next morning, I dragged myself out of bed and went out to visit Christ the Redeemer.

It’s true that I usually try to avoid describing the patently touristy destinations when writing these things, but you just have to go visit Christ the Redeemer in Rio. The statue stands at the pinnacle of the Corcovado, one of many towering spires of rock that jut up in the middle of the city. To get there you can either drive or take the train. You should take the train. It is a small three-car affair that runs on a track with the kind of gradient one expects from a ski slope, not a railroad. It was built by the Swiss, who know about steep railways, and you can catch it way down below, then sit and look out the window as it winds its way through the tropical forest that makes up a surprising proportion of the land area in Rio. Once at the top, you can walk up a series of steps to the great big statue itself, where you can observe myriads of people standing in front of it with their arms stretched out so their friends, lovers, or spouses can squat a few feet in front of them and take pictures of them superimposed on the 30-meter statue of Jesus behind them. All together, they kind of look like the final scene in Life of Brian.

The thing you need to do up there on “hunchback” mountain is to get in front of the statue of Christ the Redeemer and look the other way, down on the city 700 meters below. When I was there, clouds were skidding along below me, allowing peeks here and there and then occasionally parting to afford a brief, spectacular view of the whole city.

In my book, Rio may well be the most beautiful major city in the world. It’s all mountains and forest, the buildings like a glittering layer of rock candy sprinkled over the folds of the terrain. In the middle is a big lagoon, and all along the edges are the beaches, with the wide gray Atlantic stretching away to the horizon.

No other big city so revolves around beaches. No other city has so many songs about its beaches, come to think of it. It’s not a rare sight to see businessmen in jackets and ties sharing the sidewalks with people wearing bathing suits and carrying surfboards. For that matter, the people with surfboards may wear ties some other time during the day—who can tell?

On those beaches, you just might run into an old Columbian and a young Brazilian making cities of their own in the sand. If you do, then stop, gawk, and give them a few coins … they’re saving up to build a world of sand.