Guanabara or 'arm of the sea' is the name the Indians bestowed upon the large, well protected bay that has given Rio its famous reputation. The Portuguese explorers named it the 'January River', misled by this vast body of water whose 100 mile coastline is actually not a river at all, naturally closed off by a gullet of several hundred metres. In order to deter potential invaders, the Portuguese built the three forts of Santa Cruz, São João and Ilha de Lage. These defense structures can still be seen from aboard the elegant yachts that cruise the bay to this day.
From the sea, Rio appears almost as it was when it was first discovered, nestled at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain and the Corcovado. The French, who arrived in 1555, founded their 'Antarctic France' colony on the other side of the bay. They were driven out in 1560 by the Portuguese Estacio de Sa, who in 1565 officially founded the city of São Sebastião do Rio do Janeiro. The colony saw difficult times until the discovery of gold in the Mina Gerais region, before Rio became the capital of the colony in 1763. Today, with more than six million inhabitants, Rio is the country's main gateway and second largest city.
Most if not all of Rio's bay cruises leave from the Gloria marina, just in front of the delightful baroque church of Nossa Senhora da Gloria do Outeiro, one of the city's last remaining examples of colonial architecture. Another architectural curiosity is the Ilha Fiscal, whose neo-gothic style palace hosted the last ball of the imperial court of Dom Pedro II in 1889. Only a few days after the ball was the monarchy overthrown and the Republic proclaimed.
Found on the far side of Guanabara Bay, the Niteroi Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) was built in 1996 and is famous for its futuristic architecture by Oscar Niemeyer. Even though Niemeyer created Brasilia (the administrative capital of the country), he is also known for establishing the Rio Sambodrome and buildings abroad such as the headquarters of the French Communist Party in Paris.