A Brief Introduction to Copacabana and Leme Forts

The view from Leme Fort |© Halley Pacheco de Oliveira/WikiCommons
The view from Leme Fort |© Halley Pacheco de Oliveira/WikiCommons
Photo of Sarah Brown
9 March 2017

At either end of Copacabana’s long sweeping beach are two forts that play a crucial role in Brazil’s military history; to the south is Copacabana Fort, and to the north is Leme Fort, officially known as Forte Duque de Caxias. Although Copacabana Fort is still a military base for the current Brazilian army, Brazil’s neutral stance in world affairs makes the forts two must-see tourist attractions.

Copacabana Fort

Copacabana Fort (in Portuguese: Forte de Copacabana) acts as a coastal defense and military base for some of the Brazilian navy, as well as housing the Army Historical Musuem and Confeitaria Colombo, an all-day restaurant with art nouveau décor and a regal menu. Its purpose as an army base seems worlds apart from the breathtaking views over Copacabana bay, and its vantage point for spotting turtles in the sea below. Yet the young soliders wandering around or running up and down Copacabana’s promenade serve as a reminder that there is an active army dwelling behind the fort’s walls.

The Copacabana Fort protrudes out into the sea | © Gabriel Heusi/Brasil2016.gov.br/WikiCommons

The fort came to being in 1908 when the army removed the existing chapel with its replica of the Virgen de Copacabana, the patron saint of Bolivia, and built over its foundations a modern coastal defense to protect the beach and intrusive entry into Rio. It was protected and shielded by powerful guns and weaponry, that unexpectedly caused a potentially catastrophic problem in 1922. In this year, there was a revolt in the fort and the officers inside turned the guns onto Rio de Janeiro. Yet the government were quick to react and sent in the battleships São Paulo and Minas Gereas to defuse the problem. The São Paulo ship bombarded the fort making at least two significant hits, enough for the fort to surrender half an hour later.

The gardens and view at Copacabana Fort | © Halley Pacheco de Oliveira/WikiCommons

Nowadays, the fort is open to the public between Tuesdays and Sundays. At the entrance, a guard stands by in the same uniform that was mandatory when the fort opened in 1914. The museum has several exhibits of different periods and events in the history of the Brazilian army, although somewhat interestingly, there is no mention of Brazil’s involvement in World War I and little mention of their participation in World War II. Next to the museum is Confeitaria Colombo, a historical restaurant with seating inside and out. Arrive early to get a seat and order the breakfast-for-two option to enjoy while overlooking the long arcing beach and vast ocean.

Leme Fort

At the other end of the beach is Leme Fort, perched on top of the peak Morro do Leme. Although officially known as Forte Duques de Caxias, it is commonly referred to among tourists and expats as simply Leme Fort. This slight confusion of names has been a recurring theme in the fort’s history, with several name changes over the last few decades.

The fort came about in 1776 when Vice-King, D. Luis de Almeida Portugal was ordered to build a fort to protect the south part of Rio against coastal attacks, in particular the current threat of a Spanish invasion. The fort was built and named Forte da Espia (Spy Fort) or Forte da Vigia (Lookout Fort), depending on who you spoke to back then. The War of Brazilian Independence between 1822 and 1825 led to the fortification of the fort and it was strengthened and armed by five large pieces of iron. After Brazil’s independence, the fort was renamed Forte do Leme (Leme Fort).

The view from Leme Fort | © Halley Pacheco de Oliveira/WikiCommons

The Current Fort

The structure and shape of the current fort was developed in 1913, at the same time that the construction of Copacabana Fort was coming to an end. The project was sent to Germany, although major obstacles such as the World War delayed its construction. When the fort was finally completed, it underwent another name change to its current name, Forte Duque de Caxias in 1935 which was in honor of the army patron, Luís Alves de Lima e Silva, O Duque de Caxias (the Duke of Caxias). For ease of reference, however, it is still known as the name it received after Brazil’s independence.

The top of the fort | © Halley Pacheco de Oliveira/WikiCommons

The fort remained vigilant during World War II and was ready for attacks. In February 1943, a watchman at Leme Fort sounded the alarm to warn of German submarines near to the bay. Immediately, the fort fired at the intruders with support from Copacabana Fort. After a few minutes of intense fire, it was verified that the submarines were in fact whales that had luckily managed to escape unharmed. At that time, Brazil didn’t have radar or sonar technology and although the forts were heavily armed, they were unable to accurately identify objects in the sea.

Leme Fort was opened to the public in 2010. Nowadays, it serves as a memorial to Caxias and has galleries with permanent exhibitions of the fort’s history, a video room for animated exhibitions and space for temporary exhibitions. The only way to get to the fort is by an easy 15–25-minute hike that offers wonderful views over Copacabana. The fort is open Tuesday to Sunday.

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