A guide to Rio de Janeiro, a major city offering the best and worst of what South America has to offer, we were both nervous and excited touching down on a new continent.
State… Rio de Janeiro
Type… Mega city
Language… Brazilian Portuguese
Currency… Reals $
Exchange rate (at time)… €1 = R$ 4.21
No. of days… 8
Average daily spend… €57.30 p/p
Accommodation… Modern Hostel
Daily Temperature average… 26°C
Nightly temperature range… 15°C
Landing in Rio
Our nerves got the better of us the night before our travels and we pre-booked an airport transfer through hostelworld. Partly because we feared we’d be stripped of what little we owned the moment we set foot in Rio, and also because it saved us the need to use the expensive ATM in the airport or deal with a taxi driver in a language we naively had no grasp of.
A 30 minute silent drive through vast areas of favela style housing late in the evening had us double checking the car doors were locked. The tinted windows, which all cars in Rio seem to have, were at first unnerving but now offered a layer comfort as we drove past burning fires in the median strip dividing the lanes of the motorway.
Staying at the foot of a pacified Favela
We were dropped straight to the door of Aquarela do Leme Hostel, our home for the next week. Not a service to be taken for granted. Many taxi journeys over the next few days ended at the bottom of the hill with the simple explanation “I don’t go up here” or the Portuguese equivalent with a wave of the finger.
As we later learned, we were staying in or at the bottom of a “pacified” favela. One of about 38 favelas in Rio (out of an estimated 1000) where a “police pacification unit” patrol the area night and day. A program started in 2008 to push heavily armed gangs from slums and construct permanent police outposts. The program is currently under threat but the results where we were staying seemed positive. It was a safe and friendly place where you get incredible views from the hills of Rio and a constant soundtrack of shouting, barking, playing, music, and fireworks. Thankfully the steep and narrow streets were the only reason taxi drivers refused to go up and not for any concerns of safety.
We use public transport as much as possible at home and when visiting any city. However our hostel was a 15 minute walk to a metro station and the bus journeys proved to be entertaining so for the most part we took Ubers. Journeys usually ranged from about €2 – €6 and took a fraction of the time of bus journeys and about half the cost of a taxi. (This won’t come as a surprise to anyone living in a city where Uber is the norm but it was new for us.) This also felt much safer as we got our bearings in the city.
Brazil being one of the most expensive countries on our journey, we set a budget of €60 each per day including accommodation. We usually managed to stay within this but it did require considered spending and taking full advantage of the free breakfast in the hostel.
Our highlights from Rio
Views from above
There are many vantage points around Rio offering the opportunity to catch the city from almost every angle.
There’s the cable car that takes you up to the top of the Sugarloaf mountain with spectacular views and a nice space with some bars and restaurants to sit and enjoy the view.
Christ the Redeemer
A funicular takes you up to the famous Christ the Redeemer statue. It was extremely busy and difficult to spend too much time up there (or get a good photo) but a must do in Rio no less.
Pedra Da Gavea
The most rewarding view without doubt, came from our hike/mountain climb/trail run 850M up the mountain of Gavea. The reward in no small part due to its difficulty. We spoke with several locals who didn’t make it to the top on their first attempt. The view was breathtaking.
On the climb down we heard the sound of monkeys and found a family of Marmosets along the route. It was worth the four days of apres hike muscle ache. Ouch.
Sun, Sea, Sand & Brahmas
Copacabana beach was a 10 minute steep walk down from our hostel. We spent the first day walking all 4 kilometres of it and taking a break at the fort at the end of the pier. While stopping for a Brahma, an ice cold watered down Brazilian lager, we had the unexpected company of a family of small turtles, occasionally bobbing their heads above the water to accompany the view back down Copacabana beach. Our first and most expensive beer in Rio (€3.50).
We continued down Ipanema beach and after a nice introduction to Brazilian food in Delirio Tropical on Rua Garcia d’Avila, we sat having drinks at Post 9 watching several hundred footballs being kept aloft by groups of Cariocas while the sun setting over The Two Brothers. Both beaches offering endless distractions.
Every Sunday around Praça General Osório (General Osório Square) in Ipanema, there is a colourful Hippie Fair. There is hundreds of stalls selling handmade crafts and huge unique works by local artists on offer. We tried some very authentic local cooking from a stall in the corner of the market called Vatapá (Brazilian shrimp stew).
Spend an evening like a Carioca
A free walking tour of the city helped give us a sense of the rich history of Rio and pointed out the areas worth exploring over the next week away from the beautiful beaches in the south.
The last stop of the tour was at the world famous Escadaria Selaron steps (the work of Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón). The steps are located in Lapa and were the perfect jumping off point beside the areas where some of Rio’s best nightlife takes place.
On the Saturday night we got our first taste of live Samba music in a beautiful community centre in Santa Teresa.
Pedra do Sal
Another good spot for live Samba was in Pedra do Sal on Monday and Friday nights where a group of musicians play in a casual setup surrounded by stalls selling cheap cheap caipirinhas with the surrounding steps and hills creating a street style amphitheatre. The huge crowds spilled into the adjoining streets and the celebrations presumably long into the night. We wouldn’t know because the result of traveling from the Irish summer where it’s 18C and dark at 11pm to a country where it’s 28C and dark at 5pm meant our new bed time was about 9.30pm.
It was hard not to feel a sense of accomplishment as we boarded the bus to leave Rio. Not only had we kept ourselves and everything we owned in tact, we’d also managed to enjoy every minute of it – only experiencing a sample of the best of what we’re to expect in South America – colourful, lively, loud and welcoming people.
A note on safety
We felt safe in Rio throughout our stay. But there’s no doubt safety is a concern and many tourists (and locals as we learned from talking to them) have unpleasant stories of getting robbed. A few precautions helped ensure we experienced no issues and felt safe enough to enjoy ourselves at all times.
- We only carried enough cash for the day and a bank card only when we knew we’d need to take out cash.
- When we first arrived we didn’t carry our phones at all. When we got to know the areas we then started to carry one, but never used it out in the open.
- We didn’t take Emma’s good camera out at all (except once when we went to the Sugar loaf) and Ciarán only occasionally carried his older camera if we were familiar with the area we were heading to.
- We copied the locals and carried our backpacks on our fronts when using public transport or walking through large crowds in the city centre. (Although these bags generally only contained water and a layer of clothing for when the sun went down.)
- When traveling at night, we used Ubers (or taxis if we couldn’t get WiFi) and went directly to areas we knew were safe and the same to get home.
- We generally didn’t wander from from one area into another and definitely didn’t at night. We would get to where we wanted to go, and spend our time exploring that area, and use the same mode of transport to return. The scale of the city meant this was both practical and safe.
Some of these precautions may have been in the extreme but they ensured we could walk around feeling comfortable and not always looking over our shoulder. It also helped us stick to our budget!