One of the world’s most iconic cities, Rio is sure to grab your imagination and is a must see on a trip to South America. As big as it is beautiful, the city sprawls around Guanbara Bay and into the surrounding hills, where it looks like the rainforest is trying to reclaim the houses. From glamourous Copacabana to the slums of Rochina, it is an incredibly varied city and limitless in what it can offer. By no means is this a definitive guide, but this is how we did it on a meagre(ish) budget.
We flew in from London, via Rome strangely, to Rio’s colossal Galeao airport. There is also Santos Dumont airport, which serves mainly for domestic flights. It’s a half hour or so taxi ride into the Zona Sul, and it costs 60 Reais (about £15 at the current woeful exchange rate). It would probably be a little more down to Copacabana or Ipanema, but the tourist information folks at the airport can advise you. Don’t let taxi drivers approach you in the terminal – they aren’t allowed to anyway – use the official ones outside the terminal. It might cost a little bit more but it should mean you aren’t dragged off into a Favela and robbed blind.
Unsurprisingly, Rio is huge. Over 10 million people call the city their home, and consequently getting around the place can be a bit of a pain. You have a few options:
• Buses – the cheapest and probably most reliable option but honestly they are confusing as hell. I read somewhere that there are over 1000 bus routes in Rio and they often vary based on the time of day, day of the week, whether there is Carnaval, a football match or something else on, or the cycle of the moon for all I know. That said, they run pretty frequently from early morning to about midnight and cost no more than R3.80 for a single, and thanks to the bus lanes, they aren’t as at the mercy of traffic as taxis are. Make sure you have change or small denomination notes, I got a death stare for paying for two people with a 50.
• Taxis – They are everywhere, and I mean everywhere. I would guess that nearly half the cars on Rio’s roads are yellow cabs. The yellow ones with the blue stripe are official city taxis and they use the meter so as long as they don’t take you round the houses you are getting a fair fare, to coin a nifty phrase. A few taxi tips though:
o Taxi drivers lie when they say they know where they are going. They want the fare and will pretty much make the route up as they go along. The meter also starts when you get in and keeps running, even if they stop and ask for directions! Make sure they know your address (and have it in their sat nav if they’ve got one) before you get in the back.
o Use Google maps or Maps.me on your phone to make sure they aren’t taking you a really long route. When you’re on a meter you are at the whims of the driver, make sure they aren’t taking you for a ride. Well, a figurative ride. You know what I mean.
o Uber is a thing in Rio and it is cheeeap. Extra pluses for Uber include that you know the fare before you get in the cab, and you can select cash as a payment method so you don’t have to worry about abroad card fees.
• The metro – Rio has a pretty good metro system, but the stops aren’t as frequent as you might expect. It’s a bit more expensive than the buses but obviously is not affected by traffic, so it’s more reliable if you are in a rush.
• Walk – not the best option in a colossal city prone to daytime temperatures in the mid 30s. However, Rio is pretty well signed for walkers, especially in the tourist bits. There are walking routes called Rio a Pe, or Walk Rio, signing the route and distance between various landmarks. Handy if you don’t fancy a bus. Don’t stray off the beaten track without a guide or a local, tourist robberies are very common.
As you would expect in a city of Rio’s size and fame, there are literally thousands of options to choose from. There are plenty of hostels but they don’t come particularly cheap, so we chose an Airbnb. We were in a fairly upmarket, residential neighbourhood called Laranjeiras, about a half hour bus from the two main beaches, near Christ the Redeemer and Fluminese FC. Airbnb has been a lifesaver on our trips – if you’ve never used it sign up using this link and get £25 off your first booking. In fact, even if you have used it set up a new account with a different email address and get more free stuff, Airbnb make enough money don’t they?
Writing a list of “things to do” in a city the size of Rio is frankly daft. Whatever you are into, there is something for you. The famous attractions, Copacabana, Christ the Redeemer, Suagrloaf mountain, are all easily accessible and frequented by tourists. When you are in Rio, check the weather before the latter two because a trip up to Christ will do you no good at all if he’s surrounded by clouds, and the city doesn’t look half as good from Sugarloaf if it’s shrouded in drizzle.
Food & Drink
Again, this is more than a little pointless. Obviously where you do decide to eat depends entirely on where you are staying in the city. A few little things you should try though:
• Acai smoothies – these are everywhere, they are amazing and they are super healthy. They’re a kind of deep purple icy cold smoothie, sometimes served with granola, nuts, sprinkles, whatever you want really. They should come with a warning though, they leave your teeth a purple mess.
• Per kilo restaurants – these are exactly what they sound like. It’s a buffet where you grab what you want, they weigh it at the end and you pay for what you’ve picked up. This essentially makes items like lettuce and crisps free too, which is a nice bonus. The choice of food tends to bee much better than a british buffet, mainly because the “pay for what you eat” structure means that the food doesn’t get wasted in the same way. We went to a lovely and cheap one called Aipo Apim near Copacabana beach.
• Meat – that simple. Brazillians love meat. Especially steak. We went to a great restauran, a bit off the beaten track in Botafogo, called Caravela do Visconde, where we both ate an inhuman amount of amazing steak for less than R100 between us.
Sadly, Rio isn’t the safest city in the world. Income inequality is rife and blatant throughout the city. Stark poverty lives alongside great wealth and the two are not comfortable bedfellows. As a tourist you are an easy target for robbery. The best advice is to use your common sense. If you are debating walking somewhere you don’t know to save a few Reais on a taxi, remember what you could lose if you meet some less than savoury characters on a dark street. Keep your iPhone hidden and carry as little cash as possible. If someone approaches you and tries to grab you, they only want your stuff so make some noise and get out of their grasp, fast.