My girlfriend and I live in Buenos Aires, and last July Rio de Janeiro seemed like the perfect getaway from the cold weather. Below is a summary of our short trip, plus some tips.
The first thing that stood out to us on our transfer from GIG airport to Rio was a wall running along the highway. Behind, the favela sprawled upwards.
Grand Mercure Hotel
We checked in at the Grand Mercure opposite Copacabana beach, which cost around 70 USD a day. This is your run of the mill mass-oriented hotel stacking a couple hundred rooms in two narrow back-to-back towers. We chose it over a hostel so as to leave our wallets and passports in a safe while we splashed in the sea, although this might have been overcautious on our part. On the plus side, the Grand Mercure offered a decent buffet breakfast, a—tiny—rooftop swimming-pool with a great view and a gym to maintain my training.
On our first afternoon in Rio, we walked along the beach to Fort Copacabana. This was a Sunday and there was a long line of people. Tickets were 6 reales (1 BRL = 0.25 USD as of 01/04/2020) per person but admission is free on Tuesdays. A band was playing bossa nova and the fort commands nice views of the beach. If you want to watch the sunset, though, you should go to Arpoador instead.
Before we called it a day, we filled our stomachs at Appetito, a pay by weight buffet just around the corner from Mercure. They have salads, rice, feijoada (bean stew), fish, chicken, and beef. We spent around 45 reales between the two of us.
Ipanema, Scooters, and Arpoador
After a hearty breakfast and a quick dive in the sea near Fort Copacabana the next day, we headed west to Ipanema and kept walking along the shore almost up to Leblon. Then, we hopped on Yellow scooters for a trip to a Pão de Açúcar supermarket, bought 90 reales worth of tuna cans, cooked chicken, tuna sandwiches, and greek yogurt, dropped what we didn’t need for lunch in our room’s minibar, bought a mat for 35 reales and came back to chill at Copacabana beach. Around 5, we rode the scooters again to Arpoador on the bike lane along Av. Atlântica and Rua Francisco Otaviano, which was one of our favorite things to do. Try to get to Arpoador half an hour before sunset to enjoy the stunning view.
For our second dinner, we went to the Grill Inn, which is just opposite Apettito. The Grill Inn is a bit pricier (we spent 73 reales, including a slice of cake) but it’s open until later. They also offer sushi — at a different price. For some reason, Brazilian buffets serve Japanese food alongside pizza and pasta.
We didn’t run into any problems with crime while in Brazil, but that night we witnessed the police stopping and patting down a group of teenagers for no apparent reason other than looking poor.
On day three, we headed east to Leme on the ever-fun Yellow scooters. We walked along the low wall popular with fishers and saw turtles swimming among the rocks below and Christ the Redeemer in the distance. The beaches in this area are a lot broader and have volleyball courts and football pitches. We spent most of the morning there so the toilet for 2,6 reales at one of the posts dividing the beaches came in handy. There are people who rent you chairs and umbrellas and keep an eye on your stuff, but since my girlfriend didn’t want to go into the water we just lay our mat on the sand and she looked after our things while I went for a splash. We bought a strawberry caipirinha for 15 reales and chilled there for a while.
Then, we walked back to our hotel, left all our valuables in the safe, and went to Copacabana beach with just our swimsuits on, collecting the towels provided by the hotel. The area that is closer to Ipanema had milder waves and we went for a swim together. Up to that point, the temperature had been around 77 °F/25 °C but about 4:30 that day it got a bit colder. So, we went to Arpoador again, a bit earlier this time, to wait for the sunset at 5:30. A lot of people sat on that rock overlooking the surfers and the coast, the vendors weaving through the crowd with stacks of beer and trays with caipirinhas. Although the sky was cloudy, we really enjoyed the lovely vista once again.
Um Dia no Rio: Scams and Legit Travel Agencies
On day four we did the famous Um Dia no Rio tour with DestiGo, which we acquired through Ely’s Tour for 500 reales for the two of us (credit card surcharge included). Tours aren’t really my cup of tea but a series of circumstances lead us to book this one: we were—slightly and unjustifiably—afraid of moving on our own around Rio, we had been given a leaflet from Ely Tour advertising Um Dia no Rio at a price lower than individual tickets for the attractions, and when we arrived at the slightly differently spelled Ely’s Tour’s office in Leme we were too tired from walking to come back empty-handed.
Unsurprisingly, we later found out through online reviews that the tour advertised in the Ely Tour leaflet was a scam, so beware of those leaflets handed out at the beach. Ely’s Tour and DestiGo, for their part, turned out to be quite nice.
Of course, there are many problems with tours—for one thing, we had to wait for someone for over half an hour on the bus—and there are plenty of other ways of enjoying the same attractions—metro, Uber, etc. Also, I’d have felt we were missing our if we hadn’t explored the city on our own later. But, overall, it was pretty good and we enjoyed the historical explanations of Alsimar, the guide, and learned some Portuguese to boot—”belleza?” (okay?), “bacana” (cool), “tá bem?” (alright?). Here’s the list of stops:
1. Escadaria Selarón
Better known as the background for Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful,” the Selaron Steps are an eclectic display of colorful tiles a Chilean artist collected from around the world, full of pop culture references and social protest. They’re definitely worth a visit to snap a few photos.
2. Downtown (Lapas) and Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro
We whizzed through the city center, which is bustling with life during the week but apparently turns into a ghost town on weekends, and then made a 10-minute stop at the cathedral, which has a quite impressive pyramid structure but also looks quite rustic.
3. Maracanã Stadium and Sambódromo
We took a quick look at the largest stadium in Brazil, which houses sports relics like the ball Pelé scored his 1000th goal with, and at the world mecca of carnivals. Honestly, I didn’t really see the point: you should go watch a game at the stadium if you’re a soccer fan or dance with the sweltering masses at the Sambodrome in February if you love samba.
4. Christ the Redeemer
A bit before noon, we finally headed to one of the two main attractions of the day: the statue of Christ the Redeemer, which is inside Tijuca National Park. On the way, the city blurring into nature and the favelas encroaching on the hills together with high-end hotels give rise to the contrasts that make Rio unique.
A project funded in good part by local residents, Christ the Redeemer overlooks the entrance to the bay. We took a van to the base of the hill, probably faster but not as scenic as waiting in line for the iconic red train. I had sprained my ankle the previous day in Arpoador and took an elevator almost all the way to the top. However, there was an escalator for the final stretch, which wasn’t working. Despite the place being tourist trappily crowded, the final climb was worth it.
I think it was around 2 o’clock when we went to a typical pay by weight buffet, offering the holy trinity of these types of restaurants: Brazilian, Japanese and desserts. The tickets DestiGo gave us only covered the first category and didn’t include drinks either. After a decent meal, we spent 15 minutes browsing trinkets at DestiGo’s office—definitely a low point.
6. Sugarloaf Mountain
The name Pão de Açucar, or Sugarloaf Mountain, derives from the mountain’s resemblance to the sugarloaves traded by the Portuguese. This was the final highlight of the day. There are hiking trails for at least some of the sections, but we took cable cars all the way to the top, which offered some really cool panoramic views at sunset. Also, there were some mico monkeys.
Olympic Boulevard and Etnias
On day five we wanted to see the Olympic Boulevard and walked to Cantagalo station. The subway in Rio (MetrôRio) is very clean and tidy. There are no beggars or hawkers like in Buenos Aires. On the flip side, we saw a soldier carrying a rifle, which seemed to account for the absence of beggars and hawkers better than a lack of poverty. Each ticket to Uruguaiana station cost 4,5 reales. We exited to a sea of touters and colorful wares, much like in Bolivian or Peruvian markets. Facing the Museu do Amanhã, you have to walk to your right to find the famous Etnias graffiti.
From there, we hopped into an Uber straight to the Botanical Garden. We had nothing but awesome experiences with Uber in Brazil. You can get lost in the Botanical Garden for at least a couple of hours and the best part—hands-down—are the monkeys!
After taking a second Uber back to the hotel, we still had about two hours left before it got cold to wrap up our Rio experience on the beach.