North & South America

Rio De Janeiro

Rio De Janeiro

The most immediate thing that struck me about Rio is the very evident divide between the rich and the poor. I kind of experienced the same thing in South Africa, but somehow in Rio the contrast is even more marked because the rich are so incredibly rich – and the poor so incredibly poor. There really doesn’t seem to be many people that sit in the middle in the “working class” category and that really was quite a culture shock to me. The other thing is that the rich live right next to the poor. There doesn’t seem to be rich areas or poor areas, they all seem to be clustered together in the same neighbourhoods so, for example, you have the exclusive Sheraton hotel (one of the most expensive hotels in Rio) situated within 50 feet of a prominent favela (slum). 

Although Rio remains a vibrant and electric city, many areas are looking a little tired and I imagine that the opulence and elegance isn’t what it once was. For example, around the Copacabana beach front area, many of the buildings are looking a little shabby and the area looks a little touristy. However, as you wander the streets this becomes somewhat irrelevant because as you’ll quickly discover, what makes Rio “Rio” is its people and the wonderful eclectic mix of people that means you can make “people watching” an art. Rio is a sociable city…a party city…a show-off city…and Copacabana really was the best place to sit and watch the locals do what they do! Honestly, I sat and people watched for hours and was not only entertained, but also captivated, intrigued and in awe of these beautiful people. 

Ipanema seems to have become the old Copacabana and is now the more elite area. If you wander away from the beach front (drag yourself away!) the streets are more elegant and somehow feel more “Brazilian”. During the day these streets are somewhat sleepy (everyone’s on the beach!) but come nightfall and this becomes a vibrant area where locals and tourists seem to mingle and co-exist quite happily. 

Barra da Tijuca is an exclusive area that is very green and covered by forest. The areas around the forest are largely residential and its worth coming here to visit the forest but also so gawp at some of the houses that dot the wide boulevards. 

Barras is a little bit of a soulless place to me and seems to be overwhelmingly for shopping en-masse. Unless you particularly want to pick up some items I really wouldn’t bother with this area as it could be a shopping district in any city in the world. 

*What’s the weather like?* 
We got to Rio on the 2nd January and for the whole 7 days we had perfect weather. During the day the skies were blue and sunny and according to the prominent thermometers dotted around the city, the temperatures seemed to reach about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. We didn’t find it to be particularly humid, especially around the coastal areas which seemed to be honoured with a light breeze most of the time which kept things comfortable. 

At night the temperatures remained warm although not uncomfortably so. Once the sun went down there was a marked drop in temperature, but it was still perfectly okay to be walking around with a sleeveless top on – but have a cardigan in your bag because sometimes it can feel a little chilly towards midnight. 

We’d heard a lot about the rainstorms in Rio – and we did see a couple where literally the clouds rolled in and the heavens opened – and it seemed like God was throwing buckets down onto us. It was really quite impressive! Oh, and honestly don’t bother with an umbrella because it won’t help! These rains happened only a few times when we were there and lasted no more than thirty minutes….and then the clouds rolled away again and the sun returned. 

Be warned though that by all accounts we were very lucky with the weather as apparently a few days before we arrived (New Year) the rain had been relentless for a few days. 

The tops of the mountains and hills around Rio can be shrouded in cloud fairly frequently, so when you see the mountains clear, that’s the time to head on up to the Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf! Be warned though that everyone will have the same idea! 

*The must-do list* 

Everyone who comes to Brazil would have heard of the Christ the Redeemer statue! I have to admit that as we were driving from the airport to the city I was looking out for it – and when I saw if high up on Corcovado (the mountain it sits on) I was a little disappointed at how small it looked. It was night and it was all lighted up and looked quite beautiful – but none the less quite small and not the imposing figure I thought it would be! 

The next morning we had booked a trip with Greyline (don’t bother – more about that later!) to visit Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer. It was a perfect blue sky day and by the time we got to the Corcovado station to get the train up the mountain, it was very clear that we weren’t going to get a ticket. The queues were round the block and the local guide estimated that it would take about 7 hours to get to the front of the queue. So we gave up and went to do something else. SO – be warned. Even get there very first thing in the morning (like 8am) or late in the afternoon (around 4pm), especially on a nice day. 

The next morning we got to the queue about 8.15am and although there was already a queue forming, we managed to get tickets within 30 minutes. We had to get a train up Corcovado which is fairly steep and took about 25 minutes. I have to say that there wasn’t a whole lot to look at on the way up, but it was very green and not unpleasant. 

At the top of Corcovado we got out and then had to take a lift up to the Christ the Redeemer. As we stepped out of the lift, there it was – and it WAS impressive! The statue itself is 100ft in height and stands with his arms outstretched welcoming you to his city. I was mesmerized by the sheer scale of this statue and joined the crowds of tourists trying to get the perfect photographic shot which isn’t easy, especially with the throngs of people getting in your way! 

To be honest, once you’ve seen the statue and taken a picture there isn’t much else to keep you up there. There is a cafe where you can buy a drink and a snack, and there is a very small chapel in the base of the statue which is uninspiring. Its worth taking a little while to have a look at the views of Rio that you can get from being 2230 feet above the city. You can see Sugar Loaf and the Maracana Stadium, and in the distance there is Copacabana and Ipanema. 

– SUGAR LOAF MOUNTAIN (Pao de Acucar): 
Again, everyone that comes to Brazil has heard of Sugar Loaf which is basically an unusual shaped mountain which is viewable from Copacabana and accessible to provide wonderful views over Rio. Again, to reach the summit it can be a bit of a pain because on a very clear day (and you need a clear day!) everyone has the same idea and so queues can be long. However, we got there about 3pm and by then the queues seemed to be a little shorter and it only took us about 20 minutes to get our tickets. 

It order to get to the summit you have to take a cable way which is done in two stages. You can get out at each stage and have a walk around – although we just headed up to the summit as this is what we came to do after all. The cable way has a pod which fits a lot of people in at once but there is windows all the way around and so wherever you are you should get decent views (although the windows are a little smeary!). 

At the top you get out and you become very aware that this area has been modified in order to cope with the massive number of tourists that visit every day. The viewing areas are paved and there is information telling you about the views that are spread out before you. The views really are very beautiful as spread out before you are Copacabana and Guanabara Bay and of course the Christ the Redeemer statue bang in front of you in the distance. 

We sat up here for quite a while as its such a lovely place to sit. There is a wooded shady walk area where you can wander should you feel the need to get out of the sun. 

On the way down, you can get a really good photo shot of Sugar Loaf as you’re descending in the cable car so have your camera ready. 

Rio is renowned for its beaches and with good reason. I don’t think its necessarily that these beaches are the most picturesque in the world (although they are impressive pieces of coastline) but more that the Brazilians make beach life an art form! 

The famous Copacabana beach is, undoubtedly, overcrowded, over exploited and unfortunately even a little tacky. The hotels and buildings that form the beach front do not look anything special (with the exception of Copacabana Palace) and it is not sleek, sexy or elegant in the way that it may have been in the past. But in the same was that I love Blackpool because of its tack, Copacabana beach is wonderful in its own right. If you’re not expecting to come here to see a pristine and exotic beach area then you won’t be too disappointed. 

Ipanema is joined on to Copacabana although it is probably more elegant and certainly less tacky. It is very crowded and at peak times you could say it was jammed packed particularly the closer you get to the ocean front. 

Copacanana and Ipanema beaches are busy areas and seem to be packed with people from 7am until 7pm day in and day out. If you want a quiet moment to yourself then the beach is not the place to be because you will be so close to your neighbour that you’ll feel by the end of the day that they’re close personal friends! Considering the number of people that are on these beaches at any one time I was amazed at how clean it actually was, but it is not pristine and unfortunately if you go for a paddle you will find litter strewn around the shore (although not too much). 

However, what makes Copacabana and Ipanema beach areas so wonderful is in its diversity in the people that use it. Literally you will find every type of person imaginable on the beach and they will all be doing there own thing. There are volleyball courts lining the top part of the beach and sitting watching the body beautifuls (OH MY GOD THEY REALLY ARE BEAUtifUL!) playing volleyball so amazingly well is very entertaining. There are also musicians, magicians, dancers, artists etc. dotted around all seemingly self contained and doing these things simply because its what they like to do. We sat and watched some sand-sculpturers creating a replica of various Rio landmarks – and they were truly brilliant. And I have to say I have never in my life seen such a collection of beautiful people gracing the beach with figures that most of us would die for and looking immaculate and like they’re ready to step out onto the cover of Vogue. 

The beaches are unofficially divided into different areas which are identifiable by the Lifeguard station number – although everyone still intermingles and you’re certainly welcome in any area of the beach no matter which “group” you best fit into. Posto 9 for example is for the cool, beautiful, hippies and intellectuals….the Bohemians if you will. Posto 8 is specifically the LGBT area and Posto 7 is for the surfer dudes. But in reality you can go to any part of the beach no matter who you are or what you want to do and believe me, no matter what you do, no one will bat an eyelid! 

This is the largest green area in Rio and it is a perfectly nice place to come and stay a few hours. We went on a jeep tour which meant we could be taken to all of the nicest areas, get out and have a little walk around and then hop back in. What was really noticeable was how cool it was in the forest compared to the centre of Rio, aided by the number of trees and shady areas and the altitude. Its very quiet here and there isn’t anything going on, but there are some nice areas to wander around, and its particularly worth visiting the Cascatinha Waterfall and the Mayrink Chapel, the latter of which contains some wonderful artwork. 

If you do visit the forest, its probably worth stopping off at the Botanical Garden which is another calm and peaceful oasis in an otherwise busy and non-stop city. I took a book and just literally chilled out, relishing in the fact that I was away from people even if for a short time! 

We spent a night here and I was taken in by it because we had such a great night and really enjoyed myself. The Lapa Rio Scenarium is essentially a bar in the trendy Lapa area and although its probably become over run by tourists I didn’t care! I was a tourist and I was going to enjoy myself! 

The Lapa looks like a fabulous antiques emporium…but its a bar which has delicious cocktails (try the caipirhina) and live music of a really high standard. Its set out over 3 levels and each level makes you feel like you should explore and see what else you can find. On the night we were there, on one of my explorations, I happened into another room where there were a group of locals practising their percussion for the upcoming carnival – and anyone was welcome to take part. I didn’t have a drum so used the table and….well, I was a natural (or so I thought!). 

This cathedral is the most unusual cathedral I have ever seen – and I have to say I was blown away! From the outside it looks like an Aztec concrete structure, but when you enter, the light, the colours, the acoustics are truly memorable. We visited when there was a concert in progress and I would highly recommend this so that you can truly appreciate this massive and original cathedral in all its glory. 

*My decision not to visit the favela’s* 
There are tours which allow you to visit the favela’s should you so wish. Me and my partner discussed whether this would be something we’d like to do but decided against it – not really because of any moral or ethical reasons, but more because we had visited township slums in South Africa and so we felt like we’d experienced poverty at its most extreme and so we weren’t sure what this experience would offer us. 

We had also been advised by several locals that the favelas are not safe and are still largely run by drug cartells who dictate daily life in the area. I do think its important to see all sides of a city but I have to say that while standing in the Tijuca looking down over a favela and hearing 6 gunshots in the very short time we were stood there did not install much confidence that the risk was worth it. Part of me does regret not visiting the favelas, but just travelling around Rio will get you close enough to the favelas to have a good enough idea of what to expect inside. 

*An organised tour or independently?* 
Well, we went independently but had booked some tours through reputable companies – and I have to say I can say with a few exceptions, don’t use the tour operators! 

We booked Greyline for a few things and after our first experience, we cancelled all of our future trips with them. We booked the Corcavado tour with them – and it was a shambles! We were picked up at 7.30am but we then spent the next 2.5 hours travelling around to various hotels in Rio picking other passengers up. We assumed that they would have pre-booked tickets (or at least someone waiting in line to get tickets) for the Corcavado train – but alas no! By the time we got there the queue was round the block and our guide informed us that we would not be able to get up the mountain until very much later that afternoon (about 7 hours). We asked for our money back which, although he gave us details of how to do this), Greyline declined to reimburse us. 

We had booked the Sugar Loaf tour with City Discovery and we quickly discovered that actually we didn’t need a tour to enjoy this. Going in a tour was much more expensive and also probably hindered our progress as our guide insisted we stay in a group. In the end we broke away from him and did our own thing which was much more enjoyable. 

The jeep tour we booked through City Discovery was quite good – although this was a small group activity (only 6 maximum) and so it felt much more individualised and less like we were being herded like sheep and going through the motions. 

Rio is easy enough to navigate without a guide, particularly if you speak a little Spanish or Portuguese – although even without this we seemed to manage to make ourselves understood. Taxis are not expensive (make sure you get a price beforehand) and there is so much information on the internet which will give you information on how to enjoy all what Rio has to offer. The only exception I would say is that if you are going to a favela (we didn’t but we met many people that did) it would be suicidal to go there without a local and respected guide. 

*Is it safe?* 
This is a difficult question for me to answer because I have my own experience and then I’ve also listened to the experiences of other travellers I met whilst I was there. From my own experience, I never encountered any problems whatsoever. Having said that, I was staying in the area of Ipanema which has been largely reviewed as one of the safer areas of Rio for tourists. However, we did travel out of Ipanema a lot and even during these times we didn’t encounter anything that could be construed as dangerous. We were careful to not wander around at night and took taxis, but then we would probably do this in any large city because that does seem to be when the more unsolubrious characters come out. We didn’t carry anything on us (other than my camera which was insured) which was worth anything and made sure that we only had a very small bit of cash on us should we be mugged. 

However, while we were there we did speak to many travelers who had been mugged while in Rio, a few of who talked about knives being used to threaten during the mugging. However, it does seem that these muggings seemed to take place either if they were wandering around alone at night or if they were in areas like bus and train stations. They all pointed out though that all of the mugger was interested in was stealing their money or valuables and so as long as you hand this over without any complaint then you shouldn’t really be exposed to the threat of real physical harm. 

There was also a small bomb that went off in a restaurant near our hotel when we were in Rio (government protesters) but no one was hurt and from what the locals said that the aim of this type of event was cause disruption rather than to cause the loss of human life. No one was injured and within an hour of it happening, life had returned to normal! 

At night Rio does seem to have a different atmosphere and there is an edge to it that I found exciting but some people could find threatening and overwhelming. However, this edge seems to be confined to the streets and as soon as you move indoors Rio turns back into a welcoming, vibrant and electric city. 

Its inevitable that in a city that has such poverty and overcrowding that crime is going to be a fact of life. Try to remember that most people in Rio are good, decent people who welcome tourists to their city. I think as long as you take precautions then this doesn’t have to be something that you become obsessed with while in Rio – and if the worst happens, let them have whatever it is they wanted and protect yourselves. Objects can be replaced but your life can’t. Here are a few tips that might help to keep you safe: 

1. Take a cab at night. It really isn’t worth wandering around and taking this risk after dark. 
2. Stay off the beach after dark. 
3. Do not carry expensive items around with you as it will attract the muggers. 
4. If you go to a place which is off the tourist circuit then consider taking a local guide. Under no circumstances should you wander into a favela without a local guide. 
5. Make sure you have adequate health insurance. 
6. Always carry a small amount of cash with you to hand over to a mugger and keep them satisfied. Most Rio muggers think that all westerners are very rich and if you say you have no money they won’t believe you! 
7. Watch your belongings in busy public areas like bus stations. 
8. Learn at least a little bit of spanish / portuguese before you go which will enable you to get help should you need it. 
9. Stay vigilant – and if you’re not sure, listen to those instincts. 

Overall, Rio was not a disappointment and did live up to my expectations, although on the surface at least, it was not as dangerous as I had been led to believe (maybe we were just lucky). For me, what sets Rio apart from other cities is its vibrancy and the fact that it never stops! I actually don’t know when the Brazillians find time to sleep because they seem to party 24/7 and do so without effort. The people are warm, friendly and welcoming and want people to come and enjoy their city. Its a city of contrasts…..deeply religious yet sin is around every corner; incredibly rich yet also incredibly poor; incredibly busy and vibrant, yet relaxed and chilled at the same time; Intense sunshine and tremendous rains. I’m not cool enough, or trendy enough or energetic enough to live here – but to visit it’s a fabulous city!