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Rio de Janeiro – Beautifully Dangerous

Posted By Jay On May 25, 2011 @ 10:00 am In Featured Articles,International Travel Reviews | 1 Comment

Rio de Janeiro was the first stop on my first South American adventure that took me through 5 cities in 3 countries. Over the course of nine days, I hit Rio and Iguazu Falls on the borders of both Brazil/Argentina, Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay and finished off with Buenos Aires in Argentina.

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Destination at a Glance

Date of Trip September 2010
Destination Good for Beach, Party, Picture Taking
Best Time to Go Always hot – though winter (Dec-Feb) is most comfortable
Currency/Conv. Rate Brazilian Real / 1 BRL = .60 USD – Favorable
Good Way to Get Around Rent Car: No Public: Yes Taxi: Yes Walking: Yes
Appox. Trip Cost Moderately Expensive
Speaks English? Some, tourist areas mainly
Entry Requirements Passport – $140 Visa fee for Americans
Do it
  • The Beaches – Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon
  • Sugarloaf
  • Christ the Redeemer/Tijuca National Park
  • Hang Gliding off of Corcovado Mountain
Skip it
  • Walking around with expensive jewelry/electronics
Didn’t get to do
  • Wasn’t able to attend my first in-person Soccer (Futbol) match.
  • Party with the locals
  • Samba school / Carnival rehearsal
Would I Recommend Yes
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If you are a US citizen, unfortunately you will have to go through a somewhat laborious and expensive Brazilian visa process. The expense is mostly due to the US State Department’s insistence on charging Brazilian citizens the equivalent of $140 US for visa/entry fees to visit this country. The Brazilians (and many other South American countries) have imposed a ‘Reciprocal Fee’ in response. To make matters worse, the Brazilian tourist visas are controlled by regional agencies, e.g., the Boston consulate handles parts of the northeast, Los Angeles would handle Southern California and I’m stuck with the Atlanta consulate – which to be kind – has the worst website ever. Half of the content is in Portuguese the other in English with no conversion utility, some content lives on Brazilian servers (which some browsers deem as a security threat) and no way to telephone anyone if you have a question. Assuming you can navigate this mess of a portal; you complete the application online, schedule a face-2-face visit, turn over your passport photos, current passport and 160 bucks and return in a few hours to pick-up your visa. The most important thing to understand is that unlike many other countries, you cannot get the Brazilian visa on arrival; you will be turned away and put back on a US bound flight at your own expense (most airlines won’t even let you board the plane without the visa).

Getting In and Around

To me, the best season to visit Rio is during its winter (June through August) where the average temperature is around the 80s F. Summer temperatures (90s-100s F) along with the humidity may be a little unbearable for some – especially if you are in a crowded area like during Carnival celebrations. Rio is a fairly large city of 6 million residents within over 450sq miles – though most visitors will stay downtown (if traveling for business) or in the Zona Sul (South Zone) if you are doing the tourist thing. Unfortunately, there isn’t a train from Rio’s Galeão International Airport (GIG) into Zona Sul so you’ll either need to take a bus/shuttle, taxi (expensive) or rent a car – all of which will take you 45min to an hour depending on traffic. ‘Depending on traffic’ is really a misnomer – traffic is always bad in Rio from what I can tell and what the locals have said. If you intend on visiting the city during any of the upcoming large events (Carnival, Olympics, etc.) – keep in mind the traffic is likely to be exponentially worse than normal since there are only 2 train stops for the entire Copacabana and Ipanema beach areas – limiting the ability for the city to accommodate the extra crowds.

In terms of navigating the city once in from the airport, Rio’s train system will drop you within walking distance of most attractions or within a short bus ride (Rio has an excellent public transportation system). Interestingly, many/most of the buses don’t have automatic card readers or cash acceptors – they have human cashiers. They literally have one person to drive the bus and another who sits at a cashier’s desk next to a turnstile that takes your money. Wow – now that’s a jobs plan! There are tons of taxis in Zona Sul should you need them, just beware they can turn out to be expensive due to the time just sitting in traffic.

My suggestion is not to worry about staying in a beachfront property. You won’t be able to step out of your hotel’s door and onto the sand; the beaches are separated by 4 lane avenues (almost expressways) – so there’s really no reason to pay more for a beachfront hotel unless you are dying to have an ocean view from your room. Even if your hotel is 10 blocks from the beachfront – we are talking about a 5-10 minute walk at the most. Officials say don’t drink the tap water and most locals have filters in their home faucets or drink bottled water (something to do with the sewer system).

One last note, it was election season while I was in Brazil and I learned it is compulsory (required) for every eligible citizen to vote. In fact, Brazilian citizens cannot renew their passports, get a job, leave the country and a host of other things if they do not prove they have voted in the last election. Imagine how the US political system would be different if everyone was required to vote. Ponder than for a moment. In any case, it was fairly interesting to witness that politicians are the same no matter where you go.

The Sites

  • The BeachesThere are several beaches in and around Rio; the most popular for tourists are Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon which are within walking distance of the Zona Sul. Copacabana is the largest and probably the most famous; followed by Ipanema and Leblon. On Sundays, many of the main arteries that line the beaches are closed to street traffic. Two piece bikinis and Speedo boxers are all the locals wear – anything else and you are immediately tagged as a tourist. The turquoise to light blue water is simply stunning to look at, though sometimes the beaches are closed due to fecal runoff after heavy storms (Yuk). You’ll see everything from volleyball and soccer matches, surfers, ad-hoc beach parties, workout stations and plenty refreshments stands selling fresh coconut water.
  • Sugarloaf Mountain – During the time when sugar cane was Brazil’s primary export, the refined sugar was packed into bread like loaves for shipment – which is where the mountain got its name. The mountain itself is a combination of granite and quartz and is one of Rio’s most popular attractions. Getting to the top of the mountain is a two stage cable car ride. The first leg takes you to 700 feet to Urca Hill where you’ll find a few restaurants, exhibits, Helisight’s helipad and several vantage points of the city for those unable/unwilling to ascend to the next stage. A glass egg-shaped 360-degree view cable car takes you to the second stage of the mountain at 1,300ft. Facing the city at this point, you can clearly see Copacabana beach on the left, Christ the Redeemer straight ahead, the downtown skyline to the right and airplanes takeoff/land from the small airport (Santos Dumont I think) on the far right. The cable car ride is R$30 per person to the top roundtrip. I suggest going an hour or so before sunset, as you can start off with a helicopter tour on stage one then ascend to stage two to take pictures while the sun is still up, wait 20min or so and start taking night pictures. Rio’s skyline really comes alive after dark.
  • Tijuca National Park – The largest urban national park/rainforest in the world – it literally spans over 12 miles smack dab in the middle of the city (over the city actually). They say that the rainforest actually pulls heat away from the rest of the city – lowering the temperature by up to 9 degrees. Inside of the rainforest, there are dozens of nature trails, exotic birds, a few animals (many not native to Brazil) and over 35 waterfalls. You can take public transportation to the park; however, at least 3 people (the concierge at the hotel strongly advised against it) stated the neighborhood around the park entrance isn’t the safest. So I booked a tour with Jeep Tour which conducted a 4 hour tour of the park complete with hotel pickup/drop-off for R$80 per person. Corcovado (“hunchback” in Portuguese) Mountain is technically part of the park and is the giant granite hump that holds the Christ the Redeemer statue.
  • Christ the Redeemer – At over 130ft tall and another 30ft wide, it is probably the most photographed landmark in all of Brazil. Sitting atop the peak of Corcovado Mountain, on a clear day you can take excellent panoramic photos that include the Tijuca Rainforest, Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon beaches, Maracanã stadium, downtown Rio, the lagoon and Sugarloaf Mountain. The monument has been voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. No need to pay for a tour, take the train to Borafogo station then bus #422 to the Cable Car/Tram entrance. The trams costs R$36 roundtrip and takes about 20 minutes to get to the top.
  • Forte de CopacabanaBuilt right before World War I, the Copacabana Fort was built to protect the city from invading navies. In addition to the giant overhead cannon, there’s a museum with a few relics including the barracks and ammunition storage areas (no pictures inside); as well as, a number of artillery guns scattered across the grounds. The excellent views of the Copacabana beach and its skyline alone are worth the R$4 admission.
  • Santa Teresa Historic District – A neighborhood in Rio that is popular with the artist and tourist crowds due to the architecture originating as far back as the 17th century. The primary draw however is the Santa Teresa Cable Car/Tramway that starts downtown and passes over the Carioca Aqueduct (Aqueduto da Carioca). I read there was a mudslide that ruined some of the tramway’s tracks, so I skipped it during my visit; but it should be repaired by now.

Next Page: Things To Do

Things To Do

  • Favela TourPortuguese for the word “Slum”, most of Rio’s Favelas line the sides of the various mountains around the city. I won’t get into a history lesson of Favelas, there are plenty of other sites that can offer a more detailed analysis. As to whether this kind of tour is a good idea in the first place, take a look at my Slum Tourism article. I chose to take a tour with Marcelo Armstrong’s Favela Tour Company – one of the oldest operating in the city and one who purports to take some of the proceeds from the tours and invest them into building/maintaining a school. We went through two different Favelas, neither of which I would call poverty stricken. As my guide put it, very few people are living in ‘misery’; there aren’t many people begging on the streets, but there are plenty of people willing to sell you arts/crafts/food they made themselves – of which I was happy to oblige. The first Favela appeared to be a relatively quiet neighborhood; the second was clearly run by drug lords (teenage lookouts atop the buildings and this giant dude walking down the middle of the street with an AK-47 were just a few clues). When the tour guide says – “don’t take any pictures because they may beat you in the middle of the street and neither I nor the police (who aren’t coming) can do about it” – you know you aren’t on a normal tour. Buildings on top of buildings, the most ingenious splicing of wires and what felt like a ‘make a way’ attitude where pleasant surprises – but it didn’t obscure the very dangerous environment. By the way, in case you thinking about visiting the “City of God” Favela (and why the hell would you??), it’s over an hour away from the Zona Sul and I’m not aware of any tourist company that will take you.
  • Hang Gliding – Of all the places to Hang Glide off a cliff, Rio has to be near the top of the list. Most Hang Gliding outfits in Rio take you to the top of the Corcovado Mountain, launch the tandem glider from one of its peaks and land on one of the fabulous Rio beaches. Not sure this kind of gliding gets any better than this. Prices start around $150 US and most include pickup/drop-off from your hotel.
  • Rio Cooking School – At the Fogo Carioca restaurant in the heart of Copacabana, attendees get to choice of preparing one of two 3-course dishes. The class teaches you a little about the origins of classic Brazilian dishes and how to prepare them. Though the class is fairly hands-on; if there are more than two people in the class there’s a good deal of watching since each person doesn’t have their own cooking station like was the case in Bangkok. The real star of the show is the restaurant’s owner/teacher – Simone Theisen. Her over-the-top personality is what really makes the class work; she’s both knowledgeable and will talk your ears off about any subject (she’s very fluent in English). I adore this chick! The class is R$120 per person.
  • Samba School/Carnival Rehearsal – According to Frommers, “If you are in Rio in the period from September up to Carnival, you can attend a samba school rehearsal to get a feel for the event and the rhythms. Although located in the poorer neighborhoods away from the Zona Sul, a number of the quadras (where the rehearsals are held) are very accessible and just a short taxi ride away. Mangueira, Salgueiro, Vila Isabel, Viradouro, and Rocinha are easy to get to by taxi from the Zona Sul and are used to receiving foreign visitors”. I did not get to attend any rehearsals.
  • Helicopter Tour – Perhaps the only way to get better pictures of the Rio skyline than standing atop of the Corcovado Mountain – including overhead pictures of Christ the Redeemer – is to take a helicopter tour. Relatively inexpensive, HeliSight Helicopters let’s you choose from a number of aerial tours of the city that meets your needs. Depending on chosen package, flight destinations include Ipanema & Copacabana beaches, downtown Rio, Sambódromo (Carnival parade grounds), Maracanã Soccer Stadium and Tijuca Forest. Tours range from 6 minutes up to a full hour at R$180 to R$1050 per person respectively and depart from one of three different sites.
  • Soccer Game – I would have loved to see a Soccer (Futbul) game in person if for no other reason than to understand what other countries see in the sport. After all, it is by far the most popular sport in the world, so hundreds of millions of people can’t be wrong right? What better place in the world to get the real Soccer than in Brazil huh??? No matter how dreadfully boring it is on TV – right?? I was hoping to have same awakening I had with hockey after seeing it in person. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be; the stars didn’t align right during my visit as there weren’t any games. Oh well. Should you decide to go, the Maracanã is the largest outdoor stadium in all of South America; but it is currently closed for renovation in preparation for the 2014 World Cup & 2016 Summer Olympics.
  • Water Sports – As strange as it is for a city surrounded by water on three sides, there actually isn’t much Scuba Diving near Rio. To dive, you’ll need to travel over a 100 miles east or west to get to Ilha Grande and Arraial do Cabo respectively. Surfing, Windsurfing and Kite Boarding are very popular activities right off of Rio’s many beaches.

Upcoming Events

Here are the major events planned over the next couple of years in Rio. Obviously I’ve never experienced any of them; most of the information has been taken from publically available information.

  • New Years Eve (Every December 31st) – They say over 2.5 million people gather at Copacabana Beach to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Rio. The crowd is mostly dressed in white usually with a colored accessory (belt, bandana, etc.) that represents a mood, such as Red to attract romance, Yellow for prosperity or Green for good health.
  • Carnival (Every year before Lent) – According to Wikipedia, “Carnival is the most famous holiday in Brazil and has become an event of huge proportions. The country stops completely for almost a week and festivities are intense, day and night, mainly in coastal cities. The consumption of beer accounts for 80% of annual consumption and tourism receives 70% of annual visitors. The government distributes condoms and launches awareness campaigns at this time to prevent the spread of AIDS”.
  • 2014 World Cup (June-13th through July-13th) – Though not technically confined to Rio, the largest stadium in the country is in Rio so the most popular and championship rounds will likely be held in the city. As soccer is the world’s most popular sport and the Brazilians have been the perennial favorites for almost 50 years – expect an extremely wild and passionate environment.
  • 2016 Summer Olympics (August-5th through August-21st) – One of the biggest multi-day events in the world, the Summer Olympics brings together countries from across the globe to compete in 28 official sporting events. The Summer Paralympics games will also be held in Rio approximately a month after the summer Olympics end.

Please keep in mind what I said earlier about traffic. You’ll need to allow a good deal of time if taking a taxi (do yourself a favor and take the train). Also, expect prices for hotels, flights and everything else to skyrocket during these events.

The Beautiful People

A lot has been made of the beautiful bodies of Rio – from songs, to movies and just general American male fantasy. If you say the words “I’m going to Rio” to the average American male (and I suspect many other nationalities), you’ll get something in-between jealousy and flat out envy. What seems to get us hot and bothered is the so called “Perfect Mix” of beauty – European hair and facial features (most folks in the US mistake it for Spanish) mixed with, caramelized skin and amazing bodies from the African heritage. Throw in the preverbal Latin American dress code (there’s only one size – tight) along with the fact that Brazil is the de facto plastic surgery capital of the world and you have some of the most physically beautiful people on earth. Or so we are told. Are there a ton of beautiful people in Rio? Yes – you better believe it. For all of the above reasons plus the no less than 50 workout stations right on Copacabana/Ipanema beaches and it’s pretty clear how dedicated the Brazilians are to their physical appearance. But is there an overwhelmingly larger percentage of beautiful people in Rio meaning – is there something in the water that makes them more physically attractive than anywhere else in the world? In a word – No.

In my opinion, the people in Rio as a whole aren’t any more physically attractive than the folks in New Orleans or New York City – two rich Mulato populations (using the before mentioned Perfect Mix criteria). Trust me, there’s nothing in the water that makes Brazilian women/men any more attractive than anywhere else. What is different is the Brazilians (at least in this region) celebrate their bodies and sexuality in a way most Americans don’t. In America, women with nice bodies and phat booties walk on the beach in swimsuits – with a jacket/sarong covering their backsides (yes, even in Miami). Why? Revealing one’s body in the US has a connotation of wanting to have sex. In Rio, revealing one’s body has nothing to do with sex – it’s about worshiping one’s body – their temple if you will. It’s a level of freedom common in many places around the globe – specifically Europe; but something scoffed at by the prudish American culture. This freedom is a state of mind.

Now this freedom cuts both ways; for every hottie you see in a string bikini, you’ll see just as many big girls with their stomachs hanging over their bikini, pot belly men with hairy backs stuffed into 2 size too small Speedos or 82 year old grandmas whose skin looks like leather from countless years under the Brazilian sun. No matter the age, race or economic background, in Rio the celebration starts with being free with your body. In short, the body is celebrated in Rio, not for the purposes of sex – but for the temple that it is and from that perspective – I love it.

The Other Side of Rio

What the beautiful ads don’t tell you about Rio is the very dark ‘other side’. The fact is Rio is one of the most violent large cities in this hemisphere with much of that violence occurring in the “Favelas” (Portuguese for Slums). From a distance, these Favelas are actually quite pretty and they add color and contrast to the sides of the city’s mountains. Up close is an entirely different story. As slums would indicate, many Favela residents are on the lower end of the economic scale and such environments are magnets for crime. As is the case, many if not most Favelas are ruled by drug kingpins. One of the more famous – and dangerous Favelas is Cidade de Deus as depicted in the movie City of God. Now, this particular Favela is nowhere near the Zona Sul and not all Favelas resemble it, but more often than not similar levels of violence are the case in Favelas. I mean seriously, even the Brothas in Compton never shot down a police helicopter like they did in one of Rio’s Favelas in 2009. Just keep this in mind when visiting a Favela, the police do not generally patrol these areas and frankly will not come to save you if you get into trouble. Most Favelas have their own rules and codes of justice; you’d be wise to understand them before going or avoid the areas entirely.

Unfortunately, the violence isn’t always confined to the Favelas – it sometimes comes right down to the Zona Sul. It is not unheard of for tourists to be robbed in broad daylight on one of the popular beaches – not common, but it has happened. In addition, men are prime robbery targets in nightclubs. The mark is the cocky foreigner who arrives without knowing any Portuguese (or worse, thinking Brazilians speak Spanish) hoping to lure a couple of women back to the hotel for a history making moment. Fact is, they’ve seen this movie before and you are more likely to be asked for payment (good day) or flat out drugged/robbed (a really bad day). Now, game recognizes game – I’m certainly not gonna tell anyone they can’t meet a girl(s) and let nature take its course if you have the gift – it happens every day. I’m just saying you need to be extremely careful; if women don’t generally approach you for a good time wherever you are from – why would you expect that to be the case in Rio???

To be clear, Rio is hardly alone as the only large metropolitan area with its share of violence; let’s not forget the US Capital was once the murder capital of the country. Not to say you will get hurt or something will happen while in a Favela or Rio in general – plenty of people visit all of the time without incident. How you are dressed (lose the expensive jewelry & electronics), who you are with (there is strength in numbers) and how you conduct yourself (drunk fools are the easiest targets) will ultimately increase/decrease your chances of encountering a situation. I can’t think of a city that has gotten a mental pass on the extreme violence like Rio has. With tourism expected to explode for the events I listed above, it is important that you remain vigilant and understand it’s not all sunshine & tan lines – don’t be a easy mark. Take a look at the US State Departments very detailed warnings about visiting Rio should you decide to go.

Closing

Rio de Janeiro is one of the more beautiful urban cities I’ve yet to visit. While Egypt is certainly on the same level as a whole, its beauty is spread out between a number of regions. Rio manages to pack a staggering amount of beauty into a relatively small area – whether Sugarloaf, Christ the Redeemer, the Corcovado Mountains and certainly the beaches. Even the Favelas that line the sides of the mountains are picturesque – from a distance. Last but certainly not least the people – often beautiful, always passionate.

While it’s unfair to say its beauty is only skin deep, visitors must be aware of their surroundings and take the necessary precautions not to become a victim of the other side of Rio. Even though I didn’t get a chance to see soccer game or meet up with the Fly Brother who is currently doing it big in Brazil’s largest city São Paulo, I still had an interesting time. I think it would be hella interesting to come back for New Years Eve and/or Carnival; until then I say farewell to the dangerously beautifully Rio de Janeiro.

Now it’s off to Iguazu Falls, the true 7th Wonders of Brazil!!!!



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