Rio de Janeiro is by far the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Eery, cosmopolitan, tropical, vibrant, mellow, sprawling – it’s like many cities packed into one. The beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema are posh, breathtaking and full of healthy people working out and eating fruit. Its favelas are ubiquitous and a bit mysterious, blinking up on the mountains at night. Its city center is as dense as Chicago (ok maybe not quite), with a musical quarter as colorful and non sequitur as New Orleans. Up in the hills, cobblestones and colonial buildings make it feel a whole lot like Lisbon, Portugal (with side notes of “do not walk there at night, foreigners.”). Above everything on Corcovado mountain, a large Jesus statue holds his arms open, blessing what is a majestic city noticeably afflicted with some of the worst wealth inequality in the world. It’s a lot to take in, and more than I can accurately describe after just a week there.
In lieu of trying too hard to poeticize a city I still don’t yet know, I’ll share some of my impressions for people who want to (and should!) go there. (Note … you need a tourist VISA.)
1. People Are Beautiful, Yes, and Healthy
Those looking to see a bunch of thonged-bottoms on the beach shall not be disappointed. Fit people sporting teeny bikinis are everywhere, and it is not unusual for both sexes to show up to the supermarket tanned to a crisp in barely any clothing at all. I felt very much at home in situations where I’d typically get yelled at for wearing flip-flops, as Havaianas seemed to be the typical footwear there for hiking, minor rock climbing and just about everything. People at the beach in Rio are not just laying around posing though; they’re running, biking or working out on one of the many fitness jungle gyms sponsored by Under Armour. The diet is healthy as well, with salgados (meat and cheese-filled pastries) sometimes acting as a whole meal, and fruit and juice bars everywhere. Safe to say carbs did not seem to be “out” in Rio.
Side note: Açaí is not just a marketable “superfruit” there. It is an ice-cream like smoothie delicacy sold almost everywhere, and it is amazing. Get on it, America!
2. Beaching is an Art (and an Industry)
On Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, you quickly learn the drill of hanging out on the soft, white sand. For just a few bucks, you can get chairs and an umbrella, and the sales-guy will helpfully position your umbrella to block out all sun. Sometimes he will come back and re-position it for you. The song of the beach is many guys walking around shouting what they are selling. “Açaí natural! Açaí natural! Cerveja! Agua mineral!” These words will echo in your head all night. You can buy lots of things on the beach, from freshly-grilled corn to sunglasses to artwork. This might seem unappetizing to some that go to the beach wanting peace and quiet, but the wares aren’t bad. We ordered Caipirinhas (Brazil’s DRINK, featuring its own sugarcane spirit, cachaça), from a beach stand, and they were the best caipirinhas I’ve ever had. The fruit is insanely fresh. When you order something on the beach, they don’t just pull it out of a cooler. They give you a chair to relax in while they spend ten minutes hand-making it for you. Amazing.
3. The Dollar Goes Far and Cabs are Cheap
The Brazilian currency is the Real, and it’s worth a little less than a third of a dollar. You can get a lot for your Real, and it was one of the least expensive vacations we’ve taken. (I don’t miss you, Euro.) We took yellow cabs everywhere, which cost less than Uber X here. (Our 2-hour cab ride to the airport cost about $30 U.S.) Cab drivers hate currency over $20 reals, so if you go to Rio, have the bank make all your money in 20s or less. You won’t regret this.
4. Food is Amazing, But Ease In
Insanely fresh and exotic fruit, carefully seasoned seafood, heaping servings of feijoada (beans, meat and rice, but magical). Oh and a million kinds of pastries, all stuffed with cheese and meat, rarely chocolate or fruit. You will eat very well in Brazil. BUT note that the American “microbiome” or gut bacteria is different than the Brazilian one, and your body may react poorly to this food at first. I dove in very ambitiously my first two days, eating raw seafood, lots of fruit, cocktails with ice (supposedly a no-no) and even steak tartar, and paid for it immensely. Just as Chase canceled my credit card because of too many Brazilian transactions (even though I let them know I was going to be there … !), my stomach pressed ABORT on all digestion due to too many Brazilian delicacies. For the rest of the trip I could barely eat anything, let alone drink the delicious drinks. I should have done more research, which would have told me to skip ice, seafood and fruit for the first three days. But now you know! For what it’s worth, Neil was fine and could eat/ drink everything. No fair.
5. Do Not Expect a City of God Experience
Those of us who have seen City of God seven or eight times might have a certain notion of what Rio de Janeiro is like. An amazing movie about a kid who wants to be a photographer getting caught up with Rio’s hugest gangs, it gives you a colorful picture of the many kinds of trouble one could get into in this city. We didn’t visit any favelas, so maybe I would have gotten another story if we had (although reportedly, the favelas have been largely pacified), but I saw zero violence, robberies or gang activity during my stay. I wish I would have spent less time researching how to stay safe and more time researching how not to get food poisoning. We never used our money belts, and I felt safe carrying a purse at all times. That said, we stayed in the most touristy areas, so please do exercise caution and research where not to tread after dark.
6. Basically No One Speaks English
The notion that “everyone speaks English” may feel true in some places, but it’s not true in Rio de Janeiro. Other than our hotel receptionist, we didn’t meet another English speaker for a couple days. That meant we had to do things like buy SIM cards for our phones, direct cabs, order off menus and negotiate tattoo prices in Portuguese. People often knew a word or two of English, but were glad when I met them halfway with Portuguese, and were often glad when I threw in some Spanish in place of words I didn’t know. (I gather that it is a point of pride to speak Spanish for Brazilians, and while some spoke some English, they were often shy about it. This is very different from what I noticed in Portugal, where almost everyone spoke English confidently and did not appreciate me using Spanish.) If you are visiting, I highly suggest using Pimsleur audiobooks to practice Brazilian Portuguese, and to study as much about food terminology as you can. Even though I have a grasp on conversational Portuguese, I often had no clue what the foods on the menu were. Study Portuguese as much as you can. You will not regret it.
7. You Must do Corcovado and Pão de Açúcar
The two biggest “touristy” things to do are also some of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in my life. Taking the train up Corcovado to see Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) is an unforgettable experience. You can see the whole sprawling city from up there, and it is amazing. Rio de Janeiro is unimaginably beautiful, and you’re going to want this view. Plus there is a restaurant up there where you can get cold, fresh açaí and talk with a waiter who has worked there for almost 42 years who is eager to teach you some new Portuguese phrases.
Even though the view wasn’t as insane on Pão de Açúcar (otherwise known as Sugarloaf Mountain), I enjoyed this experience even more. You get to take two sky-cars up the mountains and walk through the forest up there. I even saw my first monkey in the wild up there! If you do only two things before you succumb to food poisoning (like moi), those are the ones.
8. The City is Very Different in Different Areas
We stayed on Copacabana and Ipanema, the two most “touristy” beaches, which are right next to one another. These are beautiful (and safe) spots, and I don’t regret staying in them. That said, I’m glad we also ventured into Centro (downtown) and Santa Tereza, a hilly, European-style neighborhood. Botafogo, under Corcovado, was beautiful too, and very different from the main beaches. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a city that effectively captured so many “vibes.” I wish we would have stayed for another few days just to take it all in.
9. There is a Huge, Amazing Lake and a Giant Botanical Garden
Once you get over the beaches, you must visit Rio’s amazing lagoon, Rodrigo de Freitas, which gives you a view of the Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) mountains. We walked around part of it one cloudy afternoon and it was staggeringly pretty. There’s also a huge botanical garden (Jardim Botânico), which we went to on a rainy day. We monitored our step-count on our phones and found that we walked at least 10,000 steps almost every day. There are just too many beautiful places to check out on foot not to. You can also check out the city by bike using one of their bright orange “Bike Rio” bikes.
10. It’s Hard to Leave
On our 7th day there, we started bracing ourselves to leave. Because most flights out of Rio seem to be (super-long) red-eyes, we had almost a full day left before leaving. We caught one last sunset at Arpoador, the rocky beach between Copacabana and Ipanema, and I got a little verklempt. I wished I had more time in Rio, and that I hadn’t spent so much time in my hotel bed, down for the count. Luckily this beach cat came out and let me pet him/her for awhile to comfort me.
We will miss you Rio de Janeiro. Until next time (and hopefully before our tourist VISAs run out). Keep it mellow.