The Beauty & Complexity of Rio de Janeiro

I don’t know who (anywhere in the world) doesn’t dream of visiting Brazil at some point. I was that person, but funny enough, didn’t know if I would actually travel there during this trip. Why, you ask? Well, my main priority is gaining fluency in Spanish and on this big, beautiful continent, Brazil is one of the only countries that isn’t Spanish speaking. But given Montevideo’s proximity to Brazil, I decided it would be crazy not to visit; I have plenty of time to keep practicing and improving my Spanish in Uruguay (or pretty much any other South American country I visit). Travel Tip: almost nobody speaks English, or Spanish, or any language other than Portuguese for that matter. Of the 29 countries I’ve visited in the last year, Brazil is one of the most monolingual countries I’ve been to. Unless you remain sheltered inside a hotel for your entire visit- and please don’t waste the trip by doing this- knowing at least some basic words and phrases in Portuguese is essential. To function in the city/country, but also because people are exceedingly friendly and want to talk to you. And they will continue to do so in Portuguese, even after you tell them you can’t speak Portuguese.

Travel Logistics

Despite its proximity, there are few direct flights going to Rio from MVD (at least, during the winter season); the overwhelming majority connect through Sao Paolo with a 5-8 hour layover. And if that isn’t painful enough, these flights always seem to depart at 3am. Yet tons of options for direct flights from Rio back to MVD. After 2 weeks of searching for flights, I finally found one that was direct both ways (2.5-3 hours) and only $250! Travel Tip (for anyone who didn’t see my Costa Rica post): flying around Latin America is damn expensive! While the cost of living and traveling in many countries is similar to Southeast Asia, the cheap flights you can find in Asia just don’t exist here. Plus, most international flights within LatAm include only 1 checked bag (with a 23kg limit), so if you’re flying from the US or Europe, only your initial flight will include 2 bags. All others will require an expensive fee to check a 2nd bag, so be prepared for that (or pack lightly!). Beginning June 18, 2019, US citizens will no longer need to pay $44 for an e-Visa to enter Brazil! (Yes, that meant I still had to pay the visa fee for this trip. However, my flight was more than $100 cheaper than if I waited another 2 weeks, so I still saved $$ by coming when I did.)

Safety in Rio

I was more nervous about my safety here than anywhere else I’ve traveled in the past year. The only other cities I visited with a reputation anything close to that of Rio were Delhi (but I was always with friends so never had to venture out alone) and Capetown (but even here there are areas you can safely walk around, day or night). Why my anxiety about Rio? Because every single person I spoke with before arriving warned me about the high incidence of thefts, and quite a few had their jewelry, bags, or cell phones stolen. (But the same people would immediately follow that by telling me how much they loved the city, so I never questioned whether I should actually go.) And upon arrival, every local I spoke with doubled down on the warnings and reiterated the need to be extra careful here. But with all the warnings, I didn’t know if I could walk around anywhere alone (day or night), if it was safe to take public transit, or if I could ever have my smartphone with me/out in public. I’m happy to report I had nothing stolen and never felt unsafe, I explored the city on foot and used the subway system, and never felt like I needed to leave my cellphone at home due to safety concerns. I attribute that to two things. One, people here told me crime has been improving in the last couple of years. And second, I strictly adhered to advice given to me. (In some places I visit, I quickly realize that certain advice is best suited for a really inexperienced traveler, so I am more comfortable flouting rules. Definitely NOT the case in Rio.) To stay safe in Rio, follow these “rules” (advice given to me, that worked well): 1. Leave your expensive (or anything that even looks expensive) jewelry and purses at home. This is not a city where you want to stand out (and if you’re white, and especially blonde, you already stand out enough) or attract attention to yourself. I left my longer necklace because it would be easy for someone to pull off of my neck, and I even left my brass watch- because brass could be mistaken for gold. 2. Seriously limit use of your cell phone when in public! The good news is that violent crime isn’t all that common here (except #4), but theft of cell phones and wallets/purses seems to be. That means you absolutely should not be walking around the city with your cell phone in your hand to follow Google maps or take photos. If you have an old or cheap cell phone laying around the house, bring that! That way if your phone is stolen, you won’t really care. 3. When it’s safe to use your smartphone to snap photos or for GPS guidance. To begin with, you should always have your cell phone put away when walking around, and take out only when you need to use it. For GPS/maps: always duck into a shop or cafe. There are plenty of places you can enter if you need to double check Google maps; I even popped into a gas station one evening. But you don’t want to signal to everyone around you that you’re lost or don’t know where you’re going; using your phone for photos doesn’t necessarily make you a tourist- locals do this too. But Google maps is a dead giveaway. It’s worth spending a bit of extra time to memorize your route before leaving, if you plan to walk around the city. When taking photos, you’ll probably be fine if it’s daytime and you’re in an area that has heavy pedestrian traffic with limited to no vehicle traffic (beware of using your phone on normal driving streets, as motorcycles can come by and take it from your hand and drive away). I had no issues when in Cinelandia area, inside museums, on the beach, as well as during my day tour with a guide. But I took way less photos than is typical when I travel, because no photo was worth risking the loss of my smartphone, so it stayed in my bag most of the time. 4. If confronted by someone who wants your phone/purse, immediately give up the item. Thankfully, this is one rule I know about only from reading other blogs before arriving, no personal experience here. But the consensus seems to be: if someone is robbing you, they won’t hesitate to resort to violence if you resist. Nothing you own is worth your life; it doesn’t matter if you do have more than 10,000 photos on your phone (yup, this is what I’m walking around with). Knowing I would immediately give up anything made it very easy to comply with the other rules/tips to avoid being in that situation. And also made me wish I had my old iPhone with me because I would have much preferred to risk losing that vs my current smartphone. 5. Do not walk around the city late at night. If you’re in “safe” areas of the city (Copacabana, Ipanema, etc) there will be lots of pedestrians on the sidewalk and streets until 9-10pm on weekdays; you’re fine walking around in these conditions. But after 9-10pm, or in other areas of the city after dark, take a cab or Uber! The only time I walked around later at night was when I was with a local who knew it was safe for us to walk from point A to B. Otherwise, I’m the evenings, I always used Uber, even if my destination was a 10-15 minute walk. 6. Assume your things will be stolen if you leave them unattended at the beach. So either leave them back in your apartment/hotel room or keep with you at all times. Or if you’re lucky enough to have an amazing Airbnb host like me, they’ll know people at various beach locations who will watch your bag for you. 7. Stay in Copacabana, Ipanema, or Leblon. I normally avoid tourist hot-spot areas in favor of something that feels a bit more authentic and local. And sure, you can stay in Santa Teresa, which is super authentic and artistic, but it’s also surrounded by favelas so you’re at a higher risk. Plus, the beach communities in the South Zone aren’t just inhabited by tourists, tons of locals live here too, because they are among the safest communities in Rio. And super convenient to almost everything you’ll want to do or see in this area of the city. I was lucky enough to find the most wonderful Airbnb, situated a short walking distance from Ipanema and Copacabana. Plus, staying with Isabella was like visiting an old friend; I can’t wait to go back to see her and stay there again! (You can find all of her available rooms here: https://www.airbnb.com/users/25341342/listings) 8. Separate your money! This is always good advice when traveling, but even I will admit I can be lazy about doing this when I feel comfortable or safe in a place. But when I went out in Rio, I only took as much cash as I thought I would need that night, and put half into my wallet and the other half into my back pocket- same for splitting o my debit and credit cards(which was always covered by a long shirt or sweater due to weather conditions, so it wasn’t obvious I was physically carrying money or cards). I always left my spare debit card at my Airbnb and never took my passport or driver’s license out of the house. I assumed there was always a chance I could be mugged, so wanted to minimize what someone might take and know I’d have some way to pay for a cab to get home. Also, you can use credit cards almost everywhere in Rio. 9. The subway is amazing, clean, easy to navigate, and affordable so don’t be afraid to use it.

Now that the safety lecture is over, we can get to the fun stuff!

Food!

Always one of my favorite topics. For a country synonymous with meat, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I was BLOWN AWAY by the quantity and quality of vegan and vegetarian restaurants (or options at “normal” restaurants). They have really elevated, plant based options, on par with some of the best veg food I’ve eaten anywhere. Waaaaaay better than the veg food scene in Uruguay, sigh. There are loads of fresh, healthy, and creative options, and plenty of dishes that would please anyone who likes food! Plus, there are even non-meat traditional dishes to enjoy, such as their cheese bread (which is made from cachaça flour, so has a wonderful and lighter taste than traditional bread- and is gluten free). The best meal I had in Rio was at Teva in Ipanema, which was also by far the busiest place I saw the entire week I was in Rio- this place is massively popular, and for good reason! (I don’t care if you do eat meat, if you like good food, you will be amazed at what this vegan restaurant can do.) If you want a light lunch while at the beach in Copacabana, pop into Bardana Cozinha Natural for really yummy and healthy food (yes, also plant based). For great cocktails and solid food, check out Bar Astor in Ipanema. For relaxed ambiance and decent wine (most places carry lots of Chilean and Argentinian wines!) check out Machezinho (I went to the one on Voluntarios da Patria). Finally, I highly recommend checking out JoJo Cafe near Jardim Botanico (http://www.jojocafe.com.br/). Absolutely wonderful ambiance, fabulous wine, and because I had dinner at Teva earlier that night I missed out on trying the food but everything I saw and smelled seemed positively delish! Plus, the owner, Joana, is super sweet and if you’re lucky you too can cuddle with her dog.

Another thing to note about dining in Rio: I’ve never been to a city in my life with so many buffet restaurants. While some do offer all-you-can-eat, most charge by weight, so it’s more similar to getting prepared food from Whole Foods (but at a serious fraction of the price).

What to do with yourself when it’s rainy in Rio

One thing I was not fully prepared for: how incredibly rainy, gray, and quite frankly cool it would be for much of my visit. True, winter in Rio is not cold in the traditional sense, and there are plenty of days full of sunshine, blue skies, and temperatures ranging from 21-27C (72-84F). Unfortunately, the city also gets a lot of rain in fall and winter, so pack accordingly or you’ll end up like me- wearing the exact same outfit all week long.

I imagined this trip would be a respite from winter in Montevideo, so planned to spend pretty much the entire week at the beach. But Mother Nature has other plans, so I had to figure out what to do with myself. Though many of Rio’s most notable attractions are outdoors, there’s quite a bit to see and do when the weather doesn’t permit beach time or a hike.

I spent a full day exploring museums and parts of downtown Rio, which was a great way to spend the day. I took the subway from the South Zone to Cinelandia (exit towards Teatro Municipal). In this one area you’ll find gorgeous, classical buildings that used to have cinemas inside (only one remains, with a seating capacity of over 800!!), the National Theatre, National Library (gorgeous building, it’s free to walk around inside!), and the Parliament building. And because this is a pedestrian walkway, you can safely snap a few photos.

I then walked on the main avenue (Rio Branco), which takes you into the heart of downtown. Easily found a place for lunch that had tasty and affordable veg options. After lunch I walked to CCBB (Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil), to check out the free art exhibit a few people told me about. It was on photo realism and WOW. All of the images below are paintings, not photos.

As I left CCBB, I arrived at Candelária (a Cathedral downtown). With a fountain (not operating) that had a lovely sculpture of a naked woman just in front. I love the juxtaposition here.

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I then continued walking a few more minutes until I arrived to Museu de Arte do Rio. Entrance fee is normally 20reais but for a few weeks in May/June (maybe into July! Check their website!) admission is completely free. There was an interesting mix of art, though the majority is modern (not always my favorite). But the building itself is great and the rooftop offers awesome views of the city- and nearby favela. If I’ve learned one thing during my week in Rio, it’s that you’re never far from a favela in Rio, no matter what neighborhood you’re in. Here are a few photos from the rooftop of the museum.

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My biggest complaint about the museum is that, despite being a really big and well funded museum, there was barely any information about exhibits in a language other than Portuguese. I couldn’t help but think of many of the tiny museums I visited in Asia and Africa that had probably 1% of the budget this museum had/has, but that still offered information on their exhibits in a language other than their indigenous language.

After the art museum I walked the very short distance to the Museu do Amanha, aka, Museum of Tomorrow, constructed before the city hosted the 2016 Olympics. (If you go on Tuesdays it’s free admission!) This is a really fantastic science museum and one of the most interactive I’ve been to anywhere in the world. And unlike the nearby art museum, almost everything in this museum has information in both Spanish and English featured as prominently as Portuguese. There’s a lot of great (and scary) information on climate change and its impacts too. I really enjoyed this museum and also think it would be fantastic for kids (though maybe not super young kids), which is a hard balance to strike. Highly recommend! By the time I finished here, it was pouring again, so sadly, I had to skip my planned walk to visit the huge graffiti murals that are nearby. (Next trip!)

I only visited a fraction of the city’s museums. In summary, not a problem occupying yourself for several days if you too find yourself in Rio with rainy weather conditions.

Day Tour of the City & Photos!

I haven’t done an Airbnb professional photographer experience since Spain, in part because some places haven’t offered this as an option or because in some places the prices are outrageous. There are more Airbnb Experiences available in Rio than any other city I’ve seen, including tons of photography packages for a range of budgets. I ended up going with one of the most expensive options solely because it also included a guided tour of pretty much all of the main tourist attractions in the city. And since rain prevented me from being able to sightsee most of the week, I only had one day of nice weather to pack in as much as possible. I figured that was worth paying a premium for. Plus, even though I wasn’t prepared with a cute dress or other cute clothes, like I was in Spain, I figured that having photos that weren’t selfies was also worth paying for. The tour started with a 7:30am pickup at my Airbnb, and went nonstop until Renata dropped me off at 3:30. The tour included not only the most well known locations (such as Christ the Redeemer), but also museums and cultural centers, plus lots of extra info from her on the city, its history, development, etc. Our exact itinerary was as follows, with photos in most of the places also included below:

Christ the Redeemer Statue

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Taken with my iPhone and no photoshopping at all. This city offers spectacular views!
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And here’s a panoramic capturing the entire valley.

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Dona Marta Outlook

Largo dos Guimarães (Santa Teresa)

Selaron Stairs

Chácara do Céu & Parque das Ruínas

Sugarloaf Moutain

https://youtu.be/7nxo-KMolpE

We also visited the main Cathedral in Rio. Renata is wonderful and I definitely enjoyed the day. I’d recommend this tour if (1) your budget permits, (2) you don’t have a lot of time and need to squeeze in everything in a day, (3) you care more about the tour and sightseeing than the quality of the photos. I’d say this tour is more of a sightseeing tour that includes photos, than a photo tour. The photos are good, but the quality doesn’t begin to compare to the images I got from my photo tours in Spain (if you haven’t seen them, take a look Photoshoot in Sevilla and Madrid Glamour Shots). If what you really want are professional quality photos, you can choose a cheaper tour of most of these sites, and book a separate photo experience, and still probably pay less. (Downside: nobody else will get you to Christ the Redeemer first and get photos of you without anyone else around!) For info on this tour: https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/634787

My last day in Rio I woke up to sunshine and the warmest temperatures since my arrival. I made the best of my last morning by enjoying an hour at the beach, before heading to the airport.

Just like Cape Town, 5 days isn’t nearly enough to fully explore Rio (especially if you don’t have optimal weather). I can honestly say that I have never visited a city where so many people tried to talk me into changing my return flight to stay for longer. (I probably would have if I didn’t have to get back to Montevideo in order to move to a new apartment the following morning.) By the end of my trip I found myself thinking (1) I really do have to come back for longer, and (2) maybe it wouldn’t kill me to take some Portuguese lessons in addition to focusing on Spanish.

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