Before Carnaval, Let’s Talk About Rio
My first trip to Rio was far too short, only 5 days, and I vowed then to come back for longer. It took me several more months of living in and traveling around Spanish-speaking Latin American countries to feel like I had regained Spanish fluency; once I accomplished that, I decided it was time to return to Rio, learn Portuguese, and really get to know this city (and more of Brasil). Having a full 5 weeks in the city was enough for me to really feel like I got to know it (not all of it, but enough to get a true sense of life and culture here), and to add some valuable advice to amend my original post. I’ll start with the two most important pieces of information I am walking away with; or, perhaps it’s better to describe these as stereotypes that a long(ish) term stay in Rio helped me to crush.
- Rio is nowhere near as dangerous or scary as people make it out to be. In fact, if you are smart and aware, it’s no more risky than any other major city in the world. Before my first trip, all I heard were warnings about how scary Rio was. And during my first stay, literally every Brazilian I talked to had personal stories about people (if not about themselves, about friends) getting robbed, or worse. That was enough to make me PARANOID. And while absolutely nothing happened, I felt a bit on edge the entire time. Shortly after I arrived to Rio for this trip, someone told me: there’s a difference between being aware and being afraid; there’s no reason to be afraid here. And it hit me: totally right! During this trip, I decided to just throw myself into life here, not be so worried or paranoid, and I have been so much more comfortable. I still try not to walk around with my cell phone in my hand (if you do that enough, your luck will run out and it will be stolen), but I no longer feel like I have to duck into a cafe or shop when I need to use it, I just step back on the sidewalk so I’m not standing at the edge of the sidewalk/street (so guys who ride by on bikes to steal phones can’t so easily get to me). I also feel much more comfortable walking around at night (major caveat: I am in Ipanema, a safe part of the city, and I stick to major, well-lit streets, which are always busy, even late into the night; I would not recommend anyone, but especially women, walk solo on dark streets late at night, no matter the neighborhood). Though after a certain point at night in any neighborhood, if you’re a solo female, please do call an Uber or take a cab. I’m not saying things don’t happen here, but most things are crimes of opportunity and not violent crimes. Yes, I have talked to people who were beaten up (because they didn’t want to give up their cell phones when someone was trying to rob them), and witnessed kids looking for people to pickpocket during Carnaval, but all of the victims fit into the following category(ies) drunk and/or careless (seriously, DO NOT KEEP YOUR PHONE OUT IN YOUR HAND OR EVEN IN YOUR POCKET IN BUSY AREAS! KEEP AWAY IN A PURSE, BAG, OR FANNY PACK AND KEEP THE BAG/PACK IN FRONT OF YOU AND NOT ON YOUR BACK WHEN IN PUBLIC TRANSIT OR CROWDED AREAS AND 99% OF YOU WILL NEVER HAVE ISSUES!). Also, just like I stressed in my original post, if someone is robbing you, a phone is not worth limb or life; please just give up the wallet or phone and don’t fight back.
- Rio is not a sunny, tropical paradise (all the time). Because all photos of Rio that are widely shared, including in this blog post, focus on the beauty of this city when it’s clear and sunny, I foolishly thought that was the typical state of things, with rain being rare or limited to a rainy season. So when it rained almost the entire time of my first trip, I thought I had bad luck. NOPE! I have now learned that it rains in Rio DAMN NEAR ALL THE TIME. And given how lush and green it is, that makes complete sense. But if you’re looking to plan a vacation because you want lots of sunshine and beach time, you’re taking a big gamble if you only come to Rio, because in the 5 weeks I was living in the city, there was never even 1 full week without rain. I think the most it went without rain was 3-4 days, and many days it rained the entire day, or off and on all day. So make sure to pack your rain jacket, umbrella, and have backup plans while here.
Other Important Updates to my Prior Blog Post.
Where to Stay. When I was here before, I didn’t get a sense of any difference between Ipanema and Copacabana, so recommended both equally. WRONG. There is WAY more crime (again, NOT violent crime, but crimes of opportunity, such as theft) in Copacabana. Ipanema is definitely the safer of the two, and I absolutely love this neighborhood. I would also stay in Leblon without hesitation! Sao Conrado is one of the most affluent and safe neighborhoods, and part of it is metro accessible (ironically, though not really once you know Rio, it shares the metro with Rocina, the largest favela in all of Brazil), most is not so you need a car. Same goes for Barra da Tijuca. Better to be a bit closer and more well connected than just staying farther out, because the money you may save will be burnt up in Ubers or time in transit from your accommodation to anywhere in the city you want to go. That’s actually the only reason I wouldn’t recommend staying in Santa Teresa either. It’s a cute, artsy, quirky neighborhood that used to be one of the most affluent parts of the city, but now is much more mixed (and at night, definitely not safe to walk around the way I can in Ipanema). But more than that, there’s no metro, so you have a long walk up and down really BIG hills to get to/from home.
Other Neighborhoods Worth Checking Out. Soooo many! Because I was constantly nervous during my first trip about someone jumping out during midday to rob me (seriously, have to laugh now at how paranoid I was), I just didn’t feel totally comfortable exploring all the awesome neighborhoods in this city. My language school had classes in Laranjeiras for the first 3 weeks I was in Rio, which gave me a chance to get to know this neighborhood. It’s a gem! And speaking of my language school, if you’re interested in learning Portuguese, I highly recommend Fala Brasil School.
So many great (and seriously affordable) restaurants, cafes, bakeries, and it’s also where I went for waxing (Pelo Zero Largo do Machado) and eyebrow threading (Depyl Carioca). Nearby you have the awesome and hip neigborhoods of Flamengo and Botafogo. In addition to great restaurants and bars in these areas, there are also marinas and yatch clubs, and if you’re lucky enough to make a friend with a boat, spending a day enjoying the water (and amazing city views offered when out on the water) is a great way to spend a day!
One of my favorite ways to get around the city became the Bike Itau (orange city bikes), that are SUPER easy to use and cheap! Download the app, and for 20reais you can use the bikes for a full month (and only have to pay if you use the bike for more than 1 hour! Having 1 hour free will get you almost anywhere in Rio you want to bike). I absolutely LOVED riding around the Lake in the evening and at night, and riding from Ipanema up to Jardim Botanico or over to Humaita (both of which have some great restaurants!) was just so lovely and way faster than public transit. You can find some great museums in Gloria, and there’s a cultural center in Catete that offers free samba concerts every Thursday night starting at 6pm (so, in Brazilian time, that means they actually start around 7:30-8). Also, I went with Isabella and some of the other girls (Isabella’s home is constantly full with travelers from all over the world, which adds to the fun of staying there!) to Ilha da Gigoia, which is this tiny little island that is easy to get to (take metro to Jardim Oceanico, walk about 2 blocks, and take the little boat across the water to the island), but feels like it’s a world away from the rest of Rio.
Exploring Rio. BEACHES. Ipanema and Copacabana are the most well known, and either of these (or Leblon) are some of the most convenient when in the city, and more or less equal (though, in my experience, the water is much cleaner on the Ipanema/Leblon side) and it’s important to remember, when visiting all, NEVER EVER leave your belongings unattended. I never had anything stolen but because these are primary areas where tourists flock, this is also prime grounds for crimes of opportunity. When using public transit it’s a very long trip (2.5 hours by bus!), but Itacoatiara offers a gorgeous beach that is not crowded, and because almost everyone there are locals (it’s not exactly a tourist hot spot) you can leave your belongings on the beach while going for a swim without any worries. I had the opportunity to visit because I visited a couple I met when visiting the spectacular waterfalls of Iguazu.
Should I Visit a Favela? Look, favelas have a fascinating place in Brazilian history, and if you want to learn about them, check this video out. But unless you befriend someone living in a favela who invites you (which is the only reason I visited Rocina, which I was still hesitant to do even at the invitation of my friend Luis), please don’t pay to gawk as though these people are animals in a zoo. These developments, which have historically been their own city-states in some ways, completely separate from governmental oversight or control (that’s changing now), are communities where people live. Yes, many of the people tend to be lower income, but not all are poor; it’s just as with many large cities, where people employed in service industry (for example) can’t afford to rent in “nice” neighborhoods so they go to where rent is affordable (almost everyone who works in the service industry in the Zona Sul lives in Vidigal). But yes, there are also very poor people. Just like in your own home country, so if you want to see poverty, go spend some time in your own country/community. Interestingly, for the most part, it’s rather safe, unassuming, and boring in favelas. There is less risk of theft and petty crimes because they are tighter knit communities and people look out for one another; tourists, well, you’re fair game when you’re hanging out in the city and being stupid. But, yes, dangerous narcotraffickers who are armed and sometimes wars break out between rival gangs and/or with the police. And when this happens, people get shot and die, including tourists. (Seriously, the risk is real. Most cariocas, which is the local term for people from Rio, who I know have never been to Rocina, for example. And when I told Isabella, the owner of my Airbnb and my friend, she was NOT HAPPY that I went. Even though I felt totally comfortable while there, she told me that the two most dangerous narcotrafficking rival gangs are both in Rocina and you never know when a war can break out, so it’s even more dangerous than it seems.) That said, if you want a completely appropriate excuse to head to a favela- enjoy the Morro Dois Irmaos Hike! This is a pretty short hike (Olivier and I hiked at a rather fast pace and did it in 30 minutes; but even moving at a slow, relaxed pace, you’ll be up within an hour) and while it’s a steady and constant incline, so long as it’s dry (do NOT go if it’s raining or was raining the prior day! The trail would be dangerously slipperly), there’s nothing particularly challenging. There are lots of great blogs with more details about the hike so I won’t go into too much detail here, but in short: take metro to Antero de Quental, walk to the beach and head in the direction of Vidigal (there’s a walking/running path/sidewalk that’s easy to notice- stay on that). Keep going until you see the Sheraton Hotel- and continue for approx 500m after that. When you arrive to the entrance of Vidigal (see video below!), there are 3 options for getting to the top of the favela where you pick up the trailhead: (1) walk, though I wouldn’t recommend- it’s not a safety issue, but it is STEEP and you’ll be walking for a solid 1-2 hours; (2) motor taxi, which is the cheapest (5BRL) option, but dear GOD, you will be holding on for your life. Also, the helmets are a joke, they won’t fit and the guys won’t let you adjust them so they actually fit tight. But if you’re not a nervous passenger, this is the way to go; or, (3) shared vans, which head up once they fill with passengers. After doing this hike with Olivier, I would feel 100% safe doing it as a solo woman, no doubt. It is impossible to get lost while walking up, and it’s such a popular spot for tourists that locals are really helpful if you need to be pointed in the right direction (to find the trail head to start). That said, literally everyone else Olivier and I met while hiking up or down had guides. My advice: save your $$ and spend it elsewhere, this is one activity that you can easily do on your own! Another KEY PIECE OF ADVICE: go early!!! My buddy, Luis, warned me that crowds start to arrive at 10am, and he was dead on! Olivier and I met at the metro at 7:30am, arrived to the entrance of Vidigal at 8:15am, started hiking at 8:30am, and arrived to the viewpoint at 9am. We had a full hour to ourselves at the top to enjoy the view and take lots of photos. As we turned to leave we encountered the first couple arriving, and on our way down, we passed LOTS of people. Having a full hour to just enjoy the view, without dealing with crowds, was a blessing, and if you’re going to go, it’s worth waking up early.
If you do want more information on the hikes, here are a couple of blogs I found helpful: https://nowinrio.com/outdoor/hiking-the-dois-irmaos/ and https://myturntotravel.com/morro-dois-irmaos/
More Amazing Plant Based Restaurants (or Places with Fabulous Veg Options) & Great Bars. Coming here after a week in expensive Lima, where veg options were often harder to find, was a breath of fresh air. Rio just has SO MANY amazing restaurants that cater to any diet, and food is so affordable. So much so that it generally is cheaper to eat out than buy food at grocery stores, not kidding or exaggerating. I ate and drank at quite a few great spots during my first trip, but to add to that list, here are some new favorite spots (and there may be some repeats, apologies, but I’m not going to take the time to re-read my prior list before posting here, haha). Note, I’m writing this post 6 weeks after leaving Rio, and I *hope* that all of these bars and restaurants can and will survive the Coronavirus closures.
- Nosso (Ipanema) https://www.nossoipanema.com This place makes some of the best cocktails in the city (and at super reasonable prices!)
- Barraca do Uruguai/ Uruguay Tent (Ipanema Beach, near Posto 9) Amazing caipirinhas, in addition to a traditional they always have an assortment of fresh fruit, they use clean bagged ice, have the best staff, and cost is only 15reais per drink! You can also rent beach chairs and umbrellas from them. My favorite spot on any beach in Rio to hang out. Bonus: all the guys here also speak Spanish and many speak English, so don’t worry if you don’t speak Portuguese!
- Symposium Bistro (Flamengo/Laranjieras/Catete area) http://www.symposiumbistro.com Wonderful selection of wines by the bottle (I believe they do offer a limited selection by the glass). Owner is wonderful and also originally from Uruguay so Spanish works here too!
- Teva (Leblon)- JUST GO!!!! And definitely get the mushroom carpaccio app.
- Das Chefs Restaurante (Copacabana). This place is incredible!!!! Wow! Inventive, creative, beautiful dishes. Tied with Teva for best plant-based restaurant in Rio (when budget isn’t as much of a concern). Highly recommend!!
- Acougue Vegano Ipanema. Super tasty, reasonable prices, a wide variety of traditional Brasilian dishes in plant-based form, and only a block from the metro and the beach.
- Mercearia da Praca (Ipanema). This restaurant is right across the street from General Osario Metro and has a massive selection of wines by the bottle. (Note: food is traditional Portuguese, not a lot of plant-based options, so better as an option to start or finish the night.)
- Restaurante Bardana Cozinha Natural (Copacabana). Like Teva, this is probably on the list in my first blog, but worth a mention again. This place is only open for lunch, but is some of the most fresh and creative food (plus, super well priced) I ate in Rio! 100% worth it! And 1/2 block from the beach.
- Temperarte Copacabana. Super close to the beach and this was my go-to spot for lunch or dinner for the 5 weeks I lived in Rio. Massive spread of options, food always seemed fresh, no shortage of veg options (though they serve plenty of meat for your carnivores) and really great prices! For a quick meal, this is the spot!
- Venga Chiringuito (Copacabana). Right across the street from the beach, this tapas restaurant doesn’t have a ton of veg options but what they do have are super tasty and I really enjoyed it. Plus, great sangria!
- Vegetariano Social Clube (Laranjeiras). Super duper tasty and really reasonable prices. Definitely worth a trip if you’re in this part of the city!!
- Brownie do Luiz Laranjeiras. Next door, after you have a tasty meal at the VSC, head here for some of the best brownies I’ve eaten in longer than I can remember. WOW!
- Meza Bar (Humaita). This was a great recommendation from Olivier, great ambiance, and a great cocktail menu! Plenty of veg options to keep your mouth watering.
Now that I’ve got you caught up on life in Rio…
A Few Tips for Surviving Carnaval
- In 2020, it was estimated that seven million (that’s right: 7,000,000) people were celebrating Carnaval in Rio. Of that 7 million, 5 million were locals, and another 2 million tourists visited for the event. What this means: the city is busy, crowded, and EXPENSIVE. When I was looking at Airbnbs (in December 2019), to find a room in a house in the Zona Sul, I was looking at a minimum of $800/month, up to over $1,500 for a room with a shared bathroom in an apartment. By comparison, if you want to come for a month almost any other time of year (setting aside NYE and major festivals), you can easily find the same rooms available for between $300-$600/month.
- Events start a solid month-plus before the actual holiday, which runs for about 4 days leading up to, and including, Fat Tuesday (day before Lent). These events include blocos and rehearsals from the Samba schools participating in the Sambodromo. So even if you can’t afford to come for the “official” 4 days of Carnaval, there is plenty to enjoy before and after!
- During the busiest 4 days of the season, all of the metro stations close certain entrances and limit where you can buy tickets or reload your metro cards. So to avoid waiting in painfully long lines, load up your metro card with enough $$ before this time, so you have enough credit on your metro card to get you through Carnaval.
- Unlike Mardi Gras in New Orleans, the celebrations don’t end at midnight on Tuesday though, there are still blocos and other events through the Saturday following Tuesday. The elaborate parades take place in the Sambodromo, and you can find tickets online to match all budgets. If you are on a tighter budget, look for seats in the stands. If you have an extra $250-$700+ to spare, a Camarote is definitely the way to go. These are private boxes that will shield you from the elements (it doesn’t matter how hard it’s raining, the parades will go on, so better to be protected if you can afford it), but more than that, they offer MAJOR extras: transportation to/from the center from a much more convenient pickup spot; ladies, you can get your hair and makeup done professionally; there is free food and drinks all night and even a breakfast buffet in the morning; they have professional masseurs on hand… the list goes on. If you buy early enough, the tickets are way more affordable, as Carnaval goes on the prices increase daily. Furthermore, the last Saturday (Championship Day) is by far the most expensive. Two of the most well known Camarotes: Allegria and N1.
- There are literally hundreds of blocos (street dance parties) happening throughout the Carnaval season, and some of the biggest draw crowds of up to 1,000,000! Yup, one million people all congregating for a single bloco. But there are also lots of much smaller, much less crowded blocos. There are blocos that start as early as 6am, and “unofficial” ones that start super late at night and continue the party until dawn. It is literally a 24/7 party. It can be hard for tourists to figure out which ones to go to, so if you don’t have locals who you will be partying with, I highly recommend downloading an app to figure out what’s going on where. A local suggested Blocos de Rua (.com) to me and I shared this with so many people! Yes, you do need to understand Portuguese, but it lists all official blocos across major cities throughout Brazil. You can pick the city you’re in, and then search by day, time, even neighborhood. It shows you where the bloco is located and provides a description of it, as well as the estimated number of attendees (so if you want to avoid crowds, it’s easy to do! Or if you want to focus on the biggest blocos, also easy to find).
- The advice most people gave to me: avoid the really big blocos, stick to the morning and daytime blocos and those that are a bit smaller, and pace yourself. Use evenings to rest. I followed some of this advice, but not all of it. Also, the younger you are, the more you can handle 20 hour party days with lots of alcohol, sun, dancing, and very little sleep, and do this on repeat for quite a few before your body gives out. At almost 40, those days are behind me, so I definitely took it a bit easier than I would have 10 years ago, haha. I did stick to mostly the morning and daytime blocos, many of which were great! And I did keep my evenings pretty early/chill, because I was simply worn out. A lot of people avoid the huge blocos in Copacabana and Ipanema, but that’s largely because bathrooms are scarce and when you’re drinking that can just be uncomfortable. Because my apartment is walking distance from both of these beaches, those were definitely some of my favorites.
- Absolutely critical advice if you go to a big bloco: the bigger the crowds, the easier it is for people to steal your shit! Almost 100% of locals wear fanny packs, and the really smart ones wear the money-belt style (very thin, fits under your clothes). If you have any sort of a backpack, I found a drawstring athletic type to work great- no zippers or pockets that anyone can reach into to take anything out. I also had a wristlet purse with me that worked awesome; I always had it (i) on my wrist, and (ii) with a hand closed around the zipper, so no matter how brutally crowded it got (where it’s almost impossible to “feel” when someone is taking something because you’re smashed on all sides), my valuables are protected. And again, people looking to steal are looking for easy: the phone in the pocket; the fanny pack or backpack on your side or back that’s easy to get into; etc. If you’re worried, leave anything expensive at home.
- A warning for the women: literally any surface becomes a bathroom for men during Carnaval. Ugh. So if you are anywhere near a bloco and you see a guy leaning slightly against anything (tree, fence, building, can be in the middle of an open park with families running around- doesn’t matter)… look away or you will unintentionally see penises all the time.
- Don’t forget your sunscreen! The number of (white) people I saw with horrible sunburns was far too many to count. The only reason I bothered taking my drawstring backpack with me was to keep my reusable water bottle (which was sometimes full of water, other times I’d prepare and bring my own drink) and sunscreen, and I reapplied every few hours. Because otherwise you’re going to be out at these street parties all day, where you’re totally exposed to the sun, and it is BRUTAL.