Exploring Brazil, Part One of Three: Rio de Janeiro

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Those of you who regularly read my travel writings know that I’m rarely at a loss for words, but when it comes to Brazil, I have to be honest in saying that I have a challenging time figuring out how to capture the wonder, beauty and culture of Brazil in only a few short paragraphs and photos. I must say that Brazil is one of the most unusual places that I have ever visited in the world – it’s culture incredibly diverse, it’s landscape both naturally beautiful and tremendously urban and its people wonderfully varied and warm. My trip this November spanned three areas of the country, each of them exquisitely unique: Rio de Janeiro, the most well-known capital city of the state with the same name; Buzios the almost-European resort town about 3 hours north of Rio; and Salvador, the diverse, African-influenced city about two hours north of Rio by plane.

Since there is so much to write about, I will be breaking this trip up into three entries, this first one recounting my trip to the city of Rio de Janiero.

Port of Call: Rio de Janeiro

Niterói, RJ, Brazil
A couple sits on the edge of the bay of Niterói, looking across to the city of Rio de Janeiro with Christ the Redeemer perched on the mountain top above.

When traveling to Brazil from the United States, almost all flights come directly into Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo, Rio being the primary tourist destination and Sao Paulo being the commercial and business hub. I once had a business colleague refer to Sao Paulo as “the biggest city you will ever see, outside of China”, which, technically, may be correct, as the central city population outnumbers New York City by about 2 million people (The entire Sao Paulo metro area actually numbers 19+ million people, which makes it the largest city in the southern hemisphere). Thankfully, however, the city of Rio de Janeiro is dwarfed in size with a “tiny” population of only about 6 million people (expanding to about 11 million when you take the greater metropolitan area into account). The city of Rio de Janeiro is the capital city of the Brazilian state of the same name and was the country’s capital until the government picked up and moved to the planned city of Brasilia back in 1960. Today, the city is best known as the primary tourist destination in Brazil, and is home to the famed beaches and neighborhoods of Copacabana and Ipenema beaches. (Note: For simplicity, I will further refer to the city of Rio de Janeiro as, simply, “Rio”, unless I explicitly note that I am referring to the State of Rio de Janeiro. Also, I have to apologize to Brazilian and Portuguese readers, as I will often jump back and forth between the English and Portuguese spellings of some words and often neglect to use some of the correct accents.)

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Birds eye view of the Rio Coast (Sugarloaf in the background)

Rio’s airport is located about 25 miles from the tourist beach areas of the city. On any given day, that ride can take you 30 minutes to two hours. In the case of my arrival, a critical central tunnel was closed due to mudslides a few days prior and my taxi driver was forced to hug the coast of the city during morning rush hour, which resulted in a 2 hour trek from the airport to my hotel (thankfully, the tunnel was re-opened about 9 days into my trip). Licensed taxis in Rio are plentiful and relatively cheap for short journeys, but cab drivers tend to take their own liberties with their routes and many will take advantage of an unsuspecting tourist. At the Rio airport, you have the option to purchase a fixed-rate journey when you arrive, which will cost you about $40 to the beach areas. This is more expensive than a metered cab in moving traffic, but can give you some piece of mind that you won’t be taken advantage of and won’t be a victim of the meter if you are in slow traffic (as in my case). Alternatively, you can walk out into the front of the airport and ask for a fixed rate, which can often be lower than what you would pay inside the airport.

(A note about currency: In this entry, I quote most prices in US Dollars. At the time of my trip, 1 US Dollar was equivalent to about 2 Brazilian Reals. In cases where I quote Brazilian Reals, I’ll usually explicitly note it and use the R$ symbol, e.g. R$25.)
Where to Hang Your Hat

Most tourists rest their heads at the hotels that line Copacabana, Ipenema and Leblon beaches. Ipenema and Leblon beaches are adjacent to each other, separated by a small canal which splits them in half, while Copacabana is adjacent to Ipenema. A walk from the extreme end of Leblon to the start of Copacabana takes about 40 minutes or costs about $5 in a taxi. Taxis in this area are plentiful (I don’t think I ever waited more than 2 minutes, regardless of the time of day or night) and are quite reasonable in price. It’s a good idea to check your map first, if you’re not familiar with the area, as some taxi drivers may look to take advantage of a tourist, as was the case one evening when a driver took me on a joy ride through Ipenema and Copacabana, even after the initial protest by my Portuguese-speaking companion (end result: it cost me about R$4 extra).

The famous beaches of Ipenema and Copacabana line these parts of the city end-to-end and are frequented by locals just as much as they are by tourists. All beach-facing hotels in these neighborhoods are across the street from the water and there are no private beaches – in Brazil, all beaches are federal property. The only hotel actually on the beach is the Sheraton Rio Hotel & Resort, which is where I stayed for the duration of my visit. This hotel is at the extreme end of Leblon and requires a taxi to access most parts of the city, however, you probably need a taxi when visiting many destinations in the city, regardless of where you stay. Next to the palatial Copacabana Palace Hotel, the Sheraton is considered to be one of the better first-class properties in the city. Hotel quality and pricing varies greatly from block to block, so be sure to do extensive research. Also be aware that Ipenema and Copacabana are districts of the city and don’t specifically refer to the beaches of the same name, so just because a hotel has “Copacabana” in its name, it does NOT mean that it is actually located adjacent to the beach.

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Locals gather on a large rock off the coast in front of the Sheraton Rio Hotel & Resort

The Landscape

Standing on the pedestrian walkway at Ipenema beach and looking in all directions you can experience the amazing dichotomy that is Brazil: Beautiful, flat beaches collide with amazing moutainscapes; gated apartment buildings sit only a few minutes away from the masses of people living in the city’s flavellas (slums); tourists and the city’s more well-heeled residents enjoy $50-a-plate dinners while the working class enjoy a drink at the cervejarias or juice bars next door. To me, this is what makes Rio particularly exciting. The clash of cultures and local flavors provide an experience that is truly unique.

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Copacabana Beach meets Ipenema Beach in the distance

The beaches are beautiful, but, in my opinion, not particularly spectacular in themselves. You are sure to find more beautiful beaches and water in many more places throughout the world. But you need to keep in mind that Rio is a city and the beaches in Rio are urban beaches – you would probably be challenged to find beaches this nice as close to the downtown centers of most coastal cities of this size (certainly not here in New York). The fact that you can walk a few minutes from your hotel and plant yourself on the beach, at a top-plate restaurant or at a packed bar is much of the area’s appeal.

The Grub

Aside from the beaches, Brazilians love to eat and there is no shortage of good food anywhere in the country. Living in the New York City area most of my life, I have become spoiled, as I can typically get some of the best of any cuisine right at my fingertips. That being said, I was tremendously surprised at the quality of food that I experienced in Rio and beyond – there is no doubt that one can get first class cuisine in Rio and you don’t have to look hard. Rodizo, the Brazilian carve-it-at-your-table, all-you-can-eat selection of grilled meats is a national tradition and does not disappoint, particularly at Porcao (4 locations in Rio), which holds is reputation of being the best of its kind in Brazil (Note: they alos have opened a location in New York City). Even the lower-end Rodizo joints, such as Carretao Churrascaria in Copacabana, provide excellent value for the money.

My vote for surprisingly-good cuisine in Rio, however, goes to the many higher-end Italian restaurants, which says a lot coming from an Italian boy from New Jersey! Restaurante Gero in Ipenema is a good example. There are also some worthy local “chains”, such as Gula Gula, if you’re in the mood for something lighter (there are a few locations, but it’s restaurant in Ipenema features an unusual indoor/outdoor space).

Restaurant Siri Mole specializes in the native palm-oil and coconut milk-based seafood stews from Bahia (northern Brazil – see my forthcoming articles). Although showered with praise over the years, this restaurant has lost its touch – the food is good, but not worth the $75-$100 per person price tag. Only head here if you you must try this type of cuisine and are not heading anywhere in Bahia during your trip.

You can’t talk about Brazilian food without mentioning street food and Kilo restaurants. Street food comes in many different varieties: from huts, to walk-up shops, to vendors on the street. It can feature anything from grilled meats to stuffed pastry pouches (a la empanadas) to sweets. My advice: indulge and don’t be afraid. Use common sense, however. Are the locals eating it? Does the vendor’s cart look fairly clean? If it looks, OK, go for it…it’s good stuff. If you’re looking for something quick, but a step above street food, a Kilo restaurant is a good bet. These are places that have a variety of hot and cold foods that you can pile on your plate, weigh and pay by the kilogram (hence their name). Just like any restaurant, they range from low end and cheap (be careful) to higher end and more expensive. I do not kid when I say that some of the better grilled meat I ate on my trip was at a rest stop 90 miles north of Rio, where the fresh grilled meats and sausages were piled on my plate for a filling lunch that cost less than $7. (This would, affectionately, be known for the rest of my trip as “rest stop meat” and I was sure to indulge again on the way back to Rio a few days later).

The Drink

I was about to start this paragraph with something like “Brazilians like to drink”, but the more and more I travel, the more I realize that everyone likes to drink, regardless of their locale (OK, Muslim nations aside). The Brazilians are no different. Beer is well-liked among locals and some of the local Brazilian brews are excellent. Brahma, Bohemia, Skol and Pilsen are the top selling brews and each of them possess much more character and body when compared to the top-selling American varieties. My favorite, however, is Itaipava, a lager brewed in the city of Petropolis, which has a clean, refreshing taste, particularly when chilled to near-frozen temperatures (what the Brazilians refer to as “trincando”). Overall, beer is cheap, and you can usually get bottle of the local brew at a cervejaria for about 2 Reals, or about $1. If there are several of you siting at a table at a cervejaria or, as was my case on several occasions, at a beach bar, you may be brought a large bottle of the beer which is often hugged by a wrap-around plastic “thermos” to keep it cool (see picture below). A large bottle will run you about 4 Reals ($2).

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Example of an Itaipava beer in a “thermos” wrap, Buzios, RJ.

The Brazilian national drink is the infamous caipirinha (pronounced kai-pee-reen-yah). The classic drink has recently become a trendy cocktail in many big US cities and bars in New York City often demand upwards of $10 for one. You can easily find caipirinha anywhere in Brazil for about 4 Reals ($2), and they usually knock you a step back when you take the first sip. The caipirinha is made by muddling a fresh lime with a few heaping tablespoons of sugar and filling the glass with cachaça, a Brazilian spirit similar to rum (and also made from sugar cane). The end result is clean and refreshing, although downing a few of them on a hot summer day will typically require that you take a nap afterwards. Cachaça can be purchased at most specialty liquor stores in the United States and the brands Pitu and 51 are the most widely available (Note: in Brazil, a bottle of 51 goes for about $2 in a supermarket, but can cost upwards for $20 in the US).

Spirits aside, there are a few things to note about soft drinks. First, from the tourists to the taxi drivers, almost everyone drinks bottled water. There is nothing wrong with the water supply in Rio and it is perfectly potable, however, it is also terribly chlorinated and is rather unappealing to drink. Most Coca Cola products are available anywhere, but I was quite surprised that the preferred diet soda in Rio and Buzios is Coke Zero – not Diet Coke (this is fine for me – I much prefer Coke Zero). Finally, I should note that the Brazilians love their fresh juices and the city is stocked with fresh juice bars that make endless combinations for fruit juices, some with many fruits you have never seen or heard of in your life.

Tourist by Day

Sometimes I get so caught up the food and drink, I forget about the local sites. A man once told me that Rio’s top tourist attraction is “the scenary”, as with every turn you are encountered with something either beautiful, unusual or interesting (or all three!). I cannot disagree with him, but there are a number of sites that warrant you being a camera-toting tourist for the day.

The most famous site in the city and, quite possibly, the landmark of the country itself, is Corcavado mountain and the stature of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer). The art-deco statue of Christ was perched upon Corcavado about seventy-five years ago and looks patiently across the city as thousands of visitors take the rickety old tram to the mountain top every day. Recently inaugurated as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, it is an awesome site and provides tremendous views on a clear day. Corcavado mountain itself pops out of the earth and is terribly steep, requiring a trek up its spiral roads, which some people (much more daring than me), attempt to hike. You can also drive or take a taxi to the top of the mountain if you wish to avoid the crowds on the tram or be locked to the tram’s schedule.

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Christ the Redeemer

Rio de Janeiro City Skyline
A shot of Rio with Christ the Redeemer in the distance

Opposite Corcavado sits Sugarloaf (Pão de Açucar) mountain. While Sugarloaf is not as high as Corcavado, it offers the best panoramic views of the city and the greater Rio area. While you can also walk to the top, almost everyone prefers the two-stage cable car ride, which first brings to the summit of adjacent Morro da Urca before you ascend to the top of Sugarloaf itself. Walking around the the summit, you can see spectacular view of Chris the Redeemer, Flamingo Beach, Ipanema, Copacabana, Central Rio, Niterio (see below), the ocean and the various bays.

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The Sugarloaf cable cars

It’s worth taking a stroll down the stone-lined pedestrian walk, which runs from Leblon down through Copacabana, a walk that will probably take you a good two hours or so, but well worth it. Along the way you can stop on the beach or grab a cocktail or snack at any one of the hundred or so stands that line the beach. (These stands range from shacks run by locals to higher-end cafes to, yes, even a McDonalds shack in Copacabana). This is a good opportunity to grab a beer, a coconut or a freshly-made caipirinha, which can be drank at any of the small tables that surround the shacks.

The two other major tourist attractions in Rio are the Botanical Gardens (Jardim Botânico), which I, unfortunately, did not get to see and the Football (Soccer) stadium. (A taxi drive told me that the only people who visit the football stadium are Brazilians, Argentinians and visitors from Uruguay, the country that shocked the Brazilian national team in the 1950 World Cup final in front of 199,000 (!) spectators).

Bars and Clubs by Night

Rio’s reputation as a party city certain holds true and you can find the typical variety of venues that you would expect in any large international city: bars, dance bars, large discotheques, etc. Nightlife hours are similar to those here in New York City – things really don’t start to happen until at least midnight, with the bars staying open way into the wee hours of the morning. Until 11:30 and midnight, most nightclubs are totally empty and some haven’t even open their doors. You can typically see tons of people enjoying a good beer, caipirinha, or cocktail at one of the many, bustling restaurants that line Copacabana or throughout Ipenema in the hours that precede the club opening. There are also a number of nightclubs and live music venues downtown (Centro), particularly in an area called the Lapa. The city government has invested a good amount of money over the years to increase the appearance and security in the Lapa and, as a result, it is now know as the most bustling center of nightlife in the city, with venues ranging from large dance clubs, bars, discotheques, salsa halls and other types of live music venues. Nevertheless, Lapa is still filled with locals and, like anyplace else in Brazil, walking around with a map to your face and a fanny pack is not recommended. In fact, if you are going to explore Centro in the late hours, it’s a good idea to make sure that your taxi driver knows exactly where to drop you off and that you have a taxi waiting for you when you are done with your evening – the area is safe to explore, but getting off the beaten path could be risky. I was lucky to explore some areas of the city with locals that I would never have made it to on my own, so I can attest that it’s definitely worth exploring beyond Copacabana if you have the chance.

There are a few things worth nothing when you get inside a club:

First, at clubs in Rio, cash bars are rare. When you enter the club, you are issued a drink card, which is used by the bartender to mark every drink that you order. When you are ready to leave, you show your drink card to a cashier who tallies what you drank and adds in any applicable cover charges. This is an efficient system that allows the bartenders to serve without worrying about cash and also allows you to keep minimal cash on you at the club, since you can pay for your whole evening with a credit card. If you lose the card, you must pay a penalty fee before they let you leave (oddly enough, at one very large club in Lapa, the penalty was only R$120, or about 60 dollars, essentially meaning you can drink the whole night for $60 if you lost the ticket. In New York City, you can pretty much blow $60 ordering one round of drinks).

Second, a word of advice that I give to any traveling American: keep it simple. The variety of American cocktails has exploded over the years and many US club-goers enjoy their easy access to fruity, syrupy alcoholic concoctions. Many of these don’t exist in foreign countries and, remember, there is the language barrier to contend with as well. Stick to beer, wine, simple mixed spirits and whatever else the locals are drinking.

Third, if there is a VIP option, it’s probably a better bet than standard admission, but it depends on the club. The notion of “VIP” doesn’t translate the same as with clubs in New York City or L.A. – you won’t be in a private booth sipping Crystal and ordering bottle service all night. VIP typically means that you get access to a segregated, less crowded area and, in some clubs, access to a better drink selection. For example, in one large club in central Rio, regular admission was R$20 (about $10 dollars), while VIP admission was $R40 (about $20 dollars). Club admission included all-you-can-drink alcohol (no, I’m not kidding), but standard admission only got you some cheap kind of vodka or rum, one local beer and some mixers. VIP admission, on the other hand, gave you full top-shelf bar in a special are that was significantly less crowded and about 20 degrees cooler than the main dance floor – a luxury in the warm Rio summers. (Interesting note: for a club that held around 2000 people, probably only about 200 went for VIP, which gives you some idea as to what the value of $10 is to many Brazilians).

Finally: Be smart. It’s generally not a good idea to leave your drink unattended. You also don’t want to bring anything too flashy or expensive into the club with you (PDAs, iPods/iPhones, expensive watches, etc.). Don’t accept a drink from strangers – in fact, a few locals vigorously declined my offer to buy them drinks the first time I met them, which I thought was weird, but made sense after I learned why. Don’t get so drunk that you don’t know how to get home or, more importantly, that you can’t communicate where you need to go when you’re done. Finally, it’s not a good idea to home with strangers or bring anyone home with you (sorry to ruin your fun). There are too many documented cases of tourists (both men and women) getting taken advantage of at the end of the night by criminals posing as innocent, one-night love interests.

Beyond Rio

If you’re interested in exploring beyond the typical Rio tourist destinations, there are a few options.

Local to Rio is Niterói, which was worth a visit for me, as it is home to one of my friends. Niterói is across the bay from central Rio and is accessible by car/taxi over the eight-mile-long Rio-Niterói Bridge (taxi ride: about $25) or via the Rio-Niterói ferry, which leaves from downtown. The ferry costs around $1, but you then need to take a bus or taxi back to wherever your hotel is (taxi fare to Ipenema: about $12). Niterói is a relatively-quiet Rio suburb which offers sweeping views of the Rio city landscape, less hustle and bustle of the big city and amenities such as American-style shopping malls (inclusive of a food court and an Outback Steakhouse). It is best known for its signature piece of architecture, the Oscar Nirmeyer-designed Niterói Contemporary Art Museum (Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói, or MAC), a spaceship-looking building sitting on the bay of Niterói, overlooking greater Rio.

Niterói, RJ, Brazil
Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói

Niterói, RJ, Brazil
Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói, Sugarloaf in the distance

A bit further from Rio is Buzios, which I will write about in my next entry about Brazil. Located about 2 1/2 hours north of Rio, Buzios is a beautiful, sophisticated beach resort town with the most upscale bars, restaurants and shops that you will find in Brazil. It is certainly worth the trip! (I’ll save the details for my full write-up).

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A shot of Buzios harbor at night (more to follow in the next article!)

Practical Items

First and foremost, if I haven’t driven this into your head already, be smart and be safe. Brazil has a terrible reputation in the US for being “dangerous” and, while I do agree that you should be concerned about the crime rate, I have to say that there was never a time that I felt scared or threatened – day or night. If you do something stupid, like get so drunk that you can’t find your way home, someone will probably take advantage of the situation – but that could be the case in any large city in the world. In general, don’t walk around dark, unknown areas at night and don’t wear flashy jewelry, watches or camera equipment if you don’t have to.

As far as language goes, no, not everyone speaks English. You should carry a discreet phrase book with you if you don’t know any Portuguese (I speak French and it didn’t help, so don’t think that your two year of college Italian will help you either). The nicer restaurants typically have menus in both Portuguese and English and a combination of your waiter’s broken English and some pointing should be enough in most other places.

Most places in Rio – actually, almost all restaurants and shops – accept credit cards. This is surprising considering that there was virtually no card use in Brazil not too long ago. Also surprising is the fact that American Express is taken at nearly all restaurants. Cash is always king, however, and you can access your bank account through all major bank ATMs in Rio (just make sure you have a 4-digit PIN, as some older networks won’t work with a longer PIN). As in any country, currency exchange booths at the airport or at your hotel are a ripoff so ATMs will guarantee you the best exchange rate. Note that many ATMs will dispense 50 Real notes and, due to the 2:1 exchange rate, you’ll most likely be taking out at least R$100 or R$200 at a clip. Don’t expect taxi drivers or street vendors to break this for you, however, so if that is all you have, break it at your hotel, a restaurant or supermarket before you venture out…it’s always good to have small bills and coins.

Lastly, I might have given taxi drivers a bad rap. Not only are most taxi drives NOT out to take advantage of tourists, but many are very talkative, friendly and extremely helpful. Keep in mind that meter fares are heavily regulated, but any trip can be negotiated as a flat fare, so don’t be afraid to haggle. For example, we hired a driver for 75 Reals to take us from our hotel to the top of Corcavado, wait for us while we saw the Christo and then take us to Sugarloaf. The entire metered fare of the trip was 65 Reals, but we would have paid 15 Reals per person to take the tram up Corcavado – so we saved money and got some great local commentary as well.

More Resources

The Frommer’s Guide to Brazil is a good all-around reference if you’re visiting multiple cities, otherwise stick with a Rio-specific guide book.

My complete photo collection for Rio, Niteroi, Salvador and Buzios can be found in my Flickr gallery.

Next entry will be on Buzios.. Stay tuned…

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