Hands up if you want to go to Rio and see the Carnival. And what about the lure of beautiful beaches and beach bodies and vibe - sounding perfect for a beach holiday.
(Note: the Carnival happens from 9 – 15 February, so book your accommodation as soon as possible! Click the banner below for Booking.com options or here for AirBnb) now in order to prevent disappointment. Or if you are overwhelmed by the idea, we can help - click here).
We came to Rio as part of our journey through South America. Brazil in general wasn’t really on our favourites list, but because the cheapest flight we could get was to Sao Paulo, we thought we might as well see the country.
Less than a week in to our travels and in Brazil, there are a few things we realised that you should probably know about Rio, and Brazil in general:
1. Brazil is massive We didn’t realise, but travelling through Brazil is time-consuming, because this is a massive country. An overnight bus from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro took 6 hours. Ok not too bad, but from Rio to Brasilia in the middle of the country will take 15 hours by bus.
We got a direct flight from Johannesburg to Sao Paulo with Latham (operated by SAA), it was also the cheapest. So if you are planning to go to Rio, take flight prices and distances into consideration. You can also fly to Sao Paulo and then get an internal flight to Rio.
We use Travelstart to book the cheapest flights from South Africa, and they happen to have a sale on to Rio or Sao Paulo at the moment.
2. Very few people speak English If you don’t speak Portuguese, it is challenging to get around. Very few people speak English, even in supermarkets or restaurants or shops. You should at least know how to ask for the price of things and how to get around, because they can take chances and charge you more.
3. Things are damn expensive So far, we’ve only been in the big cities, so I’m not sure about countryside towns, but Brazil is damn expensive. With R4 to R$1 (Real) South Africans already start on a backfoot. Even the Europeans we met said it's expensive. To give you an idea, here are some prices of things:
• 500ml bottle of water - R$3,50 - R$5 (about R14 - R20) but the water is safe to drink here so it’s better to refill and cool overnight. • 600ml Bottle Coke - R$5 (about R20), R$3,50 if it is on sale. • Medium McDonald’s Meal - R$30+ (about R120) • 450ml local beer R$5 - R$7 (about R20 to R28) depending where you buy. Some local shops or supermarkets have specials all the time so shop around. • Traditional Brazilian plate of food at street stall R$12 (about R48) • Caiparinha Cocktail (Brazil's own cocktail originally made with Cachaça, or fermented sugarcane) R$14.50 (about R58).
Very strange to South Africans though, bread rolls are sold by weight. Between R$1.69 – R$3.00 per 100g. We bought 2 baguettes, not realising, and it cost us about R20! 4 hamburger buns, prepacked, cost R$8 (R32) so sometimes it’s better to just buy a loaf of bread for R$6..
Also, there is no such thing as small quantities: If you buy milk, it has to be a liter, sugar or butter 500 g, sauces, big bottles.
4. Whatever you do, DO NOT flush toilet paper down the toilet Yeah, so I’m not so happy about this, but you cannot flush toilet paper down the toilet. You have to throw it in the bin next to the toilet. Apparently, the sewage system cannot handle any foreign objects like paper and gets blocked super easy. So… you can try flushing it, but you are gonna have to explain when it gets blocked. So, just rather throw the dirty things in the bin (YUK!)
All restaurants, hotels and public places have notices up saying you shouldn’t flush it down, so you really don’t have any excuse.
5. Expect a Cape Town type beach situation The weather in Rio is like Cape Town in terms of really hot days, but it is an ice-cold ocean – it is the Atlantic Ocean after all. For some reason, we thought it might be warmer but nope, cold. Over weekends the beaches are super busy, and it is no lie, these people are on the beach every single day.
It does also get humid, especially if there is cloud cover. But temperatures are above 30 C most days. It does sometimes rain in the afternoon to cool down too.
6. Beach Bodies -everything goes I know, especially us ladies, in South Africa, we cover up our bodies with board shorts and t-shirts and swim tops etc. In Rio, there is no such thing. Young, old, fat, thin, thunder thighs and all, everyone only wear bikinis. And men, some board-shorts, but many speedo's or swimming trunks.
Believe me when I say, do not try and cover up here when on the beach, because no one cares how your body looks, and in fact, you will much rather get a lot of stares and evil looks your way if you do cover up, than just flaunting what you got.
7. Copacabana and Ipanema are actually suburbs The main areas in Rio by the ocean, is Copacabana and Ipanema. They are just suburbs though with high rise buildings and apartments blocks where most people live. Closer to the beach you will find more shops and restaurants, but it is not the type you’d expect like in South Africa.
O, and shops and restaurants close around 9:30 – 10:00 pm, even on Fridays and Saturday. You will find a few eating places open, but not many. And they are more expensive. So don’t wait till later to get food.
The neighbourhood of Leblon, next to Ipanema has a mall and a couple of nice shops in the streets. This is also where most people go out to party.
That being said, Copacabana has a nice swimming beach with calm waters, and gets very busy, whereas Ipanema is more quiet but have more waves, and is perfect for surfing.
8. Little variety in food Restaurants are mostly small little “take away” style places selling hamburgers and sandwiches for R$30+ a meal. On every street corner and block, you will also find your local “drinking hole” and eatery which serves local foods like rice and beans with meat for about R$14+. A common thing here is a self-service restaurant, where you dish your own food and pay per weighed plate (plate included), cheapest we’ve seen was R$3.99 per 100g.
Fancy restaurants are pretty much unheard of, and in terms of variety of foods, we only say Japanese sushi restaurants and Mexican is big here – that’s it. Oh, besides 2 McDonalds, 1 Burger King and 1 Starbucks. But expect to pay from R120 upwards for a meal.
On the beach front you will find small little bars and eating places every few meters with pretty much the same type of dishes served. And there are more in Copacabana than in Ipanema.
They do have street food carts where you can get a Hotdog (with Vienna or Russian) with a coke for R$5 (R20) or traditional rice and beans with a grilled kebab or chicken leg for R$12 (R48).
9. Beer! Beer is big here. You can buy it at the supermarket, the gas station, the street corner, your local tuck shop and eatery. Every day after work, people meet at their local hang out and have a few beers and maybe some rice and beans or toasted ham and cheese sandwiches.
People drink beer at 2 in the morning when the overnight bus stops at the halfway stop, as well as from the morning on weekends and public holidays. Saying that, we never saw any drunk or unruly people.
Local beer includes Brahma Chopp, but beware because Brahma Zero is alcohol free. Our favourite is Itaipava, which tastes like Black Label.
Antarctica is similar to Castle. They also have Heineken and Stella Artois.
Pro Tip: Shop around at different places for beer. You can get 600ml bottles for R$6 – R$7 which is the cheapest we’ve found. Otherwise, you pay that price for a smaller mini bottle or can.
10. Visit the main tourist attractions during the week
If you want to visit the main tourist attractions like Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Mountain cable car, go during the week. Over the weekend it is almost triple the price and R$80 to visit the statue only. On tripadvisor you can get combo tickets that might work out cheaper.
We were in Rio over a weekend, plus the Monday was a public holiday, and it was raining so we never saw it… but we are not even disappointed.
Important to note, you cannot walk all the way up to Christ the Redeemer statue, regardless of what you are told. It is dangerous, and people get robbed there. You must ask your taxi driver to take you to the top of the hill, at the foot of the statue, and then walk from there.
11. Must-do: Motorcycle ride through Vidigal Favela and Twin Brothers hike The Twin Brothers, or Morro Dois Irmãos are 2 mountain peaks to the right of Ipanema. You can get amazing views of Rio from there.
To get there, you must go through one of Brazil's favelas, Vidigal. The Twin Brothers are a major tourist attraction and so is the favela, so it is quite easy to get there. At the entrance of the favela, there are several guys in reflective jackets with motorcycles. You pay them R$5 to take you to the top of the favela where the twin brothers hike starts. It is truly an amazing experience that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.
How to get there: From Copacabana or Ipanema, you take bus 557 to Vidigal. You will pass a small beach and the Sheraton Hotel on your left. Then get off at the next bus stop. You will see food stalls, and blue mosaic steps on the right-hand side of the street. Next to the steps you will find the motorcycles.
They will take you up, and yes, sometimes you think you might crash or fall, but it’s fine. They drop you at the top. There is a small tuck shop that makes amazing ham and cheese sandwiches for R$6 to take on your hike (and it is nice to support the locals too).
Across the street you will see a football field and athletic track. You go through the gates and walk past the field to the opposite side, this is where the hike begins.
This hike, however rewarding when you get to the top, is quite hectic. It is literally a steep uphill climb all the way to the top. I am super unfit and had to stop quite a few times. Obviously, the down climb is very steep and slippery also. But the view is amazing at the top. Look out for Marmoset monkeys on the way, they are just as curious about you, as you are about them, and they will hang around for a photo or two. Also check out Rio’s common Black Vultures, and Tucans (?!).
12. Public transport is super-efficient Yeah in Rio you can take a bus or a metro train to pretty much anywhere. They are well marked and show where they are going. But you can ask at your hostel or hotel which specific busses you need to take to get where you want to go. Busses have a standard price of R$3.50, one-way, regardless where you get on or off. Metro’s are usually R$4.50 per one-way trip, regardless of your stops.
But if you stay in Copacabana or Ipanema, you can easily walk around or to the beach. It is relatively safe, because even locals do it, but, be aware.
Do not hold your phone in your hand or stand near the street when you’re checking Google Maps. One friend’s phone got taken from his hand by a motorcyclist driving by on the street.
But just a side note: if possible, rather get an Uber or hotel shuttle service to get from the airport or bus station to your accommodation.
It took us half an hour to find the right bus stop to get a specific bus to Copacabana (there are 3 bus stations). The bus we wanted never came (I don't know why... Google maps?). We decided to take a different bus and the metro. What could go wrong?
Well, the bus was so packed people were already standing in the aisle. In front of the bus is a turn style that is hardly big enough for me to fit through, let alone me with a huge backpack on.
Po eventually got to the middle with both our backpacks and smaller packs. But when we reached our stop to get off at the back of the bus, he couldn't carry both bags through a hundred people. So we missed it. I eventually made my way squeezing to the middle and we pushed everyone out of the way to get off further down the road. We had to walk back two blocks to get the metro.
So, if you have luggage, rather take an Uber.
13. There is no such thing as a hot shower
Yeah, so in Brazil, the shower works with electricity. The shower head (below) has three settings: cold, luke warm and hot. But the hottest we ever got, was below luke warm as we are used to in South Africa.There is only one tap - open water. I'm assuming it is supposed to heat the water as it runs, they are not effective. They don't have hot water geysers. I don't know if the fancier hotels have different or better showers, but these are not effective.
It may be nice on a hot day, but let's face it, after a long day on the beach or walking around, and especially if it is a bit chilly and raining, you want a hot shower.
So, good luck with that one...
P.S. We discovered in the meantime that you have to sacrifice either hot water or a nice powerful shower. If you open the shower just more than a trickle, you get hot water. If you open it full, you get cold water. But this is only sometimes. And no hot water to wash dishes!
14. Healthy Natural Foods are Common
We were surprised that most supermarkets and food stores sell food for vegans, vegetarians and everyone who eats natural foods. Tapioca is really big here, as well as chickpea flour, coconut oil, flour and milk, soya chunks... the works. They also sell any type of sweetener you want, including in liquid form.
They also sell gluten-free products everywhere, so your special diet, allergy or eating regiment will not be interrupted.
They sell protein powder, but it is pretty much the same price as in South Africa, or slightly more expensive.
I hope these tips prepare you for your epic trip to Rio de Janeiro or Brazil.
We'd love to hear your comments or more tips below.
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Love and Light peeps.