Let’s go to Rio! Little did I know what an epic journey those four little words would launch. So epic in fact, that I’ve decided to split this into two posts, just so I can use more photos (smile).
My travel buddy and I knew we wanted to go to South America, we just weren’t sure where exactly. One of my life goals is to set foot on all 7 continents and to see all 7 natural wonders of the world (I have a serious thing about lists). Since the Harbor at Rio is one of the natural wonders of the world and it happens to be located in South America (a continent previously undiscovered by yours truly) it seemed perfect! There’s just something so satisfying about marking multiples off in one swoop, you know?
When we first started planning this adventure we knew we wanted to go to at least a couple of countries. For a while we were thinking Buenos Aires, Argentina with a layover in Iguacu Falls, but alas that itinerary sadly turned out to be beyond our trip budgets. So we landed on Ecuador – but that’s a story for another post.
Rio, rio! The great lady of Carnival, Copacabana, and the Girl from Ipanema. And did I mention we were going to be there for NEW YEAR’S?! Yep, we’re ambitious.
I’m not normally too particular about hotels, but as a word of caution for anyone considering a trip to Rio in the future, check the hotel location. Then go to another website and check it again. Then maybe just one other just to be safe. We ended up booking a hotel near Leblon, which is actually a super high-end shopping area with beach front property. However, after a very long plane trip (PHX – MIA – SCL – RIO), and a bus ride through dark streets we arrived at the bus stop in front of our hotel. It doesn’t bode well when the bus driver doesn’t seem to want to let you off the bus. Turns out the hotel was on the edge of Leblon in a favela (read sketchy). Nice. It also sold rooms by the hour, had mirrors on the walls and the ceiling, and had nothing but porn on the tv. I think you get the idea. Luckily I’ve developed a habit of carrying along an extra bedsheet and camping blankets (you can never be too prepared…), so we made it through the night. We stayed mostly because we didn’t know where else to go. And it was dark. And we were tired.
First thing the next morning we tracked down El Misti hostel in the Botafogo neighborhood. Sharing a room with 10 other girls and 2 showers with 20+ other people…MAJOR UPGRADE! In all seriousness, it wasn’t a bad deal. The hostel was clean, had free wifi, offered all sorts of cool tours, and had a great crowd. The food was pretty good too. If you’re going on a budget, the Botafogo area is apparently one of the best areas for hostels – and I actually recommend them.
SO, after we got the sleeping situation figured out, we set about seeing Rio. For this post we’ll just focus on the tourist attractions. Next week we’ll explore some of the lovely (and sometimes not so lovely) neighborhoods of Rio.
Corcovado – Christ the Redeemer
No trip to Rio is complete without a trip to see Christ the Redeemer (or Cristo Redentor). You can pretty much see this guy no matter where you are in the city. We actually waited til the last possible moment to go up Corcovado (where the statue is located) because of the cloud cover. He would peek out at times, but rarely stayed out of the clouds for more than half an hour – super frustrating. So we finally decided to make a go for it and make the best of the clouds. To get up to the statue you can either walk up the footpaths or take the train. The train was a bit…well, nerve-wracking. It’s an old system that more or less goes straight up a very tall hill. At certain points you have to stop to allow the trains going back down to pass. There were performers on our train that tried to distract us, but I admit to being more concerned about the brake system than the drummer (for once!).
Once you get to the top there are two platform levels and quite a few stairs. But the views are AMAZING! Unfortunately we didn’t have many clear shots of Cristo himself, but you can kind of see him through the clouds. He’s as impressive as the Statue of Liberty or the Vulcan or any other large statue, but honestly I think most of the “presence” if you will is in seeing the statue from various points around town. It really does feel like he’s watching over you.
Sugar Loaf Mountain (Pao de Acucar)
We actually walked to Sugar Loaf Mountain from our hostel. The surrounding neighborhoods are quite nice and so it was pleasant to check out some of the local homes and schools. There was a very long line to buy tickets for the cable car when we got there, but we stuck it out (thankful for ice cream vendors). There are two summits to Sugar Loaf Mountain accessible by two separate cable cars. I have a love/hate relationship with heights and lifts and planes and well you get the point, but I made it to the top. The views of the city were absolutely AH-mazing! It’s also a good location to see the harbor at Rio (check) if you don’t have time for a proper trip up into Guanabara Bay.
Both Corcovado and Sugar Loaf Mountain are tourist destinations and neither experience is cheap. At the bottom of Corcovado you’re practically ambushed with options to get to the top, but I strongly recommend you take the tram to be safe. It’s the official method to get up there. Sugar Loaf Mountain is a great deal calmer, but I do recommend buying tickets ahead of time so you can skip the line. Otherwise arrive early or be prepared to stand in the sun. With those disclaimers I have to say both are worth the time and effort to see. They provide the best views of Rio and it’s amazing to see the patchwork of the different neighborhoods. And once you’ve seen how they all relate to each other, it gives you a good sense of where you are when you’re down exploring those neighborhoods – bonus!
Now for a few hard-learned travel tips for traveling to grand ol’ Rio:
- Visa – You do need a visa to go to Brazil from most countries, and it’s not one you can get when you arrive. If traveling from the US, you have to send your passport to a Brazilian embassy and pay approx $150. We had to use a service to process the visa which was an additional fee.
- Lodging – Do your research! In Rio it’s all about location, location, location!
- Language – They speak Portuguese. We found very little English and only slightly more Spanish. Despite being surrounded by Spanish-speaking countries, Brazil is very proud of its native tongue. The locals don’t necessarily go out of their way to learn any others.
- Money – Brazil uses reals. Make sure you only use credit cards or ATMs inside of the bank. My travel buddy and I both had our debit cards jacked while we were there and we’ve heard from friends we made while there that they had similar experiences. But that’s more our fault for not being smarter about it.
- Street smarts – There are a lot of street kids that tend to follow tourists around and pick off whatever they can grab. We saw a couple of people lose cameras, I lost a necklace, and my travel buddy almost lost her purse on separate occasions in different areas. Be aware at all times!
- Getting around – We actually used the bus system the entire week we were there, except for a couple of taxi trips. The buses are easy to navigate, clean, cheap, and generally on time. We had no issues. The taxi drivers were very nice but none of them spoke English and minimum Spanish. Yay charades (and lots of pointing)! The prices were fair though and they were efficient.