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I booked New Years in Rio de Janeiro early in 2010 when I stumbled across perfect award availability- it was kind of like a light shining down from above: 2 United first class saver level 67,5000 mile tickets from LGA-IAD to Rio and 2 American first class saver level 62,500 mile tickets from Buenos Aires to JFK about 10 days later. The beauty of American and United miles is the ability to redeem for one way awards, so my low 6 figure balances were enough to cover both legs for two people (my partner benefits greatly from my points obsession).
About a month after booking 4 nights at the Intercontinental using 20,000 Priority Club points and $60 a night, I read news reports about drug gangs taking over and shooting up the hotel. Then in November, Rio police started invading the favelas (slums) in an effort to temper the gang violence, especially in advance of the World Cup and Olympics. The media sure made Rio out to be a crime ridden war zone and for a brief moment I actually considered changing my itinerary to include a more stable destination, like Chile.
However, when I had lunch with Wendy Perrin, the Consumer News Editor of Conde Nast Traveler (I won the lunch as part of this competition), she completely calmed what fears I had. Travel is all about adventure and millions of people enjoy Rio safely every year, so why allow a couple news reports to deter me from what could be the trip of a lifetime? Very good point indeed and from that point on I didn’t think about changing my plans. So a big thanks to Wendy for giving solid, independent travel advice- something she consistently does in CN Traveler and on her blog.
In general, I had an absolutely fantastic time in Rio, but do have some tips for first time travelers.
1) Rio is not cheap. While the currency is roughly 1.67 Reals per dollar, don’t expect huge bargains. Hotels, especially during the holiday week, were all $500+.
2) You need to pay $140 and dedicate some time to get a Brazilian tourist visa, though they are now good for 10 years. See the post I wrote on my experience.
3) Taxis are a pain in the ass- and this is coming from a New Yorker. They consistently try to swindle tourists by charging fixed rates, especially at the airport. The driver insisted we pay a fixed fare of 80 Reals, but finally relented and used the meter upon our persistence. The metered fare was only 40 Reals from GIG to the Intercontinental in Sao Conrado
4) As annoying as they can be at times, there are a ton of taxis and flagging them down on the street is pretty easy.
5) Brush up on basic Portuguese. Don’t expect them to speak Spanish or English. As much as you think Spanish is similar to Portuguese, its not. At a very minimum, understand the key pronunciations, like R’s sounding like H’s (Rio = hee-yu). Even visiting sites like this will help.
6) Credit cards are accepted almost everywhere. Rio is a very credit card centric city- I was surprised.
7) The key touristy beach neighborhoods are Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon and Sao Conrado. Sao Conrado (where the Intercontinental is located) is about 10 minutes down the road, so don’t stay there if you want the convenience of walking to the major beaches/ dining areas. When I go again, I will stay in Ipanema.
8) Renting apartments/guest houses is popular and is a cheaper way to experience the city. Though make sure yours has air conditioning- it can get very hot and humid.
9) Don’t expect 5 star hotel treatment. Rio really disappoints when it comes to luxury hotels. The Fasano Hotel is probably the nicest and the Copacabana Palace and Sofitel not far behind. If you want to use points, the JW Marriott is probably your best option, followed by the Sheraton on Avenida Niemeyer and the Intercontinental. The Intercontinental is a 10-15 minute drive and they do operate a free shuttle to Leblon/Ipanema/Copacabana.
10) Rio is not the war zone the media makes it out to be, but you should still be smart (like in any major city). While I had nothing stolen from me a friend did have his camera swiped from right next to him while he was on the beach. It was sitting on top of his beach bag and someone took it without him noticing. When you are on the beach, keep your things concealed and under supervision at all times.
11) The people are gorgeous. It’s true. Even the most confident people will start to feel self conscious on the beach in Rio.
12) I personally found the food to be sub-par. I was expecting really good seafood and fresh meat, but I found most restaurants to have just “okay” food. Lots of fried food and cheeses. Its a wonder how everyone in Rio is so fit. The sushi at the JW Marriott was also just mediocre at best.
13) I made fast friends with the beach attendants. Rio is pretty unregulated, so entrepreneurial people roam the beaches and will sell you drinks, rent you chairs and do pretty much anything you need them to do. We had the same beach staff each day and they were incredibly friendly and the beach drinks were dirt cheap and quite strong.
14) Don’t expect sun all day long if you go in December/January. Its their rainy season so it rained almost every day, some days for a majority. Rio can also get very cloudy/foggy, so plan your trip to Corcovado (Christ Redeemer Statue) when there isn’t a huge cloud covering the mountain.
15) If you go to Corcovado and the tram line is super long, just rent a car to drive you to the top. We paid 25 reals for a van ride to the top, which sure beat waiting hours for the single, slow tram.
16) Hang Gliding is very popular, though you couldn’t pay me to do it.
17) Helicopter tours of Corcovado were also readily available at about $150 per person for a 15 minute tour. I’ve actually never been in a helicopter and kind of regret not doing it.
18) The people are extremely friendly.
19) GIG airport is about a 25 minute cab ride. Its not the newest/cleanest, but its certainly not the worst airport I’ve been to. Customs/security was a breeze, though certainly flying First class made that process easier.
20) Rio is 3 hours ahead of eastern time.
Overall, I really enjoyed Rio. I think it gets a worse rap than it deserves, but I’d still recommend anyone who goes to be careful and follow the same rules you’d follow in most major cities (know the areas you are going to, don’t walk alone at night in unknown areas, keep your wallet in your front pocket, don’t put your stuff down, etc).
In the next week I’ll post a detailed stay report of the Intercontinental Rio- overall it was just okay- nothing great and nothing terrible.
While I’m sure I’ll be back to Rio at some point in my life, there are far too many other places in the world and even Brazil that I need to visit before I make a repeat visit. Sao Paolo, Belo Horizonte, Florianopolis, Fortaleza and Salvador are just a couple of the cities in Brazil I want to visit next.
Do you have any tips/thoughts on Rio?