I’ve found Trip Reports to be very helpful for, so here are some of my notes to share:
We had a wonderful Rio experience a few weeks ago on the last leg our South American trip. The surrounding beauty, vitality, and energy was awesome. Unlike other places though, we didn’t stroll around much, didn’t use the subways, hardly went downtown, but did hit the beach several hours each day and a tourist attraction in the early morning or late afternoon. We got out of town for a day and although I know we missed a lot of the city, we were very happy.
We felt very safe along the ocean road day and night, on the beaches all day, biking around Lagoa, and walking around Impanema at night. When we moved about the city we were point-to-point in taxis and were just fine.
TO/FROM INTL' AIRPORT
Arriving we pre-reserved with www.RioAirportTransfers.com (private taxi transfers, not a shuttle bus). It was very expensive at US$45/person to South Zone but was probably worth it. They had a uniformed woman waiting for us with a name-placard and she directed us outside to another uniformed guy who called the car (which are all in the company blue). Our hotel charged US$50 total for the ride back. After our experience with taxis in Rio (see below), and the distance/ possibility of traffic, we definitely suggest taking pre-set fare ride. There are many options for this in the terminal upon arrival and through your hotel for departure.
We stayed at a big hotel on the beach in Copa as it was only very expensive, opposed to Impanema which was extremely expensive. Our “Front Ocean View” room at the Rio Othon Palace (see separate review) made the trip special. The problem was that while the beach water in Copa was clear and warm, it had garbage in it. Maybe it was just that day but it seemed like somebody dumped a gigantic recycle bin into the water and we never went back. The inner streets were a little dicey at night, but that was probably more first impression. We found the ocean avenue fun, lively, and safe – day or night. Strolled back after sunsets on the Arpoador Rocks and hit the street bazaar most nights too. Overall we were happy, but if you do stay in Copa we suggest getting a hotel further down the beach towards Impanema for convenience.
IMPANEMA / LEBLON
What a difference - Colorful blue, turquoise/green water, and much cleaner. The inner streets were lively during the day and very walkable at night. Most nights we had dinner in Impanema and it was great. Whereas in Copa I would strongly suggest staying at a hotel on Avenue Atlantica, in Impanema you could probably get away with staying at a hotel a block or two off the beach. However, for us, booking a front ocean view room at a “reasonable” price in Copa and being within walking distance (or very short cab ride) to Impanema worked well.
Go to Barra - just a cab ride away! The beaches are even nicer with a more flavorful experience. From Copa to Barra (Pepe Beach specifically) we paid BR$39 there and BR$35 back for the 25 minute trip. The ride along the coast road is reason enough. Don’t limit yourself to just Impanema and Copa when it’s so easy to get to others! … There are also day trips to Buzios (Great town and great beach) and Angra dos Reis (Schooner boat excursions which take you snorkeling around small islands and provide lunch), but they are full day trips, so plan accordingly.
This is a big lagoon! Takes 45min - 1 hour to bike around at a comfortable pace. Very pretty views of the mountains and Cristo. The southeast corner has a concentration of Duck Boat and Bike rental places. Coconut water and food/drink stands are found throughout the loop.
The beaches were great, safe and fun. You don’t need to bring anything (seemed like most locals didn’t even bring towels). There are stands every few feet which rent chairs and umbrellas (Stand 71, next to Posto 9 on Impanema - BR$13 for 2 chairs & umbrella all day). Vendors come around and sell everything from food, to drinks, to trinkets, to really nice bikinis! There are numerous stands to food/drinks as well. When you want to go swimming just ask the person next to you to watch your stuff - it was all very cordial and communal. I did have a small water proof case (www.TheWaterProofStore.com) for my cash/credit cards that latched onto my bathing suit which was invaluable (and they have other dry cases for your camera/cell phone too), but the point is when asked people watched your stuff and you watched theirs.
WHAT TO WEAR AT THE BEACH
No issue - wear whatever you feel comfortable. For men, square speedo was definitely the most worn item, but American style swim/board shorts were prevalent as well. For women, every woman of all shapes and sizes, and all ages, were wearing bikinis so this is your chance to do so if you haven't in a long time. If you don't feel like, no big deal.
Major issues with ATM's. Call your bank ahead of time and then expect to have to call while there. My bank’s own card never worked, but we eventually got money from another major bank. Some have crazy low limits (like BR$300) but may let you make multiple withdraws at different times of the day.
Except for the most extravagant places, they generally looked old and tired from the outside.
Plentiful, but several tried to scam from tourist spots and hotel cab stands. Insist the meter be turned on and try to have a little sense of direction. Most drivers were just fine but more than a few were not. The first driver from our hotel cab stand to Sugarloaf insisted on a BR$30 flat fee so we got another taxi off the street and it was BR$17 with the meter. The taxi from Cristo to Impanema tried to go all the way around the city rather than cutting through the tunnel which takes you right to the beaches ect ect ect...
FOOD (All separate reviews)
- Unknown Name, Copacabana @ 3548 Avenida Atlântica, corner of Goncalves (about 1/2 way between the Othon Palace & Golden Tulip hotels): This place had nice curb-appeal and was a legit restaurant. They were overwhelmed the night we were there, but we were settled in with some drinks and wine. We ordered some classic Brazilian dishes and they were awesome.
- Za Za, Impanema: Delicious. Amazing. Go here. Lively inside and out.
- Porcao (Churrascaria), Impanema: Boring place. Food very good but more like a corporate dining hall.
- Bar Astor, Impanema: Fun place to people watch after the beach - and then close walk to the Rocks for sunset. Wide selection of food and drinks - We were happy. Supposed to be cool bar scene at night too.
Besides some bars after dinner in Impanema we really didn't do it up hard in Rio, except for one night at:
- Rio Scenarium, Lapa/Centro: Multi-level place. Great Music and dancing. Lots of people, mostly locals, healthy mix of tourists. Can make reservation for a table (dinner and/or drinks) or wait on a very long line if showing up later just to party. (see separate review)
Helps to have downloaded a city map to your smart phone beforehand. Google Maps lets you save locations for off-line use, but I found the MapsWithMe app ($5) better because it shows the subway stops on the map. The Trip Advisor off-line guides were weak except for the simplified subway system maps which were very useful. Also remember, if your cell-phone service works (which it does on many smart phones), your GPS/Google Maps position locater works - EVEN WITH DATA TURNED OFF! (At least it did on my new Droid). So this was great when trying to see where you are, or what direction a taxi driver is taking you. We also paid our cel phone provider $25 for a 100mb data plan - not a lot but good in a pinch. And with the prevalence of WiFi at every cafe or stand it was plenty.
I bought the Skype landline/cell-phone plan which allows you to call any cell or any landline through Skype, just like a regular call, for pennies per minute (You must be connected to a data network or WiFi). We spent over 2 weeks away, in 3 countries, called home every day, plus made numerous calls within the visiting countries all for a whopping $8. We tried to stick to using it while on WiFi but the calls we did make over data didn't draw much.
ATTRACTIONS (all have separate reviews)
- Cristo: Get there to the Cosme Velho train station early early! 7:00 am if possible. The ticket office opens at 7:30am and the first train is at 8:00 am. We arrived at 9:00 and the next train was not till 11:20. And the waits increased quickly. The ride down can be the bigger problem - we had to wait over 1 hour for our train down, then it was a 25 minute ride after that. If you cannot arrive early as mentioned, explore other ways besides the train or else your whole day may be consumed by this. Cristo and the view from up top are both marvelous.
- Sugarloaf: Consider going before sunset and staying until dark to see the night lights over the city - don't jump on the first tram after the sun falls. You can stay up there a while to eat/drink and relax. Bring cash because credit cards only accepted at the ticket office, not at the food stations.
- Favelas: We didn’t go but tours are readily available at your hotel or online. The visual of the make-shift colorful housing crawling up the mountain sides is what make these stand out perceptually. Otherwise they are like many other similar communities throughout the world. I don’t know when the urban poor became a tourist attraction, although from what I was told the residents prefer (and don’t mind) the walking tours as the bus tours make them feel like they’re in a safari.
- Arpoador Rocks: Wow. Went here our first and last nights. Beautiful, romantic. A must. Bring a guitar if you play.
We found for all our travels that these sites provide excellent ways to meet up with cool locals and other travelers, especially for things like biking, photography outings, and even picnics! Just a resource to consider...
Omg! Holy Cow! This may be the craziest thing you ever do but it is also the most amazing! Want to feel like a bird flying over one of the most visually stunning cities on Earth - then just do it!!! We went with www.JustFly.com.br (Contact, Paulo Celani or Marcos at firstname.lastname@example.org). One thing you’ll notice is that all these “companies” offering flights are really just hang-gliding junkies who love doing it and have been at it for years. We absolutely loved it and still can’t believe we did it when we look at the pics and video!