Rio de Janeiro: Panda’s gateway into Latin America
The flights, accommodation and activities mentioned in this post were NOT sponsored.
When people say, “I’m not a city person’ or “I don’t really like cities”, I’m convinced it’s mainly because they haven’t been to the right ones. Some of my favourite places in the world have been cities and more especially, the coastal cities with the vibrant beaches. With the lapping of the waves against the shore, life churns on in these laidback metropolises where the people are more concerned with when they can get to the beach for a surf rather than productivity at work.
Rio de Janeiro is the perfect example of why I love such cities; the lush greenery of the Tijuca forest, the towering hills, bumpy cobblestone roads and the endless coastline of swimmable beaches coupled with friendly locals and pleasant weather ensure that this city ticks all of my boxes.
Watch our video about Rio De Janeiro here:
In this post I will outline some of the things I did while in Rio de Janeiro for 4 days although I will say that I regret not staying longer. If you’re looking for more tips travelling to South America for the first time, click here.
Lets begin with a brief PPG- Panda’s Progressive Geography lesson about this vibrant city.
Rio de Janeiro is the second most populous city of Brazil. The Portuguese first established this city in 1565 and it served as the seat in the Portuguese Empire. The State of Brazil was Portuguese Empire’s state and Rio de Janeiro was turned into the capital city of this state in 1763.
When Brazil achieved independence from the Portuguese in 1889, Rio was still the capital city. Later, Brasília became its capital. After World War II, Rio shifted from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy. Bridges were built between important cities, skyscrapers were constructed and free-ways were developed. The population of Rio increased by leaps and bounds and this turned out to be a curse. Even if labour was in need for the industries to develop, labourers became in excess and the number of poor and unskilled people increased. This situation exists even today and puts intense pressure on Rio’s resources. In fact, Rio is one of the most populated cities in the world.
In Brazil, the currency is the Real, which is pretty straightforward, but many people wonder exactly how to pronounce “Brazilian real” because when you hear a Brazilian say it, it sounds nothing like that! The answer is that “real” is pronounced “hey-al” and the plural, “reais”, is pronounced “hey-aish”. Portuguese is the official language as well as the most widely spoken language in Brazil however tourist sites will have and signs in English as well Spanish which negates the need for a tour group if you can speak one of those 3 languages even at a basic level.
Flying into Rio
My flight route was Dubai- Addis Ababa- São Paulo- Rio de Janeiro. That took me 3 flights and a total of 25 hours. In addition, I went back in time by 7 hours making it quite literally one of the longest days of my life. While I wouldn’t wish such a long day on anyone, the cheapest flights from the eastern part of the world into South America seemed to be into São Paulo. Once I had booked that flight, I was able to buy a much cheaper domestic flight from São Paulo to Rio De Janeiro. Of course if I could’ve flown directly in Rio, it would’ve been ideal but I simply couldn’t justify the extra R4000/1000AED/$280 when I knew I could’ve saved 70% of that amount by booking a separate flight.
Where to stay
We stayed 2 nights along Copacabana Beach and two nights in the Tijuca Forest. You can find the links here and here. Both hotels are lovely- in very different ways- but I probably would recommend staying in Copacabana or the other beach areas (Leblon, Ipanema) for the entire trip. It’s very easy to book things from there, to Uber around and there’s loads of eating places. While I loved staying in the Tijuca forest, it was slightly more difficult to get out of there when visiting the sites. If you want to book accommodation using my booking.com discount code, click here.
How to get around
Uber was our preferred choice of transportation in Rio and was very cost effective when compared to local taxis (the official yellow ones). The taxis do take foreign debit cards though (we took a few) which is helpful because it minimises the need to carry lots of cash. We also used the metro which was dirt cheap but unfortunately the metro doesn’t really run to all the places we wanted to visit and the bus would’ve taken ages.
What can you see/do in 4 days?
See Rio from the air
There are various options to see Rio from the sky ranging from helicopter rides to paragliding. Like Cape Town, this city has a combination of mountains, buildings, beach & forest that makes for a stunning view from the top. The activity you choose will depend on your budget and personal preference. We chose hang gliding and it was pretty much the first activity we did the day after we landed!
It was exhilarating and I LOVED IT!! (I am hesitant about extreme sports but push myself to do them because Polar loves them). While I was initially nervous, it was actually quite relaxing once we were in the air. We used this awesome company and I would highly recommend them!
Panda’s Top Tips: This activity takes a lot of time because its wind dependent. If you book hang gliding, make sure you give yourself a good 3-4 hours to see it through as wind conditions may not be favourable for time slot that you initially book.
Christ the Redeemer
One of the most iconic Rio sites has to be Christ the Redeemer. And while some might say that its over hyped and nothing to write home about (if you aren’t Christian), I still wanted to go and see it for myself. There are a few ways to visit Christ the Redeemer but I decided on taking the most scenic (not necessarily fastest) route up which involved a very slow train.
We bought our tickets online- the website to use is this one. You can buy your tickets at the place, I just prefer to avoid queues. You’ll take a train up (25 minute ride) and and then a lift and then a staircase. You’ll wonder if you’re ever going to see this iconic statue and then eventually you do. To be honest, I found it rather underwhelming but the views from the top- especially in the early morning when the clouds are drifting over the city- are spectacular.
Panda’s Top Tip: Its one of the busiest attractions in South America so if you want photos with ton of people in them, you need to buy tickets for the first time slot- 8am. I have a behind-the-scenes on my Instagram in the ‘Brazil’ highlight.
These stairs are another iconic Rio attraction which was made really famous in Snoop Dogg and Pharell’s music video for the song ‘Beautiful’ as well as a well known video promoting Rio de Janeiro’s successful bid for the 2016 Olympic Games.The brightly decorated steps connect the neighbourhoods of Santa Teresa and Lapa and are the creation of Chilean artist Jorge Selarón who started work decorating the staircase in 1990 in an attempt to alter the neglected steps by his home.
The steps are inlaid with brightly coloured tiles, especially featuring the colours of the Brazilian flag. Some of the tiles came from construction sites around the city, whilst some were donated from other areas of the world. Its worth a visit to see how something ordinary can be transformed into an impressive piece of art.
Panda’s Top Tip: This place is free to visit and empty around 9am. The area around the stairs can be rather dodgy (its called Lapa) so if you’re a solo female traveler have your wits around you and don’t carry around a lot of valuables.
There’s no reason not to visit this lush forest with several species of the Atlantic Forest which is home to a beautiful mansion in Roman style that has a coffee shop and a School of Visual Arts. Outside the Palace the Parque Lage has a front garden with geometric shape, and side gardens composed of a huge forest consists of plants and flowers with picturesque paths. It was also made famous in the previously mentioned Snoop Dogg & Pharell video (I swear I’m not obsessed!). Its a nice spot for a picnic and to spend an afternoon relaxing!
Panda’s Top Tip: If you want to take the photo above in the mansion, you’ll have to stand in an informal queue as its a popular spot for Brazilians to take couple photos or family photos especially on weekends. Try to head there on weekdays.
If you use the metro and make your way toward Cinelandia, You can visit Cinelandia Square (also known as Praça Floriano). It resembles a Parisian district with its range of impressive buildings in the Eclectic, Neoclassical, Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles and serves as the city’s financial district. While I wouldn’t rate this as a must see, if you have some free time its nice to wander around and gaze the beautiful old buildings.
The Royal Portuguese Reading Room
Are you also a book lover like me? Or perhaps you just enjoy gorgeous architecture and a glimpse into the past? Well if you answered yes to one of those questions, you’re in luck. The Royal Portuguese Reading Room is an impressive Gothic ode to literature and a shrine to the majesty of books. This was voted 4th most beautiful library in the world by Time and it isn’t hard to see why. With the appearance of being frozen in time yet simultaneously alive with the history and tales of the last few centuries, it is little wonder that it is celebrated for its beauty and immense cultural value.
Panda’s Top Tips: Because this gem is left off most standard Rio itineraries, its never too busy and is free to visit. Photos are allowed and you can borrow books but you’ll have to check the rules about that when you get there. Its open from Monday to Friday, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Watch the sunset at Mirante Dona Marta
We kept missing opportunities to see the sunset over the city (due to jet lag) until we finally made an effort to watch the sun set from this iconic viewpoint. I highly recommend watching the sunset from here if you have the time!
Panda’s Top Tips: While it does offer a gorgeous view, you will need a taxi to wait for you if you go there are its in the middle of nowhere with no transportation options nearby.
Where to eat in Rio
La Carioca Cevicheria
While you might think we would be stuffing our faces with Brazilian barbecue, one of the best dining experiences we had was this a tiny Peruvian restaurant within walking distance from Parque Lage. From the impeccable service to the English menu to that delicious limoncello mousse… I highly recommend!
Copacabana Street Market
If you happen to be in the area on a Sunday morning, the main road in Copacabana shuts down and there are loads of eating and drinking options around. We personally loved the pastels (fried pastries) and sugar cane juice. You can have your pastel with a variety of fillings; I chose cheese and Polar went for beef mince.
Safety in Rio
When you think of Brazil you may be thinking of drug riddled slums and a country that exists in a cloud of violence. Don’t let the media brainwash you because Rio is actually much more than that! But like most major cities, Rio is hub for pickpockets and snatchers. Keep your wits around you and here are a few tips you should take heed of:
-Avoid the beach areas at night.
-Don’t carry your passport around with you or carry large sums of money. MOST places in Rio will accept MasterCard and Visa cards.
-If you go to the beach during the day, take only the essentials and no valuables. Leave your passport in the hotel room.
-Be aware of where your phone is and don’t walk with it in your hand when walking along the streets.
There’s cities and then there’s Rio. I would go back in a heartbeat; to sultry samba beats. the gorgeous people, vibrant beaches and breathtaking sunsets. There’s something for everyone and its unsurprising that people leave this destination feeling like they’ve left a piece of themselves there.
Rio is more than the images of favelas. drugs and guns that we are bombarded with in the media. Rio is magic, music, beaches, beauty, culture.
WHERE DO I FLY INTO TO RIO DE JANEIRO?
You can fly into Galeao International Airport (GIG) or Santos Dumont Domestic Airport (SDU). It all depends where you’re flying from.
HOW LONG SHOULD I GO FOR?
A minimum of 4-5 nights would be ideal when visiting Rio de Janeiro. I wish I had stayed for at least a week!
SHOULD I PURCHASE A SIM CARD?
I found that most cafes and restaurants offered free wifi and the internet was strong so there was no need for a SIM card.
DID YOU APPLY FOR A VISA?
No. Brazil is visa-free for South African passport holders. You can stay in Brazil for 90 days.
Have you been to Rio? Or is it on your list of destinations? Let me know in the comments below!