- Central + South America,
- Rio de Janeiro
See the wonders of Rio and South America. Going on my own- would like to do a tour as well as go off the beaten track and do some volunteering. On a budget, but don't mind paying a little extra for comfort as I'm on my own.
Cama e Café, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Tel: 55 21 2225 4366
Literally "bed and breakfast," this is a listing service for dozens of homes that rent out rooms in Santa Teresa, an up-and-coming artists' quarter well away from the Southern Zone's beaches. The area was once very upscale, fell into a rather handsome state of disrepair, and is now gaining a reputation as a bohemian-chic retreat, with quaint, serpentine streets, a rash of artists' ateliers, and imposing—if slightly shabby—architecture. Visitors seeking a full-immersion Rio experience can fill out a questionnaire with Cama e Café beforehand and are then e-mailed a list of properties to choose from; you can also just select from the Web site. Hospitality is very much part of the culture, so don't be surprised if you're invited out for drinks or dancing. Most hosts are artists, musicians, and writers—though if you're good, you can stay with the sisters at the Religiosas da Assunção convent.
See + Do
Sugarloaf (Pão de Açucar), Brazil
If you only have the time (or the inclination) for one scenic overview of the city, do Corcovado's Cristo instead. But on sunny, clear days, the cable car ride up to 700-foot Morro da Urca and then on to the taller, 1,300-foot Pão de Açucar is a classic Rio experience. The truly energetic can scale a route up the near-vertical rock face, exploiting barely visible crevices to rise through wild flowers, bromeliads, and circling vultures before emerging triumphantly among camera-toting tourists on the Sugarloaf's upper platform. Even novice climbers can make it to the top: Guiding outfit Companhia da Escalada provides all the gear—and encouragement—you'll need.
One of Rio's few neighborhoods with detached residences, the rest of Urca is also worth exploring. Surrounded by military housing and officers' clubs, it's one of the city's safest areas. To the right of the cable car station (as you exit), caught between Sugarloaf and the jungle-covered Morro do Urubu, is the 300-yard-long Praia Vermelha beach, a pretty stretch of sand with scintillating views of Niterói's rolling hills on the far shore. At its northern end, a well-maintained path (it's patrolled by military police until 6 pm every day) zigzags through the dense vegetation that lines the rocky coast. It's great for a morning stroll, when black vultures whirl overhead, and butterflies and flycatchers flit through the undergrowth. You can even spot some rare brazilwood trees, recently planted by a local environmental outfit. At the beach's southern end, accessible through a military club, is Praia Vermelha Bar e Restaurante, where the decor is nothing special—plastic chairs, zinc tables, and a girder roof—and even the food is forgettable, a mix of stodgy meat, caldo de peixe, and fried chicken. But the barman mixes a mean caipirinha, and there's live music at nights, when the party shifts down onto the sand, directly beneath the improbable lump of the Sugarloaf (Praça General Tibúrcio, Urca; 55-21-2543-7284; 11 am–1 am, every day except Monday).
The rest of picturesque Urca "village," straddling the Morro da Urca's base on the city-facing side, is a ten-minute walk away. Pretty cottages and palatial mansions border its winding lanes—one house, now marked with a plaque, once belonged to Carmen Miranda—which never stray far from the sparkling waters of Guanabara Bay. There's even a tiny beach where kayakers practice on weekends, and a decent restaurant, Bar Urca, known for its fine seafood. Try the chowder, served in a mug—it's been voted the best in the city by a local travel magazine (205 Rua Cândido Gaffrée, Urca; 55-21-2295-8744). You can eat formally upstairs, but most locals crowd along the sea wall, gaze at the lights of Niterói gleaming on the far shore, and order from circulating waiters who happily bring your food across the street.
See + Do
Gloria Sunday Market, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
This largely neglected neighborhood near the Santos Dumont domestic airport has a boisterous Sunday market that offers a tantalizing insight into the ordinary lives of Rio's residents. Vendors call out their wares, vying with high-volume samba and bossa nova beats, and with the street kids who bash out a rhythm on upturned fruit cartons and rusted oil drums. To the right, a vendor heaps ice over exotic tambaqui fish, flown in that morning from the Amazon; to the left, a stallholder tantalizes passersby with little-known jungle fruit such as bacuri and cupuaçu. Housewives haggle over the price of jackfruit, dip a hand into a water bucket to choose the feistiest crab, or cast a critical eye over colorful lines of chili peppers. Trample some discarded fruit underfoot, breathe the fullness of the humid air, and in one short hour, you'll learn more about Brazil than in a week on the beach.
Open Sundays 10 am to 5 pm.
See + Do
Favelas in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
"Welcome to the only part of Rio that the locals don't know," chirps the guide, escorting a handful of open-mouthed tourists into the heart of Rocinha, one of the grim and desperate slums depicted in Fernando Meirelles' Oscar-nominated film City of God.
There are 750 favelas in Rio housing 1.5 million people, or one fifth of the city's population. Their well-earned reputation as violent ghettos ensures that Brazilians steer well clear, but a number of tour operators conduct daily tours for the curious foreign visitor.
Marcelo Armstrong's Favela Tours has been going since 1992, escorting twice-daily drive-and-walk visits to two slums, the whole experience lasting three hours (55-21-3322-2727). Be a Local follows a similar schedule, but focuses just on Rocinha, the city's largest slum, where an official population of 50,000—unofficially, it's three times more—cascades down two sides of a mountain, thrusting unapologetically into Gávea and São Conrado, two of Rio's richest neighborhoods (55-21-9643-0366).>p>
What visitors find in the favela is a city within a city. Music erupts from all sides, powerful sound systems pumping out crashing chords from stores, street markets, and private houses. Unsilenced motorbikes, many carrying drugs or messages for the gangs, zoom constantly by. Trucks lumber through the bustling streets, forcing salesmen to advertise their wares at full volume through megaphones.
The favela is a place of poverty but not of misery. Residents have access to drinking water, sewer service, and electricity. Cells phones work, and there's even broadband Internet, the cables lacing visibly through the darkened, crowded alleys. Rocinha has three banks, three bus lines, a radio station and cable TV channel, and five recording studios. The city government even collects trash once a day. But life goes on at a price: The peace is kept by the drug gangs, whose spotters, runners, and informers are all-present and all-seeing, and every resident understands that the cost of crossing the narcos is high indeed.
See + Do
Corcovado and the Cristo Redentor, Brazil
Rio's equivalent of the Statue of Liberty, this 125-foot-high statue of Christ has an arm-span of more than 90 feet. Sculpted in France, it was installed in 1931 on top of Corcovado—or Hunchback mountain—which rises some 2,300 feet above the city and sea. It serves as a geographical reference point in most parts of the city and reminds you that you're in an unmistakable place: You're in Rio! Is it worth actually visiting, though? Yes—for the best views of the city, but only on a clear day (Rio's skyline can descend into a smoggy haze). The peak can be reached by a very slow, crowded train (the Corcovado Rack Railway), but it's faster, cheaper, and easier to hire a taxi instead. The steep, winding road runs through the Tijuca Forest—an enormous rain-forest-covered park. Once there, you can walk the 200-step staircase or take the escalators to the base of the statue and admire Christ's smooth, beneficent face and expressive posture. But it's the amazing view of greater Rio that helps you understand how all its elements work together: Sugarloaf, the beaches, the lake, and the glittering sea beyond.
See + Do
Beaches of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
If you come to Rio with any intentions other than hitting the beach, you're mildly insane. Sand and sun inform most everything about the city and its people, from the informal and scanty dress to the happy-go-lucky attitude. (Show up on time to a party or dinner date? Perish the thought.) Drop by on a Monday morning and—yep!—the beach is packed. No wonder the citizens of São Paulo joke that Cariocas don't work.
You will be identified as a tourist, but to lessen the sting, here are a few tips: Buy one of the cheap wraps sold on the sidewalks and use it to sit on rather than a towel (which nobody uses outside their homes). Or rent a chair and umbrella beachside—it's about $3 for the day, and the vendors will bring over cold drinks or snacks. Leave your baggy board shorts or one-piece at home—you'll find the best beachwear in the world here, so pick something up. Guys, those tiny elastic shorts are de rigueur, no matter your build. Topless bathing is strictly a no-no—and actually illegal. Lastly, you'll find that almost anything sold in stores can also be bought on the beach, including drinks, jewelry, sunglasses, sunblock, and bikinis (recent city ordinances banned food sales on the sands). Everything's of good quality and fairly priced. When it's really hot out, nothing quenches a thirst (or helps a hangover) like a coco gelada—a chilled green coconut with a straw, available at sidewalk stands.
Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon are the most popular beaches, separated from the high-priced real estate by a four-lane road and those famous patterned sidewalks. In the hundred yards of sand between the road and sea you'll find a universe of commerce, sports playing, flirting, and tanning—the Carioca lifestyle at its best. Each portion of the beach has its own "address": Look for the changing stations/bathrooms, which have the number on them. Posto 3, in front of the Copacabana Palace, is where you'll find the greatest cluster of tourists. The hotel staff will look out for you, but be aware that petty thieves hang here, so watch your possessions. Walkng southwest along the beach, near Posto 6, you'll encounter a rock jetty that sticks into the ocean: This area is Arpoador, which is popular with surfers. The next beach is Ipanema, where you'll find both the hopping gay section, identified by the rainbow flag, and Posto 9, famous for being the hangout of the young, beautiful, and tragically cool. (Even if you're none of those things, be sure to take a look.) A ten-minute walk down the beach will bring you to Leblon: This is excellent middle ground—mostly locals, but rarely overpacked. Note: On Sundays the main street along the three beaches closes to traffic and locals come out to stroll, ride bikes, and hang with friends.
Farther afield are São Conrado, where hang gliders who've taken off from Pedra Bonita land quite spectacularly, and many more miles of good sand along the nouveau riche neighborhood of Barra da Tijuca. Two of Rio's best beaches, though, are secrets, and you'll need to rent a car, convince a local to take you (not that hard), or make an arrangement with a taxi to pick you back up. Prainha and Grumari are 40 minutes west of Zona Sul and are protected—there are no permanent buildings out here, and the hills behind the beaches are covered with lush green rain forest. Prainha, which means "little beach," has lots of surfers, but both places are wonderful for getting away from the crowds and feeling like you're on a (mostly) deserted isle, especially during weekdays.
Warning: The currents on all of these beaches can be quite strong, and even though there are lifeguards, be cautious. Also, stay off the beach after dark; it can be dangerous.