Rio de Janeiro – also known as that time I accidentally booked into a favela.
Feb 27, 2019 – March 2, 2019
I spent 3 nights in Rio during the opening of carnival. If you’re going to go to Rio, this is the time to do it!
Other than the positive energy and parties of Carnival, I didn’t love Rio. It was exhausting having to be constantly alert for personal safety in addition to the typical city complaints (traffic, pollution, crowds, etc.)
A few tips I learned from my stay in Rio:
– Nothing runs on time, nothing. Get used to it.
– Very few people speak English. Less than I would have expected in a major city with significant tourism. Learn a few essential Portuguese phrases.
– If you have time, skip the Rio beaches and head to Ilha Grande for a couple days. The beaches are much nicer and safer.
– If you are determined to visit Rio, visit during Carnival.
– Brazil is expensive. A few things (Uber, street food) are cheaper than at home but most costs (accommodations, restaurants, tourist attractions, clothing) are comparable to what we’d pay in North America.
– Credit cards are widely accepted without a surcharge. Carry a small amount of cash for purchases below R$10 but usually you can use your card (safer option than carrying a lot of cash)
– Free wifi is not widely available in Rio. There is an open connection to tourist wifi in major sights but you need to pay (I believe R$8/24 hours) It is not safe to take your phone out in public so you may not need data. I opted to buy a SIM in order to use Uber and meet up with people while out. SIM cards are not easy to get, however they are cheap if you can figure it out. I paid R$10 for 1.5GB. All providers require a Brazilian CPF number (identification number) with the exception of Vivo, but only if you go to the Vivo store with your passport. If you can’t go go a Vivo store, you’ll need a Brazilian friend to lend you their CPF. Be careful setting up your SIM without going to the store as it will want to default to a shitty 100 mb/day plan.
– Try to stay close to the metro line if you can. I would recommend staying in Ipanema beach area. I didn’t stay there but wish I had. The metro is safe, cheap and fast. I spent my first 2 nights in a favela (oops!) and then my final night in a fantastic location a short walk from a central metro station which made getting around much easier.
– Have an Uber account for getting to spots not on the metro line. Uber is about 1/4 of the price of taxis and very safe to use. Short distances with more than one person may even be cheaper by Uber than metro.
– All you will hear when you’re in Rio is warnings of where not to go, when not to go out, don’t carry valuables with you, etc. Everyone seems to have a story of being robbed or witnessing someone being robbed. Don’t let this deter you from having fun, but only carry what you can afford to lose.
– Wear a money belt. And even then, stay alert. At a bloco (carnival party) I had a woman put her hands right up my dress trying to find my money belt to rob me. It was too crowded to move away quickly but I managed to escape with my belongings in tact.
– Bring an old phone you don’t mind having stolen if you think you’ll want to use your phone in public. It is unfortunate but even taking your phone out for a quick photo is risky. My few Rio photos were usually taken while standing beside police or security and I felt weary doing this knowing I could get robbed after walking away, but at least it was less likely they’d snatch it from my hand in the moment if I was beside police.
– Have your phone automatically back up photos at least once a day to Google photos or the cloud. If your phone is stolen, you’ll at least have your photos.
– Be careful on Tinder. I heard a story of a guy at the hostel arranging a Tinder date only to find out she demanded money for their encounter and when he didn’t want to pay, her “boyfriend” pimp arrived to enforce the payment.
– Meat and cheese. That is all. As a vegan, I struggled. Also, Brazilian food is surprisingly bland. Pack hot sauce. Most places I asked to add spice to my meals were unable to honour my request.
– You don’t need to buy tickets to the expensive parades at the Sambadrome to feel the energy of carnival, you can simply head out to the public blocos and parades.
– Download the app “Blocos du Rua” for information on all the different blocos.
– Dress up! Think gay pride meets Halloween with lots of tutus but keep in mind it gets HOT so you’ll want to wear as little as possible. Some blocos have themes and some do not.
– Some blocos have port-o-potty washrooms, some do not. Plan accordingly.
As you can tell from my tips, Rio and I had a difficult relationship. My introduction to Rio was getting dropped at the edge of a favela at 9:30 pm by my “door to door” shuttle who refused to enter the favela. Thankfully 2 girls on the shuttle knew where I was staying and pointed me to where I could catch a ride on a motorbike for R$3.
When I approached the motorbike he told me it would be R$4. I told him R$3 and he insisted on R$4. I had to pause and give my head a shake. I was in no position to bargain, especially over R$1. He could have charged me R$400 and I’d have paid because standing in a favela alone at night with all my belongings was not where I wanted to be for very long.
The next morning I woke up to the sound of firecrackers (or gun shots but I’m trying to stay positive). I had plans to check out Sugarloaf mountain but it was quite cloudy so a friend suggested we go shopping for carnival outfits at the Saara market instead. Wow. That place was incredible! Definitely a spot to check out (before 5 pm, apparently it gets dicey after that). Besides all the colourful costume items you’ll need for carnival, there is a wide selection of used (stolen?) cell phones for sale. The market isn’t unlike many markets or Chinatown regions of major cities with all the same cheap made in China stuff sold at every store but it was a good time nonetheless.
Next I took the metro down to Ipanema beach to find some vegan food (good luck if you’re vegan in Brazil… get used to living on acai bowls) and watch the sunset before returning to my favela (by Uber) to prepare for the pre-carnival LED light bloco.
Dressed in glitter and LED lights, I was ready to head out at 11 pm. Uber had a different plan. After multiple cancelled trips (Ubers didn’t want to come into the favela) we finally we got an Uber after messaging the driver it was safe to enter.
Despite my fears of staying in a favela, it was ok. I walked around alone during the daytime and even the local drug dealer (identified by the patch number on his vest) was quite friendly as he and I stood outside together. Me, waiting for my Uber, and him with a drop off for some clients of his at the hostel I was staying at. Perhaps the citizens of the favela see the hostel as a positive thing so leave the tourists alone.
I was lucky to meet people who knew where the best spots to go were. The pre-carnival bloco was epic! I was blown away with the positive energy and good vibes. There are no words for Carnival, you need to experience it for yourself.
The next day I had to change to a hostel in Lapa – this was a good call as I could walk to a metro station and was super close to the airport. I puttered around Rio checking out some touristy sites before preparing to go to a bloco for carnival opening night. I found Copacabana beach a little disappointing due to the crowds. It reminded me slightly of Venice beach with all the vendors, sand castle builders, volleyball games, etc. Besides the touristy stuff, I noticed there were several daytime parties and parades happening. Carnival literally does not stop.
Unfortunately the rain had other plans for my night and a torrential downpour changed my carnival plans. I had an early flight the next day so stayed in, having been warned that the huge carnival party in my next stop (Belo Horizonte) would start as soon as my plane landed at 7:30 am. I still can’t believe I stayed in on opening night of Carnival! I ended up with a wicked chest infection that came on that night so I’m not sure avoiding the rain really made a difference.
Carnival made my trip to Rio totally worth it. Without this energy and fun I’m not sure I’d totally recommend going. Your time in Brazil may be better spent in Paraty or Ilha Grande as I had visited prior to Rio and if you decide to visit Rio, give yourself the flexibility (cancellation friendly accommodations) after you see the city for yourself.