Rio de Janeiro was my first stop in South America, back in January this year. One of my best friends from home, Ele was joining me for the first three weeks of my trip, which was really nice as I normally travel solo. We arrived quite late and spent the first two nights in Copacabana and then the following three nights in Ipanema.
Rio as a city is absolutely massive- you definitely need more than five days to see it all, but we still managed to pack the must-sees into our time there! Here are my favourites and how to do them cheaply – in no particular order because they were all great.
- Christ the Redeeemer
On our first day, Ele and I headed to see Christ the Redeemer, probably the most famous landmark in Rio. Our hostel was advertising a tour but it was super expensive so we decided to do it ourselves, and it turned out it to be really easy! We walked to the nearest metro station Siqueira Campos (in central Copacabana) and took the metro to a stop called Largo do Machado, where we were told you can take a shared van/ minibus to go up Mount Corcovado, where the statue is. The metro system was surprisingly easy to navigate- there is just two lines, one going in each direction which made it simple. However as we arrived at Largo do Machado, there was a problem with the ticket machines and we were told there was a chance we might have to wait several hours for them to be fixed, or alternatively take the cog train. Rather than wait around, we bought a train ticket from the office next door for about 85R (about £18) and took a public bus to Cosme Velho, the Mount Corcovado train station. The train was a little more expensive than the van but turned out to be amazing- definitely the best choice! We managed to get great seats, right at the front and it was a really nice journey, with the views gradually getting better. Tip: go straight to the Cosme Velho station and buy your train ticket there- its cheaper, around 79R. Even at peak of high season, there were still tickets if you’re prepared to wait. Check the official page for prices! If you want to pay by card, you need ID!
At the top of the mountain, we just followed the (huge) crowds up some stairs to the Christ statue. The views overlooking the city were absolutely incredible, especially looking over the Sugarloaf mountain. The statue itself was huge; I read afterwards that it was 30 metres high and built in the 1930’s. It was very impressive – but still not as impressive as the amount of people packed into the small space, it was crazy busy! We had accidentally decided to go at midday, which unfortunately was the hottest and busiest time, and to get a photo without anyone else in it was near impossible. As it was about 35 degrees, we took a break from the heat, and headed into one of the several cafes and shops for some shelter, a snack and a drink – a caipirinha of course.
2. Sugarloaf Mountain – Pao de Acucar
On our second day in Rio, we visited the Sugarloaf Mountain . We decided once again not to get an overpriced tour, and took an even easier option- taking an Uber there and back. Uber is everywhere in Rio and seriously cheap. We left early (not making the same mistake as the day before) and on arrival at the mountain, we bought the entrance ticket from one of the machines without having to queue up. We took the next cable car and the view was astounding. There are two mountains, and you visit the smaller one first and then take a second cable car up to the tallest one. The view from the smaller one was possibly my favourite because I just didn’t expect it to be that good! There is a small airport across the bay and it was incredible to watch planes land on the tiny strip of land- each time they looked they would crash into the water!
There are plenty of cafes and places to sit on each level as well as some restaurants and shops that you can wander around. Ele and I actually bought some Haiviana flip flops up there! After being there a few hours, we got some wifi and booked a return Uber and headed to the beach for the afternoon.
3. Favela Tour
Before I arrived in Rio, I wasn’t sure about visiting a favela. Partly because its dangerous and partly because they are real people, and I didn’t want to disrespect anyone – treating them as a tourist attraction. However, after speaking to a few people who really recommended it, we booked a tour through the hostel. Honestly, it was probably my best thing I did in Rio/ Brazil and it was one of my overall favourite things I did in my whole South America trip. It was UNBELIEVABLY interesting and extremely eye-opening.
The tour company we went with was called ‘Be a Local’ and the guide was a Brazilian called Patrick. We basically got dropped in a minivan, halfway up the favela, and then we walked up a little bit further up and then all the way back down and out in about three hours. Patrick was super knowledgeable, having done this tour for six years. He takes a similar route most days, so he had built up a very good relationship with people we passed in the favela, which made a massive difference and makes it possible for him to bring people in. The favela we visited was the biggest in Rio and called Rocinha, where 75,000 people live. It is the only one that is ‘safe’ enough to visit, and only a few tour companies do, and never at night. It was shocking to see how poor it was was first hand. The houses are packed basically on top of each other, causing overcrowding, and easily spread disease and illness. Sadly the favelas are crime ridden too, with plenty of gangs, drugs and guns. We saw bullet holes in houses, reinforced walls, teenagers with guns. There were plenty of areas where Patrick told to put our phones away and take zero photos, because if anyone sees you, you’re in serious trouble. We were also encouraged not to give money to anyone begging, only to people that had a skill or were selling something. For example, we watched some kids, dance and play music, a lady sold us cakes, another lady sold us bracelets and we were encouraged to donate to all of that, which we did gladly. This is to encourage positive focuses, so kids don’t turn to gangs and adults can make money to feed their families. I had a million questions and Patrick answered all of them.
4. Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches
You can’t come all the way to Rio and NOT spend time on a beach! Copacabana and Ipanema beaches during the day are lovely, with amazing weather but are SO busy. There are tons of people around, so keep an eye on your valuables at all time. There are plenty of people walking up and down, selling everything under the sun so its easy to get food and drink delivered! Sunset on Ipanema Beach was so so nice as well, from some rocks one end of the beach. Its so good, everyone claps at the end!
If you have more time!
There are other places to visit like the famous steps Escadaria Selaron but on the day we were planning to go, we were told by the hostel staff we shouldn’t as it is too dangerous. A little off-putting so we decided not to risk it! There is also a hike up the Two Brothers Mountain, through a favela which is supposed to have incredible views at the top over Ipanema beach. We did walk around Ipanema a little, and round the Lake (Lagoa) and that was beautiful. Rio is an incredible city, enjoy every minute!