Rio de Janeiro is a study in contradictions. Beauty and grandeur exist in close proximity to squalor and poverty. Palatial hotels line the beachfront at Copacabana and Ipanema, where bronzed bodies in superfluous swimsuits preen on golden sands. Cable cars glide above dense rainforest up to Sugarloaf Mountain and the statue of Christ the Redeemer raises his arms at the summit of Corcovado. Yet overlooking all of this sparkling beauty from the hillsides are the favelas, slums where one in five Cariocas (Rio residents) make their lives. These communities play a vital role in the culture of the city; dance, music and artwork that emerge from favelas have made them an unexpected tourist attraction.
Cariocas (Rio natives) are known for their warmth and friendliness – it must be all that sun, samba and cachaça. Here’s how to explore the Cidade Maravilhosa –the Marvellous City.
Don’t wear your full-length beach kaftan. Rio’s beaches are all about skin – covering up is just not how it’s done here. If you head out on the sand in a cover-up or baggy board shorts, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb.
Instead, do as the locals do: get a microscopic bikini or a pair of tight trunks (known in Rio as a sunga) and strut. It’s all about the confidence. Beach boldness may be increased with the help of a layer of faux tan (and perhaps a caipirinha). Amusingly, a bikini can be little more than a piece of string but going topless can incur fines so don’t go overboard.
Don’t wander into a favela alone. Their notoriety has made the favelas of Rio de Janeiro an attraction for a certain type of tourist – one hoping to see the way the people here really live, or perhaps one just drawn by the terrible romance of films like City of God. Whatever your reason for visiting Rio’s favelas, don’t go without a guide.
Instead, organise a favela tour with a reputable agency. Many tours are organised by companies not based in the communities and do little – or nothing – to benefit the people who live in the favela. Casa Kolacho, a group of rap and street artists from Comina 13, organises tours that don’t exploit favela-dwellers. Visitors are shown music and art and the group uses tour fees to help guide kids away from drug gangs, teaching them music production and art.
Don’t bring anything to the beach.
Instead, tuck a small wad of cash (to spend on fresh coconut water and a sunlounge) into your cossie and leave your bag, phone and book at home. Brazilians don’t even bother with a towel; they just use a sarong. Sit back, relax and people-watch.
Don’t visit Christ the Redeemer on the weekend, if you can help it.
Instead, go during the week. This enormous Art Deco deity atop Corcovado mountain is one of Rio’s biggest attractions and on weekends, the crowds are huge. There will still be plenty of people on weekdays but at least you’ll have a little space to breathe.
Don’t miss Rio’s Carnaval.
Instead, book early and head to Brazil just before Lent. If you’re planning to go to Rio, there’s no better time than Carnaval, when the city pulsates to a samba beat.
Don’t spend all your time on the beach. Though fabulous – Copabana, Ipanema, Arpoador and Leblon are all well worth a visit – beaches are not all this city has to offer.
Instead, spend some time in Rio’s other unique neighbourhoods away from the sand and sea. Tranquil Santa Teresa, located to the southwest of Centro is known for its steep cobbled streets and beautiful 19th-century mansion where galleries, cafes and boutiques now proliferate. Nearby Lapa is the epicentre of Rio nightlife and Pedra do Sal in Saúde, just north of Centro, becomes a huge samba street party every Monday night. Formerly staid Botafoga, while located by the beach, is more of a hipster enclave than a beach-bunny’s dream. Head to Cobol do Humaitá: by day it’s a farmer’s market but after the sun goes down it’s a lively spot for eating, drinking and socialising.
Don’t flash your valuables.
Instead, leave expensive jewellery and cash at home. Petty theft is common in Rio so hold onto your bag and keep your camera or phone zipped away when you’re not using it.
Don’t eat at Copacabana’s beachfront restaurants. The food isn’t too bad and the location is spectacular but these restaurants are aimed squarely at tourists. This means they’re both expensive and inauthentic.
Instead, head to a densely populated area such as Barra da Tijuca and try a local restaurant or bar where you’ll be able to sample dishes such as feijoada (a rib-sticking bean and pork stew), bacalhau (codfish) cakes and barbecue.