City: Rio De Janeiro
Ranking: TripDinks NOT APPROVED
Why: Violent crime and water pollution (a marine outfall sends raw sewage and wastewater into the ocean off Ipanema rendering it unsafe for swimming)
Watch our trip video below!
Blame it on Rio?
Well, it all depends on what you’re trying to accuse her of.
Is it the miles of accessible and muscle-covered beaches, the non-stop nightlife or the endless number of affordable and delicious places to eat? On the flip side, who’s to blame for Rio’s insane traffic, questionable water pollution levels or always unsettling crime issues (complete with hoards of slums, a booming drug trade and frequent, gunpoint robberies). Whatever you’re trying to blame on Rio, you could never accuse her of being boring. In fact, Rio might be one of the most paradoxical paradises we’ve ever had the pleasures and problems of visiting.
But let’s skip past the many horror stories we had heard of what has happened to both residents of and visitors to Rio for they would all require NSFL tags here (not safe for life) for how horrific they are. And we’re not talking about people being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the ideal place at the best time. And let’s not address the government corruption that everyone talks about, or a former Brazilian soccer star’s warning to stay away from Rio’s Olympics, or the fact that despite being a major city and tourist destination you’ll be yelled at by the cabbie if you ask if they speak English. No, let’s skip all that and just say that the Christ the Redeemer statue has a lot of redeeming to do if this city is going to succeed. But let’s get to the good stuff.
The Good Stuff
Starting with a wonderful (and direct!) flight with Air Canada, we actually had an amazing time, as evidenced in our trip video above. Physically the city is one of the most beautiful we’ve ever seen. We love mountains, busy cities, vast beaches, diverse restaurants, and hopping clubs, and Rio has all within walking distance, or at least a cheap cab ride away. Staying in affluent Ipanema, we felt very safe to wander the streets pausing in the multitude of upscale bars and restaurants that spill onto the mosaic sidewalks. Aside from crossing Cristo off the Bucket List, we got to dip our toes in South America for the first time which was exciting, and learning the finer points of the Portuguese language — Bryan had a spirited conversation with a local on the exact nasal placement of the word não versus no — was fun. A highlight was really our Airbnb which was a 10-minute walk to Ipanema beach and had a concierge and a rooftop patio with a small pool that had Cristo, the ocean, and the favelas all within view, with a grocery store, cafe, and bar right across the street.
Also, Rio is perhaps the gayest city we’ve ever been to. It came as a surprise to us because we’ve heard of so many Brazilians fleeing to our hometown of Toronto to escape persecution, but we’ve never seen so many gays cuddling, holding hands, or making out in public as we did in Rio. Of course, we were staying on Rua Farme de Amoedo, which happens to be the gayest street in the city, an unplanned yet fortunate and, ultimately, hilarious coincidence; hilarious because the straight members of our crew kept trying to go to the straight clubs in the vicinity only to find them closed and ending up at the gay bars anyway!
We also must’ve been on the gay part of the beach because gaggles of gays in speedos were everywhere. Where they did not flock, however, was the water, which this article says is basically raw sewage, and swimmers training for the 2016 Olympics in Rio have fallen ill. Like the smattering of other tourists, however, we braved the waters – waist-deep, mind you, save for the couple of times the waves sent us crashing down. One of our crew did suffer from stomach problems the last few days of our trip, and she did spend more time with her head under water than the rest of us, though whether that was the cause hasn’t been determined. But the fact that we couldn’t spend hours lazing in the ocean certainly had us dreaming of the beloved Caribbean.
We’re always told everywhere we go that it’s going to be hard to find vegan/vegetarian food, and Rio was no different. It was also no different that it wasn’t difficult at all! Zazá Bistrô had a variety of options and the Beet Tortoloni (pictured above) was truly incredible. The cafe at the Botanical Garden had a large array of healthy options, and we went for a wonderful spinach pie with nuts that was so good I might want to return to Rio for more! It also seemed that everywhere we went they served large bowls of deep-fried cubed provolone cheese that, when paired with a couple Caipirinhas and that strong Cachaça, disappeared very quickly. Even at Carretao Churrascaria, a Brazilian steakhouse in Ipanema where waiters come by your table with skewers of different meats to shred on your plate, they had a large salad bar that had more than enough to satisfy us veggies (there were three of us in total, but we wanted to the two meat-eaters to try a traditional Brazilian place). And nondescript eateries that we casually popped into had several options so we were more than happy with the food in Rio.
Easy Access to Top Sites
Sugarloaf Mountain is rated the top thing to do on TripAdvisor, which makes sense because of how beautiful and accessible it is. But then, that’s always the problem with these “top-rated” things to do, because you take a cab and a couple cable cars and you find a mall on top of a mountain pushing souvenirs and donuts. It’s a fine excursion if you’re into tourist traps, but worth it if you’re not going to get that postcard view anywhere else.
We were told beforehand that both the hike and public transportation to Cristo are nightmares with both crowds and safety concerns, so we opted to hire a tour guide instead who drove us straight to a bus that took us directly to the top. It’s a bucket-list moment to be at the feet of this incredible statue, and to see his heart, the stigmata, and the triangles of construction were well worth it, and thankfully it wasn’t too busy on the day we went.
The cabbie will drop you off right at the foot of The Escadaria Selarón, the Selaron Steps, which is an excellent example of how one person can change the world. From Wikipedia: “They are the work of Chilean-born artist Jorge Selarón who claimed it as “my tribute to the Brazilian people”. In 1990, Selarón began renovating dilapidated steps that ran along the front of his house. At first, neighbours mocked him for his choice of colours as he covered the steps in fragments of blue, green and yellow tiles – the colours of the Brazilian flag … It was long and exhaustive work but he continued on and eventually covered the entire set of steps in tiles, ceramics and mirrors.” It is a must-see, not only because it’s beautiful but the concept itself is so inspiring. The fact that Selarón was found dead and burned on the steps on January 10, 2013 adds to Rio’s sad legacy.
The Jardim Botânico, the Botanical Garden, shows the diversity of Brazil’s flora, and is a gorgeous way to spend an afternoon, especially when you cap it off with wine and food from the on-site resto, one of our favourite places that we dined in Rio. You’ll also be treated to numerous sightings of the oh-so-cute Marmoset monkeys that are native only to east-central Brazil and actually considered an invasive species to Rio.
Find Yourself in The Favelas
Funny thing about Rio’s notorious favelas, the sprawling slums that scramble over each other to the hilltops: they’re sometimes the best places to party! Every traveling crew should have a social expert, someone who can get intel on the best places to go, and for us, that’s Jacquie. Armed with beauty and a killer smile, she’ll get anyone to tell her anything! And one night, after we had pre-cocktails at Leblon’s Belmont, she managed to get the deets on a private house party from a couple on the street. A cab ride later, we found ourselves on a deserted, too-quiet street up in the favelas when a door opened and we were greeted by a large intimidating man who wasn’t going to let us up the stairs. But like Rudolph’s nose lighting the way, Jacquie lit up her smile which forced him to get the organizer who came down and agreed to let us in to a swank place with a great bar, gorgeous art, DJ, and patio with a great view where you could hear roosters nearby crowing nonstop. So random, right?
And a special shout-out has to go to The Maze, a fascinating jazz club/B&B set atop Santa Teresa. If this marks an evolution of the city, then it’s a welcome one. Transformed to an eclectic club, the R$100 ticket price (about $30 US) included a meal (vegan options available, yay!) and the wonderful jazz band that you’ll see in the video. The incredible view from the hilltop reminds you that Rio’s slums are literally talking distance away and that every cabbie you’ve talked to says you shouldn’t stray from the path from The Maze to the cabs at night lest you wind up in some very unsettling conditions (like being robbed, abducted, or worse). All the ingredients make The Maze a unique cultural experience that’s not to be missed.
In the end, we’re glad we went, and we experienced no threats or dangers personally. But the challenges of the place keep us from recommending it to anyone else or from wanting to return. Perhaps in time and with a lot of reform, the city could evolve into a world-class city worthy of the designation.