Rio de Janeiro on the cheap

When I grow up, I want to be Brazilian…

In all honesty, Rio is exactly what the postcards and the movies, and the Fast and Furious franchises tell you.

The white sand beaches, the twinkling cerulean sea, the towering skyscrapers piercing the skyline…it’s all there. Well, in and around the glaring inequality, slums and rampant petty crime – it’s there.

Though it won’t look like it as you step off the bus in Rio into a derelict neighbourhood that could just as well be Detroit downtown as it could Rio, a short bus ride away is the mystical Brazilian land of the tanned and toned we’ve all come to sip coconuts on.

And, contrary to popular belief, there’s plenty to do without expunging all your reals.

Read more: South America on the cheap: money tips and advice
Pedra da Gavea: South America’s best vantage point

Copacabana beach

Copacabana is a 4-kilometre stretch of resplendent white-golden sand, glistening bodies (hot people with their clothes off, and not so hot people who also have their clothes off), and a beachfront skyline that is every inch as impressive in real life as it is in those sweeping panorama shots in Fast Five.

It’s where endless rows of volleyball nets are home to those flexing their forearms and diving across the sand. Where the beach feels like three feet of powder underfoot. Where women need not bother with underwear ever, because wearing togs everyday is a way of life – and seeing people walking down the street in bikinis and speedos is not abnormal at all. It’s where the temperature is either set at “scorching hot” or “mildly hot”, depending on the day.

Oh, and it’s winter.


For the ladies, you’ll also be pleased to know that the Brazilian woman is not solely set at ‘Size 0 and stepped straight out of the pages of Vogue’, either. While we were well and truly prepared to cover ourselves in a different kaftan for every day of the week for shame of our untoned travel bodies, it actually turned out that we were in good company. Size 2s to 22s were stalking the beach just as confident as each other, all clad in bikinis and all looking just as likely to covet the pages of a magazine.

Maybe winter is when the outrageously hot people go in to hibernation, or maybe we were just trying to make ourselves feel better by zoning in on those with a bit of a belly – but it’s an enlightening feeling watching everyone parade themselves around on the sand no matter their size.

Don’t get us wrong, when we spotted the babes, they were babes – but we were happily aware of other mere mortals strutting the sand alongside us.

And all the beach characters you’ll expect will be on Copacabana – the old geezers in their speedos and gold chains so tanned they were almost purple, the “mutton dressed as lamb” types with their dogs in little pink shoes and bows, and the jacked-up men who don’t own clothing that goes above the waist, just seemingly doing lengths of the beach to see how many eyes follow them.

Sometimes it’s hard to tear your eyes away from the people to focus on the million-dollar scenery behind them.

It’s obviously no wonder our expected length of stay doubled the moment we got there, and went from two nights to about six in the end.

Ipanema Beach

Much the same as Copacabana, but a little bit more South Beach than Miami Beach – if you have ever been to Florida. Ipanema is a bit more upscale than Copa, and the cheap and budget options are limited. However, the people watching is unparalleled. You can walk from Copa (depending on where you are staying. If, like us, you’re on the opposite end of Copacabana, it will take you at least an hour and you definitely shouldn’t wear jandals) as there’s tonnes to look at the whole way along, but there’s also a number of buses that connect the two.

Arpoador is a tiny peninsula between the two beaches, and the perfect place to grab a coconut and watch the sunset.

Pedra da Gavea

“It is the hardest thing you will ever do, and you might die.”

What better recommendation could you need for a hike? We were sold.

Pedra da Gavea is the largest coastal monolith in Brazil, and therefore affords the best views over Rio de Janeiro. However, you’ve probably never heard of it. Most people haven’t – and to that we say, “Forget Sugarloaf”.

Pedra da Gavea, as seen from the top of Christ the Redeemer

For all we knew when we agreed to do it, is it’s an 866m trail of terror culminating in a 15m sheer rock face to be attempted unguided and unharnessed, featuring an uplifting recent history of fatalities and serious maimings. Seriously, how could you say no?

The trailhead is located on the eastern end of Barra da Tijuca (not the most appealing of places to linger around for too long). You’ll also probably be told about several horror stories of people being mugged and harrassed on this trail. While we weren’t, I would exercise caution – we left our big cameras and important things in the hotel (though, honestly I do wish I had taken my camera).

You can take the bus or metro, or taxi if you’re keen to forgo public transport. The closest metro stop is Jardim Oceânico and we just followed a saved pin on Google Maps after that to the trailhead. The track itself is only about a kilometre long apparently, so that offers good insight into how steep it’s going to be. For more detailed instructions, this guide is the best we’ve seen on the hike. 

After finally finding the security point (via a few direction checks with people who did not speak English), you’ll check in with security guards in case you never return. And off you go – straight up.

Never has a banana tasted so good

While most of the hike is a severely steep slog straight up a cliff side, some parts are more hairy than others. In the beginning, you’re wondering what all the fuss is about as you haul yourself up cliff faces via chains and pegs, still nonetheless wondering if you should have grabbed a helmet and shin pads from somewhere.

Once the trees thin out a bit, you’ll be stopping for photo opportunities just as much as ‘I hope they don’t see me weep’ breaks, too  (we kid, we kid…). Then, before you know it, you’re at the Cliff Face, which deserves capitals as its reputation is so revered and feared at the same time. The old saying ‘hold on for dear life’ has never held so much weight. Literally and figuratively. Basically – picture scrambling up your lounge room wall – no footholds and nowhere to put your hands – as it’s dangling high above a city. You better hope you wore some shoes with decent tread. However, you’ll inevitably be in good company here too. The bottleneck of climbers attempting to reach the top means you have plenty of moments to freeze and wonder if you can do this, weep, and then try scooch sideways a bit more. And then, out of nowhere you’ll be proffered the hand of a kind stranger from above, who will haul you up and do all of the work for you.

However, as cliche as it is, the top – just beyond the rock face – makes all of the weeping absolutely worth it. The view from Sugarloaf is absolutely ordinary in comparison, such is the calibre of 360-degree views in every which direction. In fact, you can see right over the top of Sugarloaf.

When you’ve put off heading back down for as long as you possibly can, it’s important – if not scaremongering – to note the descent is actually worse than the ascent. For starters, going down that sheer rock face backwards is the closest I have actually come to weeping whilst on a hike. Again, luckily there will be large, strong men around you to guide your feet to the ground – but I’m still left thinking Health and Safety should pay them a visit. At least a singular chain or a peg or two would suffice.

And then you’ll see some dick in jandals, damn near leaping over the top of you, doing it without a care in the world. That’s probably the worst part.

The favelas

First up, don’t take a single piece of advice about steering clear of the favelas. Wait, let me backtrack a bit. While I won’t be responsible for anyone prancing hot-headedly into a cartel meeting, I do want to offer up a few reasons why the favelas have been given such a bad name, and shouldn’t be clear avoided at all costs.

For starters, some of the people that live there are the kindest people you’ll find in all of Rio.

While we did waltz into a large favela behind Rio by pure accident, attempting to scale the hill behind Copacabana, it was a lovely mistake. While the Brazilian slums were once upon a time run by drug lords and gang heads – they’re now subjects of intense police pacification. Tourists are still wary, though.

We managed to get lost on the streets of that favela no less than about seven times – pulling out our map and looking considerably pathetic. And no less than seven times did a man sweeping the path outside his house with a straw broom, or a geezer on his roof watching us from above, or an elderly woman idly gazing over us come to our aid – or yell inaudibly when we’d turned down a wrong street.

Christ the Redeemer

Take the goddamn train. The walk is damn near impossible, and we’ve heard horror stories about muggings and the likes (perhaps cliche and scaremongering, but worrying nonetheless). Plus, the train is quite cute.

Sugarloaf (on the cheap)

It’s the only monolith in Rio it seems anybody cares about, and we think it’s overrated. From the beach, you can see two monoliths, the first is Morro de Urca, the furthest away being Sugarloaf. Thinking we were being budget-conscious, and attempting to give our fitness a kick-start, we decided to take the trail up to what we thought was the top of Sugarloaf.

Morro de Urca: close enough

Spoiler alert: That does not, and can not work. To get up Sugarloaf, there are two cable cars. The trail will get you to the top of the second cable car, but because the ticket sellers like to toy with your emotions, you can’t buy a ticket for the second cable car from there. You have to buy your tickets from the bottom. So after all that, you’ll be stuck on Morro de Urca, and will take in the famed Sugarloaf sunset from that point instead. We’re sure it’s probably just as good.


Salad bars: Rio is the place you want to stay relatively healthy- so there’s plenty of clean eating haunts around. Take a wander a couple of streets back from the beach and you’ll find heaps (we found the Holy Grail of them all, but it has since shut down. So that was a useless statement, yes).

Favela burgers: That same day we wandered into the favelas accidentally, we stumbled upon the best burgers we’d had in a long time, and the fact it just so happens they have the best food. After wandering away from the beach from our hostel (which is where the less, erm, desirable places come into view apparently) we’d found the best burger joint on the planet (not quite Ferg Burger, but at $3 compared to $20 we’ll take this any day). Stuffed with avocado, chicken, bacon, lettuce, tomato, egg, potato, and dripping with sauces, it was then we vowed never to not eat in a favela again. The food we had over the following days was some of the most authentic we had across South America, and all it takes is walking a few streets inwards from the street.

For more on Brazilian food, check here: The best food of South America


Lisetonga Hostel:

As far as cheap hostels go, this is a good option. Located on the very eastern stretch of Copacabana beach (which is wide swathes of deserted sand: idyllic), and up a winding street behind the main drag (read: a very, very steep road bordering on the favelas), it’s an unassuming house with no-nonsense lodgings. While there’s no views out over Copacabana, there is a rooftop hammock, which is what we were about after we’d arrived off a night bus at 6am from Sao Paulo. The breakfast is quite a spread though – plenty of dulce de leche, cold cuts and fruit.

Price for one night: About $20NZD, but prices fluctuate on the weekends.

In a country which is notorious for unpleasant crime and violence, and where we’ve instinctively clutched our backpacks as soon as anyone has so much as coughed near us – the kindness we’ve been shown was a welcome surprise (though, the multitudes of police officers cruising the streets probably had something to do with that too. It was especially comforting when they were seen texting or bored out of their mind, which 98% seemed to be permanently be doing).

We were feeling exceptionally grand about disproving the stereotype – right up until we returned from our hostel one night to overhear an American girl, sobbing profusely, reporting to the hostel workers the fact she and her gang had just been mugged at knifepoint. They’d been walking barely 200 metres behind us.

But up until about then, we felt good.

So, after all we’ve said in waxing lyrical about the favelas and doing whatever you want – we’ve probably been wrong all this time and got really lucky. My brother’s sister got held up at gunpoint too, it’s more common than you’d care to think.

So, at the risk of this entire post being completely irrelevant: just have your wits about you. Okay?

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