Imagine this: The second-largest city in Brazil and only four days to take it all in.
With a population of 6.5 million, the seaside city of Rio de Janeiro is a busy metropolis crawling between lush coastal mountains and the South Atlantic Ocean. With no shortage of sights to see, Rio is one of those places you could easily spend two weeks exploring.
They don’t call it Cidade Maravilhosa (The Marvelous City) for nothing.
Rio de Janeiro is home to the Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer), a 100-foot-tall statue of Jesus Christ on top of a mountain, its widespread arms seemingly welcoming you to the city. The city is home to the famed Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, the largest Carnival celebration in all of Brazil, as well as millions of cariocas, as the locals call themselves.
Most importantly, Rio is home for one carioca in particular, Guil.
I was ecstatic when Guil invited me to visit Rio with him in November 2015. It had been a few years since I last traveled to Brazil, and although I wouldn’t be seeing my family on this trip (my grandmother lives further south), I would be exploring a new city.
Yeah, that’s right. This was my first time in Rio de Janeiro!
I let Guil convince me to travel across the Southern Hemisphere with just four days to spare, and here’s how we did it.
Our Trip To Rio de Janeiro
We took a nonstop, overnight flight from Miami the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. After landing the next morning, it took us about an hour to get to Humaita, the residential district where Guil’s dad lives near the famous Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. We began sightseeing the minute we arrived.
First thing we recommend is to hit the beach. That’s what we did. If you’re looking to surf, Arpoador beach (praia do Arpoador) is a popular spot where you’ll find locals fighting for waves. You can also catch a beautiful sunset here. If you want to fully experience Rio’s beach culture, Ipanema is the place to be (cue: Garota de Ipanema, the Girl from Ipanema). Ipanema is a lively beach where you’ll find a largely young crowd playing sports, sipping fresh coconut water and munching on Brazilian eats sold by vendors on the sand.
These are the two beaches we went to.
*Guil’s tip: There’s a better surfing spot in Prainha, a smaller, more isolated beach a short drive from the city, about 45 minutes with no traffic. Amazing waves and less crowded.
As with most areas in Rio de Janeiro, you should always keep an eye on your surroundings. Be attentive, don’t leave bags unattended, don’t leave cellphones visible on the sand and try not to call too much attention to cameras or GoPros. Unfortunately theft is a major problem in Rio, especially in large public places like the beach. When I went to Arpoador, for example, I brought nothing more than a towel. (I still joke to this day that the only thing stolen from me in Rio was my coconut water — by a golden retriever on the beach. Better safe than sorry, I guess!)
Next thing we did was hit the road. The awesome thing about Rio de Janeiro is you can easily go from an urban setting to a tropical jungle in minutes. There are epic mountains, trails and viewpoints within the city’s boundaries. Vista Chinesa is one of them, located at the top of the Tijuca National Forest. Marked by a small Chinese structure, the viewpoint gives you an impressive view of the city and its surrounding jungle.
Pedra da Gavea is another viewpoint that you can actually jump off of! Guil has hang-glided from here in the past, soaring over Rio and landing on the beach below. I’m far too afraid of heights (and flying) to ever try this, but it must be unreal.
Another must-see is the Cristo Redentor. We took a 20-minute train ride up the Corcovado mountain, a wild experience in and of itself as the train steeply inclines up the hillside making you feel like you’re on some sort of Disney ride! Another incredible view awaits you at the top.
We were able to hit all three sites on the same day traveling by car. We don’t recommend renting a car while you’re here as taxis, Uber or buses work fine.
The true highlight of the trip for me was visiting a favela — a no-go zone for decades, the kind of place you wouldn’t dare enter without knowing someone inside. Rio de Janeiro is home to hundreds of poor neighborhoods made up of colorful homes seemingly put together overnight. Favelas line its mountains boasting the nicest views found in the city. Most, however, are driven by drug lords fighting police for power over the territory.
Unlike most places, in Rio the poor live at the top while the rich convene below.
A push by police to pacify the favelas has allowed the tourism industry to step in. Now visitors can take guided tours through some, a chance to see beyond the crime-ridden portrayals of these lively communities teeming with Brazilian culture.
I’m not going to lie. I was pretty scared to enter Vidigal, home to 50,000 residents overlooking Ipanema beach as well as one of the hippest bars in town. The community was “pacified” in 2011 and has since made its mark in Rio’s tourism sector with hip hangouts and hostels luring the more adventurous traveler in. Still, entering a favela is something I’d never done before.
About a dozen of us squeezed into a van to go up to Bar da Laje, the reason we visited Vidigal in the first place. There was no shortage of excitement on way up. The clearly experienced driver wove the vehicle up 180-degree hills on a single-lane road used by cars going in both directions. I’m positive my hand would’ve hit a building if I extended my arm out the window. Add to this another dozen motorcyclists fighting for space on the same road. It was that tight.
But it was so worth it. The view from the bar, which sat on an abandoned building structure at the top of the hill, was absolutely incredible. The DJ was killing it. The bar was packed. Any fear I had was quickly erased when a caipirinha landed in my hand.
*Guil’s tip: If you do decide to visit a favela in Rio, respect the community. People still go missing. Crime is still a real problem. As a tourist, you’re supposedly not a threat since you’re seen as income for the community. However, it’s important to understand what you are: A visitor.
We arrived in Rio on a Thursday morning and left Sunday night. On Monday, it was back to reality. But reality ain’t so bad when you have trips like this to look forward to.