And that is exactly why you shouldn’t rely on Google Translate! Having read about all the crime in Rio, we were concerned about our safety and that of our belongings, however, I will reassure you now, we encountered nothing but friendliness. However, my dinner was served at knife point on the first night! Or at least that is what the menu said, thanks to their dodgy translation. I had “Picadinho de carne” which is a delicious beef stew (not sure where the knifepoint comes into that translation!).
Was it safe in Rio?
That is without a doubt the most asked question about our trip to Brazil. Nobody asks about the beaches, the food, the culture, the samba, the capririnhas, the sunsets, the Amazon… No! Everyone wants to know whether it was safe, so I thought I’d start there.
It’s a great question because no it’s not but yes it is. Does crime exist? Yes! And plenty of it. If you read the UK Government Advice for Brazil you will be warned that robberies and murder rates are very high, however, just like any other city there are those areas you should definitely not venture into and those that are relatively safe if you keep your wits about you. And that is probably the best advice I can give, it’s all about how you carry yourself, what you have on you and what neighbourhoods you wander into.
It took me the best part of a year to convince Doug we should spend our honeymoon in Brazil. He was genuinely concerned we would not get through two weeks without being mugged, raped or murdered. He has a friend who had his passport stolen twice by taxi drivers taking him back to the airport in Sao Paulo after a business trip, so I suppose he had good reason. We are both glad we did go though, as it is a fantastic country that I can’t wait to go back to, however, we did take significantly more precautions than we normally would.
The Mugging Kit
Yes! We had a kit should we be mugged. We each carried an old phone and a wallet with some cash, a cancelled card, and an old driving license in it so that should we get stopped we could hand it over and be done (and it looked genuine). We then had the rest of our money and proper cards in concealed money belts or hidden in the safe within the hotel rooms. Luckily, we did not need to hand anything over; in fact, we did not feel unsafe at any time. We stayed on Leme beach (the quieter end of the famous Copacabana beach) and did not venture down unlit paths, into unknown neighbourhoods or on to the sand after dark. Basically, we followed the same thought process we do anywhere we go.
So, if safety is your primary concern, then don’t let it be, just go with your eyes wide open and enjoy the beautiful city that is Rio de Janeiro.
That’s enough about safety, I’m sure you’d rather know what we actually got up to!
Rio Food Tour
Whenever we visit a new country, we always go on a food tour. We particularly like doing this as it gives us a taste of local life and helps broaden our horizons and encourages us to try new things. Today’s was by far the best, not because of the food, but because of the guide. It felt like we were simply being shown the sights of Rio by a friend.
The tour started off in the Lapa neighbourhood, famous for its traditional bars, live music clubs and open air samba jams. Lively by night, but quiet during the day: perfect for taking in its bohemian street art! In fact, the tour was as much about the food as it was about discovering the budding artists who have left their mark throughout the neighbourhood.
We met our guide Tom (owner of Eat Rio Food Tours) at a restaurant founded in 1903 which specialises in Bolitas de Bacalao, which are salt cod fish cake type balls (delicious). We followed these swiftly with a stop at a cocktail bar for Caipirinhas (Brazil’s national cocktail made caçhaca, sugar and normally lime). We however had ours with passion fruit which was dangerously tasty. I wonder if it was Tom’s personality or the alcohol before 11 am that helped our friendship to blossom.
From there (slightly lightheaded) we wandered through the streets of Lapa whilst Tom pointed out and talked us through the amazing street art that adorns the neighbourhood. A big proportion of what we saw was to do with Jorge Selaron, a Chilean artist who after moving to Rio decided to give back to the city by laying tiles on the steps that went past his house.
He started off by simply improving the steps by his house laying green, yellow and blue tiles. It soon, however, became an obsession and now all 215 steps on the street, as well as the sides, are all tiled. He started this project in 1990 and only stopped when he died in 2013. As it became a “must see thing” in Rio, he started giving tourists his address and asking them to send tiles from around the world, which is why there is such an eclectic mix of tiles now. As you can see from the picture, it really brings the staircase, which is tucked away in this bohemian neighbourhood of Rio, to life.
I love it when a food tour includes a market as it offers a glimpse into daily life and this one was no different. It was all hustle and bustle as we weaved our way through the crowd. Our destination? A tapioca stall. Tapioca is a starch that is extracted from cassava root (the same plant from which you also extract cyanide so don’t get it wrong!).
Once ready for consumption it forms a very fine flour which looks dry but which actually still retains an element of moisture to it. This moisture is released when heated up (say for example in a pan when making pancakes!) bonding the particles together. I mention pancakes because that is exactly what was being made on the stand! We had a meat and cheese tapioca pancake and a coconut and condensed milk one (can you guess my favourite?!).
Why are there bread crumbs on everything?
Tapioca is added to pretty much every meal, whether it be in the form of “couscous” or sprinkled over the top. In fact, we hadn’t realised that it was tapioca and had assumed throughout our travels in Foz do Iguaçu that they were sprinkling bread crumbs on our meals! That’s why we normally always do the tours when we first arrive (to avoid such faux pas!).
In addition to the tapioca pancakes we also bought some fruit at the market which we then proceeded to try whilst balancing on the back of a cart. Some of the fruit we know well, like mango, however, most of it was much more exotic than what you find in the local supermarket. For example, cacao plant, which you cut open to extract the pulp that surrounds the cacao beans and suck said pulp (weird). We also tried a spiky cucumber that tasted of lemon, some weird berries and cashew fruit.
I never knew how hard it was to harvest cashew nuts! Each fruit has a single nut, however, this is encased in a really hard shell which contains a poisonous oil (such as that found in ivy) making the farming of cashews a rather dangerous affair and very labour intensive (now I know why they are so much more expensive than peanuts!). Despite being poisonous to touch with the bare skin, the oil is very useful as an antioxidant and fungicide, as well as having other chemical uses. There’s a fun fact for a pub quiz!
The tour also involved trying all manner of juices, including a sugar cane and lime juice which was prepared right there for us. Sugar cane is something we came across a lot, and makes a lovely, albeit sweet, refresher on a hot day. If buying it from a street vendor I’d skip the ice as you never know what water has been used to make it!
The most exciting drink of the day however, was Caçhaca de Jambu, which is also known as the toothache drink. Jambu originates from the Amazon and has anaesthetic properties. Before we were allowed to have our shot of Jambu the guide got us to first lick our lips, and then scrape them with our teeth. We then drank the shot of liqueur, swirling it in our mouth before swallowing. This is what happened moments after drinking it:
- I wanted to throw up
- My tongue started tingling like crazy
- I got a really strong salty taste (it numbs all your taste buds except for the salty one!).
Needless to say we bought a bottle and have played the same trick on unsuspecting friends!
Even though you might be thinking at this stage we couldn’t possibly have eaten anymore, we also tried Tacaca (Jambu soup), Tucupi (a yellow sauce made from manioc roots) with salted shrimps, Açai mouse, and to finish off a sit down meal. By this stage I was too giggly to take in what I was eating (they make strong Caipirinhas!).
Hotels by the hour
Is it the best food we have ever had? No. Is it the best food tour we have been on? Yes! Tom made us try things that we wouldn’t have otherwise tried and that we probably won’t try again (like eating crickets in Vietnam!). However, the tour was so much more than just about the food; it was about culture and the sights and getting an insight into Carioca (local) life. How else would we have found out that there are hotels specifically for singletons? And before your mind goes down the gutter, no, they are not brothels (although I’m sure they cater for that too!).
Apparently, it is quite common for Brazilian’s to still be living at home until their mid-late thirties which makes getting intimate a little trickier. That is why these hotels exist! You pay by the hour and they are ranked like any other hotel, from 1* to 5*. I’m sure the star rating will play an important part on how much you want to impress your partner!
Christ the Redeemer – where is he?
We were lucky enough that we could see Christ the Redeemer from our Hotel in Leme Beach and when we woke up on our second morning, we could see him looking down on us. As the weather was forecast to turn, we set off early, got on a mini bus and made our way up the winding roads towards him. 15 minutes into our journey we spotted him again, holding on to a cloud with his left hand. By the time we arrived 30 minutes later he was nowhere to be seen!
No view of Rio either, just fog. We waited, and waited a little longer, and waited a bit longer again, but after an hour and half of searching photos of the harbour online (to see what we were missing out on), we gave up and came back down, only to see him smiling down at us when we got back to the hotel, all clouds lifted!
Following the disappointment of Christ the Redeemer we decided to go for a 9 mile walk along the seafront, covering Leme, Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon beaches. Copacabana and Ipanema are thought of as two of the most famous beaches in the world whilst Leme and Leblon are simply extensions of the two of them.
Copacabana is 4km long and although not particularly busy there were plenty of postcard beautiful individuals (girls and boys) out there doing what stereotypically you’d expect them to do: playing football, futiball (volleyball with no hands), volleyball, working out, drinking caipirinhas and wearing scantly clad swimwear. You don’t really need to bring anything to the beach with you as the beach vendors have it all, from swimwear to towels, drinks, food, umbrellas, seats, inflatables and even wifi! Of course you need money for all of it which is the one thing they tell you not to bring with you to the beach!
Ipanema beach on the other hand felt a little seedier with the vendors being that little bit more pushy. Whereas on Copacabana we had found them to be polite and friendly on Ipanema they certainly made you feel bad for turning down their goods and wares.
Ipanema was made famous by the bossanova jazz song “The girl from Ipanema” and is referred to as the sexiest beach on the planet. The beach itself is very pretty, predominantly because of the drastic contrast against the two mountains at the end of it.
This is really what makes Rio quite so amazing, the topography. As we flew in it was as if we were flying over humps, and in reality that’s all Rio is, a load of humps with the rich living by the beaches and the poor making use of the steep hills. Not sure my hump explanation does the monolithic granite and quartz mountains justice, but I feel using hills or mountains or protrusions just doesn’t set the right image. At least not in my head.
Eu nao falo portugues
For dinner we ventured to a local bar that had been recommended by the food guide the previous day. Up until now I had managed pretty well speaking Spanish as the locals had understood me, and when they replied in Portuguese I was able to understand them.
That didn’t quite go to plan in this bustling little family joint (we truly were the only foreigners there!). I ordered 1 sausage and got 2 steaks! It was delicious, so I can’t complain, however it did double the bill!
I also learnt something else that day. I had been pronouncing bread wrong. It is spelt Paõ, which means you have to make a nasal sound over the o. I can’t make that sound, but people had been understanding me albeit correcting me. Bread was something I had ordered pretty much with every meal as they make the most amazing garlic bread. However, their speciality is the cheesy bread which we ate far too much of. Turns out that the way I had been pronouncing Paõ actually meant penis!! No wonder they were having a good of giggle when I was asking for Cheesy Paõ!
What to do in Rio on a rainy day?
When I think of Rio de Janeiro I imagine sunshine, beaches, volleyball, carnival, sunsets, caipirinhas, sun lounges, cocktails…. I think you get my point. You imagine sunshine and the activities you do whilst it is sunny! Well, we were lucky enough (ahem) to see Rio in the wet! And I’m not talking tropical shower kind of wet that lasts an hour, I mean UK kind of miserable drizzle that just doesn’t let up!
I’m a big believer in the fact that our bodies are waterproof so despite the rain we still rented bikes and went off exploring. We rode along Copacabana and Ipanema, retracing our steps from the previous day, before heading into the affluent neighbourhood of Lagoa, so called because of the enormous lagoon in the middle of it! The same lagoon that was rather controversially used during the Olympics despite the really high pollution levels.
According to the very trustworthy source of Wikipedia (ahem), Lagoa is the third most affluent neighbourhood in South America and one of the few areas of Rio not to have a favela. The cycle around the lagoon was very picturesque and pleasant (despite the rain) with views of Tijuca National Park (the world’s largest urban forest) surrounding the Northern Edge of the lagoon whilst Christ the Redeemer played peek a boo again (he’s such a tease)! However, we did get a good view of Pedra do Gavea, the largest monolith mountain that finishes in the sea. Had we had more time in Rio (and better weather), it is certainly a hike I would have liked to have done.
3/4 of the way round the lagoon we took our life’s in our hands and left the peaceful cycle paths to join the hectic traffic so that we could visit Parque Lage and Jardim Botanicos.
Parque Lage is a public park in the Jardim Botanico neighbourhood of Rio. There are loads of trails through the subtropical gardens, however, the key attraction is the spectacular Romanesque house which has an internal swimming pool similar to the ones you’d find in a riad. Very pretty, with plenty of other stuff to do within Parque Lage such an aquarium and a cave, however, we decided to move on to Jardim Botanico.
The botanical garden park is a 140 hectare “giant garden” that has over 600 different species of flora. It was incredibly beautiful and would have made for a very romantic stroll on a sunny evening. However, since it was neither sunny nor evening, it was not particularly romantic. What was surprising though, was just how quiet it was inside considering the hustle and bustle was only over the fence. It always amazes me just how much noise trees cancel out.
Salty Coffee (And not the Salted Caramel variety!)
Before starting our return journey back we stopped at a café for a coffee and whilst I was in the toilet Doug picked up the sugar on the table and added it to his drink, only to discover afterwards it was not sugar but salt! He should have tried to learn some Portuguese!
After that incident we slowly made our way back down the eastern shores of the lagoon, stopping at an arts and crafts festival for some lunch. 24 KM later we were back at the hotel and pleasantly surprised at how much we had enjoyed ourselves despite the miserable weather.
We were blessed with good weather for our final morning in Rio so we made the most of it by getting up at 6:30 so we could get on the first cable car up to the summit. The early morning was worth it, the views were incredible (and we pretty much had the summit to ourselves!).
To reach the summit you need to take two glass walled cable cars, one to the smaller peak of Morro da Urca and from there up to the 400 metre summit of Sugarloaf. From the top you get a fantastic panoramic view of the sprawling city of Rio with its many monothilic granite and quartz mountains (humps!) that rise sharply giving Rio its distinct topography.
From the summit we also got a great view of Christ the Redeemer, who wasn’t hiding for once, as well as the sandy shores of Copacabana beach and the sprawling colourful favellas on the hillsides.
We could have stayed up there for hours just looking out over the horizon but unfortunately, we had to say goodbye so we could make our way to the next leg of our journey: Ilha Grande.
Should I visit Rio?
Hopefully the above account is good enough reason as to why you should visit, I am confident it will live up to your expectations, rain or shine! Rio was everything I expected: beautiful, soulful, trendy, and above all, fun! No wonder the Brazilians call it “cidade maravilhosa”: marvellous city!