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Travelzoo Experience: Rio, Soaking in the Sights and Sounds

One of the most coveted perks at Travelzoo is the Travelzoo Experience, in which Deal Experts and other employees take advantage of the same travel, entertainment and local deals we publish to our subscribers and report back on their experience.

Chicago winters can be brutal, so for much of January I was scouring our site for a warm beach getaway. When I saw a $799 airfare to Rio de Janeiro publish in the Top 20, I was hooked. Brazil wasn’t on my radar (I was thinking something closer to home, like the Caribbean), but the airfare was a steal and I’d always wanted to visit ever since I studied abroad in Buenos Aires but never made the short trip to Argentina’s northern neighbor.

The best piece of advice I can give a Rio traveler is to do your research and be prepared for a little chaos. Maybe because I was in the mindset for beach and relaxation, the utter chaos of this bustling, loud, crowded, (at times) dirty and vibrant Latin American city took me a bit my surprise. Don’t take me wrong -- the beaches were pristine and the views incredible. It was the five-block trek to and from the beach from our rented apartment (Air BnB is a great resource here, as it is in a lot of places) where we got to experience this side of Rio. It took a bit to get used to, but it was an experience in itself to soak it all in.

On the research side, I suggest knowing before you book (unlike I did) that you’ll need to apply for a Brazilian visa and this will cost more than $160. It’s good for 10 years, but it’s a cost I wasn’t expecting. Learn a few key phrases of Portuguese; most people don’t speak English. Touristy areas will have it on the menu, but at the suco (fresh fruit juice) stands and bakeries (get the traditional pao de quejio in the morning) we loved, most people only spoke Portuguese. I was expecting a bit of Spanish (which I do speak) due to its proximity to its Spanish-speaking neighbors, but this was also limited. Most of the tourists we came across spoke Spanish, however.

The biggest highlight for me was the beach itself. We spent most of our time on the two most famous ones: Copacabana (near our apartment) and Ipanema. Both offer a unique perspective on Rio life. Copacabana leans on the touristy side, as most of the famous hotels are on Atlantic Avenue lining the beach. It’s a wider swath of sand than Ipanema and has great views of Sugar Loaf Mountain. Brazilians don’t bring as much stuff to the beach as Americans do. They usually come dressed in their swimsuits and carrying only a small bag with a sarong to cover up or lay on on the sand (they don’t use beach towels that much it seems, as the air’s warm enough to dry you off in a few minutes). You can get pretty much everything else you need at the beach – vendors provide items from rented umbrellas and beach chairs to cold beer to acai berry smoothies to even shrimp skewers (kind of surprising to see that). It was amazing to just walk along the expansive boardwalk and take in all the sights. Rio residents truly flock to the beach, and it’s quite the scene. You’ll see every type of person there, and it can get rather crowded on the weekends. It’s busy and loud, but everyone’s having a great time. We spent a lot of time just people watching and soaking up the rays. Ipanema was a 30-minute walk from our section of Copacabana. It had amazing views as well, and seemed to have a larger share of locals.

The two main attractions we saw are must-sees: Corcovado Mountain (where Christ the Redeemer statue stands) and Sugar Loaf Mountain. Sugar Loaf is a $7 cab from Copacabana and it costs about $27 to take the sky tram to the top. It’s well worth it for the views; I would advise going just before sunset as we did to see the last rays of light and the expansive city light up. It’s a breathtaking sight. Corcovado is a bit further from where we stayed, so we decided to take a bus. Buses are more frequent than cars, it seems, so it was easy to find one. Google Maps is actually an incredibly helpful resource here, as it mapped out our route and which line to take. It also was able to track our progress en route without a WiFi connection or cellular service, miraculously. We also went to Corcovado at sunset. Take the tram to the top (about $22); it’s very cool and better than the shuttle vans they try to sell you. The views here are even better than Sugar Loaf and are etched into my memory.

I enjoyed visiting at this time of year (early March) for the weather. It was very warm, about 90-95 degrees each day. It’s just after Carnival -- still the high season, but not as crowded or expensive. Food was hit or miss for us; it might be helpful to do a bit more restaurant research beforehand. The cost of the city also surprised us. It’s more expensive than New York in most cases, especially for food. Part of that had to do with the area we stayed, which is touristy and I’m sure more expensive, but we made a point to go off the beaten path and still encountered high food prices. Drinks were cheaper, especially on the beach. Try the traditional Caipirinha -- they’re very sweet but also a must-try. You can’t miss them; they’re everywhere.

I might have done a bit more planning to see what lies just outside the city. I want to go back and explore different neighborhoods, so I would plan a longer trip. Our trip (nine days) allowed us to sink and relax, but visiting the beach and spending all day in the sun can be draining, so we didn’t have too much energy to explore farther-out neighborhoods or day trips.

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Deal Expert, New York
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
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Peter Vanden Bos