Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the venue for the Summer Olympic Games in August 2016, is an exciting, exotic destination. But it can be a challenge for tourists. Its well-deserved reputation as a dangerous spot and the difficulty finding locals who speak English are just two of the challenges. These travel tips from a European native who has visited can help smooth the rough spots.
Rio de Janeiro, the shining star of Brazil, boasts some iconic attractions, chief among them the Christ the Redeemer statue and the world-famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Those sites, plus the chance to see the stadium where soccer great Pele once played, drew my family and me to Rio in 2013. We knew Rio could be a challenging destination for anyone. It is especially difficult for our son with autism. The city’s warm and humid weather, noisy traffic and long lines for the sights can trigger meltdowns in travelers with autism.
Nevertheless, we were eager to visit this South American wonder. Bounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the east, Brazil is the world’s fifth-largest country. The largest country in South America, it shares borders with all other South American countries except Ecuador and Chile.
Rio de Janeiro Brazil is the country’s second-largest city. It was founded in January 1565 by Portuguese explorers. By 1763, it became the official capital and remained so for two centuries until 1960 when the capital was moved to Brasília.
Safe Travel Tips for Rio
Rio de Janeiro is one of the most visited cities in the southern hemisphere and has a lot to offer with its diverse culture, mouthwatering cuisine and upbeat vibe. However, the city has struggled somewhat unsuccessfully with social issues such as poverty and crime. Its reputation as a dangerous spot has deterred many from visiting, particularly families traveling with kids.
If you are planning to go for the Summer Olympics or simply planning a family vacation in Rio de Janeiro Brazil, here are some tips we learned from visiting with our sons. They can help ensure your stay in Rio is a safe and more enjoyable trip.
Three Things to Do Before Heading to Rio
Download a translator app.
It can help you negotiate the Portuguese language. It will help you understand terms commonly used in restaurants and hotels. You likely will find people who speak English in the tourist hotels, but outside of that, you will be hard-pressed to find locals who speak English.
Plan to bring cash. And stick with crisp, new bills.
Credit card use is not as common in Brazil as it is the United States. Many of the smaller shops and restaurants expect cash. And they want the cash—whether it is US dollars or the local currency, called Reals, to be crisp and new. Most local businesses will refuse to accept bills with torn edges. Some won’t even take banknotes that are slightly bent.
Buy a money belt!
Like many of its neighbors, Brazil has petty crime, especially pickpockets. The best way to keep your credit cards, debit cards and cash is to store it in a money belt that you can wear under your shirt.
Arriving in Rio: At the Airport
With a somewhat chaotic layout and few signs in English, Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão International Airport didn’t look half as glamorous as it seemed in 1979, James Bond movie, “Moonraker.” Before your trip, go to the airport web page and print out or download the airport map to get you better acquainted with the restrooms and various restaurants on the premises.
Unless you speak Portuguese, book reliable and trustworthy transportation from the airport to your place of lodging before you get on the plane. For our own trip, I called the hotel concierge and booked a taxi to come and meet airport.
Getting Around Rio
For getting around town safely and quickly cabs are preferable—as long as it’s the right cab. There have been reported cases of fake taxi drivers swindling tourists. The best way to avoid that is to have the bellmen of hotels or restaurants call and book you one.
Rio has an extensive system of buses and subways. Our hosts advised us to opt for the subway (safer) and restrict our use of public transportation to the daytime.
If you choose to take the bus, you have options: the cheaper no air-conditioned buses or more upscale ones—Frescão–that have air-conditioned. Those air-conditioned buses run between LeBron and the airport.
The City subway system has two lines, one from LeBron to Tijuca (Christ the Redeemer) and another connecting Botafogo to Pavuna.
Furthermore, we were advised not to rent a car in Rio. The signs are difficult to understand if you don’t speak the language, and many of what we consider basic road rules in the United States are observed differently in Brazil. We saw people crossing the highways on foot between the cars!
Where to Stay in Rio
The “touristy” areas are near Rio’s world-famous beaches–Copacabana, Ipanema or LeBron.
Here, there are many options, from luxury chain hotels to AirBnb apartments.
We splurged on a luxury hotel and stayed at the JW Marriott in Copacabana as it was one of the few that offered connecting rooms. It faced the beachfront in a zone filled with restaurants and stores. We felt safe walking around even after sundown and thoroughly enjoyed the executive lounge (you can either pay extra for the upgrade or accrue hotel loyalty status) on the rainy days.
What Not to Miss in Rio
Most travelers that come to Rio want to see Corcovado Mountain (home to the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue), Sugarloaf Mountain and the famous Copa Beach. Depending on how long you plan to spend in Rio and your comfort level, you can either go on your own or book an organized tour –for safety reasons we went with an organized tour.
Whether you go on an organized tour or on your own to Sugarloaf Mountain to take in the breathtaking views, be prepared for long waits for the cable cars in both directions.
Make sure you bring something to occupy the kids (there’s no free Wi- Fi), as well as plenty of water; Rio can get swelteringly hot.
We almost missed our own tour after our son had a hard time standing for close to an hour with nothing to do and got very nervous towards the end.
The cable car stops in two spots, Morro de Ourca (smaller mountain) and then the top of Pao de Acucar. Both have food venues, souvenir shops, and clean restrooms.
Street peddlers sold the best souvenir we found: for less than five bucks, we bought an umbrella printed with the city’s iconic landmarks. It was useful not only for the rain in the morning but also for the scorching sun that showed up in the late afternoon.
Christ the Redeemer
Corcovado Mountain, like Rio’s other landmarks, tends to be mobbed with tourists during the day. Expect long lines waiting for the mini train that takes visitors up to the famous Christ the Redeemer statue.
Unlike Sugarloaf Mountain, there are multiple places to buy snacks and gawk at souvenirs with the kids. Just be sure you have someone to keep your place in line for the mini train. In our case, that was my husband.
Should you prefer to skip the train ride, there are mini-buses available to take you up faster. But I was glad we waited for the train. If we had taken the bus, we would have missed the beautiful jungle-like scenery and samba musicians who entertained us on the train ride.
If your family likes to explore the outdoors (make sure you wear PLENTY of potent insect repellent to deter mosquitoes that can carry the dreaded Zika virus), head to the Tijuca tropical forest. It was declared a national park in 1961 and covers 12.4 miles of reclaimed land previously developed for agriculture. The forest contains several attractions, including 30 waterfalls, a Chinese pagoda-style gazebo, and a giant granite picnic table.
I had wanted to visit Maracana Stadium ever since I was a young European kid who watched the legendary Pele play.
The tour wasn’t a great hit with my sons who were raised in the US and didn’t know much about soccer. The world famous stadium with its 78,000-person capacity is quite impressive to visit. Just make sure to check the weather before you book your visit. The stadium becomes too muddy when it rains.
If Maracana was my life-long dream; the glamorous Copacabana Beach was my husband’s.
So, that was the first place we went after scratching Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer off our list.
It’s a beautiful beach with mild waves and Sugarloaf Mountain as its backdrop. We were surprised to find, however, that the beach scene was much more PG than any of us expected. We looked for “Baywatch” babes and muscular soccer players, but among the chaise lounges and beach mats, we saw mostly families with kids and pets.
We did enjoy the warm water and the fresh fruit stalls where you could drink straight out of a coconut. Best part: We found it hilarious to watch how some beachgoers were trying on and purchasing bikinis from local peddlers while tanning on the sand.
If you happen to have a couple of hours to kill, grab a cab and venture to the downtown area (ask the driver if he can wait for you and drive you back) for a brief tour of the city’s cathedral, designed by Edgar Fonseca.
Inspired by Mayan Pyramids, the cathedral took 15 years to complete and is a magnificent work of art. Nicknamed the New Cathedral, the conical 246-foot structure boasts four rectilinear floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows, 5,000 seats and a standing space for another 20,000 people.
Dining in Rio
Life in Rio revolves around food –from the street feijoada to the meat packed churrascarias; the food here is a national pastime!
And of course, all dishes are accompanied by one or more sugary Caipirinha, at least for the adults.
Our sons couldn’t get enough of the beef and chicken dishes with chimichurri sauce as he loves spicy foods.
Chicken nuggets, pizza, and simple pasta are readily found in most restaurants in the Copa, Ipanema and LeBron areas, to accommodate families with picky kids. For those who prefer American chain grub; the Barra Mall featuring Applebee’s, Burger King and The Outback is a sure bet.