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Rio de Janeiro Overview
Rio de Janeiro has earned its sexy and scintillating reputation (and its nickname, "Cidade Maravilhosa," or "The Marvelous City") the easy way -- it simply lives up to it everywhere you turn. The dramatic landmarks of Sugarloaf and the Christ statue lording over spectacular stretches of famed urban beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema; delicious food and wine with a Latin flair; the sensual moves of samba dance and rhythms of traditional music on display every day of the year including, of course, the bacchanalian Carnival; and a passionate, cosmopolitan and, most of all, friendly people are only some of the ways that Rio constantly affirms its status as a favorite travel destination. In fact, in almost every conversation or poll about "favorite cities" in the world, Rio is at or near the top. That's probably why the Olympic Committee chose it to host the 2016 Summer Games.
While not the largest city in the 190 million-resident behemoth that is Brazil -- that honor goes to Sao Paulo -- Rio's six million diverse residents (called "Cariocas") are keenly proud of their city's stature. They are the most outspoken, lively and just plain fun people you'll probably ever encounter. The Cariocas' unmistakable joie de vivre and welcoming spirit is infectious, as they'll gladly share their local secrets on where to go to experience the most important architectural treasures, the most cutting-edge art museums, the most action-packed water sports, or the most memorable caipirinha (the national drink that packs a wallop). But this isn't surprising. Who wouldn't have an open outlook on life living in this perpetually sunny, joyful and fascinating melange of Portuguese, African, European and South American cultures?
Another definite advantage to visiting Rio and Brazil as a tourist is that it remains one of the few true travel bargains left today in this age of the declining dollar. Like its more dressed-up cousin to the south, Buenos Aires, Rio offers the opportunity to live grandly for a day or a week on a much smaller budget than in comparable cities like Paris or Rome, with reasonable prices for five-star accommodations, good bargain prices for world-class cuisine and wine, and the ability to shop until you drop when searching out the latest trendy fashion items and jewelry.
While inarguably exciting, visiting Rio is still equated with the word "danger" in some conversations. In reality, there are some safety concerns if you venture far out of the normal tourist quarters. But the overall situation for visitors has improved greatly in the past decade, and pickpocketing and mugging incidents are not common. So kick back and relax as you are drawn into Rio's magnificent orbit.
Note: To enter Brazil, U.S. travelers must have visas, which cost $140 - $160, depending on how application is made. Visas are valid for stays of up to 90 days at a time over a 10-year period. Visit the Brazilian Consulate's Web site for visa information.
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Other South America & Antarctica Cruise Ports:
Buenos Aires • Lima • Manaus • Montevideo • Puerto Montt • Punta Arenas • Rio de Janeiro • Santiago (Valparaiso) • Santos (Sao Paulo) • Stanley • Ushuaia
Brazilian Portuguese. English is widely understood in hotels and shops. If spoken slowly, Spanish is understood by many residents as well.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the Brazilian real (pronounced rey-al; plural is reais, pronounced ray-eyes). For currency conversion figures, go to www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. There are plenty of ATM machines and exchange bureaus in town. Bank hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Credit cards are widely accepted.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at the city's commercial port, Pier Maua. The downtown business district is within walking distance of the port.
There's absolutely no reason to stay around the pier -- it's a working cargo port with no services. Ships may arrange transportation to Copacabana, the Ipanema beaches, and the city center, or you can simply hail a taxi.
The central part of Rio de Janeiro where the major sights are located is very walkable. Taxis are also readily available. While Rio has an excellent public transportation system (buses and metro), they can be tricky to figure out for first-timers. The metro extends along Copacabana beach and includes Ipanema.
Another option many cruise passengers have is free transportation, courtesy of internationally known jewelers; companies like H. Stern often offer complimentary roundtrip sedan rides to its jewelry store in Rio, which is in Ipanema -- the city's chic-est neighborhood. No purchase is required and passengers who don't buy aren't hassled about it. But if you do accept the free ride (cars go back and forth between the ship and the store all day), be courteous and at least browse the store before heading off to the beach or town.
Watch Out For
Because Rio has been so famous for its relatively high crime rate -- particularly for pickpocketing -- this is a port of call where organized ship tours can be a good idea. But in recent years, the city government has made an effort to "clean up" the city, and there are abundant tourist police in major areas which has helped deter some crime. Whichever option you choose, absolutely leave anything valuable in your stateroom safe (including items like earrings, wedding rings and expensive cameras). Follow the lead of locals: When Cariocas go to the local beaches, they just carry a towel, sunscreen and some petty cash to buy snacks and drinks from the numerous beach vendors.
Downtown, there are numerous gorgeous churches dating back to the 17th century. Among those worth seeing is Convento do Santo Antonio (Largo da Carioca 5, open weekdays from 2-5 p.m.), which dates from 1615; don't miss its colonial-era artifacts. Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Candelaria (Praca Pio X, weekdays from 7:30 a.m. - noon and 1 - 4:30 p.m. and weekends from 8 a.m. - 1 p.m.) represents Brazil's 18th century. At the Mosteiro de Sao Bento (Rua Dom Gerardo 32, open weekdays only, from 8 - 11 a.m. and 2:30 - 5:30 p.m.) the highlight among many is its intricately wood-carved altar. For those with more contemporary tastes, check out the daring and modern Catedral de Sao Sebastiao do Rio de Janeiro (Avenue Republica do Chile 245, open daily from 7 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.), which was built in the early 1960's.
Art museum aficionados should head to Rio's Flamengo neighborhood. Main attractions there include the Museu de Arte Moderna (Avenue Infante Dom Henrique 85, Tuesday - Saturday from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.) to see a huge collection of contemporary works. The Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, otherwise known as the National Museum of Fine Arts (Avenue Rio Branco 199, Tuesday - Friday 10 a.m. - 6 p.m., weekends 2 - 6 p.m.) features Brazil's best artists of the 19th and 20th century. And for a fun stop, check out the Museu Carmen Miranda (Avenue Rui Barbosa 560, Tuesday - Friday 11 a.m. - 5 p.m., weekends from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.), which memorializes Brazil's most famous bombshell -- not to mention star in the arts of samba, singing, dancing and acting. Another must-see stop on the cultural radar is the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Museu de Arte Contemporarea de Niteroi, a contemporary art museum, where cutting-edge masterworks meet a striking "spaceship" building with unparalleled views of the city (Mirante da Boa Viagem, Niteroi, Tuesday - Sunday 11 a.m. - 7 p.m.).
Corcovado: The Art Deco-style statue of Christ the Redeemer is Rio's most famous and enduring symbol, perched atop the 2,300-foot-high hill of Corcovado. Spectacular views of mountains, bays and beaches await those who take the easy funicular ride; the trains leave Cosme Velho station every 20 minutes.
Sugarloaf Mountain (Pao de Acugar): The views from the top of this imposing natural wonder amply demonstrate why no other city in the world can compete with Rio's scenic beauty and setting -- a magnificent harbor and impossibly beautiful beaches are nudged tight against dramatic Tijuca National Park, the largest urban expanse of tropical forest and mountains on the planet. To get to Sugarloaf, take a taxi to the cable car station at the base.
Been There, Done That
The Jardim Botanico (Rua Jardim Botanico 1008, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily) is a lovely, peaceful respite from always-busy Rio. It's spread out over 340 acres, and its biggest attraction is Avenue of the Palms, part of the world's largest collection relating to the Amazon.
The Burle Marx House (Estrada da Barra de Guaratiba 2019, guided visits by appointment at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 a.m.) is a large, expansive estate that has morphed into an art gallery and museum, honoring Brazilian landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx. The highlight is the elegant landscaping and plants that surround the house.
Take in a "futebol" (soccer) match at Estadio Maracana, Rio's gargantuan stadium (the largest in South America), which holds nearly 89,000 passionate fans.
Some cruise lines plunge headfirst into the celebration (and madness) of Rio's world-famous Carnival celebration by scheduling their port stops around this unique and joyous party. A four-day event, it begins on a Saturday and ends on Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday); the date changes every year.
The major samba schools begin practicing months before they make their hundreds-person-strong entrances into the famous Rio Sambadrome during Carnival. Some offer behind-the-scenes tours where you can try on one of the elaborate (and heavy) costumes to try to shake your booty Latin style. No one will laugh even if you think you're making a fool of yourself -- except your significant other! Check with your ship's shore excursion desk, as the schedule varies greatly.
Rio Scenarium (Rua do Lavradio, 20 - Centro, 2233-3239) is a large nightclub and restaurant with eclectic decor that's part fun house, part antique store. A rotating selection of local groups plays samba and forro, the accordion music of Brazil's northeast, and everyone eventually gets up to dance the night away.
Beautiful and glamorous beaches are the huge attraction in Rio de Janeiro, and are part of the daily social and recreation fabric of all Cariocas. The two most famous -- Copacabana and Ipanema -- are easily accessible and ideal for day-trippers who want to plunge headlong into this most democratic of activities (look for raucous kids from the favelas, or slums, sitting right next to wealthy, posing locals and hordes of hip gay men from the U.S. and Europe).
Copacabana, a long two-mile stretch, is lined with high-rise hotels and cafes, and attracts more tourists than locals. The mile-long beach at Ipanema, south of Copacabana, is more about "the scene" (the tighter the body, squeezed into the smaller the swimsuit, the better -- you get the picture). But everyone, no matter where they come from or what they look like, feels welcome at Rio's beaches. To better take in the remarkable beauty of the water and beaches (and hone your people-watching skills!), rent bikes and rollerblades and just hang loose as the locals do.
Brazil is the world's largest producer of colored gemstones (hence the presence of so many reputable international retailers like H. Stern) and is also a major gold producer. Other possibilities to add to your Rio shopping list include designer clothing, handicrafts, leather goods and unique fabrics.
The quintessential Rio dining experience is eating "rodizio" (or all-you-can-eat) style in one of the many meat-focused "churrascarias." There are numerous restaurants in the city where platters of delicious grilled meats and sides are brought to your table until you say "no more!" Most of these popular establishments feature expansive salad bars as well. You'll be pleasantly surprised by the reasonable prices for a satisfying lunch. There are many other dining choices in this international city as well, but while in Rio, you must try feijoada, a dish of black beans and pork served with rice, and pair it with a caipirinha, a typical Brazilian cocktail made of sugar cane rum, lime and sugar.
For convenient and easy lunch choices, we've had great luck wandering the streets of Ipanema and Copacabana and just going to any local lanchonetes (lunch counters) where you can sample any kind of fruit juice imaginable, along with a good selection of sandwiches and snacks (one example is Big Nectar at 34A Teixiera de Melo in Ipanema). Also, look for restaurants in the tourist areas with menus that are posted outside. Most are excellent and offer fresh selections and good value. Make sure that you verify whether credit cards are accepted. And note that some churrasco restaurants charge based on what you take, rather than a fixed, all-you-can eat American-style buffet.
Here are some highly recommended restaurants to sample typical or interesting cuisine in the city:
Confeitaria Colombo (Rua Goncalves Dias 32): This ornate historic restaurant is a magnificent showcase for Brazil's Belle Epoque architecture, as well as the best in local meats and seafood, served buffet-style. Tourists and locals alike rave about the selection and quality here.
Marius Crustaceos (Av. Atlantica 290): This traditional all-you-can-eat Brazilian rodizio restaurant has evolved -- into an all-you-can-eat seafood restaurant, located right next door to its carnivorous cousin. Besides the delicious buffet of antipasto and cold seafood, ravenous diners can look forward to the prime catch that waiters bring to your table: fresher-than-fresh lobster, prawns, salmon, tuna, etc.
Case de Feijoada (Rua Prudente de Morais 10, Ipanema): The Brazilian national dish of feijoda (bean stew) is usually served only on once a week, but you can join the locals who have a hankering for the ultimate comfort food any day of the week at this popular Ipanema restaurant. The actual bean stew is served in a traditional clay pot with whatever meat you choose (bacon, sausage, dried meat, etc.). A plethora of side dishes as well as a large cocktail menu make for a memorable taste of the city.
Bar d'Hotel (Av. Delfim Moreira 696 -- inside Marina All Suites Hotel -- Ipanema): This hip eatery located inside the coolest boutique hotel in the city is the place where the trendy, younger set and in-the-know diners come to enjoy some of the best Italian and regional cuisine in the city.
Best Splurge: The regal and historic Copacabana Palace Hotel, part of the luxury Orient-Express Hotel Group, has lorded over the most prime stretch of world-famous Copacabana Beach since 1923. Beyond its impressive location and spacious rooms, the hotel also offers the white-glove, unparalleled service befitting the Orient-Express reputation (accompanied by six-star prices, of course). The semi-Olympic-sized pool facing the beach is the place for celebrities, models and lovers of the high life to see and be seen in this most showy of South American cities.
Best Combo of Luxury and Value: Just one block from the beach and fitness action at Ipanema, the best and most comfortable boutique hotel in town is the new Portinari Design Hotel. Ten of Brazil's leading architects designed each of the hotel's 12 floors; the rooms are large and unique. While most rooms are on the minimalist side, they come with plenty of amenities. Plus, the attentive and friendly service at the Portinari is above and beyond what you'll find at most of so-called "hip" hotels. An economical and high-quality choice.
Hip and Trendy: At the far end of Ipanema Beach -- actually Leblon -- lies another boutique option, the Marina All Suites Hotel. Design-focused with interesting room themes like onyx and topaz, the hotel is a hip, relaxed urban oasis that is perfect for younger travelers and those who want to sample the excellent cuisine at the hotel's highly-rated Bar d'Hotel bistro every day. This was the first boutique hotel to open in Rio, and started a trend (which was eventually perfected by the slightly more upscale Portinari above).
On a Shoestring: The best budget hotel find in Rio (remembering that there are a wealth of clean and reasonable one- and two-star accommodations throughout the city) is the Edificio Jucati (021 2547 5422). Formerly known as the Copacabana Praia, this 55-unit hotel is a leisurely 15-minute walk or five-minute cab ride from the heart of Copacabana Beach. In return for the extra distance, in-the-know visitors get full kitchen apartments that fit up to six people at truly bargain rates.
Staying in Touch
There are numerous internet cafes around the city, especially around Copacabana and Ipanema. Some recommendations:
El Turf Cyber Bar (Avenida Lauro Muller 116)
Millenium Cyber Cafe (Av. Nossa Senhora de Copacabana, 709)
Best of Rio: Most cruise lines offer this full-day tour that takes in all the major sights by motorcoach, including Corcovado, Sugar Loaf, and the major beaches and tourist areas. A traditional churrascaria lunch and plenty of shopping time break up this busy but fulfilling day.
Favela Tour: A few companies offer in-depth insider tours of the favelas (translated as "shantytowns" but actually much more lively and diverse than the name implies). Tours into the heart of the favelas with a local insider, such as Marcelo Armstrong, skirt the danger issue and offer unique insights into the daily lives of the majority of Rio residents.
Hang Gliding: This exhilarating adventure launched from the top of one of mountains of Tijuca National Park will provide spectacularly memorable views of the entire city. No experience is required, merely a sense of daring and no fear of heights! Other possibilities for the adventure-minded visitor to Rio include hiking, rock climbing and surfing.
For More Information
On the Web: Brazil Tourist Board (Phone: 800-727-2945), Rio Tourist Board and Ipanema.com
Cruise Critic Message Boards: South America
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Brazil
--By Stan Wu. In addition to writing about cruising trends in the burgeoning gay and lesbian market for Cruise Critic, Los Angeles-based Wu is also the travel editor of westhollywood.com and Metrosource Magazine.