It may just be an impression us Brits have obtained of Rio de Janeiro but we were led to believe that our visit would undoubtedly be tainted by crime. It seemed impossible to us that, during our 9 days there, we would escape unhindered by pickpockets or some sort of corruption.
Truth be told we experienced nothing to substantiate Rio’s terrible reputation for crime. Any new city is intimidating when you first arrive…you have no idea what is social acceptable, where’s safe at night or even how to cross the road – in Rio most people just seemed to make a dash for it in a gap in traffic! I would never advise any backpacker to loose their initial sense of caution when arriving in a new city…its saved us from a few scams before now…but certainly Rio its not as intimidating as people might fear. I honestly think if you use the same caution and common sense you would in any major city across the world you’d be very unlucky to experience crime in Rio.
Keep your belongings in sight, do as others do, wear your backpack on your front on busy transport, don’t flash your cash, or walk around with your Digital SLR swinging from your neck. When you get to a place of interest get your camera out and put it away after. At all the major tourist spots in Rio there will be plenty of others with the latest technologies on show to make it unlikely that you’ll be the victim of a crime.
So how safe is Rio at night? About as safe as any other major city…everywhere has crime and areas that are best avoided. If you are off on a night out, leave your valuables at home and carry as little as possible. Ladies avoid handbags and invest in a “Cash Stash” which allows you to keep a few rolled up notes secure somewhere – I find attaching it to my bra strap works quite well.
We travelled after dark quite a few times and escaped unscathed using the above advice. Ok…so there was one time when we felt a bit intimidated late at night. Having been to the Sambadrome, backpacks and DSLRs in tow, we travelled back at 4am on public transport. As the roads close around the Sambadrome when the Carnival is in full swing, the Metro was the quickest way to make an exit. Once off the Metro we decided a bus/taxi would be safer than the 15min walk to our apartment. No taxis in sight…surprise surprise…we stood at the bus stop and waited patiently.
After a few minutes a group of young guys turned up, obviously on their way home from a night out. Anyone who has stood waiting for a night bus in London in the early hours of the morning will have experienced similar and I think our feeling intimidated was purely down to the language barrier. True to form the boys were larking about, chattering away and standing just a little bit too close…one guy was so close, I was sure he was either trying to pickpocket Iain or fall asleep on his shoulder. Turns out said guy had just had a few too many like his friends and was absentmindedly waiting for the bus like any other. When the next bus arrived (not ours inevitably) he asked us (twice so we understood) very politely in his best Portuguese if this was our bus or if he could go ahead and get on in front of us…
Moral of the story…don’t believe the worst, don’t judge a book by its cover, use common sense and always form an orderly queue for the bus…
It occurred to us that despite being on a strict budget we were fortunate enough to be able to afford to visit both Christ The Redeemer and Sugar Loaf Mountain during our stay in Rio.
Being budget conscious we almost skipped visiting one in favour of having an extra bit of cash. If you find yourself thinking similar during your visit we would highly recommend choosing to visit the Sugar Loaf if forced to only visit one.
The Sugar Loaf is best visited a few hours before sunset when you can see the city in all its glory. Like us, grab yourself a few (yes slightly overpriced) beers, relax and settle in to watch the sun set over the city. The city slowly begins to twinkle as the lights are switched on…yes we realise it’s the pollution that creates this effect but it is nevertheless rather pretty!
Best of all, we think standing on Sugar Loaf Mountain gives you the best view of Christ poised high above the city, and at night lit up he is even more striking. We enjoyed a few more beers once the sun had set, and then when ready; we enjoyed another trip on the cable car. The cable car itself is worth the ticket up and gives you equally impressive views!
Elbows at the ready we had tackled Corcovado earlier that day. Christ the Redeemer itself can be appreciated from all over the city. Whilst it was impressive standing at his feet and appreciating him close up…we have to admit the thought did cross our minds that he was a lot smaller than we thought he’d be. Once at the top of Corcovado most feel obliged to elbow their way through the throngs of tourists, to try and get into a prime spot to take that all important classic tourist photo. We found a quick selfie sufficed.
Like us you might instead amuse yourself by watching the families and couples straining on tiptoes to pull the classic pose, whilst perhaps the dad or perfect stranger photographer lies on the ground to try and get everyone in the shot. Photo obtained back on the train they go.
It’s impressive and worth a visit if you have cash to burn but honestly for us Sugar Loaf stole the show and the view was breath taking…
The Iguazu falls are on the border between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, approximately a 24 hour coach ride from Rio de Janeiro, or 18 hours from Buenos Aires. The falls lie in two countries, Brazil and Argentina and both sides can be visited easily from either country. We spent a few nights staying on either side of the border, so here are our thoughts on both.
Foz do Iguacu, Brazil
We arrived in Foz after a 27 hour coach journey from Rio. It was meant to be 24 hours but we seemed to gain 3 hours somewhere!? Foz do Iguacu is a fairly large town and has an airport for those who want to save themselves a day of travel. (A 4 hour plane journey from Rio can be purchased for approximately twice the price of the bus ticket.) The town itself is not spectacular and most of the shops seemed to be closed for our 3 day stay….we’re still not sure why. The highlight was by far a pizza place, recommended in the guidebook, that opened our eyes to pudding pizzas! White or milk chocolate or sugar glazed fruit on a pizza base are surprisingly good. Chocolate pizzas aside, there really is only one thing to do in Foz and that is visit the Iguacu falls (Las Cataratas).
The Brazilian side of the falls are very easy to get to. A local bus takes 30 minutes from town to the visitor center, where you purchase your tickets, and then a shuttle bus within the park drives you the last 10 scenic minutes to the falls themselves. We got off at the start of a small paved trail that leads to the falls and were immediately confronted by our first Coati. Whilst these guys look like a cute racoon there are plenty of signs to remind visitors that they are capable of using their large teeth and claws to steal any morsel of food you may have. A short walk later we were surrounded by them, whilst not aggressive, their long exposure to tourists means that the moment you put your bag down they endeavor to find the biscuits, crisps and sandwiches you’ve brought with you, even if it’s at the bottom of your rucksack.
The trail winds along the side of the river Iguacu Inferior and the regular view points give increasingly impressive views of the multiple cascades. The majesty of the Iguacu falls is their scale, it isn’t just one waterfall but lots spread out over a huge area.
On the Brazilian side you can stand at the bottom and get a clear view of the vastness of the river as it tumbles down. At the end of the trail a walkway skims the top of the water and stretches out between a double drop in the falls. On one side you have water crashing from above and on the other it drops away from below, a spectacular sight with the inevitable downside that you get completely soaked.
A quick walk from here and you’re at the cafe at the top of the falls. With the river gently sweeping past and the distant crashing of the waterfall it’s a lovely way to end your trip to the Brazilian side. That is unless you get stung by a wasp. At least Iain now knows he isn’t allergic!
If you have a spare hour after your visit to the Falls, drop into the Bird Sanctuary near the entrance to the park. Here Iain was pickpocketed by an artful Toucan but it was nevertheless worth a visit.
Puerto Iguazu, Argnetina
Local buses run from Foz do Iguacu to Puerto Iguazu throughout the day, so it’s very easy to cross the boarder. (Just be sure to jump off at both boarder controls to get your passport stamped!) In fact this journey is so easy some choose to stay on one side and visit the neighbouring side of the falls just for a day trip.
Puerto Iguazu is by contrast described in the guide book as a much smaller town than Foz. However there seemed to be a lot more activity and we found it a perfectly lovely place to hold up for a few days. Touristy but with plenty of restaurants to suit all budgets.
The Argentinian side of the falls is equally easy to get to from the town and numerous buses can be caught from the main bus terminal in the center. After purchasing your tickets from the visitor center, you have the choice of a short walk or train ride to the start of the first two trails. The first two trails wind through the lush vegetation and stop at various vantage points to give you spectacular views of the falls. Once you’ve tired of these, its a further short train ride to the finale – El Garganta Del Diablo, or The Devil’s Throat. The awe inspiring amount of water cascading down is hard to do justice in words. The raised walkway across the river was also an experience to behold. We thoroughly recommend leaving Del Diablo until last, as its truly is a brilliant end to the trip!
Another highlight for us was the abundance of wildlife on the Argentinian side of the falls. So much so we began to question whether they were animatronics! If it wasn’t Toucans flying over head, or Caimans basking in the sun, it was two Capybaras swimming in the water. See our wildlife photo section for more.
Our final piece of advice….be sure to visit the Jardin de los Picaflores or Humming Bird Sanctuary in Puerto Iguazu. Not in the guide books this place can be a little tricky to find, as its actually just someones back garden, but is well worth the visit. For about 45 minutes we sat mesmerised by hundreds of hummingbirds swarming around the flowers and feeders, just inches from our eyes.
Where else can we start but to say that we were blown away by our night at the Sambadrome! The heart of the Carnival is quite simply the people. Yes the music, the drumming and the parade helped, but the locals made sure we too were jumping, clapping and cheering with the rest. Each samba school has its own song that the locals seem to know by heart and with a little encouragement we were singing along with the best of them. As most of the songs were on repeat for the length of each parade (a full 82 minutes each) we at least knew when to belt out the chorus…and the odd “la la la” never hurt anyone! ……………………………………………………………………………………………………
For those of you that don’t know, the Sambadrome is essentially 700m of concrete lined with tiered stands. On the Sunday and Monday nights the twelve best samba schools perform and parade the length. The tiers are divided into sections, with sector 9 reserved as the tourist section. Our advice to any traveller is, throw yourself in with the locals! We’re sure sector 9 was having a fantastic time but trust us partying with the locals will heighten the experience. There were plenty of other foreigners along with us in sector 10 but who would want to miss out on the chance to share cake with the sweet old Brazilian lady next to us or to be taught dance moves by all those around you. ……………………………………………………………………………………………
The event starts at 9pm and continues until about 7am, for those of you that can stick it out. It seems it’s quite appropriate to see the first few schools, take a quick nap, then get back to partying…that’s if you can manage to get comfy on the concrete seats. Drinking is part of the fun but by no means compulsory. Many of the groups included young children, who out-partied the adults despite it being way past their usual bedtime! Like us, if you can’t quite stick it out to 7am, it seems it’s perfectly acceptable to make a dash for home any time after 3am. ……………………………………………………………………………………………
All in all we would say the Sambadrome is well worth the expense but if you’re unlucky enough not to get a ticket or if your budget doesn’t quite stretch to it, this will by no means limit your carnival experience. Bloco parties are free, fun and all over the city during the entire week of carnival. In fact it’s hard to get around all of Rio’s sights without bumping into one of these street parties. Once again the people are at the heart. Our advice is to take full advantage of them – look out for large groups of nuns, brides, and pirates (this year these seemed to be the most common choice of costume) carrying a few beers and just follow them to the nearest festivity. ……………………………………………………………………………………………
We’ve not been to Rio at any other time but to us it would seem Rio is at its best during Carnival. Yes the buses get caught in terrible traffic caused by revellers and the prices sky rocket but trust us its worth it. You only need to look at the pictures to be inspired. ……………………………………………………………………………………………
On a different note, the Carnival is not without mishaps. It seems someone misjudged the height of this carnival float and one its figures was spectacularly decapitated…to much cheering from the crowd. ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
Lets face it, the worst part of travelling is travelling. The expectation of going on a big trip, adrenaline, nerves, excitement, tears, it’s a complete emotional rollercoaster, it’s like being 13 again. Then comes the airport. Check in happens hours ahead of when you actually want to be there and then you have to tackle security. This wouldn’t be nearly so bad if it wasn’t for that person in front of you, you know the one I mean. “Have you emptied your pockets Sir?” The following affirmative answer is immediately shown to be an outright lie by that oh so revealing “BLEEP” from the metal detector. Lo and behold the empty pockets in fact contain: keys, phone, wallet and various pieces of change, some of which aren’t even in circulation any more. Finally, after the ignominy of walking around with no shoes for a bit, holding your trousers up with one hand because your belt has somehow become lost inside the scanning machine, you make it through to duty free.
Duty free is where you don’t really want to be. When you’re after some discounted booze it’s great, but when you’re about to head off on a multi-month holiday, a two litre bottle of Vodka isn’t exactly high on your list of priorities. And so you grab an overpriced coffee, a sandwich and go and find some seats. Next, the boarding process…now this is really quite fascinating. We all get to our gate way ahead of schedule and sit there staring as the minutes creep past. When boarding finally opens, everyone leaps to their feet and stands in a queue less than a meter from where they were just sitting. I do this as well, I even fail in stopping myself from doing it. I think that we’re all just eager to get on the plane because that will officially be the start of the holiday. Start of the holiday or not what we’ve actually done is leapt to our feet to board the plane and get started with the worlds most boring game of sardines. Theres only one person having a good time and it’s the guy sitting sloshed in one of the bars completely unaware of the announcements asking him to please board the plane.
For Lauren and I, we had a short flight to Rome followed by a not so short flight to Rio. Every time we long haul I convince myself it would all be so much better if next time we just pay for that extended leg room or maybe even upgrade. It never happens though, we book economy and sit down with our knees jammed into someone elses back. This is the worst bit of travelling. The first couple of hours are fine, movies, free food, free booze and all you have to do is sit there, it’s great. Then you have to try and sleep. I can nod off standing up, Lauren however, isn’t so lucky. Even if you can sleep, you don’t wake up refreshed at the other end with a broad smile shouting “Hello world!” You’ve just slept in your clothes in a cramped, not quite sitting position, knowing that when you get off the plane at your long awaited destination, you’ve got to face a whole new set of challenges.
Everything above is true except the first 10 words: lets face it, the worst part of travelling is travelling. I hate the travelling whilst i’m travelling, but once I reach a destination I suddenly see that 13 hour flight or that 2 day bus as the arc that carried me to paradise and then, I forgive it everything. I think the trouble stems from the fact that you’ve just left somewhere that you’ve come to love. You sit there on transport, usually cheap and dirty, wondering what the next place is going to be like. The bus gets us there and it’s amazing, somehow that bus journey is now “an experience.” Rather than 2 days of spine jarring pot holes and a weird smell coming from under one of the seats, it has become a fond memory. Then again maybe we just do this to ourselves so that we can bring ourselves to get on that next bus and just ramble on.