07 Aug Favelas, beaches and waterfalls: 9 things to do in Rio and surrounds
All I could see was people. People running down the street, across the road, falling out of bars. Feathers, glitter, lycra and a lot of skin; they were all adorned with the most bizarre of costumes.
“Carnival doesn’t start until next week, no?” I asked our cab driver as he squeezed through the crowds. They were spilling from every corner of pavement and onto the road. His horn joined all the other car horns in Rio de Janeiro, and the pedestrians whistled and shouted in response. It was all contributing to a deafening noise.
“Sim” he replied.
Sim? I looked at Jess, “Does that mean ‘Yes’?” We had just reached a semi confident level with our basic Spanish after traveling around South America for one month. We now needed to start from zero in the only Portuguese speaking country on the continent.
“I think so” Jess informed, after flicking through the Portuguese language guide.
We then came to an abrupt stop. “I can’t go any further – too many people. Your hostel is just up there” he told us through his broken English.
And there we were. Three backpackers standing in a sea of drunken chaos with all our gear and valuables strapped to us. We watched the tail lights of our cab disappear into the evening. We couldn’t look any more like tourists and stand out if we tried. All the horror stories we heard from other travellers were always in Brazil – theft, held at gunpoint, and kidnapping. So I was feeling a bit on the nervous side.
The heat was overbearing. The streets stunk a horrible stench. It was dirty. It was loud. It was chaotic. It was Lapa. It was at this point, I felt and would feel the most unsafe out of any place we visited in our 4 month South and Central American expedition.
We eventually found Books Hostel and Felipe, the founder, welcomed us with open arms from the pre-carnival madness. He was laid back but upbeat, creating a quirky, relaxed, family-like atmosphere. After embracing the chaos, we eventually found our feet and enjoyed staying in Lapa to explore the city centre such as Christ the Redeemer statue, Sugarloaf Mountain cable car, the sprawling favelas and Escadaria Selarón (the Spanish steps).
However, it was when we moved to Leblon Beach, that I really fell in love with Rio de Janeiro and appreciated the cities character and beauty and finally understood what all the fuss is about.
Rio started with shock and ended with delight.
Here are 9 things to do in Rio and the surrounds.
Explore the city centre attractions
Any guidebook will list the top attractions in the city centre of Rio de Janeiro. We made sure we ticked these boxes:
- Battle the crowds to Christ the Redeemer statue
- Catch a cable car to Sugarloaf Mountain
- Walk the steps of Escadaria Selarón (the Spanish steps)
Find your way through a Favela
Favelas are the bright patchwork of densely populated slum districts that sprawl across Rio‘s hillsides. They are often known for violence and criminal activity, drugs and poverty. However you can explore these mazes of stacked houses and narrow alleys with a local guide and learn that these favelas are actually full of life, diversity, history, and community. It provides a great cultural insight and appreciation of Rio’s charm against the flashy veneer of Ipanema Beach.
Soak up the sun at Ipanema beach
Once the most famous beach in Rio, Copacabana is now over touristy, run down and overcrowded. Neighbouring Ipanema is now the more attractive option for soaking up the sun, Brazilian style. Just further south, Leblon nestles in the corner and is the most affluent area in Rio de Janeiro. The crowd is much quieter than Ipanema and more sophisticated. Both Leblon and Ipanema lend themselves to trendy restaurants, bars and fashion. Hire a bike and ride along the famous promenade.
STAY: Lemon spirit hostel
Wander the cobble stone lanes of Paraty
Four hours from Rio on the scenic Costa Verde, lies Paraty, a small town set amid jutting peninsulas and secluded beaches, with a backdrop of steep, jungled mountains plunging into an island-studded bay. Its Portuguese colonial centre has cobbled streets and 17th- and 18th-century elegant white buildings adorned with multicoloured borders. The irregular cobblestone streets are closed to motor vehicles, making it a delightful place to stroll about.
The town can be crowded and lively throughout the summer holidays, brimming with Brazilian and European vacationers. The town’s cosmopolitan flavour is further enhanced by the number of artists, writers and chefs, both Brazilian and foreign, who have settled here and opened shops, galleries and restaurants.
The beaches around the town are not particularly nice. It is recommended to hop on a boat and explore the surrounding islands.
Sail the islands of Paraty
There are scores of fisherman and boat owners lined up at the bay that can be hired for a 5 or 6 hour trip to explore the islands lying off Paraty’s coast. Some boats also have snorkelling gear as there are scores of fish to follow around the shallows of the uninhabited islands. It’s a beautiful day trip to float around and take in the peaceful silence of the isolated islands surrounded by idyllic waters, completely devoid of any markings of human life or interference.
Explore the natural wanders of Trindade
Just 40mins from Paraty, Trindade is Costa Verde’s true slice of paradise. It’s string of untouched beaches with white sand, and clear turquoise waters are only accessible by foot with the rainforest backdrop pouring down the hills. It is a very small village with a strong community that has made sure to preserve both nature and the tranquil atmosphere. It is perfect for anyone who wants to chill out without the crowds of Rio or Paraty.
The natural pools of Cachadaço are a short hike from the village. Huge rocks form natural pools in the ocean. The many tropical fish and the crystal clear calm water make it perfect for snorkelling. It is best to go there in the morning before it gets too crowded.
The beaches are stunning, most of them untouched and only accessible by foot. I didn’t surf but there are surfing options in the area including conditions for beginners.
We followed a local to the waterfall Pedra Que Engole which means ‘Rock That Swallows’. The local demonstrated being swallowed by the rock so we took a chance and followed suit, squeezing through the waterfall, the rock indeed swallowing us. Watch the video below to see if we make it safely out the other side!
GETTING THERE: From the bus station in Paraty get a bus to Trindade (company Colitur), duration about 40 minutes.
STAY: Sea and Forest Hostel
Sea and Forest Hostel was more like a retreat than a hostel. Set in a haven between sea and rainforest, it’s easy to relax and feel at one with nature. Owned by couple, Peter and Osmar, who built the whole place by hand from wood. The result is a scattering of boutique log cabins nestled in the forest with a main house serving breakfast and freshly baked muffins daily, and features a communal kitchen and lounge area. There is a yoga studio offering classes too.
Try the original Acai
Açaí has attracted mass attention as a superfood thanks to its high levels of antioxidants, amino acids, fibre, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals, all leading to numerous health benefits.
The açaí berry is a fruit from a palm tree that is grown commonly in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil. Açaí na tigela is a typical Brazilian dish made of frozen and mashed açaí palm fruit served as a smoothie in a bowl or glass, topped with granola and banana. It is so fresh and delicious because they use home grown real açaí berries, unlike the açaí smoothies we have back home, which likely use the powder form. This is because it can take 5-8 years for the tree to bear fruit, so there is not a huge supply of fresh berries.
Açaí na tigela is sold on every corner so make sure you try it!
Dance at a Pool Party in Florianopolis
Florinapolis (Floripa) is an island in the south of Brazil. It is a 1.5hr flight from Rio de Janeiro and is well known for its beautiful beaches, surf and massive parties. Many international DJs frequent Floripa’s clubs including P12, a beautiful day club which features a huge pool and a bar in the middle. The principal DJ arrives at around 8pm but it is worth it to get there during the day to enjoy dancing in the sun and pool. From white linen barracks, beach chairs, to picnic tables, there’s plenty of seating if you’re having a breather. I loved P12 – it was so much fun dancing in and around the pool. It was everything we thought it would be. It was our South American version of Ios.
Marvel at Iguazu Falls
A magnificent spectacle, awe-inspiring, and jaw dropping are some of the words that travel guides have used to describe the exquisite Iguazu Falls which are located on the border of Brazil and Argentina.
Paying $100 for a visa to enter a country for a day seemed steep but everyone had said “Oh you must see the falls from the Argentina side – it is much better”. So, we bought our visa and crossed the border for the day to see the falls.
The travel guides were right – it was spectacular. You cannot comprehend the volume of water pounding from these 275 falls until you see it for yourself.
We visited the falls from the Brazilian side the next day and it was just as good, if not better (maybe because my expectations were low from all the hype generated about the Argentina side). After exploring the many vantage points along the 2.7km stretch, we decided to hop on one of the boat charters and experience the falls from the water. Witnessing the sheer volume of water falling from above and crashing down was pretty surreal – I don’t think I have ever been so wet while fully clothed. Make sure you cover up in a poncho!