In Rio de Janeiro, Save the Drama for the Scenery

Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

In Rio, it’s all about the drama. Not the ‘I can’t believe you kissed my boyfriend when he was taking a paternity test for cheating on my sister’ type drama; but rather the kind of drama found in the breathtaking setting that easily exceeds anything you’ll see on daytime TV. I’m sure even Jerry Springer would agree that the forested hills and dramatic peaks clustered around Brazil’s Guanabara Bay (considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World) make for a far more interesting spectacle than even his most ridiculous guest.

Say the name Rio de Janeiro and no doubt you’ll conjure up images of scantily-clad sunbathers jammed thong to thong on crowded Copacabana Beach. Or if you’re a ‘glass half-empty’ type, perilous shantytowns and prowling street urchins waiting to take a swipe at your wallet. Truth be told, you can find them both, but the reality of Rio is really so much more.

The Zona Sul

At the Copa...Copacabana
At the Copa…Copacabana

Most visitors to Rio de Janeiro spend their time in the Zona Sul (Southern Zone) part of the city. Situated around a natural angle, you’ll find the city’s mostly widely-recognized neighborhoods: Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon. It is here that you will find those powder soft beaches of white sand made legend in films and in song. It is also here that you will find the bulk of accommodations and nightlife. I suppose there’s also a pretty good chance that you can find some drama too, especially after dark.

Copacabana, with its signature wave-design sidewalk edging its entire length (nearly 3 miles), is densely populated and a generally more affordable place to stay compared to its sister beaches.  There’s activity here night and day; whether it be sunbathing, volleyball or soccer by day, and all sorts of parties by night, you won’t get bored in this eclectic part of town. All that activity means all sorts of people, so don’t bring anything valuable with you to the beach. Honestly, I never once felt threatened, but better safe than sorry if you’re hoping to leave the drama to the scenery.

Rounding the corner to the southwest is more-upscale Ipanema which eventually morphs into Leblon. Here you will find hotels, shops and restaurants catering to a more affluent clientele. The beaches, while spectacular, are less of a party scene, so if you’re seeking a little less drama, this is a more tranquil option. Personally, I liked it better than Copacabana, but don’t tell them that, as I wouldn’t want to set off some drama of my own.

Corcovado & Sugarloaf

A cable car ride to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain is a rite of passage and great place for city views
A cable car ride to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain is a rite of passage and great place for city views

Rio has two genuine ‘icons’ that are recognizable the world over. Of course there’s the statue of Christ the Redeemer perched atop Corcovado Mountain. Getting there on your own is a bit of a pain in the neck, so I would recommend taking an organized tour. If you don’t actually get the chance to get up there you can still see its distinctive silhouette from nearly all corners of the city. In Rio, the term ‘finding Jesus’ takes on a whole new meaning.

The second principal icon is Sugarloaf Mountain – a pinnacle of rock jutting out into the surrounding harbor. The famous cable cars are located in the leafy neighborhood of Urca and whisk you first to a station on a rock called Morro de Urca, which has a walking trail but mostly just whets your appetite for Sugarloaf itself. Riding the cable car is a rite of passage and the 360 degree views beat all others – even Corcovado, because from this vantage point you can see the lumpy silhouettes of the entire setting, which I believe I already mentioned, is extremely dramatic.

The Natural Side

The path to nature is open at Rio's Botanical Gardens
The path to nature is open at Rio’s Botanical Gardens

If you prefer your drama in more natural terms, Rio boasts a national park within its borders. The Tijuca Rain Forest is a hefty slice of green in a densely populated city, home to all sorts of wildlife in one of the few remaining portions of Brazil’s once vast Mata Atlantica. Tours are available around the park, but if you’re short on time, at the northern end of the Lagoa neighborhood – named for the lagoon just inland from Ipanema and Leblon – is the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Gardens. Here you can stroll around well-manicured paths of local flora, including some impressive palms and an orchid house. Watch the trees for toucans and other exotic birds who don’t care that they’re actually living in a big city. After an hour or so here, you might not believe it yourself.

Getting Around & Staying Safe

Most international visitors arrive at Galeao International Airport (code GIG). I’d advise arranging a transfer on your own ahead of time, but a taxi would also do the trick. It will take over a half hour minimum to get to the Zona Sul, so make sure you leave plenty of time for your return.

Rio has an efficient subway system, which is an efficient way to get around the throngs of traffic on the streets above. Taxis are plentiful and by all accounts a better (and safer) option than walking if you’re headed to less-accessible areas.

The majority of Rio’s infamous crime takes place in the many favelas (or slums) impossibly perched on surrounding hillsides. Unless you’re on a guided tour DO NOT enter into one of these on your own. Avoiding such places means that you just have to use the same common sense you’d use in any big city. So while the crime drama is real, it need not be yours.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to attractions in Rio. And don’t even get me started on the amazing side trips that abound in the surrounding area such as Ilha Grande and Paraty. With so many world-class sights vying for your attention, the potential for drama is real. So if you start feeling overwhelmed, just find yourself a nice spot on the beach, grab yourself a tasty caipirinha, and stare out at the scenery. You’ll see there’s plenty of drama out there without you having to add your own.

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Just a reminder that if you haven’t already done so, you really should download my new travel/humor guide You Can Keep Your Adventure, Just Leave Me the Toilet Paper. Don’t just take MY word for it. Fellow travel blogger Kate Denny posted this review on her awesome site Travel Far, Eat well, which as you know are two of my favorite activities. Be sure to check it out.

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