Living Dangerously in Rio

As Rio de Janeiro prepares for its global close-up, we tell you how to live on the edge (safely) in the stunning, intoxicating ‘Cidade Maravilhosa’.

Some relationships come easily, others take a little more work. That’s how I feel about Rio. It’s not an easy city to love, but it’s so damn beautiful, one cannot help but try. Standing in gorgeous sunshine on top of Sugarloaf Mountain, surrounded by bright blue sea, gleaming high-rise towers, the world’s largest urban rainforest and stunning stretches of beach, it’s easy to forget that this is one of the world’s most dangerous cities.

Of course, that’s not the experience for everyone – far from it. Despite its reputation, Rio still attracts millions of tourists each year. Most of the time, it’s relatively easy to believe that the violence and poverty isn’t there. However, the favelas which creep up the mountainsides are a constant reminder. From a distance they’re strangely beautiful. They are not so much scars as wounds, still raw, still healing.

Rocinha favela in Rio from the summit

But change is afoot in the ‘marvellous city’, as it is often called, and the optimism is palpable. It’s one of the best reasons to visit Rio right now. The government’s ‘pacification’ program means crime rates in the city are plummeting. It also means that for more and more tourists, favelas are becoming part of their itinerary.

Under pacification, elite police teams enter favelas which were once under the thumb of drug gangs or corrupt cops in order to regain state control. The government is building infrastructure like sewage systems, schools, garbage collection and cable cars, with the goal of integrating these areas in with mainstream society. Small businesses like art galleries, cafés and hostels are beginning to thrive in favelas and property prices are soaring – ironically, it’s the favelas that have the million dollar views in this town. If you want to wander through a favela without a guide, stick to the pacified ones. Even then, it’s best to seek local advice before you do. Vidigal is a good choice – hitch a ride on the back of a motorbike to the top of the hill, then wander down, grabbing some homemade pizza or some açai (a delicious Brazilian berry with the aroma of chocolate) on the way.

Visiting or even staying in favelas is becoming the ‘in’ thing to do in Rio. For favela tours, Rocinha is a popular choice. Pacification started two years ago there, but life is still pretty gritty with open sewers, rats and drug deals in the streets and crazily knotted powerlines overhead. Home to some 70,000 people, Rocinha is South America’s largest favela. Visit with good intentions and be sure to choose an ethical tour company that donates funds back to the community. Favela Adventures are 100% owned and operated by Rocinha residents. Take money with you so you can buy something and help support the community you’re visiting. Don’t treat it like a zoo – don’t take photos of people unless they consent, and respect people’s space and privacy. Your level of safety in such places is largely dependent on your tour guide, your ability to blend in and perhaps a little luck.

The best way to appreciate Rio’s beauty is from up high. Pão de Açúgar (Sugarloaf Mountain) and Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) both provide incredible sweeping views across the city and beyond. Christ is higher, so high in fact that he’s often swathed in cloud. The views are at their most intoxicating at sunset. If Sugarloaf’s cable cars or Christ’s cog trains aren’t exciting enough for you, you can always rock climb your way to the top!

For the daredevils, another way of getting a great view is by flying over the city in a hang glider. 23,000 brave souls see Rio this way every year. Flights begin at Pedra Bonita, a rocky outcrop 2,283 feet above the city. Depending on the weather you could be in the air anywhere from 8 to 20 minutes before landing on the soft sands of São Conrado Beach. Soaring above swimming pools and makeshift shanty houses, Rio’s class distinctions become abundantly clear.

As sun sets, there really is nothing better than kicking back with a caipirinha at one of the many kiosks on Ipanema or Copacabana beach. They’re surprisingly cheap, the drinks are strong and there are plenty of sexy Brazilians to gaze at. For dinner visit Aprazível in Santa Teresa for great food and stunning views. Dining here feels like eating in a five-star tree house and previous guests include our very own Kylie.

Afterwards, be sure to visit The Week, the hottest, slickest party in town. Le Boy is a little more on the trashy side but plenty of fun. If you’re staying in Santa Teresa, check out Sinonimo, the newest and best gay club in the area.

After all your wild adventures, you’ll need a comfy place to retreat to – Casa Cool Beans have you covered. Casa Cool Beans have two properties to choose from – a funky apartment block in the heart of Ipanema and a grand guesthouse in the bohemian hills of Santa Teresa. Both are owned and operated by gay couple Lance and David.

The flats are a block from the gay section of Ipanema beach and look out over the area’s bustling streets. At night, the bars below are heaving with well-heeled guests – ask for a room on the top floor if you don’t like noise! The flats are simple but charming, with great security, colourful art on the walls by local artists and big windows that let in plenty of light. Flats don’t have a full kitchen, but with so many great restaurants outside, you won’t even notice. Breakfast is free for hotel guests at a great little café around the corner.

If you’re not a beachgoer, check out the guesthouse in Santa Teresa – it was voted #1 by TripAdvisor travellers in 2012 (pictured below). We found the experience camp, colourful and above all else, super-friendly. If you’re travelling alone, or if you prefer to stay somewhere social, this is the perfect choice. Staff and the majority of guests are English-speaking, there’s a bright, cheery pool area, mirrors hanging in the garden and gorgeous views over the mansions in this arty, cobble-stoned part of town. Rooms are comfortable, clean and simple, catering well for active travellers who spend the majority of their holiday out and about.

Casa Cool Beans Santa Teresa

Rio is an exciting destination that offers a staggering variety of experiences – no two days are the same. Get swept up in the optimism, and start your own complicated relationship with the ‘marvellous city’.

GT travelled with British Airways from London Heathrow to Rio Galeão £640 return (ba.com). Only use yellow metered taxis in Rio. GT stayed at Casa Cool Beans Guesthouse in Santa Teresa and Flats in Ipanema. Guesthouse rooms start at £71 per day, 2 night minimum stay required. Flats start from £120 in low season (casacoolbeans.com).

Safety tips:
Rio is an amazing place to visit, but the city is not without its problems. Here are some tips to keep you safe:

  • Dress down – do as the locals do – avoid expensive clothes and accessories. Don’t carry a bag. Consider using a disposable camera. Leave the iPhone at the hotel.
  • Don’t use cash machines on the street or after dark. Only carry the cash you think you’ll need for the day. Make use of hotel safes.
  • After dark take taxis, don’t walk on the beach and follow your instincts. Ask your hotel concierge about local tips and areas to avoid. Don’t take valuables to the beach.
  • If you are robbed, slowly hand over your goods without reacting. Report any crimes to the tourist police.
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