Like many travelers, I enjoy taking the path less traveled, finding connection with locals and discovering neighborhood gems. But like many travelers, sometimes I allow myself to be merely a tourist, taking the easier route and going on a guided tour or two as long as they are small and don’t require me to stop to shop along the way.
When we returned to Rio after a week in the historic town of Paraty, I wanted to see the major landmarks in one go. My requirements were: a half-day tour that covered the two major things I wanted to see (Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf Mountain) and that ended with an amazing sunset/night view of Rio. Oh and it had to cost less than $100 per person. Too much to ask? No, I didn’t think so. I was willing to pay a private driver if necessary, because with a child in tow, I needed to be able to narrow things considerably. Lucky for me, our hotel had such tour operator available and it met all my requirements, even though such tour was not on their brochure – the reason why I believe you should always ask for what you want. The worst that can happen is you get a no. And in countries like Brazil where everything is negotiable, most likely, you can get what you want if you only ask. And ask nicely, of course!
Because we were in Rio during low season, we were able to book the tour with only a couple hours notice, which I usually would not recommend, but in our situation it was touch and go due to the city-wide fog that was covering most of the landmarks. As soon as we saw it was clearing it, we booked the tour.
And I am sure some of you are wondering why we didn’t do a self-guided tour since we rented a car and I am Brazilian. Well, for convenience. Driving in Rio can be a hassle and parking in places like the Christ, non-existent so it would take us a lot longer to see everything. The other reason is when I summed up all the entrance costs, it was about the same price of the tour. Tickets also had to be purchased online one day in advance and since we were not sure if we were going to be able to do any sightseeing, the tour was our best option. And I am glad we did it that way- it was one of best tours I’ve taken.
Being a tourist in Rio de Janeiro
We were picked up at our hotel by a trilingual guide (Spanish, Portuguese and English) in an air-conditioned van and we spent about 30 mins picking up a few more people in nearby hotels -10 people total. After that we drove straight to Christ the Redeemer, where our guide purchased the tickets for us (included in tour) and we were able to enjoy it for an hour or so by ourselves- a huge plus of the tour since I like to explore at my own pace. An hour was plenty, there is not that much to do or see at the Christ and because we took the elevator up and down, it literally took us less than 5 mins to get to the top.
After the Christ, we were driven through Santa Teresa. The guide explained the history of the neighborhood as we were driving and how the favelas have come to be. We stopped briefly to take a look at the favela sprawling on the hills of Rio and moved on to Lapa- a bustling nightlife neighborhood where the now famous Selaron Steps are located. I loved seeing the work of a man that had a vision to beautify his street and ended up rehabilitating a neighborhood. We need more people like that.
After 10-15 minutes at the steps, we went to the Sugar Loaf Mountain. Due to traffic we missed the sunset, but got there just in time for the blue hour. Again, we were given our tickets and guided to the very top, with stops along the way at each level to sightsee (about 30 hr in each). At the top we were allowed about 45 mins to eat, drink or just meander around. After the descent we boarded the van again and were dropped off at our hotel just in time for dinner. I absolutely loved the efficiency of the tour and the fact that our guide was not trying to earn commission by taking us to shops. All tickets and tips were included and it was a great value to not have to worry about driving, parking or anything in between. The cost per person was U$70 for a 5 hrs tour, a great value if you ask me.
On a side note: there are many different tours being offered in Rio these days and a popular one is a tour of the favelas. I am not going to go into the socio-economic struggles of Brazil because it would take hours if not days. I also don’t want to encourage or discourage someone from going on these tours. However, I want to share my 3 reasons why I would not go into a tour of the favelas.
- My life is worth more than an experience. Although the favelas are home to some of the hardest working people in Brazil, they are also home to some of the worst criminals (bar the politicians- but that is another story). I heard gunshots every day from our 5-star hotel room in Copacabana at the nearby favela and there is no guarantee that it won’t happen during a tour. Some favelas have been “pacified” with police stations and cops residing in the community they help protect, but it is still not a place you would walk in by yourself. The guides are residents, but they are not bullet proof and neither am I.
- I agree that the money generated by the tours help the community, but there is something about going into people’s homes and looking at their lives that feels shameful to me. I wouldn’t want a bunch of millionaires coming into my house, scrutinizing my life and feeling pity for me. Would you?
- Can I trust that the money I pay for this tour won’t go, at least partially to fuel the drug trade? In Brazil, corruption is rampant, so everyone gets a little kickback, specially drug lords.
Sometimes as travelers we are enveloped in a bubble or false security. I’ve been in some situations abroad that I would never put myself in back at home, so I know how easy it is to think that it’s no big deal. I will write a follow up post about traveling safe in Brazil if those considering traveling there.
I hope this information is helpful to you if you are planning on being a tourist in Rio de Janeiro.
Watch the video of this day here. It’s a good one!