Few Americans know foreign cities as well as guidebook authors do, and that's why we turned to Michael Sommers for advice on Rio de Janeiro, one of our picks for the Top Budget Travel Destinations for 2010. Sommers wrote the book on Brazil's famous city for Moon Travel Guides, a series that is especially acclaimed for its Latin American coverage.
1. When's the best time to visit Rio?
Rio de Janeiro makes for a fun tropical escape yearround. On the downside, summer (which is winter in the U.S.) is "high season" so expect high prices to accompany the very high temperatures (think: 100 degrees Fahrenheit) along with humidity that is often exacerbated by torrential rains. Beaches will be mobbed since Cariocas (as the locals call themselves) will be on vacation, but if you want to experience Rio's beach culture to the hilt, you will.
Personally, I prefer the city at other times of year when the climate is more temperate ("winter" temperatures sometimes fall to a still-pleasant 60 degrees), the beaches are less crowded, and you can discover less obvious aspects of the city without the heat and hype.
2. Is Rio dangerous?
Danger is a very relative thing. Rio definitely has more potential risks than other cities of its size. Like any city, the key is how to minimize the risks (such as knowing where to go and when). So be sensible without being paranoid. A lot of the scary violence you hear about in Rio goes on in favelas and other areas you wouldn't (and shouldn't) be visiting on your own. The Zona Sul neighborhoods (with all of the famous name beaches you want to visit) are quite well policed and pretty safe during the days and early evenings. Walking in busy areas is fine. But be leery of abandoned areas or streets, and, at night, it's wise to take cabs. Dress fairly simply and discretely, and avoid fumbling for money in public. I'd recommend a money belt and a bag that you can loop around a shoulder. Take only essentials to the beach. And then relax!
3. How can I blend in?
"Blending in" is not only a good idea in terms of safety (see above), but will help you feel more at ease and enjoy the city. My first tip would be to hit the beach. Not only will this immediately plunge you into Carioca culture, but a tan will give you that healthy local glow that will dispel that just-off-the-plane look. Try to dress local, which means Havaianas, a biquini (for women) and sunga (for men) for the beach, and some decent jeans and form-fitting t-shirts and tops for elsewhere (sneakers for men, comfortable sandals or platforms for women). Leave the one-piece bathing suits and Speedos at home along with baggy cargo shorts and oversized tees. Cariocas are casual, but not slobby. No matter how native you look, your "tongue" will betray you. Learning some basic Portuguese makes ALL the difference (especially in terms of good will). Surprisingly few people speak (very good) English. Finally, be flexible and don't get stressed. Cariocas respond to charm and humor much more than impatience and aggressiveness.
4. Is Rio expensive, and how can I live it up for less?
To be honest, Rio is not as cheap as it used to be. While the U.S. dollar has taken a serious beating against the Brazilian real, Brazilians' own standard of living has increased in recent years. That said, like any big city, there are tons of fantastic inexpensive and free options that allow you to take advantage of the best that Rio offers. Natural attractions--the beaches and green spaces such as the Floresta de Tijuca, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, and Parque de Flamengo--are all free. All museums often free admission on selected days. To get around, don't be afraid to take buses or the (air-conditioned!) Metro.
In terms of accommodations, come during the off-season, and take advantage of a new outcrop of cheap and charming guesthouses, B&Bs; and hostels. Consider staying in non-beach neighborhoods such as Santa Teresa, Flamengo, or Laranjeiras—attractive, historically interesting, and refreshingly untouristy. (For example, Flamengo is connected to the beaches by the city's convenient subway lines and has interesting hotels like Novo Mundo.)
As for food, "per kilo" restaurants allow you to eat as much or as little as you want of whatever you want. Bares de suco (juice bars) serve (filling) fruit juices and vitaminas along with healthy sandwiches while beloved botequins (classic Rio bars) offer home-cooked daily specials and a wealth of delicious appetizers that can easily constitute a meal. Foodies take note: many of the city's finest restaurants offer inexpensive executivo lunch menus during the week.
5. What's the best way to enjoy Carnaval?
When most people think of Rio's Carnaval, they conjure up the fabulous floats and flamboyantly (and often scantily) costumed sambistas that parade through the Sambodromo during the desfiles de escolas de samba (samba school parades). This event is truly spectacular. However, be aware that you'll either need to get tickets far in advance (it's possible to do so online) or shell out some big bucks. If money's no object, the private boxes are much more comfortable than the regular bleachers. If money is an object, arrive at the Sambodromo after the parade starts (it'll go on all night) and haggle with scalpers. The best seats are in the central sections.
Many people have a lot more fun joining Rio's blocos and bandas. Consisting of neighborhood residents and merrymakers who (costumed or not) take to the streets to sing, samba, and have an awful lot of fun, this traditional street Carnaval is enjoying a major revival. It costs nothing and allows you to bond with Cariocas of all stripes.
Finally, even if you miss Carnaval itself, you can get a taste of it beforehand. Rio's samba schools hold weekly rehearsals at their headquarters (beginning in October) while blocos and bandas often hold theirs in front of neighborhood bars that double as unofficial club houses (usually in the weeks before Carnaval). Rehearsals inevitably turn into informal street parties and, once again, offer great opportunities to interact with Cariocas.
Budget Travel's Exit Interview: Just Back From... the Beaches of Rio
Rio de Janeiro: Top Budget Travel Destination for 2010