Before going I had a concrete idea about what to expect from Rio de Janeiro. Definitely that didn’t fit to real Rio. I expected a vivid city full of tourists and caipirinhas everywhere feeding capoeira dancers, brown-skin volleyball players and smug surfers as a part of a fake background. We went out of season, that’s true, but Rio was more real, sometimes less vivid, but more interesting from a social point of view than I expected.
We arrived by car and we made it to the hotel dealing with the constant traffic jams of a normal huge, cosmopolitan, busy capital. We struggled to understand which lane to take according to the regulations of the bus reserved paths (a couple of months later I got a gentle e-mail from the rental car company saying that nicely have charged a fine to my credit card according to that), and we couldn’t find a place to park till being in front of the hotel’s gate, as we were in Barcelona or wherever far away from a vacation all-set-up spot.
We left the car upon a yellow line painted on the ground, just to ask about the check-in, that reminded that was a forbidden place. In the hotel they inform us that we could pay for a parking next door so we came back running to rescue our car from the police. Soon we were happy to see our rented car disappeared in a very tiny building parking lot operated by a big machine what took our car from the surface to an underground unknown place. Finally, we were free in Copacabana, we were in middle of a famous place known to be one of the world main places for fun.
We left the stuff in the hotel, changed our clothes for swimming costumes and we took a couple of towels. We arrived to an empty huge beach on a lucky strike of winter sun. It was end of august in the austral winter. We felt brave, exited and amazed inside a picture we have seen many times before on TV. We were almost alone in Copacabana beach and there it was a temporary shop in the middle of the bright golden sand, just in front of the Brazilian ocean’s water where we could read in red shinny capital letters “The Best Caipirinha”.
At home we have had a previous debate about where to stay, Copacabana or Ipanema. I always had chosen Ipanema because of the song. Garota de Ipanema. Yes. But before checking that quality there is very similar in all senses comparing with Copacabana but the prices were almost double in Ipanema, even worse in Leblon. I even would have liked, as many travellers looking for a real Rio, to stay in the city centre. I had read about Rio and nobody recommended to book accommodation in the centre but in Copacabana, Ipanema or Leblon, even Botafogo, but always along to beach.
Let’s explain how is Rio. It’s a big city, one of the most important cities in Brazil, and probably in the whole South America. It’s huge and dense and it fits more than six million and a half inhabitants in a geographical and social complicated big territory. Public transport, especially metro after the Olympic games, works well but the distances are long and it’s worth to choose a strategic location to move around an take the best profit of a short visit.
You will hear that Brazil is very unsafe which probably is not true as a complete revelation but they have unfortunately a lot of people out of the system. Those people have nothing to lose and some of them obviously are into violent crime. We didn’t see any wrong situation in more than a week there but what we have checked is that night life and funny stuff related things like cool bars and restaurants are mostly along the coast, obviously with exceptions to this rule like Santa Teresa neighbourhood.
You may hear there that Copacabana is more popular; Ipanema is more snobbish and Leblon is even more exclusive. Those are the most recommended and apparently safest neighbourhoods to stay in Rio. But you will see the difference there? No way, if you are not local either all three of those will seem very similar to you.
They are real neighbourhoods; real people problems are living there. They wake up early and they catch the metro or join the morning traffic jam to go to work. The coast line is followed with rows of seventies looking like old-fashioned huge apartment buildings along the beach, that have been extra cool some decades ago and now try to keep their dignity facing this century. Those three are one next to each other and the traveller will walk along the beach promenade visiting all three.
The main difference is that Copacabana is more alive, there are more open shops, bars and restaurants that travellers will appreciate, because the prices are lower and the presence of tourism is higher. People there are living facing and for the beach that during the day becomes a popular sportive field where to practice football, volley, jogging or surf.
There are, even out of season a lot of friendly sellers, on the sand or just outside along the promenade. And during the night the beach bars are open and available for food and cocktails. It’s very popular to walk along the promenade following the coast line that connects Copacabana with Ipanema and Leblon. The perception of safety is similar to Ipanema and Leblon so if you don’t want a very calm vacation (to have that there are many other places in Brazil) you can join the majority and go to Copacabana, because from there you will be able to enjoy and to easily reach the rest of this amazing city.