Rio has a reputation for not being safe for naive visitors. After our experiences in Manaus and Fortaleza (no problems, but obviously dangerous places), we were a little apprehensive about Rio.
We are experienced travelers, having had our brushes with pickpockets in Barcelona, and warnings about Paris train stations. (Once, I forgot a small carry-on bag at a security screening machine in the rail station Gare du Nord, en route from Paris to London. I was carrying my iPad in the bag, so once I realized that I had left it behind, I scrambled to get back to the security station. I asked a policeman to help me. His first reaction was that I was yet another foreign-tourist prey to local pickpockets. Fortunately, the bag was waiting at the screening station.) We know that, generally, as long as we stay aware, don’t carry our wallets in our back pockets, and religiously refuse approaches by people we don’t know, we will likely be fine. But Rio threatened to be more challenging than European or Asian cities.
Great relief, then, to discover that the main visitor neighborhoods are calm and safe. Of course, we didn’t stroll the beaches or backstreets in the middle of the night. Our hotel was in Ipanema, the beach district next to Copacabana. We also visited the central business district, Lapa and Santa Teresa neighborhoods.
We saw signs for Uber everywhere. On our first day in Rio, with our cruise friends, we visited a Brazilian gem store. We chatted with the owner of the store. While he has a small storefront facing Copacabana beach, the majority of his business is exporting Brazilian gems to North America, Europe and Asia. He has traveled the world. He recommended using Uber to get around Rio. He remarked that even Carioca (what Rio residents call themselves) avoid the taxis; the drivers try to cheat even local riders. Relative to local incomes, fuel is expensive in Rio (it looked like it was as expensive as it is in France: about 1.40€/litre or about $6.00/gal!). Being an Uber driver is a good way to make the extra money needed to own and use a car. Each time we ordered an Uber via the app, the car and driver arrived in less than 3 minutes. All were courteous and efficient — and much less expensive than the taxis.
Our hotel in Ipanema faces the beach. Between the hotel and the water is a boulevard, a dedicated biking and running track, a band of beach plants, and a lovely broad beach. The beach is full of zones of umbrellas, sand volley-ball courts, and vendor kiosks.
From our experience of other beach cities like South Beach, Florida, and Venice, California, we expected a dense beachfront of hotels, restaurants, stores and clubs. While there are certainly hotels along Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, it seemed that 90% of the structures are apartment buildings.
Since we were undeniably tourists, we wanted to find some shops with Rio and Brazil souvenirs and gifts. (Where are the ABC stores that infest Waikiki?) There was nothing like that along the beach front. But we saw on the map that a main commercial street runs parallel to the beach a couple blocks inland. On a hot morning, we explored the avenue. We walked from Ipanema into the adjacent, even more upscale neighborhood of Leblon, and back. (We walked slowly in the shade of the buildings and trees, and accelerated through the patches of full sun. It was so hot that we had to duck into malls and shops from time to time to cool off.) All kinds of stores and restaurants line the boulevard: supermarkets; chain stores for clothes, hardware, shoes; housewares; electronics; drug stores; fast-food and chain restaurants. Not a souvenir store in sight. It dawned on us that Ipanema, like the rest of middle-to-upper class Rio, is simply a big, active, authentic city. Carioca are going about their business and daily lives. People jog in the morning before it gets too hot. Groups of office workers go out to lunch together. Families go shopping for everyday things. There must be many tourists in Rio, but the proportion is so small that tourists don’t stand out much at all, at least wandering about in the city. (All the tourists other than us were probably on the beach.) While we didn’t succeed in finding the interesting souvenirs that we hoped for, it was fun to get a glimpse of a real city, complex as it is.
The middle- and upper-class districts that we experienced are situated on the lowlands, between ocean, lakes, lagoons and rocky hills. Apartment blocks and towers fill these low lands. At night, the lights of the lowland city are tidy and organized by the tower geometries. Creeping up the sides of the steep slopes are, in the daytime, dense patterns of little square, jam-packed buildings, and at night, a dense organic fabric of pinpoint lights. These are the favelas of Rio, the slums. The situation is the inverse of Honolulu, and much more extreme. On Oahu, the apartment buildings in the lowlands without views of the ocean, while perfectly fine, are not the most highly valued. Houses and apartments high on the hills are the most prized. We didn’t see any upscale districts overlooking Rio.
We had a final hint about the challenges of life in the favelas in our last hours in Rio. On the drive to the airport, the car slowed in a bit of a traffic jam on the divided highway. In the lanes, young men were hawking snacks and food. To the left was a huge expanse of slums: endless jumble of tin and brick low-rise structures. To the right was a waterway, bounded by green hills. From the humid stench, It was quickly obvious that the waterway is not a healthy wetland; it is the sewer. A strong reminder that Rio is a big complicated place with many people who live in ways that are hard to imagine.