The view of the Copacabana from Sugarloaf Mountain. (Photo: Christy Karras)
While Rio has its issues — as stories about the run-up to the World Cup and the 2016 summer Olympics have amply pointed out — you really can’t go to Brazil without visiting its most storied city. Even with all of its faults, Rio is one of the world’s most fascinating places.
Brazil is a big country, but one of the best things about it is its well-developed airline transportation. Like the U.S., it has airports in every major city. Unlike the U.S., there’s no super-fast interstate highway system, which makes flying all the more attractive.
You could get from Belo Horizonte (our base in Brazil) to Rio in eight white-knuckle hours careening along potholed streets filled with crazy drivers all going different speeds, or you could climb aboard a 737 and get there in 40 minutes. We’re not masochists, so my husband, Bill, and I chose the latter and got tickets a few weeks ago for $150 round trip — that’s for both of us. Tickets are not always that cheap, but if you keep your eye on prices, you might score a similar deal.
Along with my brother, sister-in-law, and some longtime friends, we flew to Rio on Gol airlines, a local carrier. We’d crafted an ambitious itinerary, intending to pack four of the city’s must-do destinations into one long day: Ipanema Beach, the Copacabana Palace Hotel, Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar) and Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor).
As we took a taxi into the city, my Portuguese-speaking brother chatted with the driver about how to best tackle our itinerary.
A taxi cab in Rio. (Photo: Samuel Yoo/Flickr)
Their conversation taught me three things: 1. I’ve already picked up enough Portuguese that I could understand about a quarter of what was said — progress! 2. It’s really, really helpful to know a little Portuguese. And 3. Taxi drivers can be tourists’ best friends here. Drivers will not only get you where you need to go, they’ll wait for you for an hourly fee and take you to your next destination if you’d like.
If you’re only going to touristy spots, as we were, you can just take point-to-point taxis — they’re everywhere (look for the red license plates).
Related: See all of our World Cup travel coverage.
Brazil falls into the don’t-think-just-ride category when it comes to hitting the road. Taxi drivers will often talk on the phone, drive and carry on a conversation with passengers all at the same time. Many of them have small TV screens, attached to their dashboards or windshields, that allow them to watch soccer games while they’re driving and dodging motorcycles, pedestrians and merging trucks.
Ipanema Beach. (Photo: Christy Karras)
Our first driver let us off at Ipanema Beach. Given that it’s World Cup time, we weren’t sure what to expect, but the beach seemed to be business as usual. Surfers caught waves, grandparents watched their kids play in the sand, and vendors hawked everything from rental chairs to towels to potato chips.
It’s winter here, but the air was warm. Marine-layer clouds obscured the hills around the city and kept our focus on the famous powdery beach. We walked from Ipanema all the way to and along Copacabana’s broad 2.5-mile stretch of sand.
As the temperature rose and the sun blazed out from behind the clouds, we passed a welcome succession of cafes, ice-cream vendors, and pay toilets. We gathered that areas close to the beaches are pretty safe for visitors, although anything you leave sitting unattended is likely to disappear.
We were headed for the glamorous Belmond Copacabana Palace Hotel, a gleaming Art Deco presence that’s stood above the beach since 1923. My brother had thought ahead and made a reservation for lunch at the hotel’s Pérgula restaurant, which overlooks the courtyard pool. The reservation was a good idea, since it got us behind barricades and security guards protecting World Cup bigwigs from the crowds outside.
Copacabana Palace Hotel. (Photo: Rodrigo Soldon/Flickr)
I ordered a Rita Hayworth (cocktails are named for famous actresses who’ve visited the hotel, and there are many), and we enjoyed the impeccable service and tried not to think about how much lunch would cost.
Now and then, we eyed the Baccarat crystal chandeliers and stole glances at the beautiful people around the pool. The story goes that Orson Welles had to be pulled from it during drinking binges when he was filming a documentary here in 1942. He also famously threw his hotel-room furniture into that same pool during one fit of rage.
We grabbed another taxi and headed to Sugarloaf Mountain, where we learned another lesson: If you’re going to visit during the World Cup, tourist attractions will be easier to access during games. We had a short wait to board the gondola, but by the time we descended, the line was three times as long.
Sugarloaf Mountain from a distance. (Photo: Christy Karras)
There’s a lot of discussion among tourists about whether it’s better to see the city from atop Sugarloaf or Corcovado, home of Christ the Redeemer. We decided to try getting to both. The weather decided for us which to see first, since clouds obscured Corcovado until late afternoon.
The ride to the top of the granite and quartz monolith is a bit thrilling, but the reason to visit is the amazing views of the city spread before you. Only from above can you really appreciate the geography of Rio, which is unlike pretty much anywhere else (only Hong Kong has some of the same mountain/valley/water wow factor).
Steep mountains shoot up from valley floors, and apartment buildings crowd into the spaces between. Neighborhoods are surrounded by beaches surrounded by boat-dotted bays and inlets. On a nice day, you can see Corcovado across what feels like miles of empty space.
The view from Sugarloaf Mountain. (Photo: Boris G/Flickr)
We crowded into a taxi once again, seven adults stuffed into a four-person sedan. As we charged along the teeming streets on the way to Christ the Redeemer, another driver rolled down his window and shouted, grinning. My brother translated: “What do you think you are, a bus?”
The little car groaned up the steep streets of Corcovado to where our driver would let us out, wait for us, and meet again to head to the airport. We arrived at sunset, bought tickets and went to find the back of the line.
To get to the famous giant statue, you have to take a train or taxi to a point just below the final spur to Corcovado. Then you buy tickets to see the statue itself. There’s a road all the way to the top, but you’re not allowed to walk. Instead, you wait in line for a bus, which to us Americans seemed like some kind of job-creation measure.
This was as close as the writer got to Christ the Redeemer. (Photo: Christy Karras)
We would have gladly paid for a bus ticket and then hiked that last bit if only they’d let us, because there seemed to be only one bus making the circuit. As it was, we stood in line for an hour, watching the Cristo light up as darkness fell. We bailed when we realized it would take another four or five hours to get to the top — we had flights to catch. World Cup time is probably not the best time to try to get to an always-crowded tourist destination.
Our taxi driver, disappointed that we didn’t make it all the way, drove us to the next-best thing: a nearby hill with great views of the statue. By this time, it was completely dark, and clouds were moving in, making the statue look like a glowing angel floating in the sky.
We got to the airport just in time to watch the U.S. beat Ghana, hop on a plane and head back to Belo Horizonte. We were beat, but what a day.