Rio de Janeiro on a Backpackers Budget

by Mary MacKenty

Tourists are drawn to Rio de Janeiro for its sunny weather, beaches, music, animated people and its famous Carnival. Unfortunately, most backpackers quickly realize that just because it’s in South America doesn’t mean it’s inexpensive. The cheapest hostels cost 30-40 Reais (2R to $1) for a dorm room and transportation costs add up fast, even if you use the buses. The prices are only rising with the upcoming World Cup and Olympics, nevertheless if you are a little adventurous, you can experience Rio without spending too much.

Rio's skyline
Rio's skyline. Photo by Mary MacKenty

The top tourist attractions in Rio are Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloft) and Cristo Redentor (Christ Statue). Most backpackers only visit one because they cost upwards of 40R each, but if you’re willing to trade in your havianas for hiking boots, you can see them both for 17R.  The trick is to walk up the first of Pão de Açúcar ‘s two mountains, following a 30 minute trail, which is so quiet it’s as if you were suddenly transported to the Amazon. If you go in the afternoon, you should pack cocktails to enjoy at the top while watching an unbelievable sunset that reflects across the diverse landscape of the city. After 7pm anyone can take the cable car down for free, the code words being “são as sete” (it’s seven). 

There is no way to avoid paying the 17R entrance fee for Cristo Redentor; however, by hiking you can avoid paying for the train ride up. At the base train station you should ask locals for directions. Don’t worry if your Portuguese isn’t top notch; stretching your arms out like the statue and saying “Cristo” will suffice. Considering it’s a solid 11km, 3 hour long walk, be prepared to receive responses of “louco” and “muito longe” meaning that you’re crazy, it’s really far. That’s true, but it’s feasible and even relaxing once you enter the Parque Nacional da Tijuca containing birds, monkeys, and fauna which will distract you. At the last stop before the top, you can take the train since it includes the park fee. There is also another trail which starts at Parque Lage near the Jardim Botanico and runs through the Tijuaca forest. Both of these trails are more ambitious than Pão de Açúcar, but on the upside it will make you feel less guilty about spending your other days lounging on the beach with a caiparinha (traditional Brazilian drink) or cerveja bem gelado (ice cold beer) in hand.

All year round you can enjoy the beach in Rio, which provides plenty of free entertainment. Music is the soul of the Brazilian culture and can be heard all day; from the beach boardwalks to the street parties in Lapa. The best place to be is at “Stand 9” of Ipanema beach, where you’ll find the gay pride flag and a captivating joyful vibe. The beach isn’t just a place to relax and tan, it’s a place to converse, eat, drink, dance, play sports and do some prime people watching.  You can observe muscular bronze men strut up and down the beach, women in tiny bikinis whether they look good in them or not, people juggling soccer balls and middle age women already tipsy and dancing samba mid-day. While the beach is free, everything sold on it can add up. It’s good to know the “price of the beach” which is roughly, 3R for chairs, 5R for umbrellas, 4R for beer, 3R for empadas/salgados (puff pastries) and 5R for tapioca.

After watching the classic Ipaneman sunset you can grab a drink in Zona Sul (Leblon, Copacabana and Ipanema) although it is generally expensive. The secret is to find any bar with plastic chairs and old drunk men at the bar, as a liter of beer will cost 1R less than anywhere with wooden chairs, plus the crazy men are quite amusing. For nightlife, you should take a bus to the Lapa arches where especially on a Friday night you’ll find a year round carnival atmosphere flooding the streets. Instead of paying 8R plus for a caiparinha with 6-8 seconds of cachaça (typical sugar cane alcohol) poured into it, you spend 5R or 7R if you splurge for fruit one (the best is maracuja, passion fruit) which contains about 18 seconds of cachaça requiring two cups for the drink. After one or two of these and you’ll be convinced you’re actually dancing samba when in reality you’re probably just shuffling your feet as fast as you can, which to close enough. Aside from the outdoor samba bands, there are also bars/clubs with forró (a slower traditional partner dance), pop music or the increasingly popular funky.

Funky, both the music and dance can be described by “tchu tcha tcha” which has no significance unless you experience a funky/favela party. Real funky parties are found in the favelas (ghettos) from where the music originated. In movies they are portrayed as parties in which gangsters wave their guns to the beat, but in reality many nowadays are tranquilo (calm).  Every Sunday, there are tours for 65R which bring you to a Rio das Pedras favela party, pay your entrance fee and give you VIP access to the upstairs (where there isn’t dancing anyway). However, you can easily take a bus (2.75R) from the Zona Sul beaches and pay the 5R entrance fee (free for girls). You can’t miss the party spilling out from a large warehouse with a capacity of 1000 plus.  The environment may be surprising or even uncomfortable at first, but if you just go with it, you’ll find it’s a crazy, fun, once in a lifetime experience you’ll never have words to properly explain.

Many tourists also wish to visit a favela by day, which is admittedly controversial, as poverty should not be treated as some novelty amusement park. Nevertheless, perhaps due to the popularity of movies such as City of God, it is an attraction in Rio. Many take favela tours for 75R which lead you through a specific route in Rocinha, the largest in the world, allowing you to donate to different social causes.  However, as ironic as it might sound, a better option for visiting Rocinha is to eat sushi.  Eating sushi in Zona Sul will cost at least 60R and the quality is sometimes suspect, but in Rocinha a roll will cost you about 5/6R making it hard to spend more than 20R. Simply take a bus to the entrance of Rocinha where you’ll enter a large market which sells everything sold on the beach for a third of the price.

If you wander through the market and take your second left you enter a main street in which you’ll find cops on the corner. On the next three side streets to your right, if you ignore the trash and electrical cords zigzagging above you, you’ll find amazing sushi places, with friendly owners who load the rolls with fish, avocado, cream cheese, and many unique sauces. Now clearly it’s best to be accompanied by a local, but if you can make it, there’s no better way to experience the dichotomy between the delightful friendly people in the midst of the extreme poverty in the favela.

Clearly some of these suggestions aren’t for everyone, but if you’re a seasoned traveler, they aren’t as farfetched as they may first seem. The best people to ask for directions are foreigners that work in hostels as they probably know some of these tricks due to their low budget lifestyle and familiarity with tourism. Despite the efforts to transform Rio de Janeiro into a high end tourist location, if you have an open mind and backpacker’s spirit, you don’t need much money have a truly unique, unforgettable adventure.