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An American’s Guide to Carnival in Rio: What to Expect When you Land

by Sean Ogle | Last Updated: May 18, 2009

Welcome to Gringo-izing Brazil, my in-depth look at Carnival in Rio from the eyes of an American. This is part two in the series, in which we will set expectations for your arrival. You can check out part one here.

Alright, so you are near the tail end of your 9+ hour flight.

You are a little disoriented from the combination of anticipation, a sleepless night next to Chatty Cathy, and having an entire drink cart spilled all over you after a bout of turbulence.

Sidenote: Yes, this really happened.

While it was actually on our Aerolineas Argentinas flight from Buenos Aires, we hit a patch of turbulence which sent the contents of an entire drink cart on to me and the two New Zealand girls I was sitting next to.

Although I won’t lie, they took the brunt of it as I was in the window seat. To this day,  I have never seen someone react so well to having red wine douse their entire body.

Ok, so the pilot announces you are preparing for your final approach.

You start to look out the window as you get below the clouds, and basically what you will find is that Rio de Janeiro is really freaking big.

Huge.

Ginormous.

Take your pick.

What’s odd about Rio, as opposed to maybe a more developed large city, is that chances are you will not be seeing most of it during your journey here.

If you take a look down, you will notice that the roads covering most of the city aren’t paved.  Those “houses” you think you see down there, are little more than shacks.

In Rio, the vast majority of the city is covered in favelas (slums) that rival any of the largest in the world. Something that you should definitely keep in mind amidst the thoughts of a glitzy and glamorous Rio is that:

Brazil is a developing nation

Once you land things don’t immediately start to change.

It is about a 30-60 minute drive into Copacabana from the airport depending on the time of day.

And, for the most part, this isn’t much of a scenic drive. “To your right, favelas as far as the eye can see”.  This is what our friend Mariana told us as we stared wide eyed at everything around us.

While the favelas come directly up to the freeway, that is probably about all you are going to see of them (Note: It is possible to take favela tours, and they are actually advertised quite vigorously at most of the hostels. At our hostel, tours of Rocinha, the largest favela in South America, are offered twice daily).

As you follow the freeway, things slowly start to change.

From favelas, you slowly get into the downtown area (Centro) where you see, for the most part, some fairly unremarkable office buildings and other typical urban fares.

However, as unattractive as the outlying areas of Rio might be, the scenic parts more than makeup for it.

Once you hit the Lagoa, everything starts to change (there is an inland lake in between Ipanema and Jardim Botanico).

You notice Christ the Redeemer towering above you. Sugarloaf is in the distance,  and if you are lucky enough to be arriving during sunset, you see spectacular pink hues light up the town.

This is the Rio you were dreaming about.

You will probably be spending a good portion of your time in the Ipanema/Copacabana areas, so let’s focus some attention there.

Ipanema and Copacabana are very similar.

However, arguably the farther down the beach you go, the nicer the neighborhoods get.

Copacabana, while one of the most famous beaches in the world can be a little shady at times (if you really want to see what I mean, just walk by Help! Discoteca anytime between 11 pm and 4 am). Although you should be totally fine during the day in any of these areas.

Ipanema then gets a little bit nicer, and by the time you hit Leblon, you are in one of the nicest areas of Rio. However, if you travel too far in that direction you hit what I believe is Vidigal favela.  I

was actually sitting on the beach at about midnight marveling at the lights on the hillside. I assumed it must of been one of the wealthier areas of Rio.

Not so much, according to Mariana. (Another good reason why you should make friends while traveling).

For the most part, in my experiences, the locals are very friendly. We didn’t experience any rudeness or have anyone look down upon us for being tourists.

With that being said, Rio during Carnival is not necessarily the safest place in the world. While we didn’t directly experience any hostility, let me share just a small portion of the things that were around us during our trip.

A few stories:

There were two Canadian guys we met, who were definitely pretty big guys. Two hours after getting off the plane they were mugged at knifepoint, all their cash and cameras were taken from them.

Luckily their passports were not.

A Frenchman staying at our hostel had been drinking at a street party (more on these in the next post) in Leblon and was walking back to our hostel in Ipanema. There he was abducted by two men and forced into a car at gunpoint.

He was driven to an atm and forced to take as much money as he could. He was then driven to a favela across town and left there. He finally managed to find a cab to bring him back to the hostel.

We ran into him explaining to the employees what had happened, while a very angry cab driver was demanding a large fare that the Frenchman obviously didn’t have.

Here is a more extreme story.

We heard about a hostel in Lapa (downtown-ish) where at 3 am, 7 armed men broke in and held the resident’s hostage. They used guns, knives, and even a grenade to terrify the hostages while they plundered ALL of their belongings. The day before the same thing happened at a hostel in Copacabana.

Side note: On our last night we actually found ourselves in the hostel that was robbed. I am happy to report we had no problems, with the exception of having to put up with one of the strangest guys I have ever met, but we’ll save that for another time.

There were at least a dozen more stories similar to these that we heard about while in Rio.

I am not exaggerating when I say that out of everyone we met, more people than not had themselves, or someone they were traveling with be mugged in one form or another.

I am not trying to discourage anyone from traveling here. As I  mentioned, we had no problems ourselves.

But there is one key thing to keep in mind  while experiencing (partying) Carnival:

You have to learn to be smart while you are being stupid

If you learn that lesson and follow it, you should be just fine.

Rio is an incredible place, you just can’t forget where you are or get too comfortable. Bottom line is, you are still a tourist, and no matter how hard you try, you will STILL look like a tourist!

In the next part of Gringo-izing Rio, we will discuss Carnival itself. What it’s like, where to go, and how to have the best time possible.

If you enjoyed this article or found it useful, please comment and let me know!

Sean Ogle is the Founder of Location Rebel where he has spent the last 12+ years teaching people how to build online businesses that give them the freedom to do more of the things they like to do in life. When he's not in the coffee shops of Portland, or the beaches of Bali, he's probably sneaking into some other high-class establishment where he most certainly doesn't belong.
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