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From its magnificent beaches to the warm, lively spirit of its resident Cariocas, Rio de Janeiro offers travelers plenty of things to fall in love with. Though more expensive than many locations in South America, with lots of luxury to be found, Rio nonetheless has an abundance of options for budget travelers and maintains itself as a must-visit location for backpackers. Beaches, mountains, urban life, favelas, adventure activities, nightlife, cultural centers, and important history can all be found in this notorious city on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Though many travelers leave Rio having only seen the famous beach neighborhoods of Ipanema and Copacabana, the rest of the city offers plenty to do and see away from the tumult and tourist traps.
The center of Rio, which separates Zona Norte and Zona Sul, is home to historic buildings and the business district of the city. The best museums are in this area, along with plenty of bars, theaters, and markets. The Teatro Municipal, overlooking Praca Floriano, is one of the most beautiful buildings in Rio. Also around the plaza is an open-air music market, Rua Pedro Lessa. The Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Rio’s fine art museum, is right down the street on Av. Rio Branco. Also in the area are some of Rio’s nicest churches, both old, as with the Convento de San Antonio, and new, as with the super-modern Catedral Metropolitana.
Several companies now offer tours to Rio’s favelas, shanty towns, though there are valid concerns about exploitation and sensationalism on these kinds of trips. If you’re interested, try to go with a company that donates some profits to support the favelas you visit.
The Zona Sul is home to all the famous beaches and most places you will most likely find yourself as a tourist in Rio. Ipanema and Leblon are where the wealthy Cariocas hang out and have cleaner, nicer beaches than neighboring Copacabana. Really just one long beach, postos divide the area into sections, and all cross-sections of society have their own turf. Posto 9 is home to the sexy, the wealthy, and the famous, as well as the old hippies and artists who originally congregated the area in the 60’s. The population of posto 8, right next door, is made up of mainly favela kids. If you are into the beach for surfing instead of people-watching, Arpoador, in-between Ipanema and Copacabana, is the most popular spot, though better waves can be found further up in areas like Barra.
Though a very cosmopolitan city, Rio’s outdoor and adventure travel opportunities are not limited to the shoreline. Vacationers looking for some land-based activity can rent bikes and traverse the city’s 46 miles of bike paths. Further into nature, nearby national parks offer hiking opportunities, though getting a guide is advisable. For a greater adrenaline rush, over 350 documented rock climbs can be found within an hour’s drive from the city.
And then of course there is soccer. For those looking to play, pick-up games can be found in almost any local park, but those looking to watch should head over to the Maracana, Rio’s most famous stadium and home to some of the most exciting games in the world. Games take place year-round on any day of the week, but if you go it alone your safest bet is to get seats on the lowest level in the cadeiras (chairs).
Of course no article on Rio would be complete without a mention of Carnaval. Rio is the world capital for Carnaval celebrations, and for 5 days every year masses of travelers flock to the city to drink, party, and revel. With parades, dancing, costumes, and debauchery in all its finest forms, nothing is off-limits or unheard of. If you’re in for a party but can’t make it to Carnaval, New Year’s is another great opportunity to enjoy all the temptations Rio has to offer.
There are plenty of hostels in Rio for every budget, and for the majority of the year they are very inexpensive, offering great accommodation that allows you to meet other backpackers to go out and enjoy your travels with. During Carnaval and New Years prices are hiked up considerably, but are still much cheaper than any other accommodation option. If you’re seriously on a budget and looking for the lowest prices, you should consider coming at the beginning or end of summer, when the weather is beach-worthy but the prices aren’t in high-season mode. Of course it means skipping all the best festivals, so you’ll have to weigh the costs and benefits for yourself.
With all the wonderful things to see and do, Rio should be a destination on every backpacker’s list, but not without a word of caution. Rio has gotten a bad rap for being extremely dangerous, with rampant violence and thievery. Like most cities with bad reputations, it rarely feels as dangerous on the streets as it sounds in the books, but there are tons of scary stories of thefts and hold-ups and every vacationer should take precautions. Don’t wear jewelry or expensive watches out, don’t carry a lot of cash at once, and definitely don’t carry your passport around. If you are female, try to always be out at night in a group and stick to well-lit and populated areas after dark. If you take some basic measures to ensure your security, nothing will get in the way of having the time of your life.