Locals call it the Cidade Maravilhosa – Marvellous City – because of its beautifully unique cityscape where forest-covered mountains meet the world famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema.
But we’d also read plenty about rampant thefts, warnings to avoid walking around at night, and suggestions that many of the shanty towns – or favelas – snaking from the city in to the mountains weren’t as ‘pacified’ and safe to visit as the guide books and city leaders would have you believe.
After five days of exploring Rio for ourselves, we found a city as alive and vibrant as everyone describes, but also glimpses of the extreme poverty which doesn’t seem to have improved after hosting the World Cup and Olympic Games in quick succession.
In fact, most locals and expats we spoke to told us that if anything, things had got worse for the city’s poorest.
They spoke of horror stories involving locals and tourists in recent months, and a government and police force that had turned its backs on the dozens of favelas they had tried to make safe when the world’s eyes were watching.
We were told that now those eyes have turned away again, tourists may start to see the darker side of Rio once more.
Our lovely Air BnB host Ewa, a German who’s lived in Rio for several years with her Brazilian partner, spoke of hearing gunfire for several hours recently, coming from a favela close to her safe bohemian neighbourhood of Santa Teresa.
An Argentinian waitress also told horror stories of sustained gunfire in the area.
More recently, another tourist car was shot at after it drove through the same favela, because google maps told them it was the quickest way to the Christ the Redeemer Statue.
Our general view on all of this is that Rio doesn’t feel less safe than any other big world city, most of the time.
But if you’re silly enough to leave your belongings on the beach or wander aimlessly through an area full of desperately poor people with a territorial mentality, you’re asking for trouble.
The authorities clearly aren’t helping, we were told, both by neglecting its poorest citizens, and by telling tourists some areas are safe to visit when they’re probably not.
Rio feels like a volatile place. Asking locals, rather than believing well-intentioned guide books, about what’s safe is anyone’s best bet. That’s not to say this city didn’t astound us in many different ways; it comes highly recommended. Just keep your wits about you.
Here are our highlights…
1. Pedra Do Sal Street Parties
Cheap caipirinhas and dancing in the street is a winning combination in our book!
Every Monday and Saturday night two or three streets in the old migrant community of Pedra Do Sal comes alive with samba.
It’s where many say the genre originated when black immigrants to Brazil began to experiment with new sounds.
The energy here was intoxicating; people of all ages and backgrounds singing and dancing together.
DJs played alongside traditional samba bands, cocktails flowed like water and amazing street food was never far away. We loved it, and you will too (just keep your belongings close by, it gets busy!)
2. People watching on Copacabana
Nothing is more iconically Rio than walking along this giant strip of sand and watching the people who call it home.
Fans of toned bodies playing football, volleyball or a combination of the two will also have plenty to gawp at!
We stumbled across some fine specimens playing beach volleyball using only their heads and legs to get the ball over the net. It was mesmerising! We appreciated their talent almost as much as their abs!
3. Doing the tourist thing
Few cities are so awash with world-famous tourist attractions. So for at least a day or two you’ve got join the hordes.
Christ the Redeemer (or Cristo Redentor as locals call him), pops up from vantage points all over the city, perched as he is on Corcovado hill, Rio’s highest point.
Neither of us are in the slightest bit religious, but it was genuinely breathtaking to see the 35 metre statue up close, watching over his city.
Take the funicular railway to the top (queues are manageable outside peak days/times), spend an hour getting the perfect selfie and admiring that killer view of the whole city sprawled out in front of you.
He’s also worth trying to capture from sea level either when wispy clouds float over his head, or when the sunset shrouds him in a perfect orange glow.
You’ll also want to take the two cable cars to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous like we were, you can hike the first half in about 45 minutes (take water!).
The hike takes you to the smaller peak where you can take the second cable car to the top.
There’s plenty to keep you occupied aside from those amazing views of Copacabana and Cristo.
They’ve kept the original cable car from the 1920s, built an interesting little museum charting the history of the place and there are plenty of macaque monkeys jostling for your attention (and food).
4. Santa Teresa
Rio’s prettiest suburb, and where we happened to be staying. It’s perched on a hill, so every corner you turn rewards you with another view of the city below.
It’s full of amazing colonial architecture blended with street art and graffiti, and the famous yellow Bonde Tram still snakes its way down a short route to the city (it used to be much longer before a crash in 2011 took it out of service for a while).
Santa Teresa is also full of traditional as well as trendy bars and restaurants.
We stumbled across Discovery Suites and loved its cocktails and excellent food (£10 for a fillet steak, you can’t go wrong).
It’s a perfect area to eat, drink, stroll and people watch, and unlike anywhere else we saw in the city.
Not too far away are also the world famous Escadaria Selarón; 215 steps which are covered in over 2000 tiles and collected from over 60 countries around the world.
We used them a number of times to try to get the perfect picture, but still got spectacularly photobombed by the lady on the left!
Are favelas safe? The jury’s out. A glossy tourist guide to 31 of them has been produced, and the one we went to, Santa Marta, has guided tours, a funicular to the top and a tourist office at the entrance.
It was fascinating to see how the narrow lanes wound around the steep hills of Santa Marta, and the ramshackle breeze block constructions that would be the epitome of poverty were it not for the satellite TVs and sound systems glaring from them.
Santa Marta itself has become a tourist attraction since Michael Jackson flew in on a helicopter in 1996 to film part of his ‘They Don’t Care About Us’ video.
A hilariously tacky bronze statue was erected here a year after his 2009 death, after which Santa Marta was declared the first pacified favela.
Yet we always felt a little on edge here. Some favelas have proper roads and relatively well maintained homes.
This was a rabbit’s warren, difficult to navigate and with the feeling tourists were to be exploited, not necessarily welcomed.
We don’t regret our favela visit, but wish we’d done more research, and asked more questions, before venturing in to the relatively unknown.