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Insiders guide to Rio de Janeiro

Brazil
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Insiders guide to Rio de Janeiro

story by: Anna Sarjeant

We won’t bore you with the obvious; Sugarloaf Mountain and the like. Allow us to try and impress you, with a few lesser ​known Rio de Janeiro must-dos.

1. Hang glide off the Pedra Bonita ramp
“Okay, after one, two, three, we run… and fly like Tinkerbell.”

Are the EXACT instructions we received when hang gliding off the Pedra Bonita ramp in beautiful Rio de Janeiro. But fear not, your instructor is a dab-hand at this, and truth be told, that’s all you need to know anyway - he’ll do the rest.

With exceptional panoramic views across the ocean, beach, coastal islands, the world’s largest favela and jagged mountainside, launching from Tijuca, 520 metres above sea level and with nothing but wind to transport you, is one of those life-affirming moments. A three hour round-trip, you’ll spend 10-20 minutes in the sky, before landing – surprisingly smoothly – on Pepino Beach.

HOT tip: Once grounded, buy fresh coconut from a waterfront kiosk and watch your fellow gliders sweep-in behind you. 


2. Frolic at Rodrigo de Freitas Lake
This man-made lagoon was re-urbanised not so many decades ago into a lush and resplendent spot that is something of a relief from Rio’s non-stop commotion. Probably one of the most picturesque locations in the city, go for picnics, strolls and lazy afternoons. The 7.2km path that flanks the water’s edge allows for bike rides, walking and running, with waterside cafes for caipirinhas and alfresco dining.

HOT tip: Bike and paddle boat hire is readily available.

3. Hike to Christ the Redeemer
The Big Jesus. Better known as Christo Redentor, or Christ the Redeemer, is an obvious point-of-call. But don’t take the easy route, take the hard one - because it’s glorious.

One of the world’s most iconic monuments sits at 710 metres, so you’re in for an uphill workout. Starting at Parque Lage, you’ll enter a canopy of tall trees and thick rainforest; shaded and still, with instant peace from the city's honks and humdrum. The initial 20-minutes - dare we say it – is easy, and then it gets hard. Very, very hard. Fear not, past the cascading waterfalls and steep rocks with chains to pull you over, there lies the great man himself. And even greater views.

HOT tip: Embark in the morning for cooler temperatures and a quieter route.


4. Eat your own weight in food
Eat well without spending a fortune at a Brazilian ‘pay per kilo’ buffet restaurant. They’re increasingly popular and can be found on almost every street. However, without the proper know-how, they’re daunting hangouts. Here’s how to do it like a native Carioca:

  • Take your order form/ticket/piece of flimsy paper at the door
  • Take a plate and pile it as high as you like with buffet
  • Take your plate to be weighed
  • Have your weight written on your ticket
  • Order your ‘extras’ – drinks, coffee and occasionally stand-alone desserts
  • Fill your face
  • Take your ticket and pay for the weight you consumed
  • You’re looking at R$20 (NZ$4) to R$50 (NZ$20) per kilo.

HOT tip: Thinking of eating like a Trojan warrior and accidentally ‘losing’ your ticket? We wouldn’t recommend it. Lost tickets come at a price – you could’ve dined 5* kind of price.


5. Sail to the Cagarras Islands
From mountains high to valleys low, as beautiful as she is from above, Rio de Janeiro is just as beguiling from the sea.

Multiple sailing excursions embark from Guanabara Bay and set sail into the Atlantic Ocean, heading seven nautical miles off the coast of Rio towards the majestic Cagarras Islands. With five isles in total, all of which are uninhabited, you’ll want to keep a​n eye out for dolphins, birds and the occasional humpback whale.

Hot tip: Don’t forget the camera. Flawless images of Rio come in the form of water-lapped islands, jagged mountain peaks, rainforest and a glowing sunset casting the entire skyline in a radiant Rio shimmer.


6. Admire stained glass
Externally The Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian looks like a relatively ugly wigwam, but deter from judging this book by its cover and step inside, because the story changes considerably.

A modern masterpiece, this enormous cathedral boasts floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows cascading down all sides. No easy feat when you have to strain your neck just to see the roof. Enchanting and, for Rio, uncharacteristically quiet, you don’t have to be religious to appreciate this inner-city marvel.

HOT tip: There are no entry fees and if you join one of the city’s free walking tours, most incorporate the cathedral into their itinerary.   


7. Speaking of religion, go and see a football match
Yes, we said we wouldn’t be obvious, but you can’t visit Rio and not attend a football match.

This isn’t your run-of-the-mill kick about, this is a monumental event. To a point where the crowd is as much of a spectacle as the game. Look out for a match at the renowned Maracanã Stadium and you’ll be treated to packed stands of chanting, cheering (sometimes jeering) and drum-beating fans. Yes we said drum beating. The atmosphere is electric, which may or may not contributed to the excessive amount of alcohol consumption, which you can partake in before the game, on the streets directly outside the stadium.

HOT tip: Eat beforehand. Beer is readily available outside the Maracanã, but food not so much. Subway is a 10-minute walk away, but you’ll be queueing for twice that time.  

8. Step out of your comfort zone
For the most enviable views across the hills of Rio and an experience that will leave a tingle in your spine, a favela tour allows visitors to witness the disparity of Brazilian livelihoods. The poorest of living standards are found in Rio’s mountain-hugging slums, but it’s the gritty local culture that make these neighbourhoods the most bright and exciting. Rocinha is the city’s largest favela but Santa Marta is arguably the liveliest, with painting projects, vividly coloured houses, the perpetual smell of cooked food and constant chatter emanating from every home, alleyway, store and school.

HOT tip: Research your tours extensively. A favela visit shouldn’t be a poverty safari, but rather an insight into a lifestyle you are yet to experience. 

9. Snap the best view of Rio
Birds, bikes and butterflies! You’ll see them all in Rio’s Tijuca National Park. Home to the world’s largest urban forest, you can meander through this colossal kingdom of jungle by foot, bike or open Jeep tour. Replete with rare parrots and parakeet species, there are multiple paths to be discovered and monkeys to be dodged. And don’t forget to keep an eye out for the sloths! Open every day from 8am – 5pm, if you’re seeking sanctuary from the city, Tijuca forest is a world away from the busy Brazilian streets.

HOT tip: Capture sweeping views of Ipanema and Copacabana beach from the Chinese vista point. A temple built by the Chinese, you can see as far as Guanabara Bay and even Niteroi. 

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