Posted by: Alex MacGregor | July 12, 2013

Rio de Janeiro, Beachside

Most foreign tourists in Rio make a bee-line to the legendary Copacabana beach, and the large urban neighborhood that abuts it, where many of the city’s reasonably-priced (relatively speaking) accommodations can be found.

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With beachside relaxation like this on offer, why wouldn’t you choose Copacabana?

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Unhappily, there are definitely reasons to spend your time in Rio elsewhere. Although the world’s image of the neighborhood hasn’t caught up to reality yet, it would do foreign travelers well to understand that this is a big-city environment with its fair share of urban grit.

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Most importantly, the various mountains that rise above Copacabana’s urban grid are lined with favelas–hillside slums. Although most favela-dwellers are working poor struggling to get by, these areas provide a ready supply of muggers as well. After crimes are committed, criminals merely need to escape to their favelas, which are inaccessible by car and sometimes ignored by police altogether.

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Horror stories abound. We met a couple from Atlanta who came to Brazil with some friends. On their friends’ first day in Brazil, they strolled down the main beachfront drag at 7PM and were mugged. (The victims headed straight to the airport and back to the USA.) The mugging was done in the Brazilian way: relatively spontaneous and in an open area. Brazilian muggers don’t need their victims to be completely isolated–the road was reasonably busy at that time–they just need about ten seconds to demand the victim’s stuff and take off to the nearest favela (or, at night, the beach itself, which becomes a no-go zone after dark).

Granted, 7PM is pitch black in Rio’s July, the beachside road is known for being unsavory, and bad things can and do happen anywhere. But that all begs the question: why is the beachfront road in Copacabana so sketchy? Why is it dangerous to walk a few blocks down a less-than-mobbed street at night?

In a way, I think Centro’s problems are less of a hindrance to Rio than Copacabana’s problems. Copacabana is a major hotel district, and where many tourists with any sense of thrift will end up. A night in the most basic of its many aging hotels will run at least US$100 per night. More commonly, for a decent room, you’re looking at $200 (nicer districts are even more expensive). These are New York City prices, to stay in a neighborhood where getting mugged on the way home from dinner is all-too-possible, and where certain streets aren’t advisable to walk down on weekends.

(We stayed in dorm beds during our time in Copacabana, which generally run $30 or so.)

Many younger tourists now opt for trendier areas closer to Centro like Santa Teresa, Catete, Botafogo, and Flamengo, where somewhat cheaper rooms can be found.

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All this is not to say Copacabana isn’t enjoyable. It’s a really walkable area that feels a lot like New York at times.

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Brazilians have a love of Natural Products and health foods. These sorts of stores are common throughout Rio’s neighborhoods, rich and poor.

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Somewhat contradictorily, Brazilians also love sweets, and produce them in many tantalizing varieties.

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Our favorite treat: the Brigadiero. It’s a truffle-like chocolate ball covered in sprinkles. Delicious!

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Christ Redeemer pokes through the buildings at dusk.

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My recommendation for anyone visiting Rio would be to strive to find accommodation in the much nicer and safer Ipanema area (or even more exclusive Leblon).

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Further from slums and a wealthier area in general, Ipanema’s beach scene is on another level from anything I’ve ever witnessed. There must be many thousands of young people lounging and relaxing on the beach on a given weekend day. Definitely something you have to see for yourself.

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The streets in Ipanema are also a lot less crowded and hectic, remain vibrant on nights and weekends, and contain much more in the way of international brands and upscale, trendy restaurants. The area seems worth the extra money, frankly.

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When it comes to the Olympics, however, I have a few reservations. The metro system is only now being extended to serve Ipanema, and only a small sliver will actually have service come 2016. Ipanema offers far fewer hotels than less-pricey Copacabana, so most tourists will end up in somewhat dicier digs.

How all of this plays out, only time will tell.

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