What's the quickest way to a beach body in Rio de Janeiro? Head into the jungle. (The urban one and the natural one.) Cyrena Lee hits hiking trails, inner-city neighborhoods, and mega nightclubs and discovers that beach volleyball isn't the only way to stay fit in paradise. Here's her action-packed, highly opinionated, super fun itinerary.
RIO DE JANEIRO – Rio is an urban jungle. The enormous and tropical Tijuca Forest, the world's largest urban forest, lies smack dab in the middle of the city. Most tourists imagine Rio and think of the crowded beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema (these days, more of a destination for dudes who like dudes), but for adventure travelers, there are endless trails to hike, waves to catch, places to dance, and mountains to explore.
Rio is a breathtakingly beautiful city that will leave you dreading your return to wherever normal life is. It's a melange of my favorite places. Parisian architecture meets Taipei's hot and humid tropical weather and spawns juice stands, random outdoor exercise equipment, and enormous indoor air-conditioned malls filled with quirky store brands you've never heard of.
Yet the city has its own very distinct flair. It isn't spicy — Cariocas dislike spice so much that black pepper is avoided like the plague — but it is a bit dangerous and full of soul and passion that goes beyond the mellow style of bossa nova music.
And yes, Rio is dangerous. But I went everywhere by car (if you want to rent a car there, you should know how to drive manual, as automatic is more expensive and harder to find), and never felt unsafe. The best advice is to be aware of your surroundings and self. There is a phenomenon called arrastão, where gangs of young men run through crowds and rob everyone in sight. If you see a pack of boys running towards you, back away.
On my visit, I stayed with locals who grew up in the Recreio dos Bandeirantes neighborhood in the West Zone, which has only been developed in the past thirty years. The West Zone, which includes the neighborhoods of Barra (pronounced "ba-ha") and Recreio, is an unexplored residential area of condominiums and pristine beaches set to explode as the site of the Olympic Village for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Get ready to dive in.
SWIM AND SURF
For most, the first stop in Rio is the beach, and one of the biggest and best is Praia de Barra. The large uninterrupted stretch of sand is less crowded than the beaches in Zona Sul (and nicer because it's on open water). It's like Miami, in that you can play I-spy with novela stars and famous soccer players who live in chic condominiums nearby. Most of these elite Cariocas usually chill across the street in clubes, Brazilian country clubs that serve fried fish, chicken, and frosty beers. Brazilians hate any type of beer that isn't ice cold.
Tourists are rare here, so to fit in, get a Brazilian bathing suit or get made fun of for wearing granny panties (it happened to me). Score a suit on the beach for cheap, or head to the glorious New York City Center and check out Rygy for authentic swimwear. With the current favorable exchange rate, a cute bikini will cost you around $50 USD — the smaller the bottom, the cheaper. Rio is not an inexpensive city.
Don't feel ashamed if you aren't a bikini model. One of the best things about Brazilian beach culture is the pervasive feeling of total body acceptance. Everybody has a beach body, and everyone, from teenage girls to grandmas with lots of junk in the trunk, sports revealing thongs or sungas. That being said, there is a gym culture and you will find heavy makeup, spandex body suits in neon colors that reveal tons of cleavage, and many machines that don't exist in the US that are built specifically to bolster butt muscles.
Venture further west and you'll hit Praia do Recreio, which is a paradise of two beaches demarcated at the end with a big, climbable rock. Look for Praia de Pontal, the best spot on the beach. Once you've established your base tan, hit K-Foto do Surf (Avenida Gilka Machado 02; no phone) for lessons and board rentals. The waves can be nice and easy for beginners, but the most essential key to standing up is believing that you're going to. It makes a huge difference. Surfing in Rio only really took off in 2000. Prior, surf culture was relegated to potheads and looked down on as a sport for rebels.
Even more secluded is Prainha Beach, a quiet gem located between two mountains that's now a popular destination for world-class surfers. You can't get there with public transportation, but there is a nearby overlook where you can park your car. After parking, walk through the grass on the dirt trail down the cliffside and you'll find an incredible, hidden natural pool called Secreto where you can enjoy quiet paradise.
HIKE AND RUN
If you're seeking solitude and a meditative run, head to Praia da Reserva, a long stretch of isolated beach between Barra and Recreio where construction of buildings is strictly forbidden. Sunsets here are so undisturbed and still and infused with color that they might make you tear. Another popular place to run, bike, or stroll is Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas. Nearby Quiosque Arabe, an outdoor cafe made for tourists (hello, English menus) is perfect for people and bird watching (hello, swans).
For hiking, there's Parque Natural Municipal da Prainha, one of many city recognized parks and natural wonders that have hiking trails. Note that many public parks are closed on Mondays.
The easy 45-minute hike to the top of Pedra Bonita (beautiful rock), unknown by many tourists, is worth kicking off a visit to Rio with. The reward: A lay of the land and a jaw-dropping view of Rio. Directly across is sister mountain Pedra de Gávea, a bigger and more demanding hike with views of the west side of the city — Barra, Tijuca forest, and the infamous and touristy Zona Sul (south zone). Extreme thrill seekers can hang glide from the top of Pedra Bonita to Pepino beach in no time at all.
Tijuca Forest is a manifestation of human-made insistence on restoring natural order. During the 1500s, the forest was plowed for Colonial sugar and coffee plantations. In 1861, the Brazilian king ordered slaves and workers to replant the forest.
There is tranquil waterfall near the entrance to Parque Nacional da Tijuca, but the real show stopper is Cachoeira do Horto, a dazzling cascade you'll have to hike to. The trail is not lacking for adventure, with plenty of dirt steps, tree roots to scramble up, and an assortment of chains and ropes to help you scamper across more uncertain ground. When you arrive at the waterfall, strip down to your skivvies (or your bathing suit) and dive in — the water pressure is a welcome massage that relieves any stress you've endured from the hike.
Another entrance will bring you to Caminho das Grutas, which loosely translates to "trail of caves," where you'll see incredible sights like giant trees wedged between massive rocks and coatis, furry racoon-like quati creatures. Watch out for snakes.
Pão de Açúcar
One of the most famous mountains in Rio is Sugarloaf Mountain, so called because it apparently resembles one. Hike up Morro da Urca, a smaller peak with a well-established trail and signage warning you not to feed the adorable Mico monkeys, which are the New York equivalent of squirrels, only much cuter. At the top, take a cable car to the summit of Sugarloaf (the only other way up requires ropes) or just hang, snap photos, and enjoy pao de queijo, acai, or fruit salad before heading down to Praia Vermelha.
CLIMB AND EXPLORE
If you're keen on climbing, check out the small bouldering gym Evolucao Escalada, which rests at the top of a hill at the foot of a hostel in the Botafogo neighborhood. Indoor climbing has yet to take hold in Rio, so you'll likely see professional climbers hanging out. If you're feeling friendly, ask them to take you on a tour of their favorite hardcore climbing and beach bouldering spots.
Back in Recreio, you'll find a different kind of extreme in Parque Chico Mendes. It seems like a normal city park, but there are alligators casually lazing about in the waters alongside peculiarly large rodents called capybara. These freakishly huge creatures would eat NYC rats for breakfast. Some Cariocas evidently eat them as burgers or during a churrascaria (barbecue). I took them at their word for it.
Near the famous arches in the Lapa neighborhood (which is known for its nightlife and restaurants) is one of my favorite urban hikes — Escadaria Selarón, an incredible mosaic of tiled stairs that embody the life and work of Chilean artist Jorge Selaron. He began restoring the once dilapidated steps as a side project, but it soon developed into his main passion. The project went on for years, ever-evolving and growing to the point where tourists would send him tiles from all over the world. Selaron famously claimed (on a piece of tile, no less) that "this crazy and unique dream will only end on the day of my death." His dead body was discovered on the steps in 2013, adding to the mystique of the landmark.
At the top of the steps is the hilly Santa Teresa neighborhood overlooking downtown Rio, filled with Art Deco buildings, tiny artisan shops, and cafes. One of the best views is from Parque das Ruinas, where the remains of a famous 19th-century mansion owned by Brazilian heiress Laurinda Santos Lobo lies. Walk through and imagine enjoying entertainment, music, poetry, and exquisite cuisine at one of her swanky salon parties thrown on the 4th of every month during Brazil's belle-epoque.
If you have a car and really want go off the beaten path, enter the North Zone. I went there with a friend who was born and raised in Rio and had never been there before. It's a landlocked, mostly low-income (rising middle class) area on the other side of the mountains, which makes it difficult to get to from Barra and the Zona Sul beaches.
In an effort to develop the neighborhood, the Brazilian government built the scenic Parque Madureira, now the third largest park in the city, to give locals access to green areas found more often on the other side of the mountains. It has a skate park, artificial sand beaches, and waterfalls and is worth a visit to get a balanced perspective on Rio.
While I didn't go on one — this kind of tourism wades a bit too deep into murky morality waters for me — it's impossible to talk about Rio without mentioning favelas, the slum neighborhoods in which just under a quarter of the population live. On most highways, the Brazilian government has constructed barriers to prevent the general populace from seeing them, but tourists can take Jeep tours to select favelas, including Santa Marta, which has a statue of Michael Jackson and the largest favela, Rocinha, which lights up the mountains just before entering the South Zone from Barra.
WHERE TO EAT
For breakfast, I was taken care of by my friend's lovely vovo (grandmother), who would make calorie bombs known as rabanadas (think french toast coated with cinnamon sugar) and provide fruit, cheese, and bread spreads like requeijão, which is to Cariocas what vegemite is to Aussies. It's reminiscent of spreadable cream cheese, except tangier, more addictive, and not at all unpalatable.
Brazilians are known for their meat, so we went to a churrascaria, or barbecue restaurant, so I could have the full experience. We opted for Baby Beef in Barra (Porcao is one of the nicest ones), which had valet parking and decor that reminded me of the tacky gaudiness of Vegas. Inside there were greek statues of women wearing dresses and formal waitstaff that scurried about the room holding large cuts of meat of an infinite variety.
Bring an empty stomach, because the concept of churrascaria is wild. It's essentially dim sum on crack. You pay a set price (about one hundred reias) and you're set free to the overwhelming buffet. Waiters also pass by your table one after another offering cuts of meat that don't exist in the US (see picanha) and pieces of whole roasted pigs. Have the papaya pudding for dessert. It's meant to help with digestion.
By far, my favorite food experience was at the well-known Pavao Azul, a successful boteco (like a bodega, but more of a bar hangout with salty snacks) in Copacabana. Day-long hikes were rewarded with savory shrimp risotto and pastel de queijo (crispy cheese empanadas), which were deliciously salty and best chased with sips of cold cerveja.
WHERE TO DANCE
With a full belly and the sun setting, there's only one activity left for adventure travelers: dancing. There are two major types of dancing in Brazil — Samba (of course) and Funky, something on an entirely different level. It could be called twerking, but more tasteful (sorry, Miley) and with more finesse.
If you're going out for the night, you must wait until 10 p.m. for the locals to finish their famed 9 p.m. novela. There is only one media conglomerate, Globo, which has 70 percent penetration of the population. (Imagine if there were only Fox news and Fox-produced shows and dramas on television). Every weekday, there are four novelas that cater to different age groups, the last being the most important and widely watched. The influence Globo and the novelas have on Brazilians is staggering. Friends tell me that after the first male homosexual kiss was aired, more and more young Cariocas felt comfortable coming out.
The cautious should check out Mariuzinn in Copacabana, a gloriously trashy and fun venue that has an open bar and lots of South American tourists looking to get their groove on. The real funky dancing doesn't begin until late, however.
The intrepid should head to Barra Music, a mega-complex dance club that looks like something out of Pitbull's dreams. You must be at least eighteen to enter (bring your ID) and pay a small cover charge. The interior is built like a stadium with multiple levels that overlook a main dance floor and stage. You can and should order bottle service, because it's the only way to celebrate the absurd sporting atmosphere that hosts no sports, just plenty of impressive booty-shaking. There was no surra de bunda found here — evidently you must go into the favelas to see that level of vulgarity. (The infamous City of God favela is nearby, if you don't value the safety of your life.)
Lastly, a note about being female in Rio: The men are overtly aggressive, and, as a result, most women have no issue being extremely rude to fend off male attention. If you decide to dance with a local, accept that it'll be read as an open invitation to make out.