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Rio de Janeiro is the city I’ve been looking for my whole life. It’s the place I never knew just how much I needed to experience.
Calling it the greatest city in the world carries a lot of weight, but nicknamed Cidade Maravilhosa “the marvelous city”, Rio is so magical, that its greatness can hardly be encapsulated in just one article. But here’s to trying anyway…There's an energy, warmth, and overall happiness that radiates the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Click To Tweet
I’ve now been in Rio for almost three weeks, and I am SO happy to be here as an ambassador of an amazing company called Grabr.
If you missed my post a few weeks ago, I talked about how I used Grabr to fund my trip to Brazil for Carnaval here. Grabr is incredibly popular in Rio, and some of my shoppers were asking when I’d be back to bring more stuff! LOL
Because the concept is genius! Check this — so because of crazy taxes and import fees people around the world have to pay for U.S. manufactured products, this website allows people to place bids for things they’d like you to bring (if you’re traveling to a country already).
It’s also a way to get different local products from abroad, like my new favorite spirit, cachaca, that’s made in Brazil!
So what you do is buy the item locally (or on Amazon), and the the shopper will pay for the value of the item plus a traveler’s reward, which is like a tip that can range from $5 to $200 (maybe more!) based on the value of the item or how hard it is to obtain.
So the first thing I wanted to do was meet up with my shoppers when I landed in Copacabana, and deliver all the items they had bid on! It ranged from princess dolls to sneakers to playstations, and more!
Meeting up with my shoppers was the first insight into how friendly, warm, and welcoming Brazilians or Cariocas (people from Rio) can be!
While messaging my shoppers to arrange a meet up time in my hotel lobby, they couldn’t go more than a couple messages without saying something along the lines of “enjoy Carnaval and go crazy!” or “please let me know if you have any questions about anything!” or even “if you need someone to show you around, let me know!”
It immediately set the tone and it made meeting them in person so easy! It’s a bit intimidating at first to think — okay, I’m going to meet up with 20+ locals, I only know ten Portuguese words, and I have no idea what to expect!
But by the time the first man got there, he had a huge grin, pulled me in for a big Carioca hug and the typical Rio greeting of a kiss on each cheek. We sat down and chatted for a few minutes about what to expect for Carnaval, things I have to do, and drinks I have to try (basically the essentials, ha).
I was happy to have met with all the locals first before setting off to do all my touristy things, because it made me a bit more relaxed to be there by myself. It doesn’t matter how experienced of a traveler you are, being in a new, foreign environment is always a bit intimidating at first.
So now that business was out the way, here was some of the Carnaval madness I experienced, and tips for what you can expect!
You must get a ticket for the Sambadromo at least one of the nights! Tickets can be pricey if not booked in advance, but it is truly like a religious experience.
Saturday night I was in Sector 2 and Sunday night in Sector 3 (I highly recommend sector 3, as you can get just a little bit closer to the action). And if you get there early enough, you can claim a standing spot near the fence.
Carnaval season is truly a remarkable time to be in Rio, and the other day, my local friend told me that since the madness finished, there was a message on the news that said, “Carnaval is over, please everyone, go back to work!” LOL
WHERE TO STAY
Rio is a fairly big and dense city, with a population of over 6 million people. If you’re coming during Carnaval and want to be in the middle of all the best blocos, street parties, and fun, then Lapa is where you need to stay.
I searched on Trivago for the best rates available and used roomsXXL to make my booking. It’s a website that offers low-cost accommodation worldwide at special hotel rates that they’ve negotiated with their partners for, which can also be found on Kayak and Skyscanner as well.
The selection ranges from simple guesthouses to luxury hotels in over 800 cities worldwide, including well-known hotel brands like the Hilton, Mercure, Ritz-Carlton, Radisson, ibis, Marriott, Novotel, and more.
I stayed at Slaviero Lifestyle Rio in the heart of Lapa, near all the best bars, close to central, and the gorgeous Santa Teresa neighborhoods. Not to mention the Sambadromo where the big parades took place, was within walking distance — perfect location!
Since I booked ahead of time (during Carnaval, try to book at least one month in advance, because places fill up quick), checking in with the voucher provided by roomsXXL was seamless as they had my booking already in their system, and I was given a room with a king bed (what I listed as my preference for booking) and a gorgeous view of the street in front of us.
The breakfasts here are delicious as well, so take full advantage of their buffet meals in the morning to load up and last you for a few hours.
WHAT TO WEAR
I didn’t know much about Carnaval before coming here except that women are usually dressed immaculately (bodies included), and I wasn’t sure how exactly I was going to blend in with the crowd.
I noticed feathers were a common theme, and before anybody yells cultural appropriation (the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of another for commercial gain, and often in a mocking or disrespectful manner) feathers take on a whole new meaning here.
Feathers in general, are used in many festivals around the world in headdresses that are tacky and very much culturally appropriative. But here, they are a staple to the costumes.
Feathers and quills are used in wings, headpieces, and masks that drape the faces and heads of most people walking down the street, symbolizing their ability to rise above pain, diseases, heartbreaks, problems, and spiritually grown.
There is so much pride and effort that goes into these costumes, one Carioca (someone from Rio) told me that some families spend most of their money every year during Carnaval season.
There’s so much joy and energy that permeates the streets, that despite what’s in your bank account, you feel inclined to party and celebrate with the rest of the city and country.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Brazil doesn’t know how to do things small. It is a total sensory overload being here for Carnaval. This multi-million dollar event is filled with extravagant floats, costumes, and firework displays that put any typical stateside celebration to shame.
They’re such proud people and genuinely love their culture, passions, and customs, so getting a chance to share a piece with foreigners excites them to boundless degrees.In Brazil, you should expect the unexpected, and then still be prepared to be surprised! Click To Tweet
I was also warned about the uhhm, “friendliness” of Brazilian men, and how you shouldn’t stare or smile too long, as it might be seen as an invitation for them to kiss you.
Let’s talk about cultural clashes for a second. Kissing (not the cheek greeting, but with tongue) in Brazil, isn’t considered a big deal.
Men [and women] give out kisses like handshakes, and you need to prepare to dodge them if that’s not what you’re wanting.
“But it’s Carnaval!” my Brazilian friend shouted to me. I said, “Yeah, but I still want to bring my morals along for the ride!” LOL
In many cases, all it took was glancing their general direction, making any sort of eye contact, before they’d be in my face the next second, and then going in for a smooch, which I had to keep pretending I had a husband to avoid (I have a fake wedding ring).
Wedding ring or not, it never mattered. Kissing is more about bragging rights than actual attraction (though I’m sure it helps).
Because in reality, it was just another tally to them for the day.
In general, if you’re traveling here as a single woman, well, there is plenty of fun to be had, but just exercise the same caution you’d use anywhere else, because a country-wide celebration doesn’t mean repercussions and reality won’t kick in the next day.
My Brazilian friend Daniel hilariously noted though, that at least in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, the women who were ’bout that life had on beads. Here, no one has beads, so you have no way to differentiate your targets, haha.
Not to mention, Brazilians don’t flash people. It’s funny, their bikinis are like floss and will cover just enough, but you wouldn’t dare catch anyone topless here, because that’s just crossing the line for them. So funny how that works.
WHAT TO PAY
The first thing you’ll want to do when you land in Rio’s International Airport (Galeão International Airport, also known as Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport, code GIG), is go to the ATM and take out some Brazilian Reais.
As soon as you leave the baggage claim, you’ll see a row of ATM machines near the exit.
So first things first, reais is pronounced like heh-ize because the “R” letter in Portuguese produces an H sound.
So the first time someone charged me X “heh-ize” I thought to myself, “What the hell is that? All I have are REE-IZE” LOL.
The conversions aren’t too bad to memorize either: 1 USD = approximately 3.1 BRL.
Meaning that any time you see a Brazilian Reais price, just divide that number by 3 to get an approximation of how much that’d be in US dollars.
While ATMs were hard to find in some places, always, always opt for the ones that are in indoor locations such as convenience stores or banks, because there are surveillance cameras there, and less of a chance for someone to stick a card reader and produce a fake copy of your card if scanned.
This has never happened to me, but it definitely happens, so it’s a good general rule to follow!
HOW TO GET AROUND
Though I always try to opt for over-ground transportation like buses to get “free tours” of the city en route to my location, I didn’t feel like tasking myself with trying to learn the bus system or even the subway.
Unfortunately, Lyft doesn’t work in Brazil, so the next best thing was Uber. Most of the time, a 15-20 minute ride to another district costs less than 5 bucks, so it was definitely cheaper than taxis and just a safe and efficient way to get around.
Also, the driving is CRAZY! Haha. Similar to drivers in any coastal or beachside city really. I remember my Uber driver got cut off by a guy who didn’t use his blinker (nobody does), and my driver sped up and I thought it was to curse the guy out, but no, it must happen so often, that it’s not worth getting mad over.
He just sped up to continue driving and didn’t even glance over at the other guy once he passed him — thought it was kinda funny! Because you know in the states, we need to make eye contact with the blind @%$hole who cuts us off every time.
HOW TO COMMUNICATE
Many people are surprised to learn that most Brazilians do not speak much (or any) English. And the ones that do are normally the younger ones who studied/lived abroad or just deliberately made efforts to learn it.
English isn’t taught as part of their standard education, and they’re quite happy and proud to only speak Portuguese.
But remember, you’re in their country, and they shouldn’t be forced to accommodate you anyway.
If you speak Spanish though, you’re in luck! 9 times out of 10, when I asked which they preferred (between English and Spanish) the majority chose Spanish, and my 70% fluency paved the way.
But do the minimum, and learn at least the basic greetings, because though you might not be able to say much, knowing how to say a simple hello or thank you in the local language will get you further than you think.
Hi – Olá
Good morning – Bom dia (pronounced bom-jia)
Thank you – Obrigado (obrigada if you’re a woman)
Please – Por favor
Bathroom – Banheiro
Yes – Sim (the ‘m’ is a bit silent here)
No – Não (pronounced like ‘now’ with a closed O sound)
Beer – Cerveja
Wine – Vinho
Very good – Muito bom/bem (If describing food, use ‘bom’. If someone asks how you’re doing, you can say ‘muito bem’)
I don’t speak Portuguese – Eu não falo/a português
The last phrase I found myself using at least a dozen times every day, as people would approach me, speaking Portuguese, because I seemingly looked/appeared Brazilian, which is understandable.
No, you won’t master this overnight, but if you practice every day for a couple weeks leading up to your trip, these will flow out of your mouth like your second language.
I also like to use YouTube channels like this to help with pronunciation, just to make sure I’m emphasizing the correct letters.
Portuguese is all about intonation, and many times, a phrase will mean two different things depending on whether you raise or lower your tone by the end of it.
It’s a tricky language, but I found myself enjoying the melodic and rhythmic Carioca accent, because if you move up north, the pronunciations will change! Their tone matches the laid back lifestyle and beach city life they live.
Every Brazilian will remind you how you need to be extremely cautious with your phone while roaming the streets. This isn’t them being paranoid, this is them growing up in a city where they probably see people get pick-pocketed or robbed daily.
Prior to Rio, Barcelona had been the city I considered pick-pocket capital, and I managed to live there a year unscathed.
So I felt fairly confident with knowing how to monitor my surroundings, never question my gut, and just keep my phone in my purse, which was tightly clutched under my arm, and slung across my chest.
Especially during blocos (group-organized parties in different blocks), the streets are extremely crowded, and anyone with their phone out is a target for a quick robbery.
Though I witnessed a couple people get their phones stolen who were being a bit carefree, nobody is immune to it, and so a couple times, I went back to my hotel and just dropped everything off so that all I had on me was my hotel key card.
Don’t be flashy. Don’t wave your phone around. Don’t draw attention to yourself more than necessary.
Though nothing has happened to me, I can’t say there was ever a time I was able to walk with my guard down. You have to have a sense of security and awareness at all times, and the first couple days I don’t think I took my phone out unless I was inside a building.
After getting used to the environment, I got a bit more comfortable, but it’s still something that can happen to anyone, so just be cautious.
Only bring enough cash that you’ll spend for the day, plus a bit extra for emergency, but do NOT bring your entire wallet or even your passport.
I never had more than 200 Brazilain Reais (approx. 60 USD) on me at one time. Especially if you know what you’ll be doing for the day, then you can calculate and budget your spending.
My Uber was always set to charge to my Paypal account, so the cash was always more than enough for food and drinks.
Overall, I couldn’t have asked for a better experience, and though I’ve hardly scratched the surface on my time here, you can expect another post with all the best things to do and sights to see around the city.
Rio, from all angles and perspectives, is amazing, and it’s a city I wish every wandering soul could get the chance to experience.
Though almost a fourth of Cariocas live in the favelas, I felt like there was warmth and welcoming spirits across the board.
Brazilians are extremely prideful people about their country, its beauty, and a piece of their culture they share with tourists.
I’ll be making a couple vlogs with more behind-the-scenes action of the parade, some of the street parties, and just some chit-chat about some of the stories and lesser-known information I learned from talking to locals.Brazil is a massive and complex country, but such a beautiful and intriguing one. Click To Tweet
Though my time here is coming to an end, I feel so fortunate, blessed, and thankful that I get to say I’ve been to Carnaval in Rio at least once in my lifetime.
And though the title says Rio de Janeiro might be the greatest city in the world. I’m confident from my experience thusfar, that right now, it is the greatest city in the world, and you simply have to come here to experience it for yourself.
Disclaimer: This post was written in collaboration with Grabr Inc, but as always, all words and opinions remain my own.