If want to visit Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, planning a trip can be confusing. But if you’ve been to Honolulu–another tropical urban beach city–you already possess knowledge of a good reference location. Your experience in Honolulu will help you to better navigate Rio.
To start, both cities are the subject of many a postcard and cliche. In Honolulu, it’s Diamond Head and palm trees on the beach at sunset. In Rio, it’s the Cristo overlooking steep mountains to the ocean. The cities share similar climate and love of outdoor sports. Both cities are stunning to see in person with vibrant cultures and well worth a visit.
Hawaii and Rio have almost the same average weather: 80-degrees and mostly sunny with a slight breeze. Delightful. Even the normally chilly Atlantic is warmer there, making it possible to comfortably swim, surf and snorkel in the ocean near Rio year round.
Winter (June to August)
Most say winter is the best time to visit Rio, and I agree. If you go in winter, you can pack like you did for Hawaii except leave home any expensive jewelry and your laptop. (There is a huge black market for stolen laptops in Brazil because they’re very expensive to buy new.) Also bring solid walking shoes for pounding the pavement.
Summer (December to February)
Summer is a different story. Rio gets much hotter and more humid. No Tradewinds to cool things off. If you go in summer, you’ll need to think seriously about how to keep the sun off your skin and stay cool. Air conditioning at your accommodation is a must, as are a shade hat, breathable clothing and any special kind of sunscreen you use. All pharmacies sell sunscreen, but the list of ingredients will be in Portuguese, doubly vexing if you have any kind of sensitivity to typical sunscreen ingredients.
Where to stay?
The most popular area for visitors to Rio to stay are along the cities eastern beaches, Copacabana and Ipanema. Both are very famous, like Waikiki, and offer the broadest range of accommodation choices. Once you choose a neighborhood, it will be much easier to pin down a specific place for lodging.
Copacabana is Rio’s Waikiki, but bigger and more crowded. Most people end up here on their first Rio and learn to avoid it on subsequent visits. The beach itself is huge, relatively clean, and generally swimmable (unless the surf is breaking big).
Hotels pack the street opposite the beach. There are hundreds to choose from in all price ranges (US$100 to $1,000 per night). One important consideration when booking a place to stay on Copacabana Beach is crime. On our recent trip to Rio, one person in our group staying at Copa was robbed at gun point just before sunset right in front of a hotel. Safety in this area at night is a serious concern.
On the plus side, Copa is closer to the subway station (about a 15-minute walk) than Ipanema (about a 30-minute walk) and getting a taxi is easy at any hour.
Ipanema Beach is about half the size of Copa, and the two beaches are separated by a dozen or so blocks of residential zone. Despite being so close, they feel worlds apart. Ipanema is more neighborhood and less tourist attraction. There are plenty of tourists and locals alike in both locations. But wealthy locals tend live in Ipanema and not so much in Copa. Ipanema is Rio’s Kahala or Diamond Head: more elegant with trendy cafes and boutiques.
Hotels line the street opposite Ipanema beach, but they are not the towering megalith high-rises on Copa. The scale is smaller with more of a boutique attitude. Swanky vacation rentals (e.g., condos) can also be found in Ipanema. We picked up a 5-bedroom penthouse with rooftop deck, hot tub and daily maid service in a secured building 1 block from Ipanema Beach for less than US$100 per person per day–a bargain by any standard and far more bang for our bucks than comparably priced area hotels.
Although criminals concentrate on Copa, Ipanema is not crime-free. You’re less likely to be robbed at gunpoint in Ipanema when other people are around, but these basic urban safety rules apply equally to both areas: walk in groups at night, take a taxi and don’t carry or wear valuable items. For instance, I left my irreplacable wedding ring at home and wore a cheaper band instead. I also didn’t carry any brand name handbags or sunglasses.
In summary, plan your trip to Rio like you are going to Hawaii, just leave your valuable stuff at home. Remember it’s easier to find a crowd than escape it (why we stayed in Ipanema over Copa). But the trade-off is convenience, availability (you’ll need to book early) and in the case of hotels, price.