Practical experience of travelling in Rio de Janeiro

In Rio de Janeiro (Aug. 18-21, 2012), I stayed in Hotel Snob, quite a bit north of the real Centro and close to San Teresa.  The main reasons are its inexpensiveness and the good quality of the Wifi internet.  Even doubling the price, moderate hotels in Copabacana don’t seem to have good internet connection and/or have received bad reviews in various websites such as and

I’ve taken metrô to go to Ipanema/Leblon and Copabanaca. These beach areas are really nice and strolling along there has been very pleasant.  But sometimes one wondered where one was …  it could be a US beach … or Pattaya in Thailand … These beach areas seemed quite different from other parts of Rio and if one stayed there all the time, one might be biased (in my opinion).   Where I stayed was not nearly as wealthy.  I often went through dirty streets or streets with smell of urine.  But it’s not the worst area that I’ve seen in Rio.  At night, when not many people were around and it’s quiet, one might worry a little too much (whether somebody would jump out to rob you or something — though I often thought, with me not shaving my beard, carrying old bags, wearing cheap clothes, the robbers might not want to take the risk to try to rob me ?!  Risk here means me not looking rich and looking possibly like a gangster).   Nevertheless, it’s an OK area, especially there was a police booth <50 m from the hotel entrance.   (  In fact, I felt that there were quite a lot of Brazilian police officers almost everywhere I went.  I guess this is one way to keep a place safe. )  Anyway, what I tried to say is that it gave me another realistic taste/aspect of Rio, which is different from the one you’d find in (say) Ipanema.

I’ve enjoyed not spending too much money and learning to do what the locals do.  On the last day, just like on the day of arrival, I took the same Real/Premium coach (only R$10) to go to the airport.  Two days before that, I actually went to that stop near the “Central” metro station to make sure that the coach would actually stop there.  It’s a way of saving some tens of reais but it’s also a by-product of the “adventure” spirit (though maybe minimal).  I walked to the “Central” metrô station area where one couldn’t help feeling like all Rio busses pass there.  Many people stood along the long stretch of Av. Pres. Vargas where busses were supposed to stop.  It’s a bit of a chaotic scene that busses competed with each other to park near the pavement.  People often needed to go to nearly the middle of the road to catch their busses.   When a Real/Premium coach came, for a few seconds the coach was obstructed by other public busses from getting close to the pavement, I could feel that the driver seemed hesitated whether he should continue to wait.  So, just like the locals, I ran to the middle of the road and waved to the driver.  The driver indeed came my way and stopped in the middle of the road to let me in.  Another mission of attempting to behave like a local ( at the 1% level) accomplished !  20+ years ago when I was a student (from Hong Kong) travelling in Mainland China in the summer, the struggle or competition to catch a bus was even more fierce.  To avoid paying for a taxi, you had to fight your way to a Chinese bus …. Comparatively,  that day’s experience was nothing unusual.

I didn’t come across “churrascaria rodízio” but I’ve found a lot of “quilo” or “kilo” restaurants that what you paid is based on the weight of food that you’ve taken.  This seemed very very popular and I ate almost all my meals in different kilo restaurants.  There was such a restaurant near my hotel.  The price was like R$33.99 per kg.  At the beginning, I wasn’t so sure and didn’t dare to take too much.  But after the first time, I realized that the food really wasn’t that heavy.  In Ipanema, I dined in a similar restaurant one evening but the price was like R$46.99/kg.  But in the last 2 days, I came across surprisingly cheaper restaurant of the same type in “Centro” where people worked and had meals (maybe there is a lot of competition there).   One lunch was like R$26.99/kg and the next day in another kilo restaurant was like R$21.99/kg !  Each place has slightly different food but the quality was about the same and yet there were considerable price differences.

Anyone who is reading this may wonder …… but how to optimize or minimize during travelling seems my idiosyncratic form of travelling entertainment and this would also help me dig into the local way of living.  Dipping myself into the beaches is not my kind of fun.  There are a lot of beaches in Long Island (where I live), too ….

In addition to Ipamena/Leblon and Copabacana, I’ve taken metrô and busses to various places such as Christo Redentor (of course !), Sugarloaf Mountain, Jardim Botânico, , Escadaria Selarón in LAPA (the stairs were very colorful and wonderful !), Arcos da Lapa etc.  I’ve also taken the ferry to cross to Niterói and then walked to the dish-like Museu de Arte Contemporânea. 

On the first day, after I left the Jardim Botânico, I went to see the lagoon in Lagoa (it’s called “Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas” in my map and I’m sure I’ll remember this name 10 years later :-))  or more like a lake.  Not planned (nor suggested in the tourist guides) but as it’s beautiful with amazingly calm waters, I walked along the lake in Lagoa and eventually ended up at Ipanema.  I was quite pleased with this self-created scenic route.

I’ve also visited museums like Museu Histórico National, Museu Nacional de Belas Artes (both museums were free on Sunday — good planning of mine of course, not a coincidence), Mosteiro de São Bento and Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil are also nice, too (free stuff are always nice !),

On the last day, my last stop was the Museu de Arte Moderna.  I thought the admission was like R$8 (somehow their website had been down or non-existent).  When I asked for “um bilhete”,  I heard “doze” and then I repeated “doze ???” with a sharply surprising tone at the end.  Unfortunately, I didn’t hear it wrong and I had to pay R$12.  I found this a bit too expensive, probably partly because the other museums that I have visited were free of charge 🙂

This brings me to the topic of English-speaking in Rio.  I couldn’t really expect what to expect about the Rio people speaking English, before I arrived in Rio.   I carried my Portuguese phrasebook (which I bought a few years ago when I travelled to Lisboa).  But somehow I was still surprised to see how genuinely non-English-speaking Rio people are.   Even those who tried to persuade me to go to their restaurants, most still didn’t speak English.  You might think people at the airport and hotel should speak some English but that’s also a very wrong assumption.  This gave me some opportunities to pronounce Portuguese though (not too difficult for me to speak a bit as I knew a bit of French etc.), certainly more than I did in Lisboa.

In my hotel, only one person, Pedro, spoke English and all the other receptionists didn’t.  On the last day, I originally wanted to ask Pedro to let me leave my bags after I checked out before 12 pm.  He said that I could do that or I could just check out whenever I wanted (without extra charge of course) !  It’s also very nice of Pedro et. al. to let me check in `11 am before their standard check-in time at 12:30 pm on the day of arrival.  So, my Brazilian friend’s “theory” of Brazilian hospitality seemed to be in play there !!

Maybe, all these sound stupid to you.  I choose my level of comfort and adventure (I didn’t visit Favela … and there’re poorer people living in the street while I stayed in hotel) for my travelling and make it sound like that’s the way to travel !  But of course, that’s ONLY the way to travel for ME.  I also have the “public transport theory” in travelling. That’s, one can know a lot about that country by taking their public transportation.  The metrô is good and I’ve happened to visit >50% of the metrô stations from Central to Ipanema/General Osório.  I took the connecting busses to go to the Sugarloaf Mountain, Cristo Redentor and Jardim Botânico.  There seem to be quite a few types of connecting busses now.  The two kinds of tickets/busse that I’ve taken were called “Metrô  Na Superfície” and “Integração Expressa”.  “Integração Expressa” seems a bit like minibusses. These connecting busses might not have existed 10 years ago. It’s a bit confusing/difficult to find the connecting busses in Botafogo outside the station though the instructions in Largo do Machado were superb.

I thought I had a “total victory” in Brazil when my flight left Rio for New York.  But the afternoon after I returned, I checked online my account of our local credit union whose debit/ATM card I used ONCE successfully in Brazil.  I was shock to find 20 fraudulent charges amounting to a total of US$619.3 (10 of those were US$30.69 and 10 were US$30.74, plus the ATM charge 0.25 each time — this is NOT “Capital One”).  Apparently, they must have made those withdrawals in very short time scale and they knocked my checking account to negative balance ( < -$300 ) which would not be possible if there were a real-time check for every withdrawal request. I immediately reported this to my credit union (TFCU) which was on a Wed.  Probably their best act for me since I opened an account with them in 2000, they credited the entire sum of money back to me on Fri. — only 2 days !

I’ve actually used my debit card only ONCE as credit card has usually been accepted (except Museu de Arte Moderna) and I’ve used credit card for almost everything.  [ My “Capital One” credit card is good that it really doesn’t charge “foreign transaction fee” !  Foreign transaction fees in US used to be hidden in the exchange rates.  But years ago, there was a class action lawsuit, credit card companies in US now all need to list the foreign transaction charges separately. ] But maybe I was watching them use my credit card, nobody has seemed to steal my credit card information to buy things. The mistake that I might have made in using the debit card was probably that when many ATM machines wanted to charge me R$12 (~US$6) for using the ATM, I had kept refusing to accept and gone to try another one until the one finally didn’t charge this fee of R$12.  Apparently, in one of these ATM’s, I’ve finally come across one which was able to steal my information.  I’m not sure whether it’s the ATM that I finally withdrew money successfully OR one of those machines that I cancelled the withdrawal request, that has eventually got hold of my debit card information. 

I’ve been careful to check that all the ATM slot that I swiped my debit card with seemed to be the appropriate place, not an external device or something awkward. But I guess they’re smarter than me!  More than 10 years ago, my Chase credit card information was stolen in US and people bought >$1000 worth of things in Staples etc. in USA and I only discovered it when I saw the monthly bill.  They also credited me back eventually.  So, we could go on to mis-use our credit and debit cards as they’ll credit us back anyway, right ?!  …… hahahaha ……

Long Island @ NYS/USA


Another minor practical matter is that I have used my Hong Kong SAR passport to enter Brazil as this passport holder needs no tourist visa to enter Brazil.  If I used my US passport, I’d needed to apply for a tourist visa (US$160 !).  Somehow, I felt that there were fewer tourists than I thought (almost no trace of Mainland Chinese tourists — I heard Mandarin maybe once ? … ).  I even wondered where the Japanese Brazilians were ? ( Apparently not in Rio but mainly in São Paolo. )  Difficult to hide their feeling, the Brazilian immigration officer(s) have seemed to find it funny to see the word “SAR” (“Special Administrative Region”) in my HKSAR passport.  I guess they don’t see it every day.  Many (or most ?) tourists seemed Brazilians and therefore speaking English was not important up to now.  By chance, I wrote a review in and the manager of Hotel Snob (Ronnie) told me that he’s going to train his staff to speak English and hire English-speaking receptionists. 


About kinyip

An experimental particle physicist ...
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