Rio de Janeiro is one of those rare places where visitors don’t need to bankrupt themselves to have a good time. Here are our picks for the best of Rio on the cheap.
1: Park Yourself on a Beach
Spending the day on one of Rio’s beautiful beaches is the best fun you’re likely to have for free in a public place. Any of Rio’s beaches is exactly where you want to be from sunup to sundown. Bear in mind, however, that the tropical sun will fry you if you aren’t careful. So limit your time to early morning or late afternoon.
2: Take a City Tour
Head over to the Riotur office in Copacabana (183 Av. Princesa Isabel) and stock up on free maps and brochures. Make sure to grab a copy of Riotur’s “Rio Incomparavel” booklet, which lists tourist attractions, festivals, events, and includes discount coupons. The nice folks here will be happy to help you plan your own free walking tour of Rio. RioTur is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
3: Explore an Urban Forest
The Forest of Tijuca, the largest urban forest in the world, is home to native birds and animals as well as exotic trees, a terrific little waterfall, and the pink-and-purple Mayrink Chapel, with artwork by Brazilian artist Cândido Portinari. The most popular way to see the forest is by jeep tour (about $36), but you can explore the hiking trails on your own for nothing. Stick to established trails—it’s easy to get lost here.
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4: Climb a Mountain
The famous giant statue of Christ The Redeemer stands at the top of Corcovado Mountain, which rises majestically above Tijuca Forest National Park. Visiting the statue provides an excellent view of the city and the surrounding bay and mountains. To get there, take the cogwheel train (about $18) or drive up Paineiras, the road that winds through the Floresta da Tijuca. The city recently installed elevators and escalators atop the mountain, so visitors no longer need to make that strenuous climb to the top. Paineiras is closed to vehicle traffic on weekends.
5: Get Some Good Luck
Head over to the weekly Hippie Fair, in General Osório Square, on Sundays to pick up local good luck charms. Look for figas—amulets showing a clenched fist clasped around a thumb—to bring home to your friends. Don’t buy one for yourself, however, as the magic works only when the charm is given as a gift.
6: Mall Crawl
It seems horribly misguided to suggest that visitors to Rio spend time in a mall, but if it rains or you just need an escape from the killer midday sun you can escape to BarraShopping for Latin America’s primo mall experience. BarraShopping has its own monorail system to whisk you to its more than 500 establishments, which include stores, restaurants, an indoor amusement park, cinema, and a bowling alley. Avenida das Americas, 4666, Barra da Tijuca, Phone: 021-2431-9922.
7: Music and Dance
There are often free performances on Sunday evenings around 7 or 8 p.m. near Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. The music could be anything from Brazilian folk dancing to classical music, jazz, or a rock concert. The shows aren’t usually listed in newspapers, unless someone very well-known is giving a benefit, so it’s best to just wander around the beach area and see what’s happening.
8: See Scary Flowers
Rio’s Botanical Garden is home to an amazing collection of Brazilian flora including giant Amazon water lilies and other mind-boggling jungle plants and flowers. A walk among the 6000 varieties of plants is a peaceful interlude on weekdays. On weekends, the gardens are filled with local families and music. It’s not free, but considering what you get for the puny admission of $2, it might as well be. Rua Jardim Botánico 920; 021-2294-9349.
9: The Big Events
Visit Rio during the city’s two major annual parties and you won’t need to spend a cent to be entertained. During Carnival (February 17- 20 in 2007) you’ll see parades, fabulously costumed folks, and street festivals happening all over the city. On New Year’s Eve night, locals dressed in white gather on the beaches, light candles, and throw flowers and other offerings into the ocean while praying to the sea Goddess Yemanjá.
10: Go to Market
Browse one of Rio’s fruit and vegetable markets. You don’t have to buy anything to enjoy the delicious scents of herbs and fresh tropical fruits, the incredible Amazonian flowers, or the calls of the sellers who sing and shout about their wares. The markets are called “feira livre,” and there’s at least one happening every day of the week. Ask at your hotel for the exact location of that day’s markets, or just keep an eye out for flashes of brilliant color as you wander through the city. The markets are a morning-only activity, by 11 a.m. the festivities are over.