Still the greatest reason for visiting Rio seems to be the Carnaval. This highly-advertised party lasts for almost two weeks and it is well known for the escolas de samba (samba schools) that parade in Centro, on a gigantic structure called Sambódromo (Sambadrome). During Carnaval, Rio has much more to offer though, with the blocos de rua, that parade on the streets. There are now hundreds of these street "samba blocks", that parade almost in every neighborhood, especially in Centro and the South Zone, gathering thousands of people. Some are very famous, and there are few cariocas that have not heard of "Carmelitas", "Suvaco de Cristo", "Escravos da Mauá" or "Simpatia É Quase Amor".
The rest of the year, samba shows are popular with tourists, and are held at several venues like Plataforma and Scala. These are expensive and not really representative of Brazilian culture, they present a lot of almost naked women and bad musicians, a tourist trap (much like the real thing.) Much more interesting and genuine, though, are the night practice sessions held by the various samba schools in the months leading up to Carnaval. You will find only a small number of tourists here, and you will be served the best caipirinhas of your trip! These go on into the wee hours of the morning, with the fun really only starting at 1-2 A.M. A good cab driver should be able to hook you up, and cabs will be available to take you back when you are samba-ed out. Salgueiro and Mangueira are good choices, as they are two of the larger samba schools, and are located relatively close to the tourist areas in a fairly safe area.
Note that a change is afoot that may make this genuine experience a thing of the past (or more convenient, depending on your viewpoint) for all but the most savvy tourists. The local government built a complex of buildings (Cidade do Samba) where many of the samba schools are moving their practice halls and float-construction facilities from the gritty warehouses typically located in or near their home favelas. One can expect many more tourists, and shows made-up for the tourists as the tourist bureau milks this facility for all it's worth year-round.
Here is a list of some of the samba schools:
The newest addition for tourists is the Samba City.
Rio was the cradle of three of Brazil's most important musical genres: samba, choro, and bossa nova. In recent years, there has been a boom of traditional samba and choro venues. A lot of them are in the downtown district of Lapa. There are good and cheap nightlife options, where you will see some of the best musicians of the country. Any of the city newspapers provide pointers to the best shows.
If you're not such an anthropological type of tourist, you can check out the same papers for tips on other kinds of music. Being a big city, Rio has big and small clubs that play almost every kind of music. The major mainstream clubs mostly play whatever's on the Radio - which is usually whatever's on the USA radios and MTV - but the underground scene has a lot to offer on Rock, E-Music, Rap and such. The best way to find out about those are the flyers handed or left at hostels, cinema and theater lobbies, nightclub lines, etc.
Rio hosts the country's largest and most popular New Year’s Eve celebrations. The huge fireworks display and music shows attract 2 million people to the sands of Copacabana beach every year. People dress in white for luck and toast the arrival of the new year. It's usual also to have some national and international concerts on the beach for free.
Rio de Janeiro is the main destination for lesbian and gay travellers from all over Brazil and the rest of the world. The city has been chosen as the best lesbian and gay international destination in 2009, and the sexiest gay place in the world in 2010 and 2011.
The Hangliding and Paragliding flights have found in Rio de Janeiro, the ideal land for its high hills and favorable wind. Different from other places in the world, in Rio, the sport could be done in urban areas and landing on the beach!
These conditions naturally attract many tourists who get the courage to enjoy a flight. And even the most inexperienced person can flight since there´s no training or special gear needed.
Not surprisingly, a huge city that has an actual forest within its limits has lots to offer for hikers. It's always advisable to have a local with you when trekking in Rio (Couchsurfing's Rio de Janeiro group usually organizes hikes around the city), as some treks are not very well-marked. Since the early 2000s there hasn't been any reports of violence/burglary on the city's trails (a problem in the 90s), but the rules on the Stay safe section apply as anywhere else in the city. Some of Rio's hiking trails include:
The trek is fairly demanding and steep, and takes about 1h30/2h to complete, but yet very popular among locals - it's normal to see whole families doing it, as well as groups of friends and foreigners. Ask the park's staff or look for signs that say "Trilha" to get to the start of the trail, just behind the ruins of an old house. From there you have two paths: going straight ahead leads to a waterfall that is usually full of families on the weekends (it's a good spot to stop on your way back if you go back the same way), and left leads straight to the main path of the trek. Along the way there are 3 waterfalls (just one you can actually bath in, though) and a small path where you have to hang on to a chain to pass through some rocks. Until this point you will be going up, but always surrounded by forest. The first views of the city will start after the chain (about 1h/1h30 in). Then you get to the train tracks, which you can follow up to the Christ (another 15/30 minutes). Views from here on are breathtaking.
June 2011: Hiking up to the Christ is possible, but at the top you must get in a van and take it about a half mile down the mountain. From there tickets can be bought for 25R (this includes the van rides).
This is a short and fairly easy hike, taking about 20/30' to complete, also very popular among locals, specially because you can go up for free then hitch a ride back on the cable car (after 6pm, it's free to return on it). The hike begins at Pista Cláudio Coutinho in Urca, and is very popular among the locals. If you ask the guards they'll point you to the start. It's uphill, but just the first five minutes are really steep and will need you to use your hands. From there on just keep to your left. There are amazing views of Urca and the Guanabara Bay during the final 20 minutes, some of which are angles you don't get from the vantage points above. The trek actually ends on top of Morro da Urca, the smallest of the two. You have to buy a ticket for the cable car if you want to go up the other hill.
If you have the money the following operators give you panoramic flights in helicopters:
A number of operators offer tours of Rocinha, the largest and safest Favela in Rio. Many tours are done by outside companies in safari-like buses, which can lead to awkward interactions with the locals. Try to go with someone who lives in Rocina on a walking tour. It is also possible to arrange tours to other favelas, although Rocinha has a longer history of tourism and is one of the more developed favelas.
You may hear stories about people being invited by locals to visit their home in a favela. If you receive such an invitation do think carefully about it and perhaps ask around about the person that has invited you. Many of the favelas are rife with drugs and guns so think carefully about how much you trust the person that is inviting you. A search on the Internet may reveal some accounts of tours others have taken. A visit like this will obviously be more authentic than a book tour and could be the highlight of your visit to Rio; on the other hand you are taking a risk.
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