By Jenny Barchfield
RIO DE JANEIRO — With the Olympics just a few weeks away, Brazil faces a litany of problems: an economy in freefall, the Zika virus and a political crisis with an impeached president. But for those brave — or foolhardy — enough to make the trip, Rio de Janeiro is a city rich with potential rewards. Broadcasters have already deemed the city’s backdrop for the Summer Games the most telegenic ever. But no matter how good this teeming seaside metropolis — where the urban jungle and the literal jungle meet — looks on TV, footage simply can’t compare with the experience of actually being here.
Here’s a Q&A on tips for visiting Rio, from staying safe to samba parties:
Q: Is Rio safe?
A: With an estimated 85,000 police and soldiers patrolling the streets during the games — twice the security contingent in London in 2012 — Olympic and local officials have insisted Rio will be “the safest city on earth” during the Aug. 5-21 games. Still, violent crime is a fact of life in this city, starkly divided between haves and have nots, so it’s best to keep a low profile.
For Cariocas, as Rio’s 6 million residents are called, low-key dressing is de rigueur for both safety and practicality. Havaianas, the Brazilian flip-flop brand, are Rio’s uncontested footwear of choice. And the city’s golden-sand beaches make board shorts and T-shirts, or hot pants and tank tops, a uniform for rich and poor alike. (While Rio’s Southern Hemisphere winters tend to be mild, thermometers can dip in August into what Cariocas consider the bone-chilling depths of the mid-60s, so pack a sweater or light jacket.)
Watches and jewelry not clearly made from plastic are best avoided, as is using cellphones in public or conspicuously carrying camera equipment. Electronics are extremely expensive in Brazil, and a smartphone can cost several months’ worth of salary for locals, so it’s best to keep them under wraps.
If you do get mugged, don’t react or fight. Hand over your possessions calmly and without hesitation. It’s only money and/or stuff. And no matter how much of a pain the ensuing nightmare of card cancellations proves, it’s not worth getting injured.
Q: Do people speak English?
A: In a word, no. Outside Olympic venues and high-end hotels and restaurants, most Cariocas only speak Portuguese, though they might know a few words of English or Spanish. On the other hand, most people are eager to help foreigners and will resort even to pantomime to get their point across.
Q: What’s for dinner?
A: If you go to one of the myriad “churrascaria” (shoe-hass-car-EE-ya) all-you-can-eat Brazilian barbeque joints, the answer is meat, meat and more meat. Roving waters brandishing spits stacked with cuts of prime beef, lamb chops, pork sausages and even wizened black chicken hearts will insist on refilling your plate till you verge on bursting.
For vegetarians or those recovering from a meat overdose, options are limited. Best bets include corner juice bars offering a cornucopia of freshly squeezed tropical fruit juices, as well as acai (ah-sa-EE) — a deep purple Amazonian palm berry that’s frozen, blended and served slushy.
Q: Is there public transportation?
A: The city’s metro line is being extended to serve the beachfront Leblon neighborhood and reach the far-western Barra da Tijuca neighborhood, where Olympic Park is located. But the project is behind schedule and may not be finished in time for the games. Buses are confusing, packed, dangerous and generally best avoided. Cabs are plentiful and decently reliable — just make sure your cabby turns headlights on after dark. (Many won’t.)
Q: Besides sports, what is there to do in Rio during the games?
A: Plenty. And the good news is, the best things in Rio are free.
Rio was hard hit by the recession, with the economy shrinking last year by 4 percent, sending unemployment and inflation soaring. The nosedive of the local currency, the real, has made Rio much cheaper for visitors spending dollars or euros. But the cost of hotels and restaurants can still be shocking. Savvy travelers can staunch the bloodletting by taking advantage of the city’s many free attractions:
—Sugarloaf Mountain: The sheer granite outcropping that presides over the waters of the Guanabara Bay will no doubt prove a breathtaking backdrop for the Olympic sailing races. But rather than just ogling the iconic rock, why not hike it? A guide is necessary to scale the Sugarloaf itself, but its stumpier twin, the Morro da Urca, is doable without help. A mud path winds through tropical vegetation to a summit with peerless views over the city’s dense patchwork of towers, hillside “favela” slums and mist-enshrouded rainforest.
—Sunset at Arpoador: Take in the sun’s spectacular nightly performance as it sinks into the Atlantic from atop the Arpoador rock formation in between Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches. The crowd there raucously applauds the glittering show, night after night.
—Pedra do Sal: Experience a “roda de samba,” or live samba music, at the birthplace of Brazil’s most famous musical genre. Monday nights bring hordes of aficionados to this former slave market in the Gamboa region of historic downtown for an open-air dance party.
—Centro: Rio’s beaches tend to steal the thunder, but the Centro downtown region, where the city got its start 451 years ago, is a treasure trove of colonial-era churches and historic monuments. Perhaps the most stunning among them is the Mosteiro Sao Bento, a Baroque church and working monastery where monks perform Gregorian chants during Sunday Mass. Get there early to snag a seat. Also in Centro is the Portuguese Royal Reading Room, a 19th century gem of soaring jacaranda hardwood bookshelves and stained glass windows, tucked into the newly rehabilitated Praca Tirdentes.