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Rio de Janeiro on a Budget

By Alexis Lipsitz Flippin

Nestled between the Serra da Bocaina mountains and the sea, this beautiful city is an attraction in itself. And without a doubt, it provides tourists with many opportunities to spend big money on things that they don't really need to enjoy their visit. Here are some smart ways to see this sexy, dynamic city without blowing your budget.

When to Visit:

Rio's tropical climate keeps temperatures warm all year. Keep in mind that the seasons in this southern hemisphere country are the opposite of those in the U.S. and Canada: Summer, the city's high season, is from December to March, and winter is from June to September. If you go for Carnival in February, or want to be part of the huge New Year's Eve celebration, when millions of people dressed in white gather on Copacabana Beach for fireworks and music, be sure to book your hotel and flights well in advance.

Where to Eat:

Budget travelers can eat very well indeed in Rio, whether they're relaxing at a snack bar or sampling freshly barbecued shrimp from a street vendor. Prices are relatively reasonable, even in the upscale spots. Inexpensive kilo, or "quilo," restaurants are literally that: You serve yourself from a big buffet table and are charged by the food's weight. Note that when you're ordering in a restaurant, big portions are the norm, so one entrée is often plenty for two. Snack bars selling delicious and filling fresh fruit juice combos are everywhere, and they use such exotic ingredients as "acai," a fruit from the Amazon, and "cajo," or cashew, juice. These snack bars also sell inexpensive sandwiches.

Where to Stay:

You should have little trouble finding a hotel in Rio that fits your budget requirements. The city has a good selection of perfectly acceptable mid-range and economy hotels, some with beach views; however, during the city's most hectic times, even the cheapest accommodations will raise their rates. If you are traveling with children, look for all-suites lodgings.

Getting Around:

Rio has a safe and efficient subway system, the Metro. Taxis are easy to find and pretty inexpensive, and they're your best option at night. You can also hail a "frescão," the air-conditioned buses that run during the day along the beach. Regular buses, while the cheapest way to get around, are often crowded, slow during rush hour, generally not air-conditioned and the lair of pickpockets. Walking is often the best way to see the sights, especially in the city's most popular neighborhoods.

Rio Sights and Attractions:

It costs little to settle into a languid, laid-back Rio vibe; you need do no more than stroll along the beach boardwalk (beaches are public property), refreshing yourself with just-squeezed fruit juice during the day. At night, the locals drink "chopp," a draft beer. Of course, Rio has another side, one that is intensely vibrant, festive and fully on display during Carnival, the feverishly over-the-top, four-day pre-Lenten celebration that features colorful parades (including a 20-hour Samba Parade), glittering costumes and people dancing in the streets day and night. You can get a spectacular view of the city and the surrounding landscape by taking the cable car up the Sugarloaf, a peak that makes a picturesque backdrop for the city. The vista takes in mountains, the sea, forests and the 125-foot 1931 statue of Christ the Redeemer, which stands atop Corcovado hill overlooking Rio. The cable car costs $15 USD for adults and $7 for children ages 6 to 12.

More Rio Tips:

  • Portuguese, por favor? Explorers from Portugal founded this city 500 years ago, and the country's official language remains Portuguese. Learning a few words of Portuguese before you go should help you feel your way around and connect better with the locals. Start by greeting others with a hearty "Olà!"
  • Dive among shipwrecks. Less than two hours from Rio lie some of the country's most beautiful spots for diving and snorkeling. They are easy to reach by car or bus. At Arraial do Cabo, you can dive among about 47 shipwrecks. Nearby Búzios, called "the St. Tropez of Brazil," has gorgeous beaches for snorkeling.
  • What do they mean by "caipirinha?" Known as the national drink of Brazil, this slightly sweet-and-sour thirst quencher with a kick is made with "cachaca," an alcoholic beverage derived from sugarcane, limes and sugar.
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