Our journey to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil starts at Iguazú in Argentina where we have stayed a few days to experience the world-famous waterfalls.
In order to cross the border to Brazil to get to the airport on the Brazilian side, we need a taxi. We have made an appointment with the same taxi driver who took us to Iguazú National Park on arrival.
He arrives in due time and approaches us with a smile and a handshake! Even if we only have gone with him once before, it is nearly like an old friend coming to pick us up.
I sit in front chatting with him and trying to get the border procedure right. I ask him at least three times in three different ways how the border crossing will take place in a taxi and how to ensure that we get stamped into Brazil.
Where to stay in Rio de Janeiro? Windsor Plaza Hotel rooftop swimming pool & airport shuttle, Hotel Atlântico Rio outdoor pool & free breakfast, Belmond Copacabana Palace iconic 5-star beachfront hotel.
The case is that the Argentinian officers don’t bother to check any passports at the border or stamp anyone out of Argentina. The Brazilian border control, according to what we have heard, does not really care. People cross all day back and forth between the Brazilian side of the waterfalls and the Argentinian side, and it is apparently generally accepted that you cross without changing immigration status. This is part of both Argentinian and Brazilian agreements and culture. According to our driver, the Argentinian authorities are the strictest – and the Brazilian infrastructure the most organised?!? Anyway, most cars just drive right through without any check.
The problem arises when you don’t return to Argentina, but plan to leave Brazil from another location – for instance in the case of flying out of Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo. The airport border control is very strict, and if you upon arrival have not got correctly stamped into Brazil, you are technically illegally in Brazil! In that case the fine is sky-high when you at the end of your trip go through the airport checkpoint. In our case that would be: a sky-high fine times five – extremely sky-high!
We don’t want to risk that, and I make sure that our kind driver understands that we need to stop at the Brazilian border to get the required stamps in our passports. He seems to know what I am referring to, and assures me that he will see to it. Anyway, we cannot help being somewhat surprised when he all of a sudden asks us to pass our passports over to him. He will then take care of everything for us. A moment later he hands me some papers to fill in.
Well, we actually have heard beforehand that this is the usual procedure, so we decide to trust him – against our usual common sense!
In this way, he leaves with our most valuable possessions, our passports, in his hand – and we just remain in the taxi, relaxing as much as we can, until he finally returns. Brazilian people are amazing! Everything is in order. We verify that we have all got our stamps – and seconds later we are in Brazil! No one even saw our faces!
When we board the plane to Rio de Janeiro, the infrastructure seems to be all other than organised. We are at gate 4. Passengers waiting at gate 4 and gate 5 are now called and board simultaneously. We then discover that the two lines most surprisingly merge on the other side of the gate exits! It is now a matter of using our intuition and paying close attention to which aircraft we are supposed to board. Noone checks that we get onto the right plane!
Itinerary in Rio de Janeiro
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In Rio de Janeiro we have chosen the only Copacabana hotel with a free airport shuttle (at least at the time when we book)! The Galeão International Airport is not that close to neither central Rio nor Copacabana, so the usual shuttle fee times five would be considerable! After searching a bit around online, the Windsor Plaza Hotel, at the moment offering a free shuttle service to and from the airport (only if confirmed by the hotel, though!), has come up. We can even arrange a convenient pick-up time weeks in advance! In that way our Rio hotel becomes even very reasonable in price – a real bargain!
There is no wait at the airport. Our shuttle works like a charm, and shortly we are on the Rio highway towards Copacabana.
What we haven’t quite foreseen is the extremely aggressive traffic. This is part of the lively Brazilian culture and the hustle and bustle of Rio. The driving back to the hotel significantly differs from what we are used to (also in South America). Even if we just by coming to Rio have accepted a different road safety risk here than back home, the Brazilian driving culture is overwhelming! We realise that it seems to be the general style on the Rio roads. With our seat belts fastened we try to convince ourselves that the driver is experienced and has taken thousands of hotels guests safely to the Windsor Plaza before!
Later, when walking in the streets of Rio, we definitely need to exercise caution here as well. There is everywhere unpredictable traffic where you at some moment or another cannot help fearing for your safety!
In stark contrast to the standard of living of the upper and middle classes in Rio, the city is also home to a huge number of extremely poor Brazilian people. They live in the considerable number of favelas scattered across the city. Many of the people living here are of mixed ethnic ancestry. Brazil is probably one of the countries in the world with the biggest gap between the rich and the poor people.
We can hardly believe our ears when we learn that there are about 900 favelas with 2 million people in Rio. The biggest one is Rocinha which is an entire society of its own with shops, bank and everything else required. The inhabitants needn’t go anywhere else in the city. The people of the favelas typically form communities and develop various social organisations to obtain services like running water and electricity.
The favelas in general date back to the late 1800s. Due to the migration from the countryside in Brazil to Rio de Janeiro, cheap urban housing was needed. Moreover, with the housing crisis in the 1940s a vast number of shantytowns arose in the suburbs and the favelas expanded even further. Various attempts were made to get rid of the favelas and provide better housing facilities in the years to come. However, they failed or led to still more favelas in new places.
At some point in time drug traffickers or other criminal groups began to control the favelas. Nevertheless, today many of the favelas are ruled by the so-called Pacifying Police Units and are again out of the drug problems. However, there are still favelas in some Rio zones where problems such as cocaine trade persist.
On the way to our hotel we pass one of the numerous favelas. From the highway we get a glimpse of the stacked houses being home to thousands of Brazilian people. It is getting dark outside, and we would expect light in the houses at this time of the day. Nevertheless, there is no electric light visible from the highway.
Due to the poverty problems there is a certain level of crime risk in the streets both at day time, but in particular after sunset. You have to be alert in Rio since the crime level is considerable. We stay close together when walking around in Copacabana. Taking appropriate travel safety measures, it feels pretty safe, through. The locals sit on chairs on the pavement and play cards, the ambiance is friendly and we are just about to forget about the risks. Right until it gets dark.
When we enter the supermarket, everything still seems all right in the street. We take our time in there, and are patient when the staff check if our banknotes are genuine by holding them up against the light. This is also part of Brazilian culture!
When we come out barely 15 minutes later, it already has started getting dark, and, shockingly, the street is like changed. Suddenly, we notice the people hanging out on the street corners and even sitting on the ground. By instinct, we know that it could turn dangerous and that we should now head straight for our hotel which is just 2 minutes’ walk away. Staying close together as a group, we are probably not at much risk, but still it is a relief when we seconds later pass the security staff guarding the doorway and slip inside the hotel.
‘This is all amazing Brazilian culture’
At the end of the day we stand at the hotel rooftop terrace and view the streets of Copacabana from this angle. Not all rooftops are pretty from up here. They are with their random cables, broken roof parts and general messy look the total opposite of our neat hotel rooftop terrace. Rio is in all respects full of noticeable contradictions.
Green parrots circle above our heads and fly across the roofs to the mountain opposite. Looking down we see the street full of yellow cabs and other cars. It is the rush hour and apparently the road has been blocked at the tunnel. People are impatient and sound the car horns. Even up here we easily sense the frustration on the road and in the cars. It is yet another side of Rio de Janeiro, one of the most multifaceted metropolises in the world.
Hotel Atlântico Rio is situated 500 m from Copacabana Beach. The hotel features an outdoor pool and free daily breakfast.
PortoBay Rio de Janeiro is a 4-star hotel located right on Copacabana Beach. Rooms with sea views. The hotel provides beach towels, umbrellas and chairs. Restaurant with Brazilian and international dishes. Buffet breakfast.
Belmond Copacabana Palace is a 5-star hotel, located on the Copacabana Beachfront, that offers luxurious rooms with marbled bathrooms and panoramic ocean views. Some rooms feature private balconies. Try the restaurant offering Brazilian specialties and fresh seafood delicacies.
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