For the most part, the things that I write about on this website are positive. Traveling is generally a positive experience, and like anything, when you look back at your travels you tend to remember the good stuff.
But sometimes a destination can be so over hyped or leave such a bad taste in your mouth, that you don’t ever want to go back. And that’s okay. That’s how we learn. Like trying new foods, you’ll never know if you like it or not unless you try it.
My experience in Rio de Janeiro was very disappointing, but first let me touch on some of the things that I did enjoy.
Most notably, our hike to Christ the Redeemer was spectacular. It was challenging, it was fun, it was rewarding, and it was by far the best part of our trip to Rio. If you do one thing in Rio, do that.
A couple other highlights of our time in Rio de Janeiro consisted of Escadaria Selaron in the Santa Teresa neighborhood and the views from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. Also, Uber was awesome in Rio. Even though it appeared that Uber drivers could not operate at the airport (GIG), we used them almost exclusively in and around Rio, and they were always great.
Those were the highlights.
So what made Rio so disappointing?
The smell of sewage all along Copacabana and Ipanema. Prior to traveling to Rio I had read reports of Rio’s contaminated water, but in person the smell was terrible, especially after it had rained. I lived in Iraq for 15 months where trash piled up on the streets, and I lived in Korea downwind from a kimchi fermentation farm, but the smell in Rio was worse. For a city about to host the 2016 Olympics with numerous open water events, and after multiple promises to clean up the water/sewage system with no results, this was a major disappointment.
Our hotel was right on Copacabana, but we found both Copacabana and Ipanema to be over hyped. Aside from both beaches having songs written about them, I really didn’t find them to be anything special. The nicest stretch of beach, in my opinion, was Leblon because it had access to much better restaurants and shops.
Difficulty getting money from ATMs and banks. When I travel, I like to get local currency from ATMs at the airport because ATMs provide the best exchange rates.
I’ve been to about 30 countries and never had a problem taking money out from ATMs, with or without a travel notification posted on my bank account. All 4 of us in our group tried using the ATM, and none of us could take money out. Every person in front of me in line with a foreign debit card had the same issue. We had a little bit of cash (US Dollars) on us, so we tried to exchange it at a bank. They don’t exchange US Dollars. Seriously? So we were forced to exchange at the money exchange booth just so we could pay for a cab to our hotel.
Later that day, I called my bank and they told me that due to numerous ATM scams in Brazil (Rio airport, in particular), my account was frozen. Luckily, my bank was able to fix this issue and I was able to get money out. But everyone else in the group, even after calling their bank, still could not take money out.
This ordeal wasted hours at the airport and then hours later on the phone with our banks. Not even in sub-Saharan Africa did I encounter issues like this.
If traveling to Brazil, even if you don’t come across the same ATM issues we did, keep an eye on your account for charges that you don’t recognize. And make sure to discuss with your bank in detail about any scams that they are aware of that could potentially freeze your account. Another major disappointment.
Sloooooow service. Coming in to Rio de Janeiro we knew that Brazilians liked to be casually late to parties, meetings, etc., but the service was historically slow. When I travel, I like to be out exploring, not spending a third of my waking hours sitting in a restaurant.
For the first couple days, this is all we experienced, so we smartened up and started eating at cafeteria style restaurants and buffets. Did we miss out on a couple potentially great restaurants because of service? Absolutely.
The worst experience came when we were leaving Rio and getting our passports stamped upon exit. There were at least 200 people in line waiting to get their passports stamped with a grand total of 2 out of 16 booths open. You thought TSA was bad? Not even close. Tip: for international flights, get there 3 hours early, if not more. Good luck to those of you coming for the Olympics.
Safety. While we were never directly threatened in Rio de Janeiro, there were several times when we felt on edge. The same rules apply to every big city (beware of pickpockets, be cautious at night, etc.), but there was an uneasiness in parts of Rio that I’ve only felt in a couple other cities. If you stick to the main areas, you shouldn’t have any problems. But one area that sticks out in my mind is when we walked from Escadaria Selaron to Aprazivel restaurant on a quiet weekend, none of us felt totally comfortable doing so. The restaurant ended up being closed anyway because it lost power, so we hailed an Uber back to our hotel.
Any one of these occurrences by itself would have been tolerable, but when you combine them all into a 4 day trip to Rio de Janeiro, it makes for a disappointing outcome. And for a city as hyped as Rio, the bummer factor was even more palpable.
Just to be clear, none of this is to dissuade you from visiting. By all means, go. No two experiences are the same and yours could be off the charts awesome. And I hope it is.
My purpose for writing this article was to share my experience and potentially help you avoid some of the pitfalls that we dealt with.
The one thing we were hanging on to as we were leaving Rio de Janeiro is that we were off to Iguassu Falls next. And let me tell you, Iguassu Falls did not disappoint! In fact, it was probably the most awe-inspiring place I’ve ever been to.
If you’ve had a similar experience in Rio de Janeiro, let everyone know by leaving a comment. If your experience was way better, let us know that too, and what made it so great.