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The Best Ways to Enjoy "Incomparable" Rio de Janeiro

Since Rio de Janeiro is celebrating its 500th birthday, it promises to be a popular destination in the year 2000. Fortunately, Rio de Janeiro remains a bargain for savvy travelers. Moreover, the city has undergone changes in the past few years to improve social conditions, which has resulted in a drop in the crime rate. Visitors can now enjoy beautiful Rio in the same relaxed way that Cariocas (Rio natives) do.

Here are a few tips for anyone who wants to see Rio independently and on a budget--and get a feel for the atmosphere of the city:

Before you leave, learn a few phrases in Portuguese. This is standard advice for any destination, but it is particularly helpful in Brazil, where your high school Spanish won't help you. We used a tape course specializing in Brazilian Portuguese (Yes, there is a difference!) from Language 30. Since Portuguese pronunciation is tricky, we found the small phrase book with phonetic pronunciations that was included with the tape course to be as helpful as the tapes themselves, and it was small enough to fit in a passport case.

Consider flying Varig. You've probably never heard of Varig, one of the Brazilian national airlines, but you won't forget once you've flown with them. In addition to giving you a first taste of Brazilian culture via movies, the in-flight magazine, and cabin conversation in Portuguese, the airline even forgoes standard Muzak for samba. Give me the Girl from Ipanema over Barry Manilow any day! Their fares are competitive, especially if you use a consolidator as we did (see info box).

Visit during the off-season. Millions of tourists descend on Rio during the summer (roughly November through March). While there is plenty to commend the city during that time, first-time visitors especially would be wise to visit when the city is less crowded and the prices far lower for everything. You'll probably never get the beach to yourself, even in the winter, but you'll have a lot more room to relax during the off-season.

Speaking of beaches, don't feel compelled to stay in a hotel on the beach. The rates for beach hotels are considerably higher than those for hotels just a few blocks away from the sand. Since bathing attire is perfectly acceptable in the street and on mass transportation, there's really no reason to pay more for a couple of blocks. Save your money for the arts and crafts market that lines Copacabana beach on the weekends.

The beach, part two. This may seem obvious to most people considering a trip to Rio, but do go to the beach. Rio's beaches have no equivalent in the U.S. People gather there to relax after work, to unwind on the weekends, and to meet with friends. If you don't spend some time on the beach, you will not have seen Rio. Even the sun-sensitive can partake since most hotels will lend out giant beach umbrellas. Once you stake out a spot, you won't have to move for food, drink, or even a new bikini--vendors walk along the beach with everything from steamed crabs to sunscreen.

With that said, don't spend your entire trip on the beach. Rio is full of other amazing things to see, from the blatantly touristy Sugarloaf and Corcovado (still worth a look) to the unique Museum of Naïve Art and Little House in the Sky. In addition, the city is physically enormous, so you'll want to give yourself plenty of time to see as much of it as you can.

Don't drive. The traffic in Rio is a nightmare, not only because of the volume of cars but also because certain main, absolutely necessary streets run only in one direction during rush hours. You will not be able to figure it out during an average vacation-length stay, so don't even try. Licensed cabs are inexpensive, provided you decide on the fare before you get in the cab. Public transportation is also reasonable and accessible. Trust me on this, you do not want to be responsible for driving yourself from Point A to Point B in Rio unless you have a) very good international insurance, or b) a secret death wish.

Be sensible. Though Rio's crime rate has dropped dramatically, it is still a major city. Just as you wouldn't walk around New York City with a wad of cash or giant diamonds, don't do it in Rio. To take your personal safety a step further, leave your passport and other valuables in a hotel safe. You should have no reason to need your passport on the street, so don't worry about leaving it in the hotel. Our hotel provided in-room safes for just this purpose.

Try restaurants throughout the city. Unless you're a vegetarian, you will probably like the food in Rio. Downtown you can find the wildly popular kilo restaurants which offer all kinds of Brazilian specialties by the kilo--and you can be almost assured to be the only non-Carioca there. Most restaurants serve the Brazilian national dish, feijoada, on Wednesdays and Sundays, and if you avoid the tourist clumps around the beach hotels, you can probably eat alongside the people who actually know what's in it. We ate feijoada in a restaurant in the Santa Theresa district that most tourists would have passed without a second glance.

Try to get out of Rio proper, even though there's enough around to keep you busy for days. Rio is actually a city-state, and the entire area is considered to be within the city limits, but there is much to explore outside the confines of the beach and downtown areas. The massive Tijuca forest divides the city and is well worth part of a day. Paqueta Island, accessible only by ferry, is another excellent half-day excursion, and its relaxed pace and no traffic (cars are banned on the island) make it an outstanding way to get out of the city for a few hours.

For More Information

It's nearly impossible not to enjoy Rio, but these few hints can help you make it even more memorable and affordable.American citizens are required to obtain tourist visas from the nearest consulate. Allow sufficient time to process the paperwork.

We stayed at the Plaza Copacabana at 263 Rua Princesa Isabel. It is one of many hotels located a few blocks off the beach and includes a generous (as in you could skip lunch) breakfast buffet. For more accommodations options in Rio, see the websites below.

To find out more about Rio de Janeiro, contact Riotur, the City of Rio de Janeiro Tourism Authority, at www.rio.rj.gov.br. Other helpful sites include www.riodejaneiro.com, and www.ipanema.com.

NICOLE ROSENLEAF RITTER was the Managing Editor of Transitions Abroad at the time the article was written.

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