Let’s face it, spending time in Rio de Janeiro is expensive, particularly so if you want to see the famous landmarks…

…and have an enjoyable trip. My passion in life is traveling; I’m what many would call a vagabond, I’d rather be on the go instead holding down a job, but I’m no “Trust Fund Baby,” so how do I do it? My good friend Mark gave me a challenge, visit Rio and spend as little money as possible, he posed. “See if you can do it, and if you can do it without getting stuck, I’ll pay you double what you spend.” Now that was an interesting challenge, and I quickly said, “Yes,” before he changed his mind. It wouldn’t be easy, but I felt I was up to the challenge. The following is how I did it.

Well, first you have to take a step back and decide where you’re going to visit. Let’s be realistic, with hot spots like:

  • Christ the Redeemer
  • Sugarloaf MountainCopacabana
  • Corcovado
  • Botafogo
  • Sugarloaf Cable Car
  • praia Vermelho
  • Ipanema
  • Santa Teresa, Rio de Janeiro
  • Botafogo

To name a few, there was no way I could get to all of them, probably not in one trip. Who knows, maybe my buddy will pay for a return trip.

Having cut my budgetary teeth traveling to Thailand and India, I had my work cut out for me. In those countries, once you get there, you can live cheap, not so in Rio. This was going to take some ingenuity and all the tricks I had up my sleeve.

The Galeão International Airport

Let’s start when we arrive at the airport, how do we get from there to the city? Well if money wasn’t an object, but it is, we’d merely hail a cab, but that would be in the neighborhood of $90, and that is no way to start our frugal adventure holiday. That only leaves one real option since walking is out of the question, take the bus. In particular, the blue bus which cost around $14 and takes you to the center of the city or Zona Sul (Copacabana/Ipanema). The trip will take, depending on traffic, around an hour and, not to worry, you’ll be safe, as long as it’s in the daytime.

BUS LOCATION: Once you arrive, exit the terminal and turn right, you’ll find the buses at the end of the street.

CAUTION: If it’s nighttime, a taxi is the safer option even though it will cost more.

Should you find yourself in that situation and f you’re downtown or in Zona Sul OUTSIDE O, take the yellow taxis outside the arrivals hall. These are metered taxis and while not cheap, around $90, you won’t have to worry about your safety. Make CERTAIN the meters are switched on. If you feel you’re being cheated, which does happen on occasion, speak with the hotel receptionist or if in an AirBnB house or apartment, see if you can get the property owner to help. Bottom line, you should never pay over $100 and $80 is more likely the fair price.

NOTE: Arguing with a taxi driver in English will get you nowhere.

CAUTION: Get your luggage out of the taxi before beginning a discussion/argument.

Public Transport

Unless you’re adverse to taking the bus, it can save you a lot of money, but it does require an individual spirit of adventure, particularly if you don’t speak Portuguese. The routes aren’t marked, and most of the riders will be natives and likely not speak English. That said, tickets are cheap, around $4.00 and you can reach most, but not all, of the favorites.

CAUTION: Bus travel is safe during the day, but taxis or the Metro are recommended after 8: pm.

The Metro

The Metro (subway) is a relaxed and convenient way to get around, though the destinations are somewhat limited, you can quickly get to Ipanema or Copacabana and the historical areas. Tickets, like the bus, are inexpensive at $4.00.

RECOMMENDATION: Transportation costs and decisions will vary depending on how many are in your group. If you’re a group of four, then splitting a taxi ride might be perfect. If your number is five or more, then taxis may be out of the equation, as most will allow only four riders.

NOTE: You won’t be able to reach Sugarloaf or the Christ statue using The Metro.

Christ The Redeemer

You can’t visit Rio and not see the most famous landmark, Christ The Redeemer. Sitting high on the mountain overlooking the city, the statue was crafted by French sculptor Paul Landowski and constructed by Brazillian engineers between 1922 and 1931. It’s not a question of if you’ll visit, simply how you’ll ascend the heights. Depending on the season the tickets range in price from $26 to $38 with the lower price in the low season, which is April to October. If you’re in good shape and want an adventure, and of course most reading this will, you can hike the hill and save the cost of the van ride to the top. The trail begins at Parque Lage, an easy walk from the local bus stop. Before you begin, take a good look at the trail map, you don’t want to wander off the path and lose your bearings.

WARNING: This hike should only be attempted by those in good physical condition and with adequate supplies. The hike will take you through the jungle and the duration is usually one to five hours, depending on your pace.

SugarLoaf Mountain

Sugarloaf is another one of the must-see destinations, but it’s pricey. In this case, and unless you’re ready for another hike, the only option is the cable cars, of which there two you need to take. Together they’ll cost you around $76, but it is well worth the price to ride the cable car, see the people and gaze out at the magnificent vistas, the trip down is included.

However, there is a way to save a little money, and that’s to hike to the top of the first hill, Morro da Urca, a short but steep hike which should take about an hour or so. Once on top, and after you catch your breath, you have a decision to make. You can pay $40 and ride the cable to Sugarloaf, or you can stay where you are, enjoy a late lunch of the local cuisine, experience the view (only slightly less spectacular than atop Sugarloaf) and hike back down. If you do it that way, you’ll save the cable car costs entirely, while still getting a view that is only rivaled by those atop the next hill, Sugarloaf. That’s going to be a tough decision, so check the budget and consider your options.

The Beach at Rio

Drawing visitors from around the world, the beaches of Rio are a must see. Not only are you going to see some fantastic (and not so amazing) bodies, this is where you can save money, meet new people and soak up the culture. As to saving money, here’s how to do it.

Grab your snacks and drinks at a local grocery before arrival. Not only will you eat better, but the beaches prices are much high.

Slather on the sunscreen; the Brazilian sun is HOT. Of course, you can rent a beach umbrella, but we’re trying to save money at every opportunity.

Bring your sarong instead of renting one. Notice I said sarong and not a beach towel. No one in Brazil uses a towel, preferring the strong, so, as they say, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” certainly applies here.

Art Museums

This is a good option for saving money, each Tuesday there is free admission to the Museu de Manhã and the Rio Museum of Art. These are both world-class facilities and an excellent way to escape the sun or visit on a rare rainy day.

Take Advantage of Free Opportunities

While the beaches and the nightlife are fabulous, you can’t spend every waking moment sunning or dance the night away, we all need a little culture, especially when its free. So take in The Stairs of Selaron, the Real Gabinete Portugues de Leitura, the National Library and Catedral Metropolitan. These are all free to visit and well worth your time and most assuredly an excellent way to save a little cash. In the streets are where you’ll meet the people and see the culture of Rio, and there are no better streets for that than those at Santa Teresa, a streetcar ride away. We aren’t done yet, there are also the shores of Lake Rodrigo Freitas where you can experience the cool breezes and postcard views. There are a lot of ways to see Rio, in this cases we are far from the maddening crowds and much closer to the true nature of the land.

Accommodations

This one is going to depend entirely on you, are you looking for five-star hotels, then be prepared to pay the five-star price. But if you’re traveling on a budget to Rio, then let’s look at some alternatives like hostels, of which there are plenty. Apartments on AirBnB, some of which can not only save you money but may be close to many of the sites you’d planned to visit. Feeling adventurous, then consider favelas in the south zone, popular among backpackers, they are inexpensive, and many come with views to rival your imagination.

FAVELAS DEFINED: If you’re not familiar with the term favelas, it’s relatively new to the west, but has long been used in Africa and India. Some call it slum tourism, though often the accommodations is inexpensive and the people friendly and clean. The custom has spread to Brazil, most notably Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

Stealing a Hotel View

Magnificent views of Rio, the beach, Sugarloaf and more should be free right? Well, they are, assuming you can get to the high terraces where they can be seen. If you’re staying at one of these hotels, then just take the elevator to the top floor and gaze outwards, but what if you’re staying at a hostel? Well, you can accomplish the same thing if you can muster up the courage to walk into the lobby, smile at those nearby and head for the elevators, just like any guest would do. Then push the button, get off at the top and spend an hour or two.

HINT: For a great view of the Copacabana, take a stroll into the lobbies of the Windsor Atlantica and the Pestana

Eating Your Lunch

We all have to eat, and there is no better way to save some serious cash then here. Avoid the touristy eateries and shop at the local market. The only difficulty in doing this is the language, few of the vendors will speak English, but if you know a smattering of Portuguese, then you’re home free. If that doesn’t work, then try the restaurants where the locals frequent, usually a ‘por kilo,’ where they charge by the weight of the food on your plate. Hungry pile it on, not so much, just add a few items. You’ll be filling up on food and soaking up the local ambiance all for around $20, a significant savings over the more fancy tourist restaurants.

Tickets to The Big Game

Football (soccer) is huge in Rio and if you want to sample the actual Brazilian heart, you’ve got to see at least one or more games at the Maracanã. That said, you don’t have to attend with a hotel or hostel package. The packages are beautiful, you’ll arrive in a group and transportation is likely included, but you’ll pay for the privilege. Instead, consider buying your tickets and attending solo (or with friends). Tickets can be purchased at the ticket center on the boulevard in Copacabana up to 5: pm the day before the game. If you miss that window, not to worry, you can buy them on match day up to 1: pm at the ticket offices of the clubs (Flamengo, Fluminense, Botafogo and Vasco da Gama). Doing it this way you can save on the commission charged by the hotels and it a smooth Metro ride to the stadium.

NOTE: Bring your passport or ID. You can only purchase up to four tickets per person.

Whether or not you choose to follow along on my Rio De Janeiro adventure holiday, or amend them is up to you. One thing is certain, the further you distance yourself from the tourist venues, the closer you will be to the locals and how they live their lives, the real Cariocas of Rio.