We flew from Buenos Aires (AEP) nonstop with Aerolíneas Argentinas to GIG and arrived past midnight. Getting in the airport that late, you don’t have many choices as to how to arrive to the southern part of the city. You can either take cabs/taxis or hire a private chauffer. We hired via internet a private transfer, and resulted both more economic and safer than hoping to a regular taxi. If your flight arrives at a normal hour, you can always do regular transfers (as ShuttleRio) Get also in mind that Uber is a great option all around Rio, as many attractions and public spots offer free wifi.
We rented an excellent apartment via Airbnb, so if you have doubts about it, DON’T! (Unless you really prefer the breakfast options or the amenities that some hotels offer)
I visited Rio once before for three days, but this time we stayed 5 nights. The first day we walked along Ipanema and Leblon. In the evening, since the weather was cloudy, we went to Rio Sul Shopping (Botafogo). We dined at different locations in Ipanema, I think probably the best neighborhood to stay, eat, drink and live. Everything is within walking distance and is pretty safe.
For those concerned with safety in general, we didn’t have any problems at all. But just don’t go walking with expensive jewelry, sunglasses, watches, or smartphones on display. Avoid the downtown area at night, and don’t go walking in the beach alone after 10 pm. Be aware that what happens the most (and we saw two cases on the Copacabana walking path by the beach) is fast pick pocketing, usually two or three guys in bikes going back and forth “chasing” for their prey.
On the next day, Sunday, elections were held in Rio and many other cities. Many public buildings, churches and attractions were closed, but some were opened. The weather was also gray and cloudy, ideal for Museums and buildings. We started our day by checking the local artisanal fair on Plaza Osorio (paintings, handcrafts, foods, and many other stuff to check). Then we headed downtown to visit Teatro Municipal, Museo do Amanha, Candelaria Church, Fine Arts Museum and the best was the Mondrian Exhibit at the Cultural Centre of Banco do Brasil (free!)
On the next day, sunshine was finally here! We decided to do Cristo Redentor and Pao do Azúcar. As I wrote before we used Uber for transportation from the apartment and between places where possible. We spent between U$ 5-12 per leg. We reserved our tickets online the same morning (just to make sure the day was pretty enough). Both attractions are worthwhile: the views are just amazing and different. On top of that you have the jungle, the mountain, the little train, nature and city at its best. (You can also go to Cristo by public transportation, combining the metro with the bus: it’s cheap and safe). If you are keen to the “day tours” and such, there is the option as well. They start from fixed locations at Copacabana and Ipanema and last all day long. It’s made in buses with more folks and things get slower but you don’t have to think. They go from U$70/90 per person and they provide food as well (not an option for us, we love to explore on ourselves)
The next day was also pretty and shiny, so we did the famous beaches. We started by checking the Plaza Osorio Market (a fair that goes every Tuesday morning). Here you can find all sorts of veggies, fruits, fish, meat, local food and plants. It is very interesting to observe and try different flavors.
We then headed to Fort Copacabana, where we had our breakfast at Confitería Colombo: an excellent location with an amazing view of the whole Copacabana bay. After that, we did the Museum around the fort and then went to Copacabana beach to spend the first half of the day. For the second half, we went to Ipanema. We had a fantastic time at both sides. We rented and umbrella and two little chairs. At the “barraca” you can pay with your card, and also get food, drinks and sometimes, wifi.
By sunset, we walked to Arpoador and stay there with the crowd, watching the Sun go down the Pedra Gavea Mountain. It’s something you have to do, plus you get the photos! It gets a really cool crowd and everybody applauds when the Sun disappears.
There are many ways to get there; most of them go thru Angra dos Reis. After much research we decided that the shortest and fastest way was to use Porto Real/Conceiçao do Jacareí for our fast boat connection. Overall I think you save more than an hour by doing this. Be reminded that getting from/to Rio-Ilha is an adventure than can take from 2.5 up to 4 hs total depending on traffic/weather.
We hired Ilha Grande Receptivo/Ilha Grande Transfer after reading and investigating on TripAdvisor. They have three departures times from Rio daily (6.45am, 9am and 1.30pm aprox.) and two return times from Ilha (9am and 2pm). The service is great, you hop on a van with Ac and after 2.30hs on the road you arrive to the Pier (Porto Real, inside a Private Condo) and wait for your fast boat. The ride on the boat takes about 20/30 minutes and it’s the shortest distance to Vila do Abrao (13km) We payed U$33 each way per person (BRL RS 110).
You also have the option to use some of the Public Transportation System. From the Rodoviaria in Rio you take the Costa Verde Bus that arrives to Angra. From there you can have a fast boat or a Slow boat service (ferry kind, much slower but cheaper). Doing this you save some money but you loose a ton of time getting to places, waiting to connect and you also travel more distance.
If you rent a car and drive yourself to any of the pier cities have in mind that there are many radar cams (at least 10 of them to Porto Real) and that there aren’t any cars in Ilha Grande so you will have to leave your car parked elsewhere in the continent.
Arriving to Vila do Abrao is an experience on itself. The view of the mountains, jungle and Pico de Papagallo in the back is a scenery worth many pictures. The best way to travel to the island if you can is light! Backpack is the way to go, but if you otherwise travel with children or just need the baggage, there are small carriages that will take your luggage all the way to your hotel/pousada/hostel and they cost about U$ 9 each way. At the island in general and in Vila do Abrao all you will do is walk to all places, so dragging luggage is not an option in sanded roads.
We stayed at Pousada Caucá (excellent) in one of their superior suites. Since we did have a bit of a hassle getting to the Island (traffic was horrendous) we decided to start right away by walking thru the beach and paths to the nearest beaches (Julia, Crena, Comprida) to Abrazinho. The waters are calm and warm. This last beach has some bars where you can relax/drink and have some food. The walking is very easy and last about 40 minutes.
The next day we did the “Half Island” tour that lasts all day long (leaving around 10 pm, returning by 4 pm, we payed U$ 33 each, lunch not included). The day was gorgeous, you get the chance to visit and swim in Blue and Green Lagoons (names given by the color of the sea), Praia do Amor, the boat stops to have lunch in Saco do Ceu bay. You enjoyed nature at its finest all day long. All the boats provide snorkel and floating equipment, they also give you water. The tour finished at Praia Feiticeira, which we didn’t stay much since the weather was starting to change (a bit cloudy, rainy and windy).
The next three days were days for contemplation and meditation! We had rain non-stop. We stayed mostly at the Pousada, reading, watching movies, and talking. Eventually we decided to do the walking path to Lopes Mendes (the second most beautiful beach in Brazil, according to many websites). The trek itself is a lot of fun, but if the weather is nice, you have to have proper shoes (aka trekking shoes). Since we enjoy trekking a lot, we did bring proper shoes and we had rain all the way. We bought a plastic rain protector and started the adventure. You need to bring your own water/food since there is not really much until you get to Pouso beach.
The walk is about 6 km long (each way, so plan accordingly if you want to do the full return walk) and I would say it’s mostly easy but has some intermediate parts. With rain can be quite dangerous (slides) so be aware of where you put your step.
After 1.5 hs of walking you arrive to Praia do Mangues (here there is a stand where you can reserve your way back to Vila do Abrao by taxiboat, U$8 per person) and shortly after Praia das Palmas. Keep walking for another 40 min and you arrive to Pouso (they have a tiny floating bar that serves food and beverages). Then you have another 30 min to cross to the other side to Lopes Mendes (this last part can be tiresome). We couldn’t fully enjoy the beaty of the beach since it was raining, but I swam for a bit (delicious and warm water) with some waves since it’s on the open sea side of the island.
If you are not the trekking/walking type of person you can always do the Lopes Mendes tour (in-out by taxiboat or private fast boat) I think they go for U$15 per person. Anyways, you will have to walk to Lopes Mendes for the last part (just 30 min) as the boats go from the Vila pier to Pouso and back.
Our last day in the island was finally sunny again! We decided to do the “Paradise Islands” tour, pretty much the same style as the previous we did. It takes the whole day (leaving about 10am, arriving back 4.30ish pm). You visit four islands: the famous ex-Caras island (a popular Latin-American gossip magazine), the twin island (two tiny island with Palm threes, best spot for snorkeling). The best one for me was the Dentista Beach (with sands with blue/greenish waters). On the way back for lunch you stop again at Saco de Ceu (at a different location though, the place was called Club La Isla, and was a really good spot for our lunch, with balconies overviewing the whole bay and Praia do Amor). The price was U$48 per person.
The following day we returned to Rio, so on the To-Do-List for next time are: walking to Praia Preta, Feiticeira and Saco de Ceu bypassing the old aqueduct. We would also like to do the trek to Pico de Papagallo, and the whole island tour that goes to the other side that we didn’t see. It would be nice to go back to Lopes Mendes with a full shiny day again!
Back in Rio we stayed for one last night at the same Airbnb apartment that we rented. We decided to do/visit some places that we couldn’t the previous days: we took the metro to Cinelandia, walked a bit along Lapa neighborhood, visited the Escadaria Selarón (famous colorful stairs). We then walked to Saint Sebastian Cathedral (modern and interesting building inside). After that we took the “bondinho” (small old train) to go to Santa Teresa neighborhood. The service goes every 20 min from 10am to 4 pm. In Santa Teresa, a kind of bohemian block of the city, there are super nice restaurants, bars, museums and interesting buildings. It is also safe to walk around the neighborhood.
We went back on the “bondinho” to the main station and from there we walked to Confiteria Colombo (the one located downtown, more historical) were we had some quick lunch/coffee break.
The day after we said goodbye and until next time to Rio, flying back to Buenos Aires on an early flight at 6 am. The day was super nice so we were able to see Guanabara bay, Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, Niteroi Bridge from the air. A nice postal card that will bring us back again for sure.