Hype comes in two flavours. The first describes something so astutely, so deliciously, that you simply ache to take a taste — and are utterly satisfied when you finally do. The second is overstated and overwrought, leaving you entirely unmoved by the experience in question.
Rio de Janeiro, with its simmering beaches and sweeping views, is undoubtedly of the first. This iconic city boasts beaches immortalized in song, a wonder of the world, the biggest party of the year, and the bluest of blue skies (no, really).
With instant recognition, however, comes persistent stereotypes of Cariocas (Rio residents) and their city — some of which are good, others not so much. Below, we take a look at five common beliefs about Rio de Janeiro and explore the truth beneath the myths.
1. Rio’s women are dauntingly gorgeous
Let’s be frank: looks often matter. And in a climate that warrants stripping to your smalls, looks matter even more than we’d like. The idea of a bronzed Brazilian goddess strolling on a beach in Rio is conjured not just by ditties like “The Girl from Ipanema,” but by research and statistics, too.
Brazilian women reportedly spend 11 times more of their annual incomes on beauty products than British women, for example. Moreover, there were 2.3 million cosmetic procedures in Brazil in 2015 — a whopping 10 percent of the total number across the world. Knowing this, you would be forgiven for feeling somewhat daunted by the prospect of baring on the beach. After all, who wants to be the podge-one-out in a sea of sculpted sylphs?
The truth is that Rio’s beaches boast all shapes and sizes, from model types in skimpy bikinis to matronly aunts in, er, skimpy bikinis. The emphasis is on feeling confident and free regardless of your shape, so don’t expect (or worry about!) postcard perfection.
2. Rio is one big melting pot
Brazil has been described as a “racial democracy,” free of racial discrimination. It has an ethnic mix of European, African, and American, and boasts everything from superstars of Black African ancestry (Pelé) to supermodels of German stock (Gisele Bündchen).
Given the heady mix of cultures and the country’s symbols of national unity — football, samba, and food — it’s easy to believe that Rio is just one big melting pot. In truth, there is a pronounced divide between social classes, which in this case also runs along racial lines.
Black Brazilians — the descendants of enslaved Africans brought over during Portuguese colonial rule — are more likely to be impoverished and far less likely to reach the top levels of business or politics.
The income of white Cariocas is slightly more than double that of black or brown residents, according to IPEA, a government-linked think tank, and more than half the people in Rio's favelas are black with the comparable figure in richer districts at just 7 percent.
With a range of affirmative action initiatives, the city is creeping closer to equality, but it’s not quite there yet.
3. You can get by with Spanish
The vast majority of Cariocas speak Portuguese, not Spanish, the national language of Brazil. In fact, according to Ethnologue, only 0.23 percent of the country’s population speaks Spanish.
You may be told that you’ll get by with Spanish — and there are certainly similarities in grammar and vocabulary — but be warned that Portuguese pronunciation is completely different. Make an effort to learn the difference, so Brazilians can understand what you’re saying.
Learning some basics is well worth the effort. Not only will you endear yourself to the locals, you’ll likely pick up a delightful expression or two. For example, a Carioca doesn’t “deal with a complicated problem,” he “peels a pineapple” (descascar o abacaxi), nor does he “get drunk,” he “puts his foot inside a jackfruit” (enfiar o pé na jaca) — and who wouldn’t want to try that once in their lives?
4. Carnaval is all about hedonism
Rio Carnival (Carnaval in Portuguese) is seen as the ultimate manifestation of hedonism, an orgiastic party of drink, dance, and wanton abandon. It’s certainly the biggest party in the country — if not the world — but Carnaval involves more than food, sex and “putting your foot inside a jackfruit.”
Samba is serious business. Rio’s schools prepare with sportsmanlike discipline a year in advance. In many ways, the schools are similar to football clubs; each has a flag, a colour scheme, corporate sponsorships, strategic partnerships, and lifelong fans.
The schools are divided into three leagues that compete for top ranking following the Carnaval parades. The coveted Division 1 schools play in the purpose-built Sambódromo and must parade for between 85 and 95 minutes, no more and no less, and include specific features and segments.
The schools are judged on a number of criteria. In addition to the costumes and floats, the bateria (percussion section) must sustain the cadence of the dance, the harmonia, or degree of synchronicity, must be tight between the bateria and the dancers, and the evolução, or quality of dance, must look spontaneous but precise.
Carnaval is about fun and frivolity, but there’s a great deal of discipline behind the glamour, too.
5. Rio isn’t safe
Rio has a reputation for being dangerous, but its bark is worse than its bite. Recent years have seen a drop in crime, and despite an Olympics-related spike, the downward trend will likely continue.
The murder rate has fallen from 64 per 100,000 people in the mid-1990s, to 39 per 100,000 in 2007, to 18.5 per 100,000 in 2016. Tourists are rarely affected by violent crime and are more likely to face petty theft and pickpocketing around Copacabana Beach, Ipanema Beach, and the Lapa area.
Problems can be avoided by using basic safety precautions: leave your valuables at home when you visit the beach, keep an eye on your belongings in bars and restaurants, don’t flash your cash, don’t travel alone at night, don’t hail taxis on the street, and don’t wander off with people you don’t know well.
Rio is one of the most unique cities in the world. Its famous beaches and sweeping views make for an arresting landscape matched by few others. Seeing it in person is a must-do experience, so take a deep breath and dive in.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in Brazil encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.