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The Cheap Bastard’s Guide to Rio de Janeiro

By | [email protected] | July 2, 2016 11:00am

A perfect cappuccino from Curto Cafe (photo by Emily Jensen)
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A weak real and the upcoming Olympics mean the price of well, everything, in Brazil is on the rise (unless you’re coming here with dollars, in which case the weakened currency is in your favor and you can blow your money however you see fit).

So how can you visit Rio without busting your budget? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.

After Landing (Getting to the City)

If you’re fresh off the plane, keep in mind that a cab ride from the international airport to Zona Sul will run you at least 100 reais these days. For just 16 reais you can instead take the 2018 line of the “frescão” bus (literally “the fresh bus” because it’s got AC,) which stops at both Galeão and Santos Dumont airports and covers most of Zona Sul.

Surviving on Cheap Food

Cashew fruit, kiwi and starfruit? Yes please (photo by Emily Jensen)

Cashew fruit, kiwi and starfruit? Yes please (photo by Emily Jensen)

Start by taking advantage of Brazilians’ love for the buffet. There are essentially two kinds of buffets in Brazil; the kind where you build your plate and pay by the kilo, and the kind where you pay a flat fee and eat all you want. If you’re the type who enjoys eating until you feel as though you might explode, you’ll get more value out of the latter. Buffet-style establishments are everywhere, but we’d like to give special mention to vegetarian options Refeitorio and Bardana for when you can’t stomach any more greasy mystery meat.

You’ll also find many street corners occupied by juice bars or casual diners known as lanchonetes. A lot of these, like Big Nectar and Beach Sucos, are chains, but chain or not they usually have the same expansive menu of affordable juices, sandwiches and breakfast options. In most cases, the best bang for your buck is the prato do dia (lunch special)– some combo for meat, rice and beans for around 20 reais.

But travelers on a budget can’t eat out every day; sooner or later you’re going to have to go to the grocery, and one of the cheapest of the grocery store chains in Rio is Mundial. Of the Voluntários da Pátria location, Google reviewer Christopher Suttenfield says, “If hell had a supermarket, it would be this.” He’s not entirely wrong. If you like your grocery stores organized, well-lit and clean, stick to Pão de Açúcar, but if you want to get the cheapest beans and rice possible, you’re going to have to brave the crowded aisles and hellish lines of Mundial. Far less hellish but still cheap is the Tuesday and Friday farmer’s market at Praça General Osório, where you can get a whole pineapple for three reais and bags of veggies for one real. (Or you can just walk around eating free samples of fruit until you’re satiated. Not that we’ve done that or anything.)

Cheap Booze

(via pinterest)

Caipi goodness (via pinterest)

If you want to get drunk on the cheap in Rio, your options are clear: beer or cachaça. And when we say beer, we don’t mean the beer of your choice, we mean a national beer like Brahma or Antarctica or “international” brands like Heineken (which are actually made in Brazil). All those fancy craft brews and imported Belgium beers you see at the grocery store? Don’t even think about it.

With cachaça, you at least get more options. Many bars like Bar da Cachaça specialize in cachaças infused with the likes of lime, coconut, ginger and other tropical flavors, which are served in shots and go for around five reais a pop. Take a stroll around party-hardy neighborhood Lapa and you’ll find plenty of dive bars at your disposal. Or look for happy hour deals at spots like Olho da Rua, where you can get two caipirinhas for 15 reais until 9 PM. And since this is Brazil, even cheap bars will often have caipirinhas made with the fresh fruit of your choice – lime or pineapple and mint are classics.

It’s common at Brazilian bars or clubs to receive a piece of paper when you walk in, which you then have to give to the bartender to mark the drinks you’ve ordered, and then to the doorman when you leave and finally pay. Do not, we repeat, DO NOT lose this piece of paper or you may end up paying a hefty fine, making all your attempts at budgeting for naught.

Cheap Accommodation

Vidigal, one of the "nice" favelas (via O Globo)

Vidigal, one of the “nice” favelas (via O Globo)

We hate to say it, but if you’re going to be in Rio sometime in the next month or two, accommodation is not going to be cheap. There’s this little thing called the Olympics coming up that’s going to inflate the price of every hostel, hotel and Airbnb in the greater Rio area. You can circumvent this by steering clear of the city for the entire month of August, or at the very least by staying out of the tourist trifecta of Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana. Look instead to neighborhoods further from the beach like Flamengo, Glória, Santa Teresa or Botafogo, or try your luck in cleaned-up favelas like Vidigal.

Of course, there’s always Couchsurfing or making quick friends with a carioca and begging for a spot on their couch. If all else fails, try a love motel.

Cheap Sightseeing

Worth the hike? We think so (via Conde Nast Traveller)

Worth the hike? We think so (via Conde Nast Traveller)

Fortunately, great views don’t cost any money (most of the time anyway). For magical sunset views, buy a fresh coconut from a beach vendor and walk to Pedra do Arpoador, located between Copacabana and Ipanema beaches.

If you’re in Rio, surely you’ve made plans to visit Christ the Redeemer, patron saint of tourist postcards everywhere. Skip the tram from Cosme Velho or the van from Copacabana, with roundtrip tickets costing between 53-68 reais depending on the season, and climb to the top of the Corcovado on foot. If you hike to the Cristo (and believe us, it is hike) you’ll still have to pay the entrance fee (12 reais during the low season, and 24 reais in high season), but the views are more than worth it.

Rio public transportation isn’t exactly cheap by South American standards (R$3.80 for the bus and R$4.10 for the metro), by why take a bus when there’s so much to see on foot? Some great walking paths that are entirely free of charge include those in Parque Lage in the Jardim Botânico neighborhood (entrance to the Botanical Gardens itself is 10 reais) and the path around Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in Lagoa.

Cheap Coffee

A perfect cappuccino from Curto Cafe (photo by Emily Jensen)

A perfect cappuccino from Curto Cafe (photo by Emily Jensen)

By this point you’re probably hungover from all that cheap booze you’ve been drinking and feeling achy from whatever god-awful floor or couch you’ve been sleeping on. You can get a cheap pick-me-up in the form of highly-caffeinated, highly sweetened Matte Leão, an iced tea beverage found at grocery stores and vending machines. Or you can get the best espresso in Rio, which is found not at some hipster café, but on the mezzanine of a downtown shopping mall. Enter Curto Cafe.

So how cheap is the coffee at Curto Cafe? Well, as cheap or expensive as you’d like it to be. There is no actual “price” for a cappuccino or espresso; behind the baristas is a chalkboard outlining the café’s operating costs, and customers are free to pay whatever they see fit. That it’s operated next to the escalator of a midlevel shopping center probably helps keep costs down, but nonetheless, coffee-loving cariocas would appreciate it if you don’t cheat the system by walking away without paying anything.

So there you have it. If you want to be a cheap bastard in Rio, now you have no excuse.