A Budget Traveler’s Guide to Rio de Janeiro

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I recently spent a few days in Rio de Janeiro while in Brazil for the World Cup. While prices were certainly inflated for the event, Rio is already known to be an expensive city compared to many other destinations in South America. It is possible, however, to have a great time in this amazing city while on a tight budget. Here’s how I did it:

Avoid hotels, which are incredibly expensive in Rio.
Alternatives range from hostels to apartments, which can be found on sites like Airbnb. Keep in mind that a hostel may be called a hotel. We stayed at Hotel Cruz de Ouro, which was definitely a hostel and not a traditional hotel, even though it was priced like a 3- or 4-star U.S. hotel. Most rooms had shared bathrooms, which is what we booked, but we were kindly upgraded to a room with a private bathroom and a refrigerator. The staff were all incredibly friendly, and the free breakfast featured some of the best scrambled eggs I’ve ever had.

Tip: If you’re traveling as a couple, request two twin beds at hostels; otherwise, you’ll get a cramped “full-size” bed in most cases! You can always push them together to make a king.

Hotel Cruz de Ouro is located in the historic Santa Teresa neighborhood, close to Lapa, which is the heart of nightlife in Rio. Accommodation options were limited due to the World Cup, but if we could have, we’d have chosen to stay in Copacabana. You’re closer to the beach and daytime action in Copacabana, and at night, you’ll have to take cabs for safety reasons anyway (and cabs are very cheap in Rio), so there’s no advantage to staying near the best bars.

Hang out on the beach.
The free public beaches in Copacabana and Ipanema have some of the best people-watching in the world. It’s where all the locals go to hang out. You don’t necessarily go to the beach to swim; instead, you’ll see locals playing futebol in the sand, hanging out with friends or grabbing a beer or coconut water at one of the many drink stands along the major street that follows the shoreline.

Pack a blanket or towel from your hostel to avoid being tempted by the expensive rental chairs, and pick up a big bottle of water and a few snacks from a local grocery store along the way. Leave your valuables in a safe at the hostel.

And definitely be sure to try the coconut water, even if you think you don’t like the stuff. It tastes so good straight from the source that you may change your mind — and it’s very cheap!

Try the street drinks in Lapa.
At night, you’ll want to take an inexpensive cab to Lapa, which has the best nightlife in all of Rio. The bars and samba clubs are relatively inexpensive, but don’t overlook the independent drink vendors who set up shop along the sidewalks. “Street drinks,” as I came to call them, are cheap and typically quite strong. The streets close down for pedestrians between certain hours on weekends, and a lot of the bars have outdoor seating, so half the party is outside anyway. You can have a great time in Lapa without even entering a bar!

Eat at kilo restaurants for lunch.
These restaurants are similar to an American-style buffet, except your plate is weighed after you fill it, and you pay only for what you took. Especially when you’re very hungry, it can be easy to overfill your plate, so be careful not to let your eyes be bigger than your stomach. These restaurants are usually only open for lunch and are a great, cheap way to make sure you have a solid meal before heading to the beach or out for an afternoon of sightseeing.

Rio turned out to be one of my favorite cities, and I’m so glad I made the trip during my vacation in Brazil, even though it turned out to be the most expensive and budget-challenging place we went. Despite being overrun with World Cup tourists and the fact that many Brazilians didn’t even want to host the World Cup (an incredibly expensive venture for a country with bigger priorities to worry about, like subpar education and health care), every Brazilian I met blew me away with outgoing friendliness and a happy, carefree attitude toward life. I will definitely be back!

If you’ve been to Rio de Janeiro, what are some money saving tips you would offer for other budget travelers?

All photos by Megan Van Groll.

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