The Mole Diaries: Rio de Janeiro

The Mole Diaries: Rio de Janeiro Rio de Janeiro by Hector Garcia

This article was written by Holly Ingram, published on 25th January 2014 and has been read 7336 times.

I’ve just returned from living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for four months where I worked on a volunteering project with children in one of the city’s favelas. Missing Rio already, I decided I would list all the questions I was thinking before I left and answer them now, on returning to England; a conversation between myself in the past and myself in the present, if you will, followed by some top tips.

1. Is Brazilian Portuguese very different from European Portuguese?

Oh my god, yes. Upon arriving, I wondered if I’d studied a completely different language for two years at University. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But the accent (especially the Carioca accent!), the grammar and a lot of vocab is very different indeed. My Brazilian friend told me I sounded ridiculously posh and ‘too correct’ at first, with my knowledge of Portuguese from Portugal. For me it just took some time, a bit of observing and a lot of hard work to get to grips with Brazilian Portuguese and to realise that it is, in fact, the same language I’ve been learning at Uni.

Outfit2. Will I stand out as a foreigner/is Rio dangerous?

Certainly. And you’ll probably hear the word ‘gringo’ pretty often, which refers to a white, English-speaking foreigner. Unfortunately this means you’ll be an easy target for muggings but my advice would be to have your wits about you (know which areas to avoid at which times, i.e. the protests which have been happening recently) and try to avoid acting too much like a tourist. Outfits like this probably won’t help.

3. How do I get around?

Trains are pretty non-existent in Brazil so buses are (usually) quite fast and frequent. We all took a different bus route to the various favelas we worked at and they charge the same price (2.75 Reais) for any journey all over the city. There’s also a metro in Rio, which is usually a surprisingly spacious and calm experience compared to, say, the London underground.

Rice4. What will I eat?

If you stick to the Brazilian places, the standard meal consists of some kind of meat, salad/fries, beans (feijao) and a whole lot of rice. This kind of thing really grew on me and I actually find myself craving it now that I’m back in England! Another thing I miss is the ‘por kilo’ way of eating; buffet restaurants where you pay for the weight of the food you put on your plate!

5. What’s Rio like?

Rio’s a bit of an adventure and it’s impossible to describe it in a nutshell because every part of Rio is entirely different to the next. There’s the quiet alternative neighbourhood of Santa Teresa where the tram used to run, the crazy and pretty dangerous area of Lapa known for its popular nightlife, the mountainous urban forest of Tijuca National Park, the bustling, slightly more westernised Copacabana and Ipanema beach spots, Centro with most of the cities churches and museums, and much more.

6. How can I prepare?

If you’ve never been to Brazil or in fact South America before, get ready for something entirely different : )

Here's a video I made about my time in Brazil:

Here are a few more Rio tips which spring to mind...


1. Be prepared for disorganisation and delays!

You’ll probably end up hearing the phrase ‘on Brazilian time’ pretty often while you’re living as a Carioca. That’s because the way things are done here...varies...slightly to the efficient way you might be used to at home. Things rarely happen on fact, if a bus arrives or a class begins half an hour late, that’s pretty much considered being early! Restaurants generally take their time with their food (one time my food didn’t arrive...full stop.), shops take their time serving you, and as for project; there were days where no children turned up at all, they just casually decide to take random days off at the last minute without informing anybody. You certainly need patience to live here! But at the end of the day, when you compare this way of life to the uptight, exhaustingly fast paced and stressful life in many cities at home, the laid-back life of a Carioca just adds to Rio’s charm!

2. Learn some Portuguese

You’d be surprised by how many people in Rio know not one word of English. Even I, as a language student, who travelled there ready to leave my mother tongue behind for a short while and expand on my Portuguese knowledge, was shocked by the number of times that I was unable to just switch to English with someone if the Portuguese got a little too much to handle. Obviously this helped improve my language skills, but for anyone going without previous knowledge, a few key phrases and a pocket dictionary won’t go amiss!

3. Keep small change

This is a strange one. I don’t know what it is about Brazil and giving change, but the two do not mix. There are two main issues; breaking a large note like a fifty or a hundred, and receiving correct change for any other note. Each time I get money out from a cash point, it usually comes in the larger notes such as fifties or hundreds, but each time I attempt to break such a note, I am met with a screwed up face from a cashier or shop assistant, who asks “nao tem menor??” (do you have anything smaller?), to which I reply “nao”, because this is all the cash point will dispense. Consequently, the shop assistant will flat out refuse to serve me. So, I am forced to buy something of larger value in the shop and spend nearly the full amount of the note in order to break the note. This means I will have to return to the cash point sooner than planned, only to receive more of these seemingly unbreakable notes. It’s a vicious cycle.

Additionally, there is a huge issue with counting correct change here, too. While I’ve been on the receiving end of a few minor change errors, a more notable one was when I paid for something which was seven Reais with a twenty Reais note, and received forty-three Reais change. Something’s not quite right there... So, yeah, try to keep small notes and coins for when you might want to catch a bus or buy something small. Otherwise, you’ll end up losing (or gaining, I suppose) a lot of wrongly counted money.

Do not

1. Let yourself be ripped off because you’re a tourist

There have been many times when I would ask for a price of something, only to hear a different (lower) price being given when my Brazilian friend asked! I’ve also heard stories of restaurants providing different ‘tourist’ menus with higher prices to English speaking customers, etc, so keep your wits about you with this kind of thing. As for markets and shopping, I can’t say I know how to do it myself, but I definitely recommend learning a thing or two about how to haggle!

2. Get your valuables out in public

So using your cheap digital camera for photos is fine (if you keep it hidden in your bag or pocket the rest of the time), but don’t wave your state-of-the-art phone or camera around when walking in busy, or in fact quiet, areas, on buses, or worse still, in favelas. Pretty self-explanatory!

3. Drink from street vendors 

Street stalls are usually fine, in fact, they’re the norm here! But watch out for dodgy-looking characters. For example, in Lapa, buying from the stalls by the arches is alright but the suspicious-looking guy wandering round with the random tray of ‘caipirinhas’ or the strange looking man selling ‘tequila shots’...yeah, those are probably ones to avoid.


1. Padlocks
If you want to keep hold of your valuables while you’re in Rio, a padlock is something you’ll be using daily! Hostels almost always provide lockers, but never locks to go with them! So whether you’re using it to lock up your luggage, your valuables at home or your valuables while travelling, a padlock (probably best to have more than one) is essential!

2. A raincoat
This might seem a bit odd as you’ve probably been picturing yourself spending your spare time on the beach in the sweltering heat, but unfortunately there were many crazy rain storms while I was in Rio. My project got flooded several times and the lady in charge showed me ridiculously high marks on the wall where the water levels had risen in previous years; apparently it’s most likely in December/January. One night I was in a bar in Lapa with my friends and the rain was so heavy that rainwater crept into the bar and rose up to our ankles! The bar staff then closed all the windows but water still came in somehow! For a while I felt like we were in that scene in Titanic where the water rises and rises while Jack and Rose gasp for air! Ok, there is no way it was anywhere near that bad. But seriously, take a raincoat.

3. Things for the kids at project
An easy way to make a good first impression at your volunteering project would be to bring some things from home that the kids will be interested in and appreciate. You could bring photos, snacks, or even just some stationary to get them more excited about learning English. The children will be interested in anything new which is brought to their project. One day I had my iPod with me and I couldn’t get the kids away from it; they shared it all day and at the end begged me to bring it in the next day, with ‘One Direction’ songs added to it. It’s the same with other valuable items like cameras because the kids don’t have anything like that themselves. Do this at your own risk, though! Another idea could be bringing decorations for a particular holiday you might celebrate at home which isn’t celebrated in Brazil. We introduced the kids to Halloween!

4. Nutella
I don’t eat the stuff myself as I’m allergic to hazelnuts, but I’m adding this in on behalf of my friends who love it but found that it was ridiculously overpriced in Brazil! So if you’re a fan, stock up and bring it from home!

Don’t bother packing

5. A beach towel
Not only is this difficult to pack and cart back and forth to the beach, but very few people take actual towels to the beach in Rio. Instead, Kangas (large sarongs) are very popular! They’re sold all over the place, including on the beach. Many people, myself included, buy Kangas with a Brazilian flag design. They’re easy to pack (light and compact), and you can wear them too!

6. Heels
For all the cobble stones in and around Santa Teresa, the uphill walking and the random flash floods, I would probably advise girls against bringing heels for the daytime or night life as you’ll probably regret it and end up carrying them around. Sandals all the way!


The beach ‘eye candy’
Okay, one thing that people raved about before I arrived, which I found to be extremely overrated, is the ‘beautiful people’ on the beach! I’m sure there are a lot of attractive Cariocas around and I just missed them, but every time I went to the beach I sat next to someone who was probably just the tiniest bit too large/elderly for their teenie bikini or speedo...instead of a gorgeous tanned and toned beach lover. Perhaps I needed to check I was at the right post of Ipanema!



1. The Lapa stands
I’m not sure if I would say the Lapa stands (the food and drink stalls that are set up every weekend next to the Lapa arches) are underrated, but they should be more popular! If this kind of thing was part of the nightlife in Newcastle, it would be packed! (if not for the cold weather, I mean). But seriously, the atmosphere is good, food and drinks are varied and cheap, there are friendly locals around to chat to but also many other gringos, it’s on all night usually with live Brazilian music across the street and it’s right next to all the Lapa clubs! Personally I wouldn’t mind just spending all night right here at these stands, it’s got everything I enjoy about a night out, and no ridiculous entry cost!

2. Weekend trips
There is a plethora of nearby destinations in Rio state where you can spend your weekends. Buses are cheap, hostels are everywhere and you can choose from places like Paraty, Ilha Grande, Buzios and loads more. Living in a huge chaotic city like Rio can sometimes take its toll a little so the best option is a quick getaway to an exotic and quiet beach town which is surprisingly close by!

3. Fruit Juices!
On nearly every street corner in Rio there are snack and juice shops, specialising in making fruit juices of any combination of fruits you require! They’re pretty easy to spot (they’re basically shops whose walls and counters are covered in masses of delicious looking fresh fruit, with names like “o rei do sucos” (king of juices)). They’re healthy, cheap, and stock pretty much every fruit under the sun. Definitely worth a try!

Shouldn’t have worried about

Falling out of touch with people

I needn’t have worried about falling out of touch with friends. What will be will be; who will keep in touch with you will, and don’t forget you’ll be making friends while you’re away! One thing I learned in Rio is to just try to live in the moment, make the effort with the people who are there, don’t worry all the time about the friend who you haven’t Skyped in a while. You’ll get home and very little, if anything, will have changed. With my best friends the case was I arrived home and it was as if no time had passed; we still had all our inside jokes! Obviously talk to your friends, send postcards etc, but don’t waste time abroad worrying about things at home-you’ll only regret it!

Should have considered

1. Photocopying documents
Photocopies of your passport, credit card, other forms of ID and important documents can come in really handy. If you go travelling you’ll need a copy of your passport to check in to hostels, and you could also need it for clubs if you don’t have other ID-you really don’t want to be wandering around Rio in the day or the night with your passport in your pocket! Having two copies of each important document and keeping them in different places will help if you end up misplacing some, too.

2. A water flask
During the long, hot days at project, you’ll need to be drinking a lot of water. Rather than going through hundreds and hundreds of plastic bottles, it’s better to invest in a water flask that you can refill each day! Also, remember not to drink the tap water here...ever. Just, don’t.

3. A Brazilian phone
One thing I didn’t do while I was in Brazil is invest in a cheap Brazilian phone and number. This is more for safety than for socialising, though (although it would’ve come in handy when trying to meet up with volunteers while out and about in the daytime!). If I were ever to get lost or mugged while alone, I’m not sure how I would have been able to contact anyone to get help, so if you don’t want to end up feeling a bit lost at times, I say buy a cheapy Brazilian phone and put your coordinators’ and other volunteers’ numbers in it.

By Holly Ingram, Newcastle University

More anecdotes about my adventure in Rio Iko Poran - the organisation I volunteered with Like Iko Poran on Facebook!

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