Rio Off the Beaten Track

a Never Fly Coach Again exclusive article by William "Charles" Taylor

At once awe-inspiring and a little bit intimidating, the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro can be a daunting destination for tourists. Lively at best, swarming at worst, this crowded city can be troublesome for tourists: although its reputation for violent crime and muggings is less severe than it used to be, travelers in certain areas or who are wearing distinctly expensive clothing or jewelry are still at risk. It can be difficult for travelers to determine which “off the beaten track” destinations are worth going to – and which present an undue risk. That having been said, however, Rio is a world-class destination for cultural and nature-based travel alike; this fascinating city has something to offer every kind of traveler, from funky markets to tranquil beaches. And while some of the most famous sites in Rio – such as the Copacabana beach – may have lost the grandeur that made them so notorious, turning into touristy shadows of their former selves, Rio de Janeiro still has more than enough to keep the intrepid traveller fully occupied. So check out any one of these five options we’re suggesting for those who want an “off the beaten track” adventure in Rio de Janeiro. They’re thrilling, rewarding and – most importantly of all – safe.

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Prainha

With its ten miles of coastline, Rio de Janeiro is hardly short of beaches. But the most famous beach resorts, such as Ipanema and Copacabana, can feel overly crowded, particularly at peak times. The Zona Sul is overpopulated and can feel more like a theme park than a tranquil beach. Head instead to the “little beach” of Prainha on the city’s western zone, about an hour out of the city center, past the Barra da Tijuca. Here you can relax on over 700 meters of pure, virtually empty, white sand. Tourists rarely find their way out here – you’re more likely to spot a surfer or even a celebrity. Take the Surf Bus shuttle if you don’t have motor transportation of your own. Be warned – in the afternoon, Prainha’s mountains cast shadows over the beach, so get there in the morning if you’re working on your tan.

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Sao Cristovao Market

If you want Carnival atmosphere outside Fat Tuesday, head to the lively Sao Cristovao Market, equal parts shopping excursion and cultural experience. Pay the (one real) entry fee and get past security  to make your way to the market, where live musicians perform heart-pounding, foot-stomping forro music and sellers hawk their wares: everything from arts and crafts to traditional Brazilian street foot to cane sweets, piquant spices, medicinal herbs, and more. Come to stock up on souvenirs or to people-watch – this is Brazilian culture at its finest.

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Parque Lage

This delightful and charming park, located just at the base of Floresta da Tijuca, roughtly half a mile from the Botanical Gardens, is an oasis of tranquility in the heart of bustling Rio de Janeiro. Visit the calm English-style gardens, with their small lakes and picturesque flowers, or head to the School of Visual Arts, located in a historic mansion, where you can art exhibitions and performenances are often on offer. Have a coffee or a meal in one of the park restaurants, or head into the surrounding Atlantic Rainforest to see if you can spot a toucan or a monkey. Or use your time here to fuel up for a grueling hike up Corcovado.

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Petropolis

Fascinated by the world of the past? If so, few places in Rio de Janeiro are as strangely fascinating as Petropolis, the beautiful summer palace of Emperor Pedro II during the short-lived period of the Brazilian Emperors in the 19th century. Also known as the Imperial City of Brazil, Petropolis is 68 km from Rio proper, is famous for its German population; a number of German farmers from the Rhineland area were encouraged to settle nearby, and German-style houses dot the panoramic mountainside around the palace itself. Explore the jewels and other objets d’art on offer at the palace itself, or visit the stunning Cathedral of Saint Peter of Alcantara. You can also visit the hometown of Santos Dumont, a pioneer in air travel – the Brazilians often argue that Dumont, rather than the Wright brothers, should be seen as the father of modern flight.

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Ibitipoca State Park

Tucked away a short drive outside Rio, this 1488-hectare nature reserve is accessible through the small, historic village, located in the forests of Minas Gerais. Wander through the stunning trails – there are three options, making it suitable for a wide range of hikers. If you have the stamina, try the 16-kilometer “Heaven’s Window” (Janela do Céu) trail, which offers panoramic views from the park’s highest point, the Pico da Lombarda, located at 1748 meters above sea level. Come for a day trip – or stay overnight; the area’s tourism infrastructure is booming, and you can find a number of comfortable family-owned guesthouses here.

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