Don’t visit Rio in a Big Overlander Truck!
The headline of this article is very personal and doesn’t suggest in any way that you shouldn’t visit Rio de Janeiro at all. You might be lucky, and fall in love with this famous city. But for us it was a different story…
We were apprehensive from the start, questioning whether we really wanted to visit a city the size of Rio de Janeiro. Often we find cities of similar size not to our liking and very stressful to navigate in our own vehicle. But it was a logical place to pass through; we had listened to other people raving about Rio; and iOverlander showed several recommended places to stay overnight – even in ‘big rigs’ like our Berta .
After all, there would be no better time for us than “now” to visit Rio!
Getting to Rio de Janeiro
We came from the south, along the coast of the São Paulo state, known for its beautiful beaches and large remnants of the dense Atlantic rainforest. The picture slowly changed the closer we came to the city.
Many secluded bays were taken up by large dirty industrial complexes: an enormous ship building yard, a large nuclear power plant, a mine eating away an entire peninsula. There were long ore trains rattling along the coast, cutting several towns off from their beaches. The ore is loaded onto freight ships on Ilha Grande, offshore and accessed by a purpose built bridge. We spent our last night on a beach promenade in Vila Muriqui, where the noisy trains passed by just half a block behind us…
The next day, Friday, we left early in order to arrive in Rio before dark. South of the main city we passed through satellite beach towns obviously built for the more wealthy citizens. Tall apartment complexes securely fenced in, armoured guard houses, posh imported cars (BMWs and Mercedes aplenty), shopping malls and supermarkets with price tags to suit residents with high disposable incomes.
We wanted to fill our fridge and water tank before we reached the city – in neither task were we really successful! To fill our water tank we usually stop at petrol stations; there they were all too crowded and didn’t have any accessible taps.
We drove to several supermarkets where we couldn’t park, because every bit of road was taken up and the supermarket car parks had height restrictions. We finally stopped at a Hortifruti to buy the bare essentials. It was a busy market; we overheard customers speaking French and US-English alongside Brazilian Portuguese. But we’ve been in Brazil long enough to realise that most things were 60 to 100 per cent more expensive than elsewhere…
Then we finally joined the late afternoon rush-hour traffic into the city. It took us well over two hours stop-and-go to cover the last 20 kilometres to our destination: the iOverlander recommended Military Zone near the Pão de Açúcar cable-car station. When we arrived it was almost 8pm and pitch black, but we immediately found a parking spot to reverse into and settle in for our first night in Rio. We could even see the illuminated Christ statue from our window – we never saw it that clearly again (except in tourist brochures)…
Saturday – Day 1 in Rio
When we woke up in the morning we realised that we were parked right between some of the unique features of Rio de Janeiro. The city is dotted with impossibly steep granite mountains, often age-old volcanic remnants. South of the cable-car station the almost vertical rock wall of Morro de São João attracted the first climbers; east of us the cable car swung up Morro da Urca, from where it continues even higher up to Pão de Açúcar.
But we were not allowed to enjoy this vista for long as the parking attendant knocked on our door, as soon as we had got dressed, to tell us that we should move Berta elsewhere. We had to explain that all dirty dishes from dinner and breakfast (which we hadn’t had by then) needed to be cleaned and securely stored away before we could move…
By the time we were ready to move, so many cars had arrived that there was hardly any room left. The attendant went looking for a suitable place for us. Some impatient rock climbers wanted us to move straight away in order to occupy Berta’s space with their pick-up truck. Fortunately we didn’t budge because, after some searching, the attendant hadn’t found us a place. So we finally paid him an inflated fee to occupy the two parking spots we were in – we suspect it went straight into his pocket, since he didn’t give us a ticket.
The day had started out relatively clear, but now that we were finally ready to get out and start exploring, low cloud had developed making it a rather grey day. The two high peaks of the city, Pão de Açúcar and Cristo Redentor Corcovado, were both now covered in low clouds. It was almost lunch time and our plans for the day were null and void. We decided to visit the tourist info (in front of the cable-car station) and then explore the nearby bay of Urca on foot instead.
During the night, once most cars had left, we moved to the other side of the car park into one of the spots the parking attendant had suggested. Unfortunately this meant that we were much closer to an event centre with a Saturday night party and loud music, hence it wasn’t a very restful night.
It also meant that we were parked under tree. The next evening we discovered that our batteries hadn’t charged at all due to the overhanging branches shading our solar panels. We had to move again anyhow, as this side of the parking lot is reserved for the military during workdays. But now I’m getting ahead of myself…
Sunday – Day 2 in Rio
For Sunday we decided it would be good to get acquainted with the public bus system, which should obviously be less crowded on weekends, to get to the neighbourhood of Santa Teresa. There’s a cute, small, free tram going up the main hill of this old suburb, but unfortunately it doesn’t operate on Sundays!
The other option is the Escadaria Selaron, one of the many steep stairs in Rio de Janeiro, which is covered in countless colourful tiles (and almost as many tourists taking photos). We climbed and climbed until we reached our goal.
Somehow Santa Teresa reminded us very much of Valparaiso in Chile . We are well aware that such comparisons aren’t really the way to go, yet the similarities were too striking. The same steep roads, many dilapidated houses next to a few beautifully renovated ones, a lot of bohemian people mixed with ordinary residents, some street art (though less than in Valpo), tourists and colourful businesses catering for them.
We followed signs to Parque das Ruínas, which afforded us a good view across parts of the city. The ruins are of an old mansion which belonged to Laurinda Santos Lobo and was a centre of social life in Rio during the Belle Époque. The house fell in disrepair until the city decided to have the ruins covered with a steel and glass structure and turn it into a public park. After our visit there we wandered around until we found a small café for a late lunch.
That night we moved Berta again, into the beach front car park – this is the only one open to the public on weekdays. Its main disadvantage for travellers like us is the many low shade trees, which make parking difficult and also shade the solar panels. Nevertheless, being Sunday, we were hoping for a quiet night.
Monday – Day 3 in Rio
Boy, were we wrong! First some drunks sat fairly close to our camper, jabbering loudly until way after 2am. Soon after they had left, we were woken by some rather unusual activity right next to us. When we peeked through the curtains we saw dozens of people milling about, unloading small trucks and vans, and setting up several tents. Unknown to us (and the parking attendants!) the site was going to be used for a film – the first crew arrived well before 4 in the morning!
Since sleep wasn’t to be had anymore we got up slowly, made breakfast, packed up, and drove out at the crack of dawn. We hoped that another parking lot (also listed on iOverlander) would be a little quieter, despite it being right next to a major road.
To get there we had to drive through Copacabana – the famous beach of Rio. Might as well have a look – this early on a Monday morning it shouldn’t be too busy… Wrong again! It’s a main thoroughfare into the city; the 6-lane beach promenade is a temporary one-way street on weekday mornings and all other traffic clogs up the narrower side streets.
So after roughly two hours (including a short sightseeing drive along the beach) we finally arrived at the marked parking lot. By then it was all grey and overcast again and during our second breakfast it started to rain (excellent weather for the filming beach scenes at Pão de Açúcar – LOL!). Tired as we were we didn’t mind. I slept almost all afternoon, Yasha dozed a bit and read some.
Tuesday – Day 4 in Rio
Traffic went all on all night. Around us was open park land with no big buildings to reflect noise, so the traffic noise was more a constant drone like some heavy ‘white noise’. The next morning started out overcast again, but Cristo Redentor showed himself for around half an hour and then disappeared in thick cloud. Although it was one of our ‘must see’ things, Christ obviously didn’t want to cooperate. Time to leave then…
But not before we had a chance to see Rio’s latest attraction: the Museu do Amanhã (the ‘Museum of Tomorrow‘). This new building is part of the refurbishment of Rio’s old harbour in the north of the city, and is set on an old pier. Getting there should be easy – or so we thought…
None of our GPS apps (I have four!) know about truck routes, height restrictions, or roads too narrow to get through with a truck. Skobbler suggested two routes: one straight north and then a right turn to go a little east; the second longer one along the waterfront, winding along all of the beaches.
So, having picked the shorter route, we set off. The first 4 or 5 kilometres were easy, only a few low trees (which are everywhere in Rio – traffic is the only tree pruning known). But then a sign indicated that the road ahead was going through a tunnel – closed for trucks.
As I said before, Rio de Janeiro is full of mountains, low and high. Most steep hills are covered by favelas (Rio’s unsavoury slums). All major roads are simply cut through the mountains as tunnels. Some of these are clearly sign-posted with height restrictions, others are not! Unfortunately Berta is a little taller than the city buses so where they go is no safe guidance either…
I decided to adhere to the sign and turned right to follow the route along the beaches. After another 3 or 4 kilometres I noticed another sign, indicating ‘3.85m Height Restriction Ahead. Last Exit.‘. No worries, we’re a little lower.
As it turned out the beach road was crossed by almost a dozen arched pedestrian bridges, their highest point in the middle of four parallel lanes. Normal cars fit under them in any lane, but trying to get to the exact middle of the road with impatient speeding Latino drivers all around us was certainly a challenge.
Then, near the airport, you can’t go straight on any more! A major 4-lane road, going right past the museum and the harbour sheds, has been turned into a pedestrian zone, the remaining arterial roads leading only into the city – none out! There’s a new tunnel, but that doesn’t have any exits in the vicinity.
So, after getting briefly lost in the forecourt of the airport, we had to crawl right through the centre of the city, 8 lanes of traffic jam trying to squeeze slowly into 3… Our GPS didn’t help at all because none of our apps knew about the latest restrictions!
Traffic is made worse by the fact that almost the entire city is a construction site – in a mad rush to get some things finished before the Olympic Games start in 6 weeks. From the progress we saw, it looks like a lot will remain unfinished, particularly since Rio de Janeiro declared ‘Extreme Financial Hardship‘ (read bankruptcy) the day we arrived.
We finally reached the museum almost 4 hours after leaving our parking place. There the next oversight in Rio’s planning became obvious: they built this attractive tourist site – but no parking! There’s not even an official ‘passenger drop-off zone’.
The forecourt of the museum is a small green park and an incredibly large expanse of marble paving with a fountain in the middle. Result: every possible space, in every narrow side street, is occupied by parked tourist buses, small and large. I finally parked in a ‘no parking zone’ right next to the Federal Police – upon return another bus was squeezed in behind me.
The Museu do Amanhã was designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and is certainly an impressive building. Since we took so long to get there we only had time left to wander around the forecourt and take a few photos.
We wanted to get to Niterói that day, on the other side of the Baía de Guanabara. One reason for going there was simply to get out of the city and find some sleep. The main reason though was that Niterói has a number of buildings designed by Brazil’s famous architect Oscar Niemeyer .
We didn’t really know where to stay there and had no expectation what we would find. What we found was a fair bit of construction activity along the beach near the ferry terminal to Rio (also designed by Niemeyer) and, just before dark, a small empty beach lot near a yacht club – a couples’ mating point as it later turned out to be.
This article describes our personal experience in Rio de Janeiro. Some of it had to do with the size of our overlander truck; a lot of it was sheer bad luck! How many days in the year will the Sugar Loaf parking at Praía Vermelha be busy with a large film crew? How many days in a row could the Christ statue be covered in cloud?
It’s a shame that we missed so many sights in Rio – but somehow we knew in advance that it might be difficult. Just not near impossible…
So our advice: by all means visit Rio if you like an exotic and lively city!