Life in Rio de Janeiro

Many people imagine moving to Rio de Janeiro as endless days of beach-bumming, samba-dancing, caipirinha-drinking, and outdoor-living. That’s definitely the side of Rio that tourists get to experience but for expats, the reality is quite different. The everyday chores of life still continue – opening banks, booking doctor appointments, sorting out visas, work permits, to name a few – and all take place in an entirely new and often alien context. Whilst I do love Rio de Janeiro with all my heart, sometimes it leaves me scratching my head in bewilderment. But that’s the joy of living abroad, right? Here are 11 of many things that you don’t know about living in Rio de Janeiro until you actually move here.

1. The bureaucracy will test your patience like nothing else before

Brazilian bureaucracy, at best, is a labyrinth of confusion, documents, and tears. Pretty much any legal procedure in Brazil is surrounded by a mysterious process that seems to differ from one person to the next and requires a huge list of documents that need to be copied and authenticated at the notary’s office. Things such as getting your CPF (the Brazilian version of a tax number) is actually pretty straightforward and I would recommend anyone staying a longer period of time in Brazil to get one. It’s necessary to book internal flights, order items online, and sign up to gym membership, among other things. However, if a CPF is at level 1 bureaucracy, if we can imagine levels of difficulty here, then getting permanent residency, opening a business (or worse, closing one), and buying an apartment here as a foreigner is off the chart.

2. Popcorn is served with bacon

A bizarre combination yet one that just works in a way that will make you wonder why you have never had it before is popcorn served with bacon. The wonderful thing about popcorn in Brazil is that it’s not just limited for date nights out at the cinema, but is in fact served on street corners as a general, everyday snack. That and the fact it’s served with chopped bits of fried bacon. The popcorn is served in small mobile stalls and the best places to find them are near to the entrances and exits of metro where they entice people going about their everyday business in the city.

3. You will learn not to take a plan a seriously

Making fixed, concrete plans in Rio is just not really the done thing. Rather, they are loose ideas that may or may not happen, regardless of how enthusiastically they are met. Cariocas (people born in Rio de Janeiro) tend to be exceptionally friendly and love meeting new people and making a great first impression. But this does lead to a habit of not being able to say ‘no’ and leads to deciding last minute what to do before cancelling the other options. This surprised me in the beginning as when I heard ‘let’s meet and go to the bar Saturday!’ I genuinely thought that this meant on Saturday I would go to the bar and meet said person. After time, I began to realise that this meant it was just a possibility and not an actual set-in-stone meet-up. It’s nothing to take personally – in fact, I’m actually seeing the logic in keeping all your options open – but it takes a while to get used to. Also, if it rains, forget your plans – the majority of your Brazilian friends will cancel. The logic here is, there are so many sunny days in Rio, why not just wait for one of those instead of going out in the rain?

Life in Rio de Janeiro

4. Putting used toilet paper in the bin and not in the toilet

The signs are in every bar and restaurant – do not put the toilet paper in the toilet, put it in the bin. Despite this, habits die hard and you only ever really learn this rule when you’ve blocked a toilet in a public place. Or worse still at a house party when there is someone waiting outside to get in. The toilets in Rio de Janeiro – and Brazil in general – is they are rather prone to blocking and added paper doesn’t help with their sensitive-nature. Hence why it’s always better to avoid a socially embarrassing situation and spare the cleaner from this awful mess by simply putting used toilet paper – or anything else for that matter – in the bin and not inside the toilet.

5. The sea is really cold

The word ‘tropical’ is practically considered synonymous with Rio de Janeiro and this instantly makes you think of gorgeous beaches (which it has), crystalline oceans (Umm, sometimes), and warm bathe-worthy waters (absolutely, no). The sea in Rio is actually very cold which is a refreshing relief in the sweltering hot summers, but it’s not so favourable in the winter. Sometimes, the shallows at Arpoador can feel warm in the middle of summer as it takes in all of the day’s incredible heat, yet the majority of the time brace yourself for a chilly dip.

Life in Rio de Janeiro

6. The body conscious attitude will rub off on you

At least that’s what I found personally and what I’ve noticed among my close expat girl-friends. I used to run now and again before I moved to Rio but I never counted it as something that I loved to do or something that was a part of my life. Fast forward a couple of years and I can’t help but notice the sport-centric and aesthetic-conscious lifestyle in Rio has rubbed off on me. Nowadays, I work out every day, I take protein shakes (I actually thought these were steroids before I learnt what they actually are – I know, I was clueless), I run, I do dance class, and I eat healthily (most of the times. Well, I try anyway). I drink wine instead of beer. I visited a nutritionist. I have a diet plan and a workout plan. My friends have started running recently or taking up CrossFit. Even though I rarely go to the beach (a factor of working freelance coupled with living far from the beach in the north zone of the city), I still feel conscious to have a fit, healthy body and to take care of it. In Rio, being strong is the new skinny so it’s all about the muscles here – for men and women. Makeup isn’t so much of a big deal day-to-day and in terms of fashion, a strong, lean body is the perfect accessory.

7. There are women-only carriages on the subway

During certain hours in the early morning and the evening – around the rush hour period – there are certain carriages for women only. Absolutely no men are allowed in. Normally if a man does enter, it is usually by accident and he will have to endure the awkwardness of waiting for the next stop before he can hurry out and go to the appropriate carriage. Usually though, the guards spot any male intruders and give them a quick warning to leave. The carriages are there to offer women privacy and comfort of travelling to work or throughout the city during the busiest times without worrying about unwanted attention.

8. Rio de Janeiro isn’t all about samba

Funk music is huge here. It’s not the funk music you may think of from America, but Brazilian funk which comes with a whole culture, dance routine, and fashion style. Before I moved to Rio, I lived in Sao Paulo and taught English in banks and large financial institutions. I had already heard about funk music and one day I was talking to my students about it. These were the days I couldn’t speak or understand Portuguese so I didn’t get what the lyrics were saying. ‘But that’s ok, Sarah’ reassured my students. ‘The lyrics are very sexist and full of bad words. It’s best you don’t understand.’ Yet when I moved to Rio, the beat of funk was everywhere and I loved it. As my Portuguese improved, I could finally begin to understand the words. Whilst butts are the main theme in a lot of the funk music, it’s not the offensively rude lyrics I was expecting and I actually really like funk music. The video below is one I really like. While everyone associates samba with Rio de Janeiro and rightly so, funk music is definitely a music that defines Rio too. And more so, whatever you may think of it, you will probably learn to love it the longer you live here. The dance, however, I haven’t (and probably never will) got the hang of – think ‘twerk’ and that’s pretty much dancing to funk.

9. You can visit or even live in a favela and that’s ok

That doesn’t apply to all favelas and many are definitely out of tourist bounds. However, there are two that are still very welcoming to tourists. Vidigal is one of the safest favelas in Brazil (in fact, the safest) and is a perfectly fine to visit. It is the base point for the Dois Irmaos hike, it has plenty of bars and restaurants to visit, and Now in Rio co-founder Yvonne used to live there for three months (ask her and she will tell you how much she loved it there for the friendly people, community spirit, artistic vibe, and cheap and cheerful eateries. If you’re looking for a place to rent for either short-term or long-term, then Vidigal is certainly one to consider. It is cheaper than other tourist spots, has all the facilities you need (such as bank, pharmacies, doctors, and supermarkets), and is close to the beach. The only thing is it is a little out the way – but a 20-minute walk will get you to Leblon and from there you can take a metro to any point in the city. The other favela is Rocinha that is great for guided tours – it is the biggest favela in Brazil and has plenty of fascinating stories and insights. I would recommend though going there with a guide as some parts that are off the tourist path may not be 100% safe.

Life in Rio de Janeiro

10. You won’t be dodging bullets and violent encounters every day

Contrary to popular belief, Rio isn’t a minefield of violence. At least not in the tourist areas. Crime – such as armed assaults, shootings, mass robberies – do happen, yet these are mostly outside the tourist spots and happen in more residential areas in the north or west zone of the city – areas that are very unlikely for tourists to visit. I do actually live in the north zone – in Tijuca to be exact – but this area, from my experience, is great and I love it. One thing that I noticed though is how aware I have become of my surroundings and where my belongings are at all times. This doesn’t mean I don’t go out without my laptop and phone as I do but I’m naturally much more careful with them now. I do understand that crime exists but besides seeing it in the news, I don’t notice it in my day-to-day routine.

11. Street art in Rio is amazing and you will see it everywhere

One thing I didn’t expect when I moved to Rio was how much street art there is. In 2009, the Brazilian government legalised street art, allowing street artists to paint on the city’s walls, as long as they have the building owner’s permission. The result is amazing and I love how expressive the art is. In Vidigal, there is a street that is totally free for street artists to make their mark (the photo below is a snippet of that). All around the city, there is so much artwork, some purely aesthetic, whilst others reflect societal feelings such as the reaction to the World Cup in 2014 and opinions about police brutality and crime.

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Life in Rio de Janeiro


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