Words: Liam O’Neill
Rio de Janeiro is often thought of as the spiritual home of Brazilian jiu jitsu. Though BJJ has its origins throughout Brazil – and has now found its way across the globe – Rio still remains a hub for its training, culture and competition. Jiu jitsu has been shaped by the city and its people, with their love for life and suave attitude, and also forged by the fierce competition which was typical of the early ‘Vale Tudo’ days.
Countless BJJ legends call Rio home, and the city continues to produce amazing talent on the world scene. Jiu jitsu is in Rio’s blood. For this reason it is the dream of many practitioners to buy a ticket and jet off to ‘Cidade Maravilhosa’ to soak up the BJJ culture to a backdrop of forests, mountains, beaches and scantily clad locals.
Whether you decide to stay for a week or a year, the Rio lifestyle is intoxicating. There are few better ways to spend a day than hard training, recovering with a cup of Acai and hitting the beach, then visiting one of the amazing restaurants and refuelling for the next day of bliss as a ‘gringo’ in Rio. Many people dream of spending their days between the mats and the beaches, all amongst the breathtaking scenery and amazing weather. If you’re one of them, the following information will help make the wish a reality, allow you to make the most of your experience and arrive home safely with some knowledge, skills and good stories.
When to visit
Rio’s ‘high summer’ season is over our winter, from December to February/March. The temperatures during this time average around 25-30C, but often hit over 40C. This time of the year also sees more rain, and you’ll often catch some intimidating but awesome thunderstorms. This is also ‘party’ season, marked by two major events – ‘Revellion’ (New Year’s Eve) centres around Copacabana, where one of the world’s largest fireworks displays is held on the beach, with literally millions of people flooding Rio’s south zone to celebrate. The other is the famous Carnival – the world’s biggest – which runs for five days at the beginning of February. Around this time the atmosphere is one of constant celebration, though the jiu jitsu academies rarely let this interrupt their training schedule for more than a couple of days, if at all.
If you want a cooler, quieter, and cheaper time, the rest of the year is still full of Rio’s typical idyllic weather and joyful character. The massive crowds aren’t around, but the city and its beaches are still vibrant, and with no drastic drop in temperature the daytime averages above 20C, so it’s certainly not what most people would call ‘cold’. During this time Rio also experiences less rain, with the months of July and August having the lowest on average. Long story short, there really is no bad time to visit Rio; its great all year round.
Where to stay
Before booking your flight it’s a good idea to make sure accommodation is available. Depending on the time of year, the popular ‘Zona Sul’ (south zone) of Rio – where the best gyms and beaches are – can be fully booked in all but the more expensive places. This might lead you to decide to pick somewhere cheaper further out, but if you’re new to Rio it might prove to be a hassle you could do without. A great way to find somewhere safe, cheap and close to the best academies is by using sites like Airbnb. Here you can rent out anything from a bed in a dorm to an entire apartment. You can select your location, amenities and price range, and even message the host with any information you might need. I have stayed in some great places – five minutes’ walk from both the beach and the mats – without breaking the budget. Some places will require a deposit, or a full payment of the rent in advance. If hotels are more your thing, (and you have the budget to cater) there are plenty to choose from – a quick search will find one that is well located. Either way, it is advisable to make sure you have a place booked before getting your flight.
The three central beach areas of Zona Sul – Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon – are the closest to the wealth of academies on offer. These areas also have some of the best beaches, hiking trails, shops, and restaurants, and are relatively safe. Around an hour away from Zona Sul is Barra Da Tijuca, in Rio’s Zona Oeste (West Zone). The home of Gracie Barra and Gordos academy, as well as some of Rio’s best shopping and restaurants, Barra also has an 11 mile long stretch of sand, which is packed with all the things that make Rio’s beaches so great. There are other areas, such as Botafogo and Flamengo, that have great gyms and beaches as well.
For those not interested in getting sand on their feet, the many areas around the centre of the city also have famous academies. A good plan when looking for somewhere to stay is to find where your preferred academies are and look for somewhere not too far away. The first time I visited Rio for one month I stayed in Barra at a jiu jitsu “hostel” but travelled an hour on the bus to Copacabana and back every day to train. If the traffic was bad (which it often is) it sometimes took nearly three hours. I figured out that over my month stay I spent a total of one and a half days on the bus. Moral of the story – location is key.
So, you’ve secured accommodation, now to book the flights! There are a number of flight comparison sites, such as Kayak or Skyscanner, where you can search for the best deals, lowest price first. One thing to bear in mind though, is that the cheapest flights aren’t always the best. I once quickly booked a flight that was surprisingly cheap, only to find out it involved three changes, 13 hours of stop-overs and a nonsensical route from the UK to Rio. Needless to say, I would have paid an extra £30 to avoid that hassle and enjoy another two days in the city. You should be able to find a return flight from most UK airports for less than £700, but depending on the time of year it could be as low as £400. Sometimes booking directly with the airline can be the best idea, and makes it easier to change your booking should you need to. A bit of research and shopping around can make all the difference.
When you get to the airport, you will need to get a taxi to where you’re staying. This will cost approximately £30, and it’s best to approach a yellow taxi that has dropped off outside, rather than the expensive (and sometimes unlicensed) taxis that will approach you as you leave the airport.
Staying a while
How long should you go to Rio for? This question depends on a lot of things – not least your existing responsibilities, whether you’ve quit your job, and what your other half has to say about the possibility of you never coming back. Those things aside, it can take some time to become accustomed to the Rio way of life, settle into an academy and really begin to benefit.
The last time I went I decided to stay for one year, and it was amazing. I have also been for one month, which was enough time to soak up the culture, get in the training zone, and come back somewhat tanned. Some people stay for a week or two, but I know someone who planned to go for six months, and stayed for six years. Plenty of people go and decide to live the Rio jiu jitsu lifestyle indefinitely; settling down and passing the years honing their skills and living the Brazilian way of life. The lure is definitely there.
Currently the visa situation for UK residents is three months on a tourist visa, with the possibility of an extension of three months or more – should you wish to tangle yourself in the spider’s web of Brazilian bureaucracy. It is also possible to get work teaching English or to get a job in your field; foreign workers are in high demand in many sectors. If you happen to overstay your visa you will be fined, which you either pay upon leaving or when you next visit (at the time of writing that is the only consequence for first time over-staying, though I’m definitely not advising it; always best to go by the book). If you’re considering staying longer, don’t buy a one way flight – you might not be allowed in without a means of leaving, and most airlines will allow you to change dates for a fee when you’re there.
Lingo for gringos
It’s not essential to become fluent in Portuguese before heading to Brazil, however it’s worth noting that most people do not speak English – for example none of the police I spoke to when living there understood more than a handful of words. It can be difficult to ask directions, or order food if you don’t speak the lingo. For that reason it’s definitely advisable to get a phrasebook and a free language app to wile away the hours on the plane and prepare yourself for your first visit to the gym, taxi journey, or order of Acai. You will definitely endear yourself to the locals if you at least try to speak the language rather than looking confused and pointing at things hoping for results (though this occasionally works).
Rio has a wealth of different cuisines, from all-you-can-eat pizza places to organic vegan restaurants. Jiu jitsu isn’t the only Japanese export to Rio though; there are a lot of great sushi places to enjoy, which are often reasonably priced and open until late. There is even a ‘fast food’ sushi chain known as Koni, such is Brazil’s love of all things sushi. But Rio, like a lot of South America, it is a meat eater’s paradise. There are “Churrascaria’s”, (restaurants that specialise in different cuts of meat) on most streets and you can get a heavyweight serving, along with sides, for a great price. If you plan to stay longer, spend less, and stay healthier, the many fresh produce markets around Rio will supply all the fruit, veg and meat you need to keep you lean and happy.
Hitting the mats
This is why you came, right? Well you’re in luck. Thanks to the built up nature of Rio, you are never more than walking distance from world class mats, home to seemingly endless numbers of skilled people. Some academies speak varying levels of English, and some are better catered to foreign visitors, but you’re never short of somewhere to train. Sessions run throughout the day – gyms are often running different sessions anywhere between 7am and 11pm.
Some people prefer to gym-hop, and check out as many places as possible, while others choose one place and stay there for the duration. Personally I think having one gym as a base, and visiting others from time to time, is the best option, especially when staying for longer periods. That way you can get to know the members better and get more attention from the coaches when they realise you aren’t just a wandering gringo.
Prices vary between academies; some are twice the average monthly cost, often depending on their level of fame outside of Rio. Some gyms offer cheaper rates if you explain that you have moved there to learn full time. Whichever academy you visit, there is always a wealth of talent – when busy it’s not unusual to share the mat with more than ten black belts, as well as plenty of other levels to roll and drill with. Training varies a lot between academies and a bit of research will go a long way towards getting what you need. One piece of advice – test the level of rolling before trying to prove yourself on the mat as rolling hard can magnify the target you may get on your back as a visitor.
Below is a list of some of the popular academies the different areas of the city have to offer – though this is by no means exhaustive as there are world class mats all around Rio, each with its own style and wealth of talent.
De La Riva (Equipe 1)
Fabricio Jiu Jitsu
Brazilian Top Team
Nova Uniao (Academia Upper)
Barra Da Tijuca
Things to do
In Rio you’ll rarely be short of outings on your days away from training. Reading any guidebook will tell you of the popular spots – from Sugarloaf Mountain to Christ the Redeemer. You can go to central Rio to see some of the colonial buildings or museums, stroll through the old town of Santa Teresa, or sun yourself on the iconic beaches. You could also visit the Tijuca Tenis Clube, host to some historical BJJ competitions and still a major venue today.
Personally, I love the jungle trails which lead to the top of mountains, such as Pedra Da Gavea in Barra, Sugarloaf Mountain and ‘Dois Irmaos’ – the iconic ‘two brothers’ of the Ipanema skyline. After hours of sweltering forest trek and unrelenting uphill leg workout, the reward is stunning 360 degree views of the sprawling metropolis, jungles and beaches that make up the marvellous city of Rio. If you want a visit further afield, there are some amazing coastal towns and islands within two hours of the city. You can even book an affordable boat trip, including pick-up and drop off from where you are staying. If you’re into sightseeing there’s plenty to do but one of the best ways to experience the city is to sit and sip an ice cold beer or juice whilst watching the endless variety of people pass by.
Rio on a budget
Brazil as a country is quite cheap, but Rio is often far from it. While certain things can be found for a great price, such as food, costs of living are often comparable to UK cities. Currently the exchange rate is favourable when changing sterling to reals; at the time of writing £1 is over 5 BRL. Below is an idea of daily costs but these will vary depending on the time of year, area, and how long you spend looking for the best deals. Any estimates in £ are based on the current exchange rate.
These prices are an average, based on staying weekly and paying the full price – this can be reduced a lot when paying monthly. It’s possible to find places outside of the price brackets below and it’s a good idea to message the host to see what can be arranged. For private apartments the cost can be amazingly high, (the upmarket area of Leblon has some of the most expensive properties in South America) and it’s common for apartments to go for thousands of pounds a night in peak season.
Bed in dorm: £5 – £15 per night
Private double room: £15 – £40 per night
Private apartment: £40 – £££ per night
– Food & Drink
Here’s an idea of some of the costs when eating out and about in Rio. The food markets offer better deals so if you want to cook at home you can often get a week’s worth of fruit and veg for less than £20 and a dozen free range eggs for less than £2.
All you can eat meat & salad bar: £10 – £25 per person
Two person sushi platter: £10 – £20
Chicken/beef with rice, beans, chips and salad: £2 – £6
Large acai: £1.50 – £4
Fresh juice: £2 – £3
1 litre bottled water: under £1
Black coffee: under £1
Monthly memberships are usually around 150 BRL (£30) but can be as high as 350 BRL (£70), depending on the team and location
A daily drop-in fee is between £5 and £10
A one to one session with a black belt can usually be arranged for under £20, less if you pay for a block up front
There is a free outdoor gym at Arpoador, next to the far end of Ipanema beach. It has weights, pull-up and dipping bars made of paint cans and scaffolding; a world away from the chrome health clubs on offer in the city, but infinitely cheaper.
Bus/Metro – you pay the same however far you are going, around 70p to any stops around Rio.
Coach or boat trip (to other cities and sights) – around £30 will get you to some faraway places in case you want a holiday within a holiday!
There always seems to be a ‘nightlife’ in Rio, with many people choosing to stay until the early hours drinking and eating on most evenings of the week. You can get some beers and snacks at a ‘Boteco’ (street bar) until the early hours and these are great places for catching the UFC events, football games, or performances by live musicians. If you really want to see the wild side of Rio’s nightlife, get yourself to Lapa on a Friday or Saturday night where the edgy crowd will be rocking ‘til sunrise and you can get a large ‘Capirinha’ – the iconic Brazilian cocktail – for as little as 10 reals (£2).
I often get asked “is Rio safe?” The answer is complicated. There’s no need to sugar-coat it, Rio certainly has a crime problem – from which no area is really spared. You will notice the heavy presence of military police in the popular areas, dissuading the often brazen groups of criminals. Your safety depends a lot on common sense and exercising caution. The usual advice of keeping valuables out of sight (or preferably at home), not flashing cash, and staying near well-lit and well populated areas will save you a lot of problems. Quite often if you’ve wandered into the ‘wrong neighbourhood’ it becomes quickly apparent by your surroundings. To be safe, don’t hang around in areas away from busy areas and watch out for groups of people following you.
Another consideration is when visiting the beaches. While it may be tempting to jump into the waves it’s important to heed to warning about the tides – ignore the red ‘no swimming’ flags at your peril. Even the locals occasionally get into trouble being dragged out to sea by strong currents, and have to be rescued by the lifeguards dotted along the beach. (Embarrassingly, it happened to me once). Horror stories aside, I managed to live there for a year without a major issue and I didn’t spend all day inside, so it’s certainly doable.
Rio is known as the ‘Marvellous City’ for a reason. The vibrant yet easy going culture, beautiful weather and amazing people make it one of the world’s iconic cities. The contrast between the bustling metropolis, mountainous forests and seemingly endless coastline means there is always somewhere to go and something new to see.
Worries can be forgotten here, watches can be left at home. Rio runs at its own pace. This, plus a world class jiu jitsu scene that allows an unsurpassed level of immersion in the art, means the biggest risk with visiting Rio de Janeiro is that you may never want to leave.