I toured South America on a Cosmos tour (Best of Brazil and Argentina). I would recommend Cosmos for those wanting lots of free time, with the support of a guide. You get a city tour, breakfast daily, one dinner in each city included. English is almost non-existent so brush up on your Portuguese and Spanish.
Rio is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Geographically it’s stunning with the mountains surrounding the city and the world famous beaches. The Brazilians are very relaxed people, life is about fun and festivals, sea and sand. They also know how to party, it is home to the biggest party in the world, Carnivale.
It is very easy to get around, taxis are very cheap, or bus $1.50 to most places. It is inexpensive to eat out. Shopping for clothes and shoes is cheap at most places. Be sure to go to Saara street markets (downtown area) for great shopping. They have everything and anything: Havaianas $10, real Converse $30 etc. Like most major cities there is poverty and crime, however we followed the advice of tour guides and Hotel staff and had no problems.
I stayed at the Windsor Plaza Hotel, Rio. It is a 3.5 star hotel in an excellent location one block from Copacabana beach, easy access to Sugar Loaf Mountain. Rooms are small but clean and adequate. It also has a small pool. Breakfast was ok but the same every day. Free Wi-Fi. You definitely want to stay in the Copacabana or Ipanema areas.
Sugarloaf Mountain is only a few minutes from Copacabana. Local bus $1, taxi $5, entry $25. You can easily do this on your own, a tour isn’t needed. Cable car across two mountains to enjoy spectacular views over the city and beaches.
Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer statue. This is best on a tour as it’s further out of the city. Take the cog railway up and back, and then its lots of stairs to the top. You will need to allow about 3 hours to do this and avoid a day when cruise ships are docked as there are many tourists!
The beaches are of course a big attraction for the city. The two famous beaches are Copacabana and Imapena. Take a walk, have a swim, play volleyball or just sit and people watch while having the local drink, a Caipirinha (yummy!).
A favela tour is also interesting. These are the slum areas of the city built right on the side of the mountain and each favela can be home to 2500 to 80,000 people. They are very close to the city and you have to visit these on a tour (not safe to tour on your own). The samba schools come from the favelas of the city and these are the groups that organise CARVIVALE. The women in the favelas make all the costumes for Carnivale. It’s a competition between the different schools to see who puts on the best performance, costumes, story and song!
At night you must go to a Samba show to see how to really move. You can book great shows through the hotel for about $79.
Brazil is famous for meat, so the churrascaria restaurants that serve all you can eat skewered meats of every variety are a must. For the healthy people the famous Acai berry is from the Amazon forest in Brazil and it can be found most places in the form of a drink. It’s so cheap as well, unlike here! $3 for an acai bowl…winning!
Iguassu Falls is a highlight of any trip to South America. The amazing falls border Brazil and Argentina and are best seen from both sides. Whilst Argentina has 85% of the falls, Brazil has 100% of the views! Simply spectacular. If time was very limited I would just View from the Brazilian side. Here I stayed at the Recanto Cataratas Hotel (3.5-4 star) about 40 mins from Brazil side of falls. It is in a remote location so you have to eat at hotel. It is a resort style, large family friendly hotel with a big pool. Free Wi-Fi, breakfast and buffet dinner ok.