Seth Kugel, the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler columnist, splits his time between the Big Apple and São Paulo, so he’s a Brazil travel pro. I reached him during his latest stint there to ask about safe, independent excursions from Rio de Janeiro.
“There’s a few very easy options,” Kugel says. But timing matters: December is both the Christmas season and the middle of the Brazilian summer, so hordes of local tourists will be on the move. Kugel suggests busting out of Rio earlier in the month, if possible, to avoid the worst of the crowds.
First up on Kugel’s list of recommendations is a classic beach town. Buzios, 100 miles from Rio, has been a seaside getaway for more than a century, but it was made famous in the sixties by actress Brigitte Bardot. It’s a nice, safe resort town, with good accommodations and tons of public transportation options to get there, says Kugel. Cabo Frio is another safe, well-connected (but less well-known) beachfront community nearby.
Another coastal option is Paraty, “a very pretty colonial town” about 150 miles from Rio. “The colonial part of it is completely touristy, I’m not sure anyone Brazilian actually lives there,” says Kugel. But if you can get past that fact, the town itself is beautiful, and is home to a number of festivals. If crowds are a no-go for you, make your base in a nearby town like Trindade and day-trip into Paraty to see the sights.
While Buzios and Paraty are both well-known to foreign tourists, Kugel’s third recommendation is a little “One of my favorite things to do in Brazil is to go to the state of Minas Gerais,” he says. The state’s mountainous interior is home to a number of dramatic old mining towns, visited largely by Brazilian tourists rather than outsiders. “These are gorgeous places,” says Kugel. “The most famous of them all is called Ouro Preto.” The region is a bit further afield, but still reachable from Rio via a manageable bus ride of about six hours.
As for safety, Kugel says, “essentially just by leaving Rio de Janeiro she’s becoming safer instantly.” Muggings are a bigger problem in the big city than out in the coastal towns or in the interior. Outside of Buzios, Paraty, and Rio itself, Kugel notes that travelers shouldn’t assume they’ll find fluent English speakers to assist them. “The rest of the country is largely set up for Brazilian tourists,” he says. Pack a Portuguese phrasebook and enjoy.