Make no mistake: Brazil is not a budget destination. In fact, of the 31 countries I’ve visited as of April 2011, only Denmark and Switzerland have been noticeably more expensive. Rio de Janeiro, party hot spot and host city of the 2016 Summer Olympics, is among the most costly cities in the country. The fact that a majority of foreigners who travel in Brazil are concentrated in its posh coastal neighborhoods of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon reinforces the high prices that predominate in the Cidade Maravilhosa.
While Copacabana has become home to a decidedly more permanent, Brazilian population since its 1960s and 1970s tourism peak, Ipanema and Leblon experience consistent increases in gringo occupancy as each year passes, driving already lofty prices skyward. Although your chances of finding affordable hotel accommodation in any of these areas is slim to none, it’s still possible to eat cheap in Rio without spending you entire day’s cash allotment, as my this travel blog entry explains.
Açaí at Bibi Sucos
A small berry derived from tall, slender palm trees native to Brazil’s Amazon interior, the deep purple açaí (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) fruit is a veritable staple of the Brazilian diet — albeit in a different form than the dilute juice with which most Americans and Europeans are familiar.
Perhaps the most common preparation of açaí in Brazil is the simple açaí suco (meaning “açaí juice”), a blended concoction which marries frozen açaí pulp with sweet syrup derived from guaraná, another small berry native to the Amazon River Basin. The resulting beverage is thick and sorbet-like in consistency, with full flavor and a profound but not overpowering sweetness.
As is the case outside Brazil, açaí is known as a “superfood” within its native land, with proponents claiming it helps reverse the aging process and even cancer, thanks to its being an antioxidant. Whether or not any of this is true — and, as you can expect, several studies have been performed to refute the notion that it is — the fact is that açaí is a sumptuous, filling treat, one particularly suited for breakfast.
Available for between R$3.50 and R$5.00 in its suco form as of April 2011, an extra two reais can buy you a small dish of banana slices or granola, a delicious morning parfait that will hold you over until lunch and whose taste will keep you coming back every morning. Bibi Sucos is a Leblon açaí spot popular among locals and tourists alike, located at the intersection of Av. Ataulfo de Paiva and Rua Jose Linhares.
Lebanese Delights at Laffa
Brazilian food is world-famous, particularly all-you-can-eat meat dens know as churrascarias. Oddly, Brazilian food isn’t any cheaper in Rio or São Paulo and, in fact, tends to be more expensive. A great way to overcome your disappointment — or, if you went ahead and splurged anyway, make sure you don’t starve in spite of your newfound poverty — is to indulge in some of the other ethnic delights available in the city when you travel in Brazil.
With two locations in Ipanema and Leblon (one is located two blocks west of the “Ipanema/General Osorio” metro station; the other at Rua Cupertino Durão), Laffa Kebabs serves up meaty shawarma kebabs and Mediterranean sides like hummus, pita, falafel and stuffed grape leaves to go along with it.
Prices aren’t extraordinarily low — a large lamb wrap went for around R$14.00 as of April 2011 — but I challenge you to find food of comparable taste, quality and portion size elsewhere in these neighborhoods anywhere near this same price point.
Deliziosa’s Pasta Party
I won’t waste time explaining the meaning behind Deliziosa’s mysterious name, although I can attest to the fact that it isn’t a misnomer. If you want to qualify this for yourself, head east down Rua Visconde de Pirajá until you reach Rua Henrique Dumont. Be on the look out for a wood-façade storefront backlit with industrial, red lights, crowned by a rendering of the “Deliziosa” name in matching crimson capitals.
Deliziosa’s menu, displayed in large print on its only wall, outlines its simple process: Select a type pasta, a sauce and size. Of course, you can also choose from several risotto dishes and after you’re done, a selection of Italian desserts.
When I was in Rio, I’d always opt for the meat ravioli with pomodoro sauce. Although choosing ravioli results in an extra R$1 for a small container of pasta and R$1.50 for a large, choosing the simple, tomato-based sauced still results in total prices of just R$7.50 and R$9.00 for small and large portions, respectively, either of which make for delicious, filling meals when you travel in Brazil.
Mega Matte: Southern (Hemisphere) Sweet Tea
If you know me in real life, you know I wasn’t formerly nicknamed “Ravenous Robert” without reason. As a result, the fact that I recommend you get the small pasta at Deliziosa might come as a surprise, until you realize my reason for recommending such action: Right next door at Mega Matte, you can get a pack of five pão de queijo and a 300 mL mattefor just R$4.30.
“But what the hell are those?”
Oh, that’s right. Matte (pronounced mat-chay) is a Brazilian herbal tea, steeped all day, sweetened with pure cane sugar and served over ice. The final product is like a stronger, cleaner-tasting version of southern sweet tea. Although it’s available in several different flavors, I suggest you try it puro the first time you order it so that you get the true matte experience. Pão de queijo, on the other hand, are small, circular pieces of bread made entirely of cheese.
The reason I recommend you opt for the lighter pasta portion (and add these treats on in place of more pasta) is that gooey pão de queijo are perfect for dipping into pasta and slightly-bitter matte washes it down better than anything Deliziosa sells.
Perhaps best of all, for just R$11.80 — R$7.50 for the pasta, if you’ll remember, and R$4.30 for the bread-beverage combo — you have a complete, delicious meal, one equally split between foreign delights and food items Brazilians know and love.