Rio de Janeiro may be a sprawling city, but it’s surprisingly easy to get around there, including on a bike. You can take a Rio tour with a guide and cover a lot of ground while getting some context, or you can strike out on your own with one of the bike share services that are a bargain.
Booking on a Rio Bike Tour
I had built in a few extra days in Rio after my tour through Argentina and Uruguay with Intrepid Travel. I had some travel writing research work I had to do for one of my other publications, but I also wanted some time to just explore the city on my own. This was my first time in Brazil, so I was ready to hang out with a local for a while to get some perspective on the country and the city.
My tour hotel was a couple blocks off the water at Copacabana Beach and after seeing other parts of Rio, I decided that’s where I wanted to stay. Hotel prices in that city are no bargain, so I pulled up Airbnb and got a place with a beach view from the balcony for less than $50 a night after fees. Sweet!
I was so happy with the deal that I immediately booked a Rio bike tour through the Airbnb Experiences section, a tour run by two local women, Gabriela and Ursulla. The way these Airbnb Experiences work, if nobody else signs up the same day, the hosts have to suck it up and take you anyway, so I ended up on a private tour with Gabriela, for a cost of $40.43 after the currency conversion.
She was a joy and spoke English really well. We met by a share bike station on Ipanema Beach. After I drank from a coconut to get hydrated, off we went. Come along for the ride here:
From Ipanema Beach to Downtown Rio by Bicycle
I have taken bike tours and rented my own wheels in cities across South America, including Buenos Aires, Lima, Quito, and Bogota. Unless a main artery is closed off on Sundays, a bike tour usually involves dodging traffic and waiting at stoplights at least part of the time.
Rio de Janeiro was a lot more bike-friendly than I had expected. We rode for 10 miles (16 kilometers) on the regular route over the course of a few hours. The only time we were not on a car-free bike path was a few blocks to get to “Rio’s best açaí place” (according to Gabriela) for a snack that was included in the rate. The whole rest of the time we were on designated bike paths where cars weren’t allowed and on some stretches we practically had it to ourselves.
Rio de Janeiro’s bike path system, it turns out, is the most extensive in South America, with a reported 435 kilometers of dedicated paths around the city.
The busiest stretch of our ride was along Copacabana Beach, where we rode along in a bike lane beside the malecon. We had to be careful here because people are crossing the path constantly to get to the beach, sometimes while being a zombie slave to their phone, but it’s great to cruise along the beach while having the ocean to your right and Sugarloaf Mountain in front.
Near the end of the beach we hung a left before Leme and headed on a bike path between two busy streets that went through a tunnel. On the other side, the path led to the waterfront and we rode by the Botafogo and Flamengo neighborhoods with water and mountain views always to our right. Part of the journey was through Flamengo Park, the biggest in the city, created from reclaimed land that extended into the bay. We passed a few beaches that looked nice, but even being host of the Olympics couldn’t nudge the local government into cleaning up polluted Guanabara Bay, so few people actually go into the water in this area.
Eventually we got to downtown Rio de Janeiro and after our snack break, we rode to the original port and then the waterfront area. While the Olympics didn’t get the bay cleaned up, it did spur a lot of development downtown, like a nice tram system that looked really busy and the Museum of Tomorrow. They commissioned street artists to do murals with an intercultural theme and they’re now a big attraction in themselves.
There are some good restaurants and shops in this area if you want to hang around after the tour. Also nearby are the Museum of Modern Art, the National History Museum, and the Municipal Theater of Rio where concert performances run.
Since the bikes used on this tour are from a Rio bike share service, you just return yours to the right stand at the end and you’re done. Since Gabriela and I were both taking the subway back to near where we started, however, we rode through downtown a bit more to the metro station. I got off a few blocks from my rental apartment, feeling like I’d worked off a bit of the Brazilian meat extravaganza barbecue I had devoured a couple nights before. It was a great tour and I would highly recommend it. More info here.
Bike Rio on Your Own With a Rental
For this 10-mile ride, I was really glad I was with a local guide because there were a few tricky spots where I would have gone the wrong way and had to backtrack. I also liked having someone tell me what I was seeing and giving some background on the city. It’s easy to rent a bike in Rio though, so if you just want to cruise along the beach or you don’t mind getting lost now and then, it’s easy to get set up with your own two wheels.
You can bike Rio via the public share rental system for surprisingly cheap. Just look for a stand that displays Bike Itau or Bike Rio, which are not hard to find. You’ll probably pay less than $1.50 per hour after downloading their app and hooking up a payment method. Brazil’s e-commerce system is far from open or easy, however, so you have to pick the “foreigner” option and you may be asked to upload a photo of your passport. Annoying, but worth it to tap into this great bike rental bargain.
You can return it to another stand for that amount (5 reals when I was there) if you use it for less than an hour, or just keep rolling the time over if you want to stay on it longer.
But wait–it gets even cheaper! You can rent a bike every day for three days for 15 reals as long as you don’t use the same bike more than an hour at a time before returning it. At the current exchange rate, that’s just $3.80! To ride longer than an hour, just return one bike and grab another. You could do that all day as long as you were in areas with a bike stand.
Of course there are independent bike rental places here are there near Copacabana Beach, with cooler-looking cruiser bikes if you’re concerned about your image, but those will cost a few bucks more per hour.
There are some mountain bike rental places around and some trails in the city limits. I’m getting too old for that though and even though I have travel insurance, I don’t relish the thought of days in a foreign hospital after a wreck. So you will have to research that on your own. With the regular bike paths you can get away without a helmet since it’s just you and other cyclists.
Travel prices in Rio are quite good right now and they eliminated the hefty visa fee for Americans and Canadians this year. So if you’ve been holding off on visiting Brazil because you heard it was expensive–and it definitely was just a few years ago–now’s the time to make plans to visit. [2021 Update: Hold off while the pandemic is still raging though. Their handling of the crisis has been one of the worst in the world and will take the longest to get under control.]