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There are two attractions that are pretty much non-negotiable must-sees for more travelers to Rio — the Cristo Redentor statue, also known as the Christ Redeemer statue, and Pão de Açúcar, also known as Sugarloaf Mountain. Heather and I were no exceptions, and planned to make both a priority during our one week in Rio de Janeiro.

However, we chose to check off each in what I considered especially spectacular fashion.

Downtown Rio de Janiero

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

As a professional photographer and a professional blogger, it pretty much goes without saying that photos are a top priority for Heather and I when we travel (but I went ahead and said it anyway, just in case.) Which is why, despite being very distinctly not morning people — at least not setting-the-alarm-for-before-sunrise-morning-people — we enthusiastically signed on for a Viator Exclusive: Early Access to Christ Redeemer Statue Tour. Photos of Rio’s top attraction without hundreds of our fellow tourists loitering in the background? I could get up early for that.

And so on our first morning in Rio de Janeiro, we sprung out of bed, grabbed our cameras, and set off to meet Jesus — and maybe let him take the wheel (please tell me I have at least one country music fan in this crowd).

Cristo Redentor Rio de JanieroPhoto by Heather Holt

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

Cristo Redentor Tour Rio

We were mildly irritated by the three different phone calls back and forth that were required to confirm our tour, but at this point we had grown at least mildly accustomed to the daily miscommunications that were a fact of traveling in Brazil for us. We were also a little bummed that our hostel in Botafogo wasn’t within the pickup zone, which required us to travel in the opposite direction of our final destination in order to reach the designated meeting point for those not on the pickup list, but we just rolled with it.

At 7am, we were scooped up from the meeting point in Copacabana and on our way. Our tour guide Solomon switched seamlessly between English, Portuguese and Spanish for the mini-bus full of travelers from around the Americas, and we settled in for the ride up to Corcovado Mountain.

Cristo Redentor Tour Rio

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

We reached the ticket gate about ten minutes before the attraction’s opening time, and remarked on the chill at 2,300 feet above sea level — bring a cardigan, friends! As soon as the clock struck 8:00am, we were on the very first official park shuttles from Paineiras (private vehicles cannot go past this point).

When we reached the top, we had the choice of climbing the 220 steps to the top or hoping on the elevator. Heather and I were not shy about practically sprinting onto the elevator in our attempt to be first to the top — and it worked! We probably had a good three or four minutes before the rest of our group appeared, and then another five or six more before another bus-full showed up. It might not sound like much, but if you’re shutter-ready, you can get drool-worthy travel shots in a matter of seconds. When it comes to having one of the world’s top attractions to yourself, every minute matters! We were pretty lucky that things stayed low key the entire hour or so we were onsite.

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer StatuePhoto by Heather Holt

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer StatuePhoto by Heather Holt

When we were finally able to momentarily chill and cede our perfect shot spot for others the snap away at, Solomon filled us in on the history of the iconic statue. Constructed in 1931 from concrete and sandstone and named one of the Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, the statue was bigger in our minds than it was in reality — we both remarked we though it would be bigger! Apparently, we don’t have a concept of what 130 feet tall with a 98 foot arm span really translates to.

Cristo Redentor Tour Rio

Cristo Redentor Tour RioGoPro fail // Photos by Heather Holt

The morning, like many in Rio, was foggy, giving the city below us an other-worldly feel — but making it somewhat tricky to photograph. Still, the morning light was perfect for photographing the statue, as well as taking portraits in front of it. And of course that was that whole “escaping the crowds” thing going on too — which was made even more successful by the fact that we came on a weekday.

If you still want to beat the crowds and the heat but your priority is taking photos of the view, you might prefer to come in the late afternoon.

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer StatuePhoto by Heather Holt

Cristo Redentor Tour RioAbout as crowded as it got // Photo by Heather Holt

When Solomon finally summoned us we’d had plenty of time to snap statue selfies, soak up the view and enjoy the morning air. We opted to take the steps back down to basecamp, and after getting the okay from our guide, grabbed a morning tea and snack from the overpriced onsite cafe… which we immediately had to frantically chug/inhale because we were told we couldn’t bring them on the shuttle with us. Ha! Cue us asking Solomon why he encouraged us to get hot beverages when we knew we couldn’t bring them onboard and we had to leave urgently that moment, and filing it away in our “We Literally Never Knew What Was Going On Ever in Brazil” folder.

Would I recommend this tour? I’m going to skip yes and just go straight ahead to DUH. Despite some of the logistical hassles, we were just giddy with happiness at at the swoon-worthy photos and exclusive experience we walked away with. I often find myself seized with stress at big crowded tourist attractions, and it was so dang nice to just saunter around the place like had rented the place out for a small private party of ourselves and a dozen friends.

One thing to keep in mind is you will not be taking that cute little cog train up the mountain. We didn’t read the tour description very well and were a little disappointed, so just be aware of the trade-off when booking. A minibus might be little less glamorous than a train car (and a lot more motion sickness inducing, so prepare for that if needed) but in my opinion the compromise is well worth it.

Cristo Redentor Tour Rio

Early Access Tour to Christ Redeemer Statue

Back at the base of the mountain, it was time to go our separate ways. The tour actually offers an optional upgrade in which you can visit Sugarloaf on the same day, which is awesome for those with limited time, though because we had a whole week we decided to save that for another outing.

Plus, we had big plans for the rest of the day. We decided to forgo our ride back to south Rio and instead take advantage of being up in the north to do a little DIY walking tour of Lapa and Centro using my trusty guidebook to lead the way.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Next stop? Escadaria Selarón! This expansive piece of open-air, public installation art is the brainchild of Chilean-born Jorge Selarón. Began in 1990, the steps lie between the bohemian neighborhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa, and are a popular draw for art-lovers from around the world.

Wandering the steps, I was reminded me of similar mosaic installation projects I’ve seen in Philadelphia and in Utila — each the inspiring work of one dedicated artist. This 215 steps that make up this constantly evolving work of art are covered in tiles from over sixty countries, many of them gifts once Selarón’s project became widely known — in the early days, he scavenged tiles from trash and construction sites and sold paintings to fund the work. Selarón once claimed that “this crazy and unique dream will only end on the day of my death,” a quote that felt omniscient in retrospect when he was found dead under mysterious circumstances at the top of the stairs.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

While many arrive, take a quick glance around, snap a few photos and then leave, Heather and I spent ages on the steps. We moved slowly, admiring the various tiles and excitedly pointing out to each other the ones from destinations we ourselves had visited. We also did some wonderful people watching — the homes along the stairs are still very much occupied, and it was fun to imagine what it must be like to walk along art every day to make it to your front door.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

If you want people-free photos on the steps, you’ll have to follow one of my favorite photography tips: be patient. Still on a roll from our successful morning at Cristo Redentor, we were relentlessly persistent while waiting for those brief moments when the steps cleared so we could frame the shots we envisioned. As you can see from Heather’s behind-the-scenes shot below right, it was no easy feat.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

But the portraits we took of each other in front of the most famous section of the stairs were well worth the wait.

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, RioPhoto by Heather Holt

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, RioPhoto by Heather Holt

One of the things I love about traveling with Heather is seeing how different the world looks through her lens! One thing this chick excels at is portrait photography. Generally, I am far too shy and too nervous to take portraits when I travel, but Heather comes from a journalist background and really makes magic happen when she points her camera at someone. How beautiful are these portraits of the people of Selarón steps?

People of Rio de Janiero

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

Escadaria Selarón, Lapa, Rio

People of Rio de Janiero

After spending so long at the steps we basically became honorary locals, it was time to wander on. We meandered over to the nearby Arcos da Lapa, an aqueduct dating back to the 1700s. A local landmark, the aqueduct was architecturally impressive, but we didn’t linger long in the nearly abandoned square. Both of our guards were up and we later agreed that this square was one of the few places in Brazil that we felt uneasy.

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Luckily it was a relatively short walk to our next stop, Catedral Metropolitana Church. Our guidebook had a long list of Rio churches to explore, but this one stood out to us as the one must-see. Built in 1976 after over a decade of construction, the cathedral is a textbook example of ultra modern, brutalist architecture. Though we both felt there was a very strong spaceship inspiration going on, we later read the true muse for the cathedral was the Mayan pyramids.

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

Next up, we made our way to the Theatro Municipal, a stunning theater built in 1905 to mimic the Paris Opera. Though we skipped the guided tours of the ornate interior, we loved admiring the building from the outside, which truly did feel like a piece of France plopped down in the middle of a South American street.

Downtown Rio Walking Tour

After wandering by a few more museums, churches, and busy downtown streets, we could wait no longer for lunch. We decided to dine at one of Brazil’s famous per kilo buffets, settling on The Line. Bursting with color and set along a busy, narrow alley, we exercised literally zero self control at the buffet and piled our plates as high as can be before nabbing ourselves two outside seats. For both our heaping plates and drinks below, we paid just 40BRL, or about $11 — not a bad deal in pricey Brazil.

The Line Lunch Buffet Downtown Rio de Janiero

The Line Lunch Buffet Downtown Rio de Janiero

Most tourists head to the Christ the Redeemer statue, but few stick around the explore Lapa and Centro during the day. I can’t recommend more highly to start your day with Viator Exclusive: Early Access Tour, and then take advantage of your location and strategically spend a few hours exploring Rio’s under appreciated downtown.

It was the perfect day. We experienced a very, very different side of Rio than what we saw in the southern zone — and both left so glad we set aside time to explore here. And with a dash of patience and the help of the perfect tour, we captured it beautifully in priceless photos.

What’s your secret for getting crowd-free travel photos?

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I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program. This post contains affiliate links for which I earn a small percentage of any sale made at absolutely no cost to you. Thank you for supporting Alex in Wanderland!

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42 Comments...
  • Cate
    January 30 2017

    Rio is looking more fantastic everyday! I have always wanted to visit the Christ the Redeemerr statue, ever since I saw the original in Bolivia! That street art is gorgeous, definitely worth the wait. I also wanted to say thank you for creating such beautiful posts, especially at a time like this. It’s a nice escape from…certain people..who rule a country…where I live! Can’t wait to hear more 🙂
    Cate recently posted..Inciting Wanderlust: Favorite Travel Books and Movies

    • Alex
      February 6 2017

      You are so welcome Cate. We all need a little escapism mixed in with our activism. Happy to provide yours <3

  • stephanie
    January 30 2017

    Beautiful photo’s.
    Rio is such a colorful city 🙂
    x
    stephanie recently posted..Travel guide: Chiang Mai, Thailand

    • Alex
      February 6 2017

      I seem to be addicted to color! And Rio was the perfect place to get a hit 🙂

  • Dominique
    January 30 2017

    I’m just staring at your pictures of the empty steps and I just think: How?!!? I can’t take crowd-free photos. I’m not very patient especially when it’s really busy. I can see in your photography that it’s worth the wait, so maybe one day…
    Dominique recently posted..Vatnajökull National Park – Misadventures of Glacier Hiking

    • Alex
      February 6 2017

      I am impatient in many things but photography is not one of them 🙂 Sometimes though when I wait ages and ages and ages for the perfect shot and one person walks into it… I definitely want to scream!

  • Jo-Anne the crazy woman
    January 30 2017

    Amazing photos of an amazing woman in an amazing place
    Jo-Anne the crazy woman recently posted..Happy Birthday Mum

    • Alex
      February 6 2017

      You are too sweet Jo Anne!

  • Allen R
    January 30 2017

    What A fascinating writing. Enjoyed every line of it. Brazil is on my next travel list. Very excited to go there. These are some serious photography. Very rich in life. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Alex
      February 6 2017

      You’re welcome Allen, thanks for reading!

  • Erin
    January 30 2017

    lol Jesus take the wheel love it!!!!
    I always wanted to see Brazil but your posts are making me want to go more and more.

    • Alex
      February 6 2017

      That’s what I like to hear 😉 And thank you for appreciating that joke, ha ha!

  • Karlijn
    January 31 2017

    Stunning post Alex, and those photos…Wow! I really missed your blogs during your three week absence, so I’m very happy you’re back in business!
    Karlijn recently posted..Waarom je Bangkok écht niet mag overslaan tijdens je Thailand-reis

    • Alex
      February 6 2017

      Oh man, I missed you guys too! So tragic that in this time I’m supposed to be getting back on track, I slipped even further behind… but ah well, I did get my taxes done on time for the first time ever 😉

  • Jane
    January 31 2017

    Love love love this post. Not only are the pics fantastic but it really brings to mind the endorphin rush that traveling to a new and totally different place can bring. And also how just sometimes it’s worth getting up before sunrise (something I definitely struggle with).

    • Alex
      February 6 2017

      Oh man Jane, we do too! We both have a habit of working late. Especially with the sun setting very early in Rio when we were there (around 5:45pm!) we REALLY struggled with getting up early to enjoy the most daylight we could!

  • beautiful photos!
    Tanja (the Red phone box travels) recently posted..My English memories: Bury St Edmunds

    • Alex
      February 6 2017

      Thank you Tanja!

  • Anna Colorista
    January 31 2017

    I really enjoyed the pictures in this post! Brazil looks so colourful and so fun. I hope you enjoy the rest of your time there and can’t wait to see more of your adventures there 🙂
    Anna Colorista recently posted..My city break essentials (winter edition)

    • Alex
      February 6 2017

      Thank you Anna! Still have many adventures to share from Rio, Buzios, and Jericoacoara! So stay tuned 🙂

  • rebecca
    February 1 2017

    Beautiful photos 🙂

    • Alex
      February 6 2017

      Thanks so much Rebecca!

  • Ijana Loss
    February 1 2017

    I have no problem getting up early, I would totally do that! And I’m so glad you wrote about staying in the area to explore, I probably wouldn’t have thought of that and it seems like a super cool part of the city. These posts are making me want to go to Brazil so badly!!

    • Alex
      February 6 2017

      Go go go 😉 Actually, I feel the same… writing these posts is making me want to go back!

  • Gemma
    February 1 2017

    Well it looks like all the faffing about to get there was worth it. Love when you beat the crowds too. Do you think those stairs are most Instagrammed in the world? Nice end to a cool (literally) tour. Selling it to me once again.
    Gemma recently posted..10 hotspots not to be missed in Havana

    • Alex
      February 6 2017

      I’d have to think this must be among one of the most selfie-ed destinations on Earth! I know it’s a shot I’ve seen from basically every traveler who has ever been to Brazil!

  • Arianwen
    February 1 2017

    Wow! There really were no crowds at all when you were there. I had to queue for hours in the heat. Didn’t help that I was there during carnival though!
    Arianwen recently posted..Top 10 European Cities to Visit in 2017

    • Alex
      February 6 2017

      I bet! I am sure that is madness on another level! I hope to come for Carnival someday… at which time I expect I’ll be super grateful for getting all the touristy stuff out of the way first 😉

  • Amelie
    February 2 2017

    Hello Alex!
    I know my following question is not about the Christ or Brazil, but since it is your latest post, I wondered if you would still recommended to go with Blackbeard Cruises on their liveaboard? Thank you 🙂

    • Alex
      February 6 2017

      Hey Amelie! I haven’t been there or talked to anyone who has since my trip with them, so I would say my opinions have all stayed the same as the last I wrote about it 🙂 It was a great trip and an awesome way to get tons of diving in on a budget!

  • Early morning tours are always a good bet for beating the crowds, but for this night-owl, it usually means an afternoon siesta at the hotel pool afterwards 🙂
    Leigh | Campfires & Concierges recently posted..Kayak Camping in Baja Mexico

    • Alex
      February 6 2017

      Oh man, you’re telling me! Heather and I both have a habit of working late (she much later than I) and getting out early is always a struggle. So when we do it, it’s for a REALLY good reason 😉

  • Katie
    February 4 2017

    Oh I didn’t realise you could do a Viator Access tour! When we manage to get to Rio I will definitely look this up! I love getting photos without the crowds!

    Looks like you had an incredible week, Rio has been on my bucket list for some time now!
    Katie recently posted..17 GREAT TRAVEL GIFT IDEAS FOR VALENTINE’S DAY

    • Alex
      February 6 2017

      Yup, I would definitely put this tour firmly in the “must do” camp. You just can’t compete with no crowds!

  • Marni
    February 6 2017

    Your photos are stunning! I can be patient for pictures also, and I’m often rewarded for that. I never knew the sad but amazing story behind the stairs!
    Marni recently posted..My 10 Favorite Pictures in 2016

    • Alex
      February 6 2017

      Right! I think the story behind them is what makes the stairs so beautiful. I also love that the neighborhood is still so lively and vibrant, and hasn’t been sealed off as some sort of sanitary tourist attraction.

  • Lee
    February 7 2017

    Any plans on going to Australia? Second question, all these remote places you visit, do you ever feel to unsafe?

    • Alex
      February 8 2017

      Hey Lee! Australia for sure someday but not anytime in the very near future. As for safety, in my introductory post about Rio I touched on the fact that I felt far safer than I imagined I would in Brazil considering the warnings we received before and during our trip. We were pretty much prepared for a war zone and pleasantly surprised that with our normal vigilance we felt at ease the majority of the time. However, I always feel a bit uncomfortable writing about safety based on my one anecdotal experience vs. actual statistics! It’s a tough topic for a blogger to tackle.

  • Nicole
    February 8 2017

    I’m just here for the stunning photos and Carrie Underwood reference 😉

    • Alex
      February 8 2017

      Haha, I love it! You are welcome any time 😉

  • becky hutner
    February 14 2017

    I want to see the Christ Redeemer exactly the way you did, post neighbourhood wander and all. From now on, I’m doing my big touristy sites first thing in the am. Genius!

    • Alex
      February 26 2017

      Nice! Yeah it is not easy for me to do early morning sightseeing, especially as I’m much more of a morning worker and so I am loathe to give up those early hours of productivity… but sometimes it sure is worth it!

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