Its rapidly growing economy was the world’s seventh largest in 2011 and is now larger than economies in the United Kingdom, France and Italy. Brazil recently declared energy independence as a result of its massive biofuels program, based on sugarcane and ethanol production. Most business travellers have flown aboard one of the thousands of Embraer jets the country exports around the world every year. And Petrobras, Brazil’s state oil company, continues to discover massive new oil fields off the coast of Rio de Janeiro.
Evidence of the increase in business travel to Rio is reflected in its hotel rates — which jumped a hefty 13% in 2011 compared to 2010. In terms of commerce, it might surprise some that Rio actually Brazil’s “second city” after the economic powerhouse of Sao Paulo — where hotel rates soared a painful 24% in 2011.
Even if you do not travel to Rio on business, there will soon be more reasons to go. The city will host the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympic Games come to town just two years later in 2016, both of which will spur big growth from tourism and construction in the city.
While most business takes place in Rio’s northern downtown financial centre, most international travellers tend to stay in hotels on or near the beaches in Copacabana and Ipanema in the Zona Sul, or southern zone. The JW Marriott on Copacabana beach is one of the newer, more modern and sophisticated hotels among a sea of aging grand dames in the area. It has all the touches you would expect at a JW Marriott -- wi-fi, deluxe breakfast buffet, concierge club level (with dramatic beach views) and a popular sushi restaurant. The best (and most expensive) rooms look out to the beach across the street.
For a more elegant, old world experience, consider the 216-room Copacabana Palace hotel, built in 1923. One sign that the gorgeous eight-storey, sugar-white hotel has kept up with the times: free high-speed Internet access in all rooms. With several restaurants and bars, a spa, large pool, nightclub and the beach across the street, there is little reason to venture much beyond the hotel -- which might be a good thing because venturing out after dark in much of Rio is not such a great idea.
Away from the beach, on a leafy hilltop near the downtown area sits the au courant Hotel Santa Teresa, a Relais & Chateaux property housed in an old coffee plantation mansion, with a wide variety of rooms and suites with views of the city, a sultry pool and spa. It is also home to Franco-Brazilian inspired Tereze, one of the hottest restaurants in town.
Down at Ipanema beach, the hip set can be found at the five-star Philippe Stark-designed Hotel Fasano, opened in 2007. Most rooms have balconies and views of the sea, plus there is a full service business centre and boardroom for meetings. See and be seen at the rooftop infinity pool and bar for the panoramic views.
It is almost ritual for locals to take visiting guests out to at least one enormous, carnivorous all-you-can-eat meal at a Brazilian churrascaria, where a nonstop parade of servers bring a variety of skewered meats to your table until you stay “stop”. Porcao, a favourite among locals and visitors, has two locations: on the harbour in Botafogo (between the beaches and downtown) and in Ipanema. Vegetarians will not feel left out, though, there is an equally abundant salad bar buffet with at least 100 items from which to choose. For a quiet, less filling meal, try the fresh sushi (and people watching) at Manekineko in the tony neighbourhood of Leblon, near Ipanema beach.
Off the clock
For nightlife, take a cab from your hotel to Lapa, a ramshackle neighbourhood on the edge of the central business district. Here you will join young and old, native and foreigner, sipping caipirinhas and listening to the sounds of samba spill out onto the streets. Two popular venues are the big and bustling Scenarium, with three floors and multiple stages or the smaller Carioca de Gema.
Most visitors cannot leave Rio without at least one of local designer Gilson Martins’ famously colourful handbags, backpacks, suitcases or wallets. Many pay homage to local icons, such as the Brazilian flag or the famous Corcovado “Christ the Redeemer” statue that looms over the city. To see his full line, visit stores in Copacabana or Ipanema. The best part about Martins’ arty works is that you cannot get them outside of Brazil, so they make great souvenirs to bring home.
Do not do this
While Rio is quickly emerging as a power player in the world stage, street crime remains a persistent problem. Visitors should not flaunt expensive jewellery, cameras or electronics when walking around outside, and should always take taxicabs at night.
Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC Travel