Jim’s Accessibility Comments:
We spent a month traveling South America and 4 days in Rio to experience the 2016 Carnival, and we had a fabulous time. There’s a lot of fascinating history here and wonderfully helpful people. Here are a few accessibility tips if you’re traveling to Rio in a wheelchair.
1. The Rio airport is huge, has 2 renovated terminals, and is fully wheelchair accessible with elevators and restrooms. Terminal 1 is more complicated for wheelchair travelers with a few hidden passageways to avoid steps but our air carrier Aerolineas Argentina was terrific and provided assistance from the plane through baggage and customs including getting a taxi. But be sure to ask for assistance.
2. After you exit baggage claim and customs in Terminal 1, there is a taxi booth that provides for an accessible taxi between the airport and your hotel destination. Cost is about US$47 compared to $65-70 for private transfers and they do accept U.S. credit cards.
3. Rio itself is picture postcard beautiful. The city is built around many mountains, the ocean and many bays and beaches. So if you want to get the lay of the land, take a taxi to the famous cable car ride at Sugar Loaf Mountain the 1st day of your visit (See my video and comments in our Attractions tab).
4. As you might suspect South America and Rio don’t have the U.S. equivalent to ADA, and wheelchair accessibility has a long way to go. Buses for instance almost always show that they are wheelchair accessible. The problem is the ramps don’t work, the buses don’t lower (or knell) and the driver’s have not been trained on how to operate the ramps.
5. The term accessible in Rio is not very well understood. I found no accessible cars, taxis or van rental locations anywhere in Rio. A couple times in South America I inquired whether a tour was accessible and I was told yes, no problem. But that only meant they would pick me up from my wheelchair and throw me in the back seat of a van or bus. So I would be cautious about booking a tour that is labeled accessible.
6. I cannot comment on the rail system, however, I would suggest caution because there are so many unfinished construction projects in Rio. You don’t want to be left in an unsafe area.
7. When booking a room I learned not to rely on requesting an ADA room because that term is not used here. Instead request a room that is wheelchair accessible with a bathroom that is accessible for a wheelchair. I found that accessible rooms are very limited in South America and Rio, and not all hotels understand or speak English, so confirm your stay carefully. Although we like to stay at locally owned hotels when we travel abroad, our local 4 star Rio hotel on Copacabana beach was frankly not the best for accessibility. So in Rio I’d recommend you stay with known America brands such as Hilton, Sheraton, Hyatt, and Radisson which adhere better to ADA guidelines. And remember it’s a huge city, very spread out with many mountains and steep hills, so book a hotel which is safe at night and well situated (I was advised to avoid the downtown financial district at night).
8. Accessible public restrooms: These are actually rare. Other than the airport, 4 and 5 star hotels and Sugar Loaf Mountain, I found really no accessible public restrooms or restaurants with accessible restrooms. So plan your day accordingly.
9. Just a brief tip on Banking: It was a surprise to us that the ATMs only disperse Brazilian Reals – local currency – no U.S. dollars and the daily availability of Reals was limited. Also many ATMs didn’t accept U.S. credit and debit cards and often had restrictive steps. Also our 4 star hotel wouldn’t provide a cash advance. So plan carefully.
10. A couple other quick notes: driving a car here is not a good idea and parking is extremely limited. I doubt the city will honor your U.S. disabled parking placard. Taxis are relatively cheap (rates are very negotiable) and I believe it’s the best option. Also, there are lots of sidewalk curb cut-outs although some are old, broken and steep, and many have cobblestones. Also The landmark Christ the Redeemer statue is not wheelchair accessible but can be viewed from all over the city including Sugar Loaf. And when using your cellphone, remember to use the + sign, the country code of 55 and the city code (often 21) before dialing the local number. For those who care: they don’t offer cranberry juice, so bring cranberry pills. For the Zika Virus be sure to bring your Deet lotion (not spray). And the local language is Portuguese not Spanish (“Obagano” not “Gracias” for thank you).
Finally let me say that South America and Rio are absolutely stunning and the people very welcoming. Despite some accessibility issues, we had a marvelous experience, and an opportunity to explore this fascinating South American culture. Just plan your day accordingly, call in advance which I did often, and have a great time. Rio is beautiful and unforgettable!