Budget travelers can still enjoy pricey Rio

The weak dollar and Brazil's steadily strengthening currency, the real, helped Rio de Janeiro climb from the 135th most expensive city in the world just a few years ago to the 31st most expensive today. Now it is tied with Barcelona, Spain and Stockholm, Sweden, according to the latest cost-of-living survey by Mercer, a New York-based consulting firm.

Thank goodness for the beach!

From the white sands of Ipanema to Copacabana's honky-tonk to the seemingly deserted areas on the city's outskirts, Rio is a beachgoers' paradise.

The beach is the epicenter of the city's social scene: It's where the locals meet, flirt and argue about samba and soccer.

The city's beaches tend to be divided into special interests, so visitors should take some long walks to get a feel for where they fit in.

For example, Arpoador, the rocky outcrop at the edge of Ipanema, belongs to the surfers. It blends into the stretch that attracts a poorer public from the outskirts and the Cantagalo shantytown up the hill.

A block or so down, the beach is gay only, then that section fades into an alternative scene, as evidenced by the lefty flags and cloud of marijuana smoke around Post 9.

Beyond that, the crowd turns more conservative and well-heeled.

By the time you reach Leblon beach, there's a stretch of beach for young parents and their babies known as Baixo Bebe – “Lower Baby” – filled with playthings and hawkers bearing oversized dolls and toys.

Cariocas, as Rio residents are known, don't bring towels to the beach, but rather rent chairs and umbrellas from the vendors who crowd the beach and will also serve you cold beer, caipirinas and coconut water.

They slap it all down on your tab – but if you're on a budget, it's a good idea to get the prices straight from the start.

Prainha and Grumari, a pair of idyllic beaches at the far edge of town, are less commercial but almost impossible to get to using public transportation. So try making friends with someone who has a car.

Except for a few cold rainy days during the winter months around July and August, the beach is pretty much accessible all year round, and many travelers spend their entire time in Rio on the beach.

But the city has much more to offer the budget traveler, such as mountains.

Sugar Loaf and Corcovado

Sugar Loaf mountain and Corcovado, site of the world-famous Christ the Redeemer statue, can be fairly pricey to visit.

The cable car up Sugar Loaf now costs $28 and the train up Corcovado is $24, but for the more athletic, hiking is a memorable alternative.

The trail up to Corcovado takes about two hours and begins behind the Parque Lage in the Jardim Botanico district. The trail up the Sugar Loaf begins around the back and requires some rock climbing – it's not for the faint-hearted.

You can't climb back down the Sugar Loaf, but the cable car down to the smaller Moro de Urca is free – though the next cable car down to the base station is not, so you have to walk through forest to get back to the base.

Tijuca National Park also offers excellent trails, including the Tijuca and Papagaio peaks, from which you can enjoy the eerie sensation of looking down on the Christ the Redeemer statue in the distance. (There are occasional reports of hikers being robbed, and while these incidents are rare, it's a good idea to only take with you what you need.)

Those less inclined toward hiking who still want to enjoy mountaintop views will enjoy the Bondinho, or cable car, which leaves from behind the Banco do Brasil building and travels into the hilltop colonial neighborhood of Santa Teresa.

Santa Teresa is one of Rio's more bohemian districts and has plenty of reasonable restaurants and shops selling local handicrafts.

The ferries to Paqueta and Niteroi from Praca XV in the city center also provide a way to see the city from the water for a reasonable price.

Paqueta is quaint little island in Guanabara Bay without any cars, where bicycle taxis and horse-drawn carriages are available for hire.

Niteroi and Lapa

Niteroi is a city just across the bay, with a stunning flying saucer-shaped Museum of Contemporary Art designed by Oscar Niemeyer.

Niteroi's Mercado de Sao Pedro is a fish-lover's paradise, with dozens of simple restaurants just upstairs. Getting to these two destinations requires a little jockeying on city buses, but the residents are usually friendly and willing to help even if they are unlikely to understand English.

Rio's nightlife is mostly concentrated in Lapa – until recently a very dodgy neighborhood filled with transvestites. The transvestites are still there, but now it's safer thanks to the dozens of bars and restaurants that have opened up.

The more popular bars featuring live samba, like Carioca da Gema and Rio Scenarium, charge hefty covers and have long lines mostly made up of tourists, but the best party in Lapa is on the streets, where throngs of young people drink beer sold by street vendors and listen to the music playing from dozens of competing sound systems.

Hangovers can be treated at any of the city's ubiquitous juice bars, which serve up cold bowls of acai (a fruit), with granola or tapioca. They also serve up a host of other exotic fruit juices, most which are well worth a try, as well as simple sandwiches at reasonable prices.

Another good eating option for those on a budget are the galetos – bar-stool restaurants that specialize in grilled chicken. They also serve beef and other meats, which tend to be tough, even if they look appetizing on the open grill.

Hotels in the upscale districts like Ipanema and Copacabana have gotten very pricey. But the Gloria and Flamengo districts near Lapa offer some better budget options. The hillside Santa Teresa district also has a number of very nice bed-and-breakfasts.

For the truly adventurous, there are now a number of places to stay in the city's favelas, as the hillside shantytowns are known.

Remember, Rio is a dangerous city. Stick to well-lit streets and public places, don't flash watches, jewelry, cameras or MP3 players: Brazil has the world's highest priced iPods.

And don't take more money with you than you might need … but then, for the budget traveler that shouldn't be a problem.