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Exploring Rio De Janeiro By Kayak

A view of The Harbor of Rio De Janeiro, a natural wonder of the world. Photos by Tom Gaffey.

February is one of the coldest months in North America, but in Rio De Janeiro the only ice you’re likely to see is inside a caipirinha cocktail. Not only is it hot and vibrant in Brazil during February, but this also marks the time of the world-famous Rio De Janeiro Carnival season.

This South American city hosts the biggest carnival in the world, an event that attracts millions worldwide. To get a sense of exactly how huge this event is, there are an average of up to two million people on the streets each day of this music and culture-driven festival of colorful costumes and passionate dancing.

Many Brazilians and non-Brazilians alike will argue that while insanely busy and often chaotic, Rio’s Carnival is something everyone must experience once. But colorful feathered costumes, incredible acrobatics, and beautiful people everywhere aren’t the only draw to Rio De Janeiro in the winter. February is also an incredible time to escape the madness of the streets and explore this one-of-a-kind city by kayak.

Guanabara Bay, also known as the Harbor of Rio De Janeiro, is one of the new seven natural wonders of the world, making it a must-visit destination for any traveling paddler. From launching your kayak at iconic beaches to seeing Christ The Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain, and Copacabana from unique unspoiled perspectives, paddling in Rio De Janeiro is an incredible way to see this marvelous city.

One of several outrigger clubs paddling in the bay.

Paddling In Rio: A Great Way To See The Marvelous City

Rio has not only the biggest carnival in the world but also the largest natural bay. This stunning body of water has more water in volume than any other bay on Earth. It is so vast that when it was first discovered by explorers one January in the 1500s they thought Guanabara Bay was the mouth of a giant river. This gave birth to the name of the city, which when translated into English means “The River Of January.”

It is not just the bay’s vast size that makes this river a wonder of the world - it is also the incredible landmarks that surround it. Amazingly, in one single kayaking session you can see almost all the most emblematic and photogenic sites in all of Rio De Janeiro.

Kayaking in Guanabara Bay gives you a one-of-a-kind perspective of Rio De Janeiro. It is possible to kayak around the jaw-dropping mountainous Sugarloaf Mountain, with views of Christ the Redeemer in the background. You can paddle past the famed Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, all without having to dodge tourists in the street. This was indeed the experience I had while paddling on a beautiful, albeit hot, recent Rio morning.

Launching a kayak from Flamengo Beach at sunrise.

Top Reason Everyone Should Try Paddling In Rio De Janeiro

1. It’s A Great Way To Cool Off

One thing you will notice almost immediately while paddling in Rio De Janeiro in the summer is that life on the water is much cooler. When I paddled from Flamengo Bay with Be Braga of Be Adventure I was sweating before I even picked up a paddle. But when my toes touched the water I was immediately refreshed.

While the water does get warmer in the summer, it is still much cooler than the air, and the ocean breeze feels incredible - especially in the morning. Temperatures in Rio can reach up to a dangerous 115 degrees. While this can be unbearably hot when walking on the concrete carnival-packed streets, it is much more manageable on the bay.

2. The Routes Give A Unique Perspective Of Top Landmarks

Another reason for paddling in Rio De Janeiro during carnival or at any time is that it doesn’t take much time or effort to have an epic and eventful paddle. You can quickly paddle inside the bay, and with good weather, you will see Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain, and Flamengo Beach. With longer paddles that leave the bay, you can see even more, like Copacabana Beach, hidden caves, and small uninhabited islands.

3. Incredible Photo Opportunities

For those looking for an epic kayaking selfie or a GoPro moment, look no further than paddling in Rio De Janeiro. The dramatic granite cliffs provide a great natural backdrop. But it is equally incredible to capture some great photos from your kayak of Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches, a perspective you can only get when exploring Rio on a boat. You can see Christ The Redeemer high in the mountains, sometimes disappearing in the clouds, and then reappearing, which is a miraculous site to behold on a kayak.

4. It’s A Great Activity Throughout The Year

When I asked Braga if you can paddle throughout the year, he said “Guanabara Bay has calm water all year long, which makes it easy to go to the water all year long, and the temperature goes from hot to too hot.”

Unlike seasonal paddling destinations, it is never cold in Rio. So it is always possible to paddle in the bay, weather permitting. Just keep in mind that fog, extreme heat, and heavy rain can all put a damper on paddling plans. With proper planning, however, this can be avoided without much trouble.

“At [Urca] beach, there are no waves all year long and you can paddle just inside Guanabara Bay, which is considered a safe place even where there are big waves outside,” said Braga.

5. Paddling Is A Great Way To Meet Locals

Paddling in Rio is an activity best done in a group, and you’ll be surprised to find how friendly, helpful, and welcoming paddlers are in the bay. I had the pleasure of paddling with not only Braga of Be Adventure, but also with Carla Danielle Chagas, a sports physiotherapist and member of the Clube Carioca de Canoagem, and other paddlers in this group.

This club is one of many paddling and outrigger groups within Rio De Janeiro. Paddling on a guided tour or joining a group of other kayakers or outriggers is a great way to stay connected and safe. Fog can roll in unexpectedly, and there are some choppy sections on the edge of the bay, not to mention plenty of boat traffic. But without too much trouble you should be able to link up with other paddlers to enjoy the glory of this bay.

6. An Ideal Way To Connect With Nature Away From Crowds

Within ten strokes of paddling from shore, you can already start to feel the busy metropolis melt away as you paddle into nature’s playground. In Guanabara Bay, there are amazing wildlife viewing opportunities from your kayak. You can see fish jumping, occasional sea turtle spottings, foggy forests in the distance, and many bird species soaring about.

“There is beauty everywhere - mountains, forests, sights, not to mention the weather here,” said Chagas. Paddling in Rio makes you feel far away from the hustle, bustle, and heat of city life, and lets you relax your mind while working your body.

7. Paddling Is A Great Activity For The Entire Family

Another great thing about paddling in this vast bay is that it is a generally safe, and incredibly fun activity for the entire family. You can take out a tandem kayak or take the entire family on an outrigger for a sunset paddle. “The outrigger canoe with 6 people makes people feel more safe to go far outside to the ocean,” said Braga.

While areas outside of the bay can get choppy and challenging, paddling inside the bay is family-friendly throughout the year - and it’s encouraged by locals as well. “The essence of our club is to be family-friendly centered paddling,” said Chagas.

A unique view of Sugarloaf Mountain from a kayak.

The Best Times To Paddle In Rio, And Why

Paddling in Rio De Janeiro is possible throughout the year, including during Carnival. But some times are better than others. The weather in Rio is unpredictable. Fog can appear from nowhere, and rapid-forming late afternoon thunderstorms are not uncommon. Fog, thunderstorms, and extreme heat are variables you should try to avoid but can appear throughout the year.

The ocean conditions also change throughout the year. In the winter months (June through August) Rio experiences periods of large swells. This can make launching a kayak from places like Flamengo Beach and other beaches impossible. According to Braga, placid Flamengo beach (where I easily launched from) has waves that can be upwards of 10 feet crashing on the shore.

If you want to avoid rain and extreme heat, it is best to avoid the months between November and February. But if waves and rocky conditions are your main concern, then you should avoid the winter months of May through June. As Chagas put it, “Our rainy season usually is between November til January, but it is also our hot period. So in my opinion, it depends not on the weather but more on the person’s paddling experience and the ocean conditions.”

Regardless of the time of year, you can almost always launch from Urca Beach, a well-protected small beach not far from the Sugarloaf cable car.

Kayaking During Carnival Season

A lot is going on in Rio during Carnival season. While there are many ways to fill your days here without picking up a paddle, this is one of the best times of the year to do so. “Carnaval is usually in February, a hot season, ideal for our cold water at this time of the year,” said Chagas.

Not only is paddling a nice way to cool off, but it helps you decompress from the long days filled with crowds and chaos. “Carnaval is crowded everywhere, but the ocean is always an option to run away,” said Braga. “In the city of Rio, you can paddle every day during the carnival,” he continued.

Paddling around an island in Guanabara Bay

Top Paddling Spots In Rio De Janeiro For Visitors

Rio De Janerio is surrounded by ocean, bays, and its vast harbor. So it should come as no surprise that there are many great paddling routes and locations. But some are better than others.

“I would probably say that if you have only two days to do it - Urca to Copacabana, and São Francisco to Piratininga,” said Chagas, but she also mentioned there are many more excellent spots worth exploring by kayak.

Braga mentioned the Urca to Copacabana paddle when I asked him about the best paddling routes, which is the action-packed and highly photogenic route we took. He also mentioned Ilha Grande, an idyllic tropical island 3 hours south of Rio. “[It’s] an island that has 86 beaches you can spend a lot of time exploring, and the kayak is the perfect way to go to all the beaches,” he said.

The best paddling location will depend on the weather, how much time you want to dedicate to paddling, and your skill level. The good news is no matter the time of year or what vibe you are looking for, you can find it in the city of Rio, or a short drive away.

Paddling in Rio's harbor with Sugarloaf and Christ The Redeemer in view

Wrapping Up Why Paddling Is Essential For Any Rio De Janeiro Itinerary

When people think of Rio they might imagine Christ The Redeemer with his arms stretched out wide on a mountaintop. Or maybe they picture the Sugarloaf Mountian cable car or the vibrant sights and sounds of carnival. While these are all gems of this marvelous South American city, any paddler needs to know that Rio De Janeiro is also a diverse, unique, and bucket-list-worthy paddling destination.

There are endless reasons to kayak in Rio De Janeiro, from the cool and refreshing waters, and the incredible viewpoints, to the fact that Rio’s harbor, Guanabara Bay, is one of the new natural wonders of the world. So while it was Carnival or the great food, culture, and nightlife of this city have inspired you to book a trip, make sure you don’t leave Rio before paddling through its waters for an incredible new perspective of this tropical metropolis.

Sunset views from Ipenema Beach

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