Get a Taxi, Rio de Janeiro
Although Lonely Planet doesn't seem to have a problem with shared vans, Let's Go says to avoid these because they are illegal and controlled by the mob, I'd recommend avoiding them because you will have NO idea where they are going unless you speak Portugese. We were making the long trek from our hotel to Marius, at opposite ends of Copacabana beach, and when we realized we would never get there on foot, we went to hail a taxi and one of these vans stopped. We hopped in thinking they were similar to the ones in Playa del Carmen that run along a major road but before we got to the end of Av. Atlantica, the driver turned and we had to get out. They charged us R$1.90 each when we exited and we walked the rest of the way.
On the way back we tried it again but the driver turned almost immediately but then made another left on a street parallel to Av. Atlantica. My usually calm husband started getting nervous that we were going way out of our way (I thought we were fine because I could still see where the beach was) so we hopped out after a bit and walked back to our hotel.
Get a taxi from a taxi stand...they pay the stand to use that area, so they will unlikely kidnap you and deliver you to thieves. You can take the bus...the AR Condicionado are a few cents more but safer. The white VW vans are individually owned..they usually go to the poor ghettos...I have taken them along the beach to get from Leblon to Ipanema or Copacabana....they cost the same as a regular bus, but you never know if you could get robbed by someone in the bus. Just bring a little cash and dress casually. Rio is VERY casual...flip flops, everywhere.
Taxi's in Rio are good and affordable and I've had no problems with them. I've only really used them to get from the airport and back as the metro and buses in the city are very good. The taxi's are yellow with a small blue strip running down the side. The drivers of them are all drive like the late Aryton Senna so be prepared for an exhilarating ride!
It's more expensive if you take one of the black (I think I remember them being black) taxi's from the airport to wherever you're staying in Rio. There's a few taxi counters when you exit the airport arrivals. My advice is to avoid them and take a yellow city taxi as they'll be cheaper. Just make sure the meter is turned on.
After your first daytime ride in a cab in Rio you will realize that they really are the most convenient way of getting around. Most of them have some degree of air conditioning, some powered by a compressor, others by a little mouse running around on a wheel. Nevertheless you will grow quite accustomed to these little yellow chariots.
You will also realize that riding in one during the night hours is a little different from riding in one during the day. As the night gets later, so the the driver's right foot gets heavier. Also, at night it is acceptable to run red lights. A lot of this is to prevent any robberies at red lights when the car is at a standstill.
SOLUTION: Don't stop! On one entertaining trip home from Barra to Copacabana at around 3am the cab must have been doing 60mph down the main street blowing right through the red lights. Needless to say that with our level of intoxication it seemed as though everything was quite normal.
We used a radio taxi to get to our hotel from the airport. Radio taxis are non yellow cabs. When you get off the plane there are row of radio taxi stands. They are very friendly and I used the Transcootour, they are the green cars. The girl spoke english and showed me the rates using a calculator and converted prices for me to dollars. This is a good deal becuase you don't have to have your first experience off the plane dealing with a yellow taxi guy, AND this is not metered. Traffic can be bad in Rio (bad traffic can take over half an hour) to reach your destination.
We did tip the guy
Price of cab $60.00 Reals for two people. Aprox $22.50 US dollars
Taxis are reasonably priced. A very comfortable way to move around Rio if you are a tourist and you are there for a short time. At least in my opinion. A 20 minutes ride in the city centre cost me about 20 reals, approximately USD 7.
The first time before getting on a taxi I asked my guide is it safe to take a taxi because I was warned to be careful in Buenos Aires and I was wondering if the same applies for Rio. She told me that in Rio the taxi drivers have to worry about the passengers not the vice versa :)
Don't bother with the buses just to save a few pennies. The cabs are numerous, convienient and the majority of them are not going to try and rip you off.
If you want to go up to Corcovado, but don't want to bother with the train or, as some people do, the walk, just find a decent cab and decide with the guy what you want and then arrange a price....no big deal! We had the guy take us up there, wait for us while we looked around and then take us right back to where we started from.
Note: Cabs are not as easy to get to come back as they are to get there.
Yellow cabs abound. Make sure you have the address written down in large letters (most cab drivers dont seem to be able to afford glasses). In 3 years here, I have never had a problem with yellow cabs.
However, only get a radio cab from the airport not a yellow cab. There have been a couple of incidents of tourists getting mugged or worse.
Yellow taxis: You don't have to go far to find a taxi in Rio - they are everywhere. And hard to miss, too - all taxis are bright yellow, blue stripe on the sides. Yellow taxis run by the meter. The initial fare is R$2, and the meter starts ticking as soon as you get in. After 9 p.m. and on weekends fares are a little higher. You do not need to give fat tips: R$1 is plenty enough. Some taxis are air-conditioned at no extra charge.
It is important for you to know that the Taxis in Rio de Janeiro have taximeters by law. They have a metal seel that can't be broken. The taxis that belong to a Cooperative (they usualy have names starting Coop) are the ones to take. They have set prices and always use the taximeter. And also if something goes wrong remind yourself of getting the taxi number and calling to his company. From 6 am to 9 pm the "Bandeira 1" is the one you should see on the taximeter. It charges R$ 0,80 per kilometer and it goes from Monday to Saturday. Between 9 pm and 6 am the "Bandeira 2" is the one used. It costs R$ 0,96 the kilometer. This applies also to Sundays, hollidays and the entire month of December. The "bandeirada" a set price when you get inside the taxi is always R$ 2,50 no matter what time it is. If at night when you enter in the cab and see marked more than that, tell the guy to set it right or then take another taxi. Do not be fooled by them! If you want a taxi to wait for you the set price for each hour is R$ 10,50. If you have luggage to put in the trunck you should not pay more than R$ 0,80 per item as far as 60x30 centimeters. If you know this no one can charge you more than they should. You can tip them as much as 10% of the ride but no more than that. Another thing. Brazilian drivers are very hot tempered so don't go inside taxis that are all beatten up. I had my share of stories with a few, and I would not like to do it again!
Also was impressed by the public taxi service in Rio de Janeiro, characterized by the yellow color of their units. No dealing about prices since the taxi cabs use taximeters (get sure they set it in after you get in). The service is cheap, e.g. to go from my apartment in Arpoador to Centro Empresarial do Rio, in Botafogo, the price ranged between 8 reais (no traffic jam) and 10 reais (with traffic jam). The units are also comfortable.
I think it is a cheap and safe way to go especially at nights or to far places. Really recommendable option.
Rio is a large city not much different than LA in my opinion in the sprawl of it all the concentration of things along the ocean. If you take a taxi around be prepared for large bills though you can haggle if you are fluent in portuguese which is what my wife did. Traffic can be pretty bad at times also so you end up paying for a car to sit in traffic which is no fun. See tip on bus especially for any travels during the daytime.
throughout Rio dozens of taxi pass you by - extremely cheap to travel around - can be a little unknowledgeable so be prepared to guide them in the direction you want to go - alternatively get your hotel to write down your destination and your hotels address.
A taxi from the international airport to either Copacabana or Ipanema should cost somewhere between 40 and 55 reias. When I arrived, I was approached by a cabbie who was offering me a ride for 140. He showed me a rate sheet that showed the normal rate as 185. What a joke! Of course, his "taxi" was not a real cab. No meter. It didn't even look like a cab. Your best bet is to take a yellow cab that says "radio" on it. Normally, these cabs are 10 or 20% more expensive than non-radio cabs, but they are safer and more reliable. Some taxi drivers are criminals and will drive you straight to a favela where you can be kidnapped, so I'd rather pay the extra 20% and have some peace of mind.