Taxis in Rio are twofold:
- honest and fun
- dishonest and, well, no fun!
I must say, though, that I have had only good memories of taking a taxi in Rio. All of them were rather cheap, except for the one to the airport (cost me about 40 US$), but that one was fun anyway, as the driver was constantly talking about the beauty of his, indeed, very beautiful country. I'm going to add his details below, he deserves a break!
He gave me his card, so he could take me to the "Island of Angels", a place I noticed several times while in Rio: looked a bit like "the Beach" from "the Beach", but even better.
But, when you get into a taxi: do NOT speak about football!! Then you're on for hours, especially when your team (e.g. Belgium) almost beat them in the World Cup :-)
I've rented cars, taken "hotel" cabs, flagged down passing taxis, and I've ridden a zillion buses in Rio. Now I call Cabral, a retired American School employee, who bought a cab. Call the Escola Americana do Rio de Janeiro for Cabral's telephone number. I'll try to get it and post it here. You won't find a better guide to Rio and all parts nearby!
Cabs are everywhere. There are hotel cabs, cabs called by phone (radio), and all others zooming by. Cabs at hotels and radio cabs are considered the SAFEST cabs, but they cost more. The MOST expensive are cabs called by phone.
Cabs zooming by are less regulated than the hotel cabs, and you may encounter problems. But my best experiences in cabs were taxis that just zoomed by. Just flag one down. The locals do. I never saw a Carioca take a hotel taxi.
Please remember, don't be an ugly American. Tip all service providers throughout Latin America.
I DO NOT RECOMMEND THAT ANY OF YOU TAKE THE BUSES. Too many assaults appearing on the nightly news. I did take a bus from Ipanema to Tijuca, for old times sake, riding with my Nikon hidden inside a brown paper bag. To my dismay, the bus stopped for a break at the "end of the line" right in front of Rocinha, Rio's largest favela. Nothing happened, but I don't think I will ride buses anymore.
Renting a car was fun, too. Locals run stop lights after yielding to oncoming traffic, and they will honk at you if you stop for red lights, or if you yield to any pedestrian in a sidewalk or anywhere else. I could see them going crazy in my rear view mirror as I stopped for pedestrians in a crosswalk at a red light. I could read their lips as they asked, "where the hell is this guy from?," as they strained to get a look at the Sao Paulo plates on the car. I pulled up next to a Rio "radio patrulha" (police); I ran the light when he did. I was laughing until I looked in the rearview mirror and noticed I was the only one going through the light with the cops! He didn't even look my way. Parking is a problem.
It is highly recommended to use a taxi for getting around Rio. Many of the drivers speak English (maybe is good to ask before enter )and the fare is not extremely expensive. Yellow taxis are plentiful and you can't miss them (look for yellow cars with a blue stripe). These are metered. The fare goes up after 9:00pm weekdays and all weekend. The normal tip for the driver is R$1 Do not pre-pay the driver. It is illegal for the driver to ask for pre-payment and it usually means he/she has inflated the price. Let the meter speak for you. Always ask the driver how much it will cost before you get into the cab. It gives the impression that you know where you are going. By luck, you may get to ride in an air-conditioned Yellow taxi.
You may consider renting the cab and the driver to take you wherever you want to go and at any time. It is a lot cheaper than renting a car. The best way to find out who is an honest and reliable driver is to ask at your hotel.
These cabs are bigger and usually have air-conditioning. They are usually painted in white or blue or red. To arrange a ride, you have to call the cab company and provide details as to what time to pick up and where to drop off. There are several radio taxi companies in Rio so it is best to call around. Some cabs have meters and others are flat rate.
This is how taxis look like in Rio...
They usually give you no trouble, but I have heard some tourist trap stories involving taxis... so trust your first impressions.