Short answer: It's hard. Prepare in advance.
Three journalists at CNN had the morning off, so we decided to be tourists. We stood in long lines, got swept up with chanting crowds for Brazil's men's gymnastics team, and then we tried to get home using the subway and bus ... and we got lost.
Arriving was the easy part. We had tickets in hand and a driver with an "Olympic lane pass" allowing us to take some preferential roads throughout our journey. Total time in the car: 45 minutes.
The gymnastics were fun, but navigating Rio's public transport system was the real adventure for us.
The route: From the Olympic Park in Barra to Copacabana.
The Google Maps estimate: 30 km; 1 hour, 2 minutes using public transportation.
Our preparation: Minimal. We had sketchy directions that one of our interns had handwritten for us, we knew we had to take a bus and a subway and we knew where we were going.
Linguistic ability: One Portuguese speaker, two English speakers.
What it was like:
When we left the Olympic Park, there were a handful of signs and directions, none of which was very helpful. So we wandered about for a few minutes until we found what looked like a bus stop. Victory!
Not so much. A Portuguese speaker who was a volunteer there told us we couldn't take the bus that stopped there. So we wandered in the other direction.
We overhear lots of conversations that sound a lot like ours:
"Do you know how to get back?"
There were lots of scary-looking signs telling us not to cross the road, but not much in way of directions.
We found a woman with a foam finger pointing tourists in the right direction. She offered us some confused directions in Portuguese, and we were on our way. And then an English-speaking tourist stopped us and told us not to listen to her and pointed us in the other direction.
We'd been walking for a good 15 minutes, and it was getting hot.
So we decided to just follow the crowd. Which took us to this gorgeous view. If nothing else, Rio's a beautiful city in which to get lost. (Fun side note: This mountain is apparently called Nariz da Velha, or Nose of Old Woman.)
We'd been on our feet for 20 minutes. This was definitely going to be longer than our directions suggested. But it looked like we're going in the right direction!
We found a bus, we jumped on a bus! We had no tickets and there wasn't anywhere to buy them, so we just waited ... until the bus left the station and seemed to be going in the wrong direction.
Our Portuguese speaker asked for help, and locals reassured us we were heading the right way. It's a good thing we had a Portuguese speaker with us, because none of the signs on the bus was in English. We also found a paper map tucked into the back of the bus.
When we got to the subway station, we were back to the confusion. A woman in a gray USA T-shirt told us she was lost and being pointed in the wrong direction.
There were no maps, no directions, and also, no machines to buy tickets.
A local official whom we asked for help (so thankful for the Portuguese speaker in our group) seemed genuinely confused -- Why did we want tickets? What did we mean that we didn't have tickets? How could we be so unprepared??
And when we found the machines, they weren't terribly cooperative -- paying by card (one of the two options) seemed to crash the system and send us in an endless loop of errors.
It took a little more aimless wandering and asking volunteers questions in Portuguese before we found two women who said they could help us. They had cash, they had change, and they had tickets.
We were finally on the subway!
This was easily the smoothest part of the trip. There was a new car smell (the subway in Rio opened just a few days ago), the air conditioning was blasting, and the subway announcer spoke in both Portuguese and English.
We got off the subway, we were home!
Well, not quite.
We were supposed to be in Copacabana, but we were in Ipanema. Wrong neighborhood. At this point, we had been traveling about 1 hour, 30 minutes. We were exhausted. We were cranky. We were late.
So we jumped in a cab. And three minutes later, we were where we needed to be.
One hour, 33 minutes.
There are few signs in English and few locals speak English, so do your homework and prepare ahead -- and be ready for an adventure.