As prices in Rio de Janeiro soar, locals turn to ‘surreal’ currency

RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil’s currency is called the real, which in Portuguese means both “royal” and, simply, “real.”

But with prices skyrocketing ahead of the World Cup finals this summer, some locals in this famed beach city have created a mock currency they’ve dubbed the “surreal.”

Adorned with the mustachioed face of Salvador Dali, the bills exist only as an Internet meme. Still, they have become the symbol of a digital protest movement.

Fed-up Rio residents have taken to social media to share photos of price tags, receipts and menu items so pricey, it almost seems they could only have been dreamed up by the Spanish surrealist artist.

There is a shrimp omelet, now famous, that costs $41 at a simple bar and beachside restaurant in the Copacabana neighborhood. At a nearby snack stand, a side of fries goes for $13. A fruit salad at another beach kiosk is $17, and one establishment charges passersby $1.75 to use the bathroom.


Normally laid-back cariocas, as Rio inhabitants are known, are getting steamed, said George Patiño, a spokesman for the Technological Park of Rio who helps run a Facebook page dubbed Rio Surreal.

In that online forum, locals gripe daily about the prices of taxi rides, color copies, liquor, produce and more. Some have organized “cooler” parties outside popular bars, drinking their own beer on the streets rather than paying steep tabs inside.

“We’ve been seeing price increases in all sectors in Rio for a long time. But things have gotten worse, and people are now really upset,” Patiño said. “With the World Cup and other big events coming, it seems everyone has lost their sense of perspective. Everyone is trying to make money as if this was their last chance ever to do so.”

Brazil has long been expensive because of high business taxes, rising wages, lousy infrastructure and steep transportation costs. Since President Dilma Rousseff took office in 2011, inflation has been a constant concern, hovering around 6% annually, well above the official target of 4.5%.

Prices in Rio have risen even faster, thanks in part to a real estate boom ahead of the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

“Rents have skyrocketed as speculators make profits, and small-business owners pass some of those costs on to the consumer,” said Flavio Soares, a graphic designer who helped launch the Rio Surreal movement.

Two reporters from a Rio radio station recently spent a day at Copacabana Beach investigating the rising cost of a day in the sand.

One of the journalists, a light-skinned woman, posed as a foreigner and spoke only in English. She paid $83 for a basket of goods that included a rented beach umbrella, a bikini, snacks and suntan lotion. That was 46% more than her compatriot, who conducted her transactions in Portuguese.

Although tourists are easy targets, Rio’s middle-class residents are also feeling the pinch because they routinely spend leisure time at the same beaches and businesses frequented by visitors.

Nationwide, the rising cost of living and the poor public services have become explosive issues. Last June, a protest over a 10-cent bus fare increase and an ensuing conflict with police led more than a million demonstrators to take to the streets across the country, damaging the government’s popularity.

In February, a respected video journalist died after being struck in the head with a bottle rocket at a demonstration in Rio sparked by rising bus fares. Protests continue sporadically around the country.

Patricia Kalil, the 35-year-old artist who created the surreal note, said she wanted to give Brazilians an additional way to express their dissatisfaction to authorities.

“I created this bill with Salvador Dali as a symbol of a currency that circulates in a parallel universe,” she said. “This is a movement to empower consumers.”

During the World Cup, visitors are likely to be hit especially hard with hotel and travel bills. Embratur, Brazil’s tourist agency, announced last year that it had found Rio hotels charging World Cup prices more than double those of conventional peak tourist periods — an average of $475 a night.

In response, the agency has pressured hotels and airlines to cap their prices during the World Cup, which is set to take place in 12 Brazilian cities. In addition, President Rousseff in February announced an initiative called “I play fair with tourists,” encouraging businesses to charge reasonable prices.

Economists doubt the government can do much about the situation.

“People are taking advantage of inflation and beginning to charge absurdly high prices that don’t correspond to reality,” said Marcel Grillo Balassiano, an economist at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas business school in Rio.

Meanwhile, the Rio Surreal group has taken up a new campaign: making restaurants serve free filtered water to patrons. State law requires it, but few Rio residents and visitors know that.

So Rio Surreal has been spreading the word on Facebook and through media interviews, urging diners to demand water from their waiters. In response, Rio’s consumer rights agency said it will issue fines to restaurants that don’t comply.

Organizers have their work cut out for them. At a seaside cafe in late February, a waiter told a reporter and his guests no clean water was available free of charge. For $2.25, however, he could offer them a 10-ounce bottle.