Countries are a bit like people in that they are all special, only some are more special than others. Brazil is one of those countries that is just extra special. There are plenty of countries you could describe as a melting pot but Brazil has got to be high on the list as far as diversity goes. Starting with the many different indigenous peoples and continuing throughout history to be influenced by colonisation, slavery and immigration. Brazilians are descendants of Indigenous peoples, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch Colonisers, African Slaves and immigrants from Italy, Germany, France, Syria, Lebanon, Japan and many other places. Depending on what part of the country you visit, these influences are more or less apparent in the culture and cuisine, with the north having a higher African population while the south has a larger European population. It has been joked that a Brazilian passport is the best fake document to obtain since any person could pass as being Brazilian. Portuguese colonisation of what is now Brazil started in the 1500's so it has been over 500 years in the making of what is a unique and distinctly Brazilian culture.
Brazil is a country that has something for everyone and it never ceases to amaze me how many people come to South America but skip it in favour of the west side of the continent (also amazing). But I do understand that it is so enormous people almost don't know where to start, and most who do just visit the same gringo trail of Rio, São Paulo, Búzios, Ilha Grande and maybe Floripa or the Iguaçu Falls (all amazing of course). To see a decent amount of what Brazil has to offer I would recommend no less than a month. If you can only visit for a few weeks then you'll just have to pick a few highlights. In my opinion the two cities not to be missed are Rio and Salvador, and both cities have great beach towns near by for a few days on the beach. If time is limited I would spend all of it on the coast.
I have spent about 8 months in Brazil over two trips and can speak the language so I have managed to see a lot of the country from north to south and learn a lot about the culture. This post is my attempt to pen as much wisdom as I can for anyone heading to Brazil. Rather than being a guide to a particular city or place I'm just going to share my tips and tid-bits of info that might be handy to know.
Why visit Brazil?
There are a thousand good reasons to visit Brazil, it's a must see country. But if you like any of the following then you will find something to love about Brazil:
Diving and snorkelling (Try Maracajaú, Fernando de Noronha, Buzios, Bonito, Ilha Grande or Porto Galinhas)
Amazing beaches (All the way from Florianópolis to Jericoacoara and beyond you will find amazing beaches!)
Spotting wildlife including: dolphins, turtles, capuchins, marmosets, coatis, toucans, macaws and SO MUCH MORE! (Try a little town on the north east coast called Pipa, the island of Fernando de Noronha, the Iguaçu falls, the wetlands of Matto Grosso do Sul and of course the Amazon river which you can access from the city of Manaús.)
Drinking cold beer in the sun (everywhere)
Visiting world class art galleries (São Paulo, Belo Horizonte or Curitiba)
Eating great seafood/barbecue/street food/sushi/tropical fruit (Anywhere really but BBQ rules in the South, Sushi is great in Rio and São Paulo and the best seafood and tropical fruits can be found in the north east)
Dancing and live music (anywhere in Brazil. No doubt you've heard of Samba but you should also check out Forró, Pagode and Axé - that last one is hilariously cheesy and most likely to be found in Bahia)
Hiking, surfing, paragliding, fishing, sand dune boarding (Check out Florianópolis, Natal, Canoa Quebrada, Cabo Frio and so many other coastal towns)
High end shopping (if you are loaded, all foreign goods are taxed to hell and back in Brazil) (Rio and São Paulo have amazing fashion scenes and São Paulo Fashion Week would be an amazing experience)
Budget shopping and markets with everything. EVERYTHING! (Rio, São Paulo and Belo Horizonte all have excellent markets)
Parties that go all night (anywhere in Brazil)
Amazing natural scenery (all over the country but check out Iguaçu, Bonito, Pipa, Fernando de Noronha, Búzios)
Lying in a hammock (anywhere but beach towns are best!)
Interesting Architecture (Rio, São Paulo, Brasilia, Olinda, Manaús, Paraty...)
Don't leave without eating...
Churrasco - Pronounced 'shoe-has-ko', churrasco means barbecue. A Churrascaria therefore, is a barbecue restaurant and a must do experience in Brazil. Research online for a good one near you. They work like this; there's usually a set price for all you can eat (between $40-100 Brazilian Reais depending on the place). There'll be a buffet for your side dishes and then the waiter will bring the meat to your table on large skewers that come off the grill. They start with the cheap stuff and fill you up on sausages (linguinça) and chicken (frango) and cheaper cuts of beef, which they slice off for you depending on how well you like it cooked. Picanha (pi-canya) is the favourite cut in Brazil and supposedly the most tender and tends to come later on. Be bold and try the coraçãozinho (cora-saow-zeenyu) aka chicken hearts. Not for everyone but also not the craziest thing you could try travelling. The funniest thing about a churrascaria is that they give you a traffic light so you can indicate to your waiter green for 'keep it coming' or red for 'i'm taking a break or am done'. If you you decide you can squeeze more in just flip it back to green.
Pão de queijo - Cheese bread, but more special than it sounds. They are little balls and the cheese is mixed into the dough giving the bread a special texture. Sooo good fresh with butter.
Pastel - The pastel is to Brazil what the pie is to NZ and Australia. It's a deep fried street food savoury made with a fried-wonton-like pastry filled with meat(carne) and cheese (queijo), or chicken(frango) or sometimes shrimp(camarão) and cheese.
Coxinha - my fave street snack! Coxinha de frango (co-sheen-ya-gee-frahngo) is a tear shaped deep fried delight. It has shredded chicken in the middle which is surrounded by a special dough and deep fried to golden crispy goodness. Soo good with a bit of tabasco!
Feijoada - a national dish you must try, feijoada is a bean stew (best with black beans) made with various cuts of pork meat and sometimes sausage. It is served with white rice and together they are a staple of the Brazilian diet. You can also just get feijao com arroz (beans with rice) and that won't have all the meat (I'm not promising that it will be totally vegetarian though so check!)
Moqueca - the other national dish, hailing from the African influenced north east, moqueca is a stew made either 'de peixe' (gee peh-shee) with fish or 'de camarão' (gee ca-maraumn) with prawns, cooked in tomato, coconut milk, onions, lime juice and the magic ingredient dendê oil- a pungent oil and common ingredient in north eastern cooking. Moqueca is served with rice and toasted cassava root(farofa).
Brigadeiro - a yummy little sweet made of condensed milk, a little butter and a little cocoa (or sometimes not). It's a bit softer and gooier than fudge but firm enough to roll into balls. Condensed milk is a big thing in Brazilian desserts.
Don't leave without drinking...
Cachaça - the national spirit made from sugar cane and as strong, if not stronger than tequila. You can have it in shot form, and like tequila there are higher shelf ones that are (sort of) sip-able. But cachaça is best consumed in a...
Caipirinha - the national drink. A cocktail of crush iced, muddled lime, heaps of sugar and a free pour of cachaça. You can't not try one, and why stop with one? They make them with pineapple, strawberry, passionfruit and various other tropical fruits too. The sugar alone will give you a hangover but YOLO.
Caipisake - my personal fave! There's a notable Japanese influence in Brazil and they married the glorious Japanese sake with a caipirinha to create a caipisake. It's the same thing just made with sake instead of cachaça and is best with strawberries.
Guaraná - Brazil's very own soft drink. It's sickly sweet but definitely try it once!
Fresh fruit juices - Brazil has an abundance of tropical fruits to try and there are loads of places to get freshly squeezed juices.
Need to know
Generally don't drink the tap water but brushing your teeth should be fine. This does depend on what city you are in, some cities are ok but as a general rule I just wouldn't bother unless it has been boiled.
Therefore tap water is not really a thing in restaurants. Still or sparkling?
Agua sem gás = Still Agua com gás = sparkling.
You are not obligated to tip in restaurants but it would sure be appreciated but the low-wage-earning and overworked wait staff. If you want the tip to go specifically to your wait person I would hand them the cash.
Most bars, nightclubs and per kilo restaurants will give you a card upon arrival that works as your tab and you pay for everything you consume at the end. Do not lose this card in a bar or nightclub or you will be made to pay a set minimum amount (this will be stated on the card and is usually no less than R$100) before security will let you leave. A lot of bars and nightclubs have a funny little check in area at the front for this reason.
What's a per kilo restaurant you say? Well! It's an ubiquitous dining option in Brazil that you really should try out. It can be a bit confusing, especially if you don't speak Portuguese. In short it's a buffet, but you pay based on weight. Again you'll receive a card upon arrival, you pile up your plate with what you want and then you get it weighed before you sit down, handing your card to the person weighing, and any one who takes a drink order from you, so they can add it to your tab. Sometimes there will be two price options. A per kilo option or a set price all you can eat option. The per kilo rate will be advertised. Buffets, to me at least, have a bad connotation, but they are actually usually pretty good in Brazil and are a great way for travellers to get in some salad/veges and try small amounts of loads of different new things. Be careful though, I racked up a few big tabs accidentally with the per kilo option, as I have eyes bigger than my stomach combined with a serious problem choosing when faced with too many options. Buffets are also part of a churrascaria experience but at a churrascaria you will have a fixed price for everything and won't need to weigh your plate. Each place is slightly different so check in advance if you are spend conscious, it's really easy to overspend (0r I'm just a pig. Or both).
Getting there and around
Getting there is easy. Both Rio and São Paulo have two airports and I've had domestic and international flights from all 4 so do make sure you double check which one you're meant to go to. In São Paulo you have Gaurulhos and Congonhas. In Rio you have Santos Dumont (try to fly there if you can, it's way closer to where you're likely to want to go) and also Rio Galeão- Tom Jobim International Airport. There are four national carriers to get you around the gigantic land mass that is Brazil. Tam (recently joined with Chile's Lan to create LaTam), Azul, Gol and Avianca. I flew with all of them and didn't have any issues with any. I'm sure if you search reviews you'll find people complaining about one or another but in my experience they were all pretty decent.
You can take intercity buses and again I had no issues at all with this- they were decent quality and comfortable and for Brazilian standards they were actually pretty punctual (touch wood). I don't recommend buses for long distances because with 4 airlines competing for customers why would you waste your time busing when you can get a reasonably priced flight? Rodoviario (ho-do-vi-ah-rio) is the word for bus station. One deterrent from busing was that it was often recommended to me to book bus tickets at least a day in advance, but doing that would mean hauling my ass all the way to the rodoviario and back for the ticket one or two days in advance. Ok - in small towns, annoying AF in Rio or São Paulo.
Once I got stuck in Ubatuba and left my friend stranded in Rio waiting for me (a great place to get stuck - google it) because I just assumed there would be buses everyday when in fact there were only a few per week. Don't be silly like me. Check in advance. Out of big cities there'll be one everyday for sure, but not necessarily from small towns.
If you are busing, try not to arrive at bus stations late at night, especially in bigger, more dangerous cities. They are known for being a bit dodgy and this is an unnecessary risk - definitely don't schedule to arrive after dark in a bus station as a solo female with no one there to greet you.
Taxis in Brazil are moderately priced and an ok option. If you are taking a taxi from the airport you can negotiate a price in advance. Be a bit more wary just hailing one from the street. Make sure they are legit and have a meter running. Upon the recommendation from a Rio local friend, I used Uber in Rio and São Paulo for a third of the cost of taxis and found it to be much safer. Uber is not legal in the state of Bahia but as far as I know, or least when I was last there, it was legal in the states of Rio and São Paulo. Check for current status as this seems to change. As with everywhere else, taxi drivers don't like Uber.
Most of the big cities have a metro and of course buses. I always find buses harder to navigate and avoided them but they are a good and (sometimes only) option. I got around Rio and São Paulo on the subway which is a great option because traffic can be pretty bad. I also did a lot of walking and you'd be surprised how much ground you can cover on foot in Rio and São Paulo, as long as you aren't in too much of a hurry. Public transport is a great place to get pick pocketed! Wear your bag at the front and keep aware of your surroundings.
Brazil is a place you need to keep your wits about you at all times. Try not to wander around gawking like an obvious gringo. Walk with purpose and confidence, leave your jewellery at home and don't take all your financial options out at one time (i.e all your cash and cards). Keep cash on different parts of your person. Mugging is a legitimate concern. You shouldn't get scared or be put off going but you should be aware that it happens everyday (as much to locals as to foreigners) and do what you can to avoid putting yourself at risk. Opportunists make a living out of people letting their guard down. Don't be ostentatious. I had my iPhone stolen in Brazil because I was distracted by a police chase and people running and screaming. I wasn't paying attention for a brief moment and then poof - no more iPhone. This was in my first week and I had to go phone-less for the next 5 months because phones are too expensive to buy in Brazil. I mentioned earlier that foreign goods are taxed insanely high. iPhones cost about 3 times what they would in the States, Australia or New Zealand so there's a market for second hand ones making them a lucrative thing to steal. Be aware. The same goes for anything Apple, Nike etc (covetable big name brands). Brazil has a bad reputation for safety and it is a dangerous country, however as long as you use common sense you're very unlikely to have any serious trouble. If you do have the very bad luck of being mugged, keep calm and hand over whatever you have on you. Don't argue and don't be a hero. This is not meant to scare you off. I was never mugged and I have friends who have lived there their whole lives and have never been mugged, however they ALL know someone who has. You can have a great time. Danger is not lurking on every corner, you just need to be more alert and risk adverse than in some places.
Be very careful and cautious where you withdraw cash from. If you can go inside a bank to withdraw cash that's the best option. If you have to use an ATM be VERY careful to hide your pin as you enter it. We had two cards copied in Búzios and thousands of reais stolen from our account. It doesn't matter if the ATM is inside either (corruption is a problem), always be extra cautious. Credit cards are widely accepted and there are plenty of ATMs, however If you are leaving cities to visit the smaller towns then I recommend withdrawing cash first in case the town doesn't have many ATMS or they are out of order. ATMs running out of cash is not uncommon in small towns. As mentioned before, keep various money options in different places and make sure you travel with several cards because if one does get hacked, stolen and consequently blocked you will need a back up. This is really common sense for any travel anywhere but I am stressing it as Brazil is literally the only country I've been to where these potential issues actually came to fruition.
To be honest, English is not as prevalent as you might think in Brazil. There are plenty of people who do speak some but if you don't speak Portuguese you will have some trouble communicating. If you think your remedial Spanish is going to help, I'm sorry to say, it won't. It might help you to read some things but it will not hep you to understand spoken Portuguese. They do not sound the same. There are accents in Brazil that even some Brazilians don't understand perfectly. Luckily Brazilians are a friendly bunch and they will try to help you as best they can and you should be able to find some English speakers in Rio and São Paulo and other big, more educated cities and in many tourist towns, but just don't take it for granted that everyone will. If you need to do something that requires you to speak to someone in the service industry I would google translate some key words first. While it is more than likely that your hotel receptionist might speak English (not always though), you definitely cannot expect that people in low paying service jobs have had the opportunity to learn English well. You should make the effort to learn some basics before you go. I'll get you started.
Oi = Hi
Por favor = Please
Obrigado (if you are male) Obrigada(if you are female)(oh-bree-gah-du/a) = thank you.
Muito obrigad/a (moynto -brigah-du/a) = Thanks very much
Com licença ( Com-lee-sen-sa) = Excuse me (you can drop the com part and still make sense)
Bom dia (bon-gee-a) = Good morning
Tudo bem? (too-doo beng?) All good? (a colloquial way of asking how are you?)
Tudo bom ( too-doo bong) = All good (a statement)
These two are interchangeable - i.e you could ask tudo bom? and reply tudo bem. It's the intonation of the bom and bem that makes it a question or a statement.
Como vai ?(coh-mo vai vai rhymes with eye) = How's it going?
Estou bem (es-toe- beng) = I'm fine.
Aonde é o banheiro? (a-on-gee-eh-oh-ban-yay-roh) = where is the bathroom(toilets)
Cade o banheiro? (ka-deh oh ban-yay-roh) = where is the bathroom (toilets)
Onde (on-gee) = where whereas cade (ka=deh) is a colloquial way to say 'where is'.
Sou(soh) Hannah = I'm Hannah. Like in English you can say my name is or I am, and like in English, 'I am' is more common in informal speech.
But just for the record...
O meu nome é... (oh-mayo-nom-ee-eh = my name is...
Fica à vontade (fee-ka-von-tar-gee) = make yourself at home - you might hear this one if you are invited into someone's home but you'll also most likely hear it if you are browsing in a shop or perhaps from a flight attendant.
You have three main options. Hotels, Pousadas and Airbnb (or other apartment rental services). I never really did the hostel thing in Brazil as the above options were so affordable, so I really cannot comment on them - only that I don't think they are as ubiquitous as they are in Europe or Asia. A pousada is a guest house and just like a hotel they vary in price and comfort, but they are my favourite option as they are more cosy than hotels and always seemed to come with a hammock. That said, I stayed in some great boutique hotels there too. Both will almost always include breakfast as part of the room rate, often with a really great selection of unique Brazilian foods to try. I had excellent experiences with Airbnb too as Brazilians are very hospitable people and I used this option in all the big cities I went to, other than Salvador, where I stayed in an amazing boutique hotel in Pelourinho. The main reason for this was simply to be able to prepare my own food more as Brazilian food can be on the heavy side and very light on the vegetables and salads. In 2016 we paid between AUSD $40 and $70 a night on average for really nice places. If you want to go super fancy (such as Copacabana Palace or the Instagram favourite Hotel Fasano Rio de Janeiro) then you will pay similar prices to anywhere else in the world for 5 stars, around $5-600 a night. As a long term traveller I was pretty budget conscious but if you are just on a holiday and looking to pay around $1- 200 you will be able to find beautiful accomodation for this. Rio can be very expensive so I did the Airbnb option here and that was more like $100 a night for a very nice one bedroom apartment in Lagoa (next to Ipanema). That said, I was there around the Olympics time so prices were higher than normal. If you are going to Iguaçu and aren't sure which side to base yourself on then I highly recommend staying on the Brazilian side. It's very easy to go across to the Argentinian side but the accomodation options are much nicer and cheaper on the Brazilian side.
Brazil is definitely not the cheapest country in South America and many things will seem expensive (go to Colombia for amazing cheap tropical goodness). However I found tourist excursions to be very fairly priced and available to be booked at the time in any tourist friendly area or town and you should definitely budget for lots of outdoorsy excursions because Brazil has fantastic options. Food and accomodation will depend on your budget. You can definitely do it on a budget, but also Brazil is a Disneyland for the wealthy and if you want to spend your hard earned cash on luxury, Brazil will happily take your money. You may have images of slums and poverty in your mind when you think of Brazil but I can tell you one thing, they know how to do luxury well and have a lot of world class luxury dining and accomodation options.
A lot of people are put off of going to Brazil because of its reputation for being unsafe and I can not tell you how sad that is because it is an AMAZING country, especially for a traveler. They have great weather (São Paulo and everywhere south of there do have cold-ish winters though so don't go there mid year without warm clothes thinking it'll be tropical - Rio yes, SP no!) Brazil has some of the most beautiful beaches in the entire world, great food, and a fun, happy culture. I won't lie, Brazil can be hard at times as things won't always seem easy or straight forward and you do need to take safety seriously and keep your guard up, but it is totally worth the effort! And now I'm just going to round this post out with a series of photos demonstrating how BEAUTIFUL this incredible, diverse country is. This is not a country to miss out on!