Oh, Brazil, the land of sparkling beaches, lavish churrascarias, crazy soccer fans, and street music…right?
While most of the stereotypes about Brazil have some truth to them (like the soccer fanaticism and the amazing music), there are a lot of surprising things about the country that people don’t know! For example, Brazil houses the largest population of Japanese people outside of Japan. Who knew?
When I came to Brazil, I didn’t think much about what culture shock would mean in terms of my everyday activities. It’s an aspect of traveling that I didn’t notice right off the bat. In fact, it took me a while to get the hang of the small lifestyle changes I had to make to live in Brazil long-term. Gone were the days of talking on my iPhone in the middle of the street, handshakes, and free water at the restaurant.
Whether you’re visiting Brazil during a normal time of year, or coming for Carnaval or New Years in Rio de Janeiro, I’ve compiled my main tips for fitting in with the sparkling beaches, striking landscapes, and friendly culture of Brazil:
1) Your swimsuit size will make you stand out as a tourist
And no, I’m not talking about your top.
Brazilians can spot an American a mile away because American swimsuits are, well, comparatively large. Beach vendors will start speaking to you in their best English, and with that, will sometimes request higher prices too.
Surprisingly, this pertains to men and women, as both genders tend to wear the least amount of clothing possible when at the beach. Men often wear a speedo-type swimsuit called a sunga, which basically covers about the same surface area as a speedo. Of course, there are men who wear typical swim trunks as usual, but sungas are not uncommon to see on Rio’s crowded beaches.
This is all harmless, but be careful at the beach because thieves are often on the prowl for tourists, and your swimsuit could be the first sign. If you’re not planning on investing in a Brazilian bikini, then be sure to only bring your necessities (cash, room key, etc.) to the beach and leave everything valuable (phone, credit cards) at home.
2) iPhones and other Apple products are like gold bars – hide them from wandering eyes
Relative to the United States and other wealthy nations, the prices of Apple products and other large electronics in Brazil are sky-high. For an iPhone, this price can be $1,200 or more for one phone. Therefore, if you’re carrying your phone around on the street in cities, you may catch the eye of thieves hoping to make a quick buck. Pickpocketing and armed robbery are not uncommon in many touristy areas of Brazil, especially in Rio, São Paulo, and the Northeast regions, so be sure to avoid being targeted by leaving your valuables out of sight.
This, of course, varies by region, and you might find that using your iPhone for photos and videos here and there is completely harmless. For example, as a friend mentioned to me, in areas like Florianopolis, iPhones are common and therefore the risk of using yours in public is lower. However, while traveling in Brazil, always go with your gut and exercise caution when using these highly-valued devices.
3) Everyone is late…because it’s polite
Is your Brazilian friend a no-show, leaving you sitting alone at the bar for half an hour or more? Don’t worry, they’re probably just late. “Brazilian time” is similar to “Spanish time” or “Filipino time” in that Brazilians are basically always late for social gatherings. I once went to a good friend’s party and was the first one there (I came on time) for about 3 hours. It’s polite and customary to be late to parties and events, especially those thrown in someone’s home. If you show up on time for a party, no one will be ready for you or expecting you!
Even when I was in classes, the professors would arrive 15-20 minutes late. Is this normal? Maybe not, but it’s definitely not out of the ordinary to find that your Brazilian cohorts are late for literally everything. It’s just part of their lifestyle, so don’t take it personally!
4) The water is safe to brush your teeth with, but not to drink
Don’t expect to drink tap water at home or in restaurants here, because you won’t be able to. Because of chemicals in the water, as well as rusty and old pipes in the city, tap water is technically safe to drink, but no one does it for safety reasons. So, if you’re thirsty, buy a bottle of water from a store, but if you need to brush your teeth, you can still use the tap water without any problems.
5) If you want to meet locals or understand the menu, you’ll need to learn some Portuguese
Though many Brazilians have a basic knowledge of English, menus and signs outside of the main tourist areas rarely have English translations. So, if you’re planning on doing some exploring while traveling in Brazil, be sure to pick up a phrasebook or learn some simple Portuguese so that you can navigate and ask for help if you get lost. There are also a ton of online resources and virtual courses you can take to learn the language more quickly – my personal favorite remote language-learning tool is italki, but I also relied a lot on DuoLingo for some quick practice, too.
Plus, the best food is often in the home-owned places, so be sure to take advantage of those menus!
6) Opt for a local tour guide when exploring the favelas
The favelas, or slums, in Brazil have a long-standing history of being violent and dangerous places with heavy drug trafficking and, now, police monitoring. They’re also often referred to as the centers of Brazilian culture and the birthplaces of some of its best music and traditions. After volunteering for 6 months in Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela, I think favelas are certainly fascinating and eye-opening places to visit.
Needless to say, favela tourism is a touchy topic in Brazil, and many hotels and hostels organize third-party tours to these enigmatic communities. Not only are these tours expensive, but they are typically not led by favela community members, and therefore don’t help benefit or improve the communities. When examining ways to explore the favelas, I would either look for volunteer opportunities, such as teaching English or helping with an art class, or I would recommend carefully researching who will be leading the tours.
7) Brazilians don’t use beach towels, they use cangas
Don’t be that guy who shows up to the beach with a bulky, damp beach towel. Everyone and their mother in Brazil uses a light, sarong-like drapery called a canga at the beach. It’s great for sitting, drying yourself off, and covering yourself up for a day at the beach. Even better, you can buy one practically anywhere (grocery stores, beach sidewalks, souvenir stores) for less than $10, and it lasts forever! I still use mine while traveling as a blanket/scarf/beach towel because it’s light and portable, and colorful to boot!
8) Traveling in Brazil for long distances is possible by bus
Just like in the United States, Brazil’s land mass is humongous, and therefore is frequently traveled by flying. However, you can travel by bus in some of the regions, such as the Brazilian northeast region and around Rio and São Paulo. If you’re trying to get to the Amazon or down south, keep in mind that bus rides can be well over 40 hours long (so perhaps in these cases, flying is the way to go).
Because plane travel is so necessary in Brazil, the prices can be fairly expensive. LATAM and GOL are the two major domestic airlines serving the country, and they fly to all major cities. It’s much smarter to take a flight to Belém from Rio, for example, since the bus ride would take over 40 hours. A similar situation stands for Manaus, Foz do Iguaçu, and Salvador, which would all take over 24 hours by bus. Of course, there are some places like my favorite beach, Jericoacoara, that you can only reach by bus, so definitely differentiate your travel methods for the best possible experience.
Bus travel in Brazil is extremely safe and often overlooked as a good way to travel long distances. The seats are more comfortable than most and I never had any problems with theft or harassment. I never felt unsafe on an overnight bus and would recommend it to anyone trying to get around Brazil, even solo female travelers like me.
9) Be prepared to get kissed, and often
I’ve written before about how much Brazilians love to kiss each other, and trust me, this culture shock is real. I came back to the US wanting to kiss my friends when I saw them and, well, that just didn’t work. The typical greeting in Rio is two kisses, one on each cheek, for friends or friends of friends when you first see them, and again when you leave. In some areas, like São Paulo, only one kiss on one cheek is expected. In other regions, like Bahia and Salvador, three kisses are customary.
Also, public displays of affection are plentiful in Brazil, and it’s normal to see full-on make out sessions on the beach. In these cases I suggest just looking the other way – after all, the Brazilian culture is quite open and non-judgmental.
The kissing culture in Brazil is very different from American greetings, so don’t get caught off guard if someone greets you with a cheek kiss. They’re just trying to be friendly!
Do you have any tips to add for traveling in Brazil? Share your tips in the comments or on Facebook!