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Photo by Fábio Pinheiro

Brazil is different from Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and its other neighbors. Besides the language differences between Spanish-speaking South America and Portuguese-speaking Brazil, a noticeable cultural divide exists.

Brazil, a place where batucada and jazz, beach and jungle, and bikinis and Jesus coexist peacefully, seems to lie on a planet of its own.

Here are some tips for every traveler who intends to spend any amount of time in this, the largest country in South America. In fact, let’s start with that simple fact…

It’s a big country!

It’s easy to forget that Brazil occupies a large chunk of real estate, with the majority of the population and the tourist hotspots concentrated along the coast.

You won’t be able to “do” Brazil in just a few weeks (though it’s certainly possible to “do” some Brazilians in that time span).

Unless you have a lifetime to travel the country, you’ll always miss somewhere interesting. It’s always a challenge to decide which places to visit and which to skip, no matter where you travel, but in a country as large as Brazil you must think about distances. Assume that you’ll visit, at most, two places per week.

Keep in mind, though, that…

Photo by de Paula FJ

Bus travel isn’t perfect.

Don’t assume that buses will take you everywhere you want to go and don’t assume they’ll be on time. Be open-minded towards alternatives like vans (usually called “kombi”), private cars (called “lotação”, a sort of long distance taxi), and motorcycle taxis.

In places where rivers are more common than asphalt, you’ll need to consider boats of all shapes and sizes. Keep in mind that long distance buses often skip over the most interesting places you could visit, while overnight buses are often the target of crime, giving you two good reasons to avoid these long, overnight trips. Opt for shorter legs.

In spite of these long distances, you should definitely…

Leave the southeast.

Visiting the Iguaçu Falls, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro is the equivalent of going to Niagara Falls, New York City, and Miami: everyone and their mother visits these places.

Don’t get me wrong; all these locales are worthy of a visit. But it’s logical that large cities and popular tourist attractions are not the place to meet the “natives”, since locals are usually too busy to concern themselves with you, one in a long line of foreign visitors.

The “heart” of the country lies elsewhere; strive to find it.

Start by trying to…

Photo by babasteve

Skip the hostels.

Though this piece of advice could apply to anyone who wants to get away from the hordes of backpackers in any country, there is another reason to avoid hostels in Brazil.

This appealing option is called a “pousada”, cozy and affordable accommodations usually run by families. Pousadas give you a real chance to connect with the locals, while avoiding loud hostels and expensive hotels.

Don’t pay attention to fancy things like signs, though. I have stayed in some great family-run pousadas that depended exclusively on word of mouth. I’d wake up the next morning to a clean load of laundry, a fantastic breakfast, and a tab smaller than the price of a hostel bed.

Wherever you choose to stay, you must…

Protect yourself.

And no, I’m not just talking about condoms, though I am talking about sex.

The advice here is quite simple: don’t take new love interests to your hotel, hostel or pousada. Brazilians don’t take them home; they go to motels, and so should you. Even if it means an extra expense, at least your belongings will be safe, and he/she/they won’t be able to track you down the next day.

Think of it as part of the Brazilian cultural experience: pay for the three hours and enjoy the motel room sex. And though a casual sexual experience is relatively easy to find in Brazil, a more meaningful relationship with the locals requires that you…

Photo by bossa67

Learn some Portuguese.

Don’t assume that the average Brazilian knows English.

Only two types of Brazilians do: those who have attended the best schools due to their privileged financial situation, and those who work in the tourist industry. Of course, that second category includes all types of people, including some who are earning a decent living (like waiters and tour guides) and some shady characters you’ll want to avoid (like prostitutes and scammers).

In addition, don’t think that your high school or college-level Spanish will be enough.

Portuguese, though relatively similar to Spanish, sounds very different when uttered from the mouth of a Brazilian. Unless you are a native speaker of one of the romance languages, the recommendation is clear: try to learn some Portuguese. It will be the most valuable tool in your arsenal, more so than a guidebook, especially if you wish to interact with the locals (in ways that do not involve you getting ripped off).

Another way to avoid the touts, the thieves and the hookers is to…

Avoid urban beaches.

Except for Copacabana and Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro and, perhaps, Barra in Salvador, you shouldn’t budget time in your itinerary for city beaches. After all, the urbanized coastlines of Natal and Fortaleza and Recife pale in comparison to the charming, nearby towns of Praia da Pipa and Canoa Quebrada and Porto de Galinhas, respectively.

And these are but three examples; the same applies to every coastal capital between Uruguay and the mouth of the Amazon River. Unless you consider gawking at prostitutes an interesting cultural experience… unless you enjoy being the target of hawkers… you don’t have much to gain from metropolitan beaches.

Of course, to visit any beach you need to…

Get some sandals.

But don’t assume that flip flops belong exclusively on the sand.

Brazilians have made wearing flip flops an everyday routine, even though it might seem excessively casual in the eyes of other cultures. The mere variety of sandals for sale in Brazil speaks to this fact.

Wearing tennis shoes with shorts will immediately make you stand out as a foreigner. Men especially should try to avoid shoes unless planning a hike or a fancy evening out on the town. Flip flops are the norm, so head into any store and grab a pair of the local havaianas.

Of course, wearing sandals with socks is a stereotypical gringo ritual. But there is another common fashion faux pas that will teach foreigners that…

Photo by O Pirata

Futebol is king.

Travelers should not wear the replica shirts of local clubs unless they are able to hold their own in a conversation.

It’s a simple fact: though Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world, church takes a back seat to futebol on Sundays (and, in fact, all week). Brazilians love to talk about futebol, and any related paraphernalia is a lure for meeting strangers. It’s a fun way to get to know the locals, but they’ll quickly know to move on if you can’t converse about the nation’s favorite topic.

Naturally, once you’re done “making friends”, you’ll need to…

Stay in touch.

No gringo should travel in Brazil without an MSN Messenger account and/or an Orkut profile. Though you may be used to Facebook and MySpace, Brazilians have fallen in love with a different networking website.

Most Brazilians you meet age 35 and younger will probably have one or the other… or both. If you want to stay in touch with the people you meet, you’ll want to have accounts as well.

Simply e-mailing the people you meet is not a good strategy. I have learned, through almost two years of experience, that Brazilians are notoriously bad at keeping in touch via email.

These tips by no means cover every situation you encounter, but with these in mind you’ll be better prepared to handle yourself when Brazil presents you with a challenge. And, believe me, it will.

Community Connection:
Headed to Brazil? Beyond these tips, you might also want to check out the 10 Best Venues and Shows in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.



About The Author

Ernesto Machado

Ernesto Machado is a native of Puerto Rico. After living in the US and Argentina, he found a home in Northeastern Brazil. He has reason to believe he’s not quite a gringo, though most Brazilians would disagree.

  • Priya


    We are going to Brazil June 4th. We have 1 week booked in Rio (so too late to change that) but would love to do non-touristy things. Please please can you recommend a safe place/city to explore. We are thinking of Iguassa falls and Salvador (with Lencois/Chapada Deimantina) after. But I love meeting locals and seeing remote areas. Problem is, I know spanish and am barely learning Portugese :( Please email back at

    • Julião Villas

      Hi there, if you make it to Salvador, i can advice you to explore small cities on Bahia’s coast such as itacaré, caraivas and arraial da ajuda. If you know some spanish, that will help a lot. Enjoy your trip!

  • manisha

    I bursted into laughter and really love your style of connecting things.Wow.Well, i am heading to Brasil in July for a month and a half and all i know is i will land in Leticia and take a boat up to Manaus.From then on will follow advices of people and websites.Of course cannot do the whole country in few weeks but i will try to explore tranquilo locaciones.My spanish is not that good (although i lived in colombia for over 2years and portugese – forget about it.will have to take few classes in Manaus before i start my trip (but i always prefer learning on the road,but i read here that you don´t recommed that or do you?)).Great site…keep on going and i will continue reading.

    • Cami

      I briefly passed through Manaus on a trip to the Amazon once. It seems like a busy place! Make sure you dip your feet in as many different areas of Brazil as you can. From what I remember (we literally just went to Manaus to catch a boat across the two-tone river – another site I suggest you see) it smelt quite fishy.

      Enjoy your trip! =]

  • Cami

    The point about flip flops is a very valid one. I’m half Brazilian and will be once again visiting family this year, although this time at Christmas and I’m taking my boyfriend. It’s his first time out of the continent so there’s lots to do and think about and remember, and I thank you for reminding me! I would easily have forgotten that he needs flip flops.

    It really is the standard footwear of the country, everywhere you go. (My family lives in a smaller city, and everyone wears flip flops or occasionally nice sandals if you’re a woman.)

  • Chika

    ‘m 30 and traveling alone to South America for the first time.
    I arrive on the 1st of February and will be staying for a month or so.

    I am hoping to get some advice on pousadas and where I might be able to find an affordable one. I’ve been searching online but all the places coming up are way more expensive than the hostels!

    I’m planning to do some volunteering or charity work in the first part of my trip. Do you somewhere i can do some work with accomodation linked in but in more of the pousadas sense?

    I’m a creative lead for a media company. I would love to use my artistic skills in some way to help young people. However i’m open to any other ways i can lend a hand.

    Any help or advice on this would be great.

    Many thanks!
    : )

    • Jennifer

      Hi Chika,

      I am also planning on traveling to South America (Brazil) alone and have the same questions/ concerns as you do. I have been looking into pousadas online but it’s true that most that pop up are hostels. I may just stay in a hostel for a few days and then through word of mouth, i can probably locate a pousada in Rio and also maybe in Bahia.

      If anyone else has any info on pousadas in Rio and Bahia and places to see, please respond back or email me directly at

      Thank you

  • Camila

    Gostei muito.

    Quando eu for viajar pelo meu Brasil eu te chamo =D

  • arlene saunders

    We would be interested in hearing about good choices for pousadas in Brazil.

    The questions people ask are great. It would be good to see their answers.


  •édoclubpenguinbrasil) Júlia

    Hello!I’m from Brasília,Brazil.I love living there!There isn’t beaches you know but it’s too good!!!And theres another thing,today,a looot of brazilians speak or do English class!!!!!
    Você deve falar português não é mesmo???

  • peter

    I can’t believe you say ‘leave the southeast’. Some the best beaches in the world (both tranquil bays and world class surf) and the kindest people are on the coast of Santa Catarina. With the predominant German/Italian heritage it is a great mix of Brazilian ‘festa’ and European organisation. Things work, its relatively very safe with a fantastic nightlife – to say nothing of the seafood (colder deep water – so much better big fish and shellfish) and the churasco benefits of being neighbours of the expert Gauchos of Rio Grande do Sul.
    In my view, the girls are also in a different league from Rio->North. More sophisticated, interesting and beautiful.
    Some portugues is a must, though most can get by on German – but that is the language of the grandparents – so most locals want to be cool and will pretend ignorance out in the evening on the town.

    • Paul W Dixon

      Santa Catarina is South, not Southeast.
      I agree, it’s the best part of Brazil!
      Curitiba – fascinating city, spectacular train trip to Morretes; Madalosso (the largest restaurant in Latin America, great pasta), good chocolates
      Santa Catarina – great beaches, the most beautiful women in the country, Oktoberfest., good chocolates
      Rio Grande do Sul – churrasco, good wines, good chocolates.

  • Julia

    I’m brazilian and there is a lot of Bullshit here,,,

  • Mariana Bonotto

    I really liked the article, but as a Paulista I advice you to visit São Paulo. It is one of the most receptive cities in the country, we have city activities and we do have nice beaches, worth visiting at two hour by car.
    Even more, many people know some sort of English, due to business or school obligation, so it is easier to communicate than anywhere else.

  • Monica Hernandez

    Excellent article!!!!
    I’m a Brazilian married to a Puerto Rican, currently living in South Florida. I’m a “travel freak” (as much as my poor bank account allows me to be) and I love to tell people here in Florida all about Brazil. There are lots and lots of misconceptions!
    This article has really useful information for first-time tourists in Brazil. I’m going to recommend it to everyone who asks me about traveling to Brazil.

  • Monica Hernandez

    oh the only thing is that now all Brazilians are migrating to Facebook and Orkut is being forgotten.

  • Paul W Dixon

    There are no beaches in São Paulo except Guarapiranga Lake. The nearest beaches are in Santos [SANN-toss] or Guarujá [gwah-roo-ZHAH], both 1 1/2 hour away from SP by Bus.

  • Will Martin

    Wherever you decide to go in Brasil, bring A LOT of money. O Brasil está muito caro!

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