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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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.
Headed to Brazil? Beyond these tips, you might also want to check out the 10 Best Venues and Shows in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.
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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 heâ€™s not quite a gringo, though most Brazilians would disagree.