Brazil is a wonderfully diverse and vivacious country. Internationally known for its vibrant nightlife, unique music and extravagant festivals, this South American nation is continuously rising on the tourism radar. However, Brazil is more than just scintillating beaches and lively cities. It also boasts one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems. From Copacabana Beach to the Pantanal, this insider’s guide to Brazil will have you sambaing your way to an unforgettable vacation.
The largest country in South America and the fifth-largest on the planet, Brazil occupies an area of 3,287,956 square miles. It shares land borders with every country on the continent, except for Chile and Ecuador. To the east, Brazil boasts an astounding 4,655 miles of legendary coastline along the Atlantic Ocean. With a population of nearly 208 million, it is the sixth-most populous country in the world.
Brazil is incredibly diverse and the only nation in the world dissected by both the Equator and Tropic of Capricorn. From the wetlands of the Pantanal and the Amazon Rainforest to the metropolitan southern coast, the climate of Brazil can vary as much as its landscape. Most of the country enjoys a tropical climate, and the temperature rarely plunges below 68 degrees Fahrenheit. However, during the winter months (June through August), the temperature in the southern region and some mountainous areas can hit freezing. March through November is the dry season, and prime time to visit the coast.
When embarking on a trip to Brazil, pack lightweight, breathable clothing. Natural fabrics are best. If visiting during the rainy season, pack a waterproof jacket. If visiting the southern region during the winter months, pack a warm jacket and some sweaters. Of course, jungle treks and rainforest excursions require appropriate clothing and footwear. Finally, don’t forget a swimsuit and sunscreen for the world-famous beaches.
NOTE: All US visitors will need a valid passport and tourist visa to enter Brazil.
Portuguese is the official language of Brazil and is spoken by nearly the entire population. The Brazilian dialect of Portuguese and the Portuguese spoken in Portugal is comparable to the difference between the English spoken in the United States and the English spoken in the United Kingdom. Brazil is the only country in North, Central, and South America that speaks Portuguese as an official language. In addition to Portuguese, there are approximately 100 minority languages spoken by indigenous tribes in remote areas of the country.
Outside of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, English is rarely spoken. Even in those urban metropolises, English speakers can be hard to come by. However, Brazilians are known for their hospitality, and they cleverly find ways to communicate with travelers. To help, bring a phrasebook and/or download a translation app.
The Brazilian real is Brazil’s official currency and is represented by the “R$” symbol. ATMs are generally the easiest and most reliable way to exchange currency, but for extra precaution, only use ATMs in banks or shopping centers. Do not withdrawal cash at night, and cover the keypad when entering your PIN. Most places in cities do accept major credit cards, but keep your cards in view at all times. Credit card fraud is relatively common, so it’s wise to check your statements occasionally throughout your trip.
In Brazil, tips are appreciated and expected by those working in certain professions. At restaurants, tips are often added to the final bill. However, if a service charge is not added, 10 percent is customary. The same goes for bartenders and tour guides. In taxis, tips are not expected, but most people do round up the final fare. You should also give beach attendants, doormen and maids small tokens of appreciation.
Brazilians are widely known for their outgoing personalities, and the colorful culture can be experienced through the many festivals held each year. The country is a melting pot of different nationalities, and the eccentric culture evolved from this diverse mixture of influences. Like most countries in South America and around the world, family is at the center of the social structure. Brazilian families are generally large, and extended families live in close proximity to each other to help with day-to-day life. Due to the Portuguese occupation starting in the 16th century, about 80 percent of the population identifies with the Roman Catholic religion. There are clear class distinctions, with little interaction between the classes. However, there is a robust middle class emerging, and all classes can agree on the importance of futbol (soccer).
Brazilians are generally affectionate and physical. Men shake hands upon meeting, and men and women kiss on both cheeks – starting with the left – upon introduction. Body language is extremely important, as is appearance. When in doubt, over-dress for dinner parties or business meetings. Maintaining peak physical appearance is essential in Brazil. Beauty portrays social standing and it is not considered rude to comment on one’s appearance.
Like the country itself, Brazilian cuisine is diverse and differs by region. In fact, the cuisine is largely defined by the preservation of these differences. Feijoada, a bean and beef or pork stew, has long been the national dish, but it also varies regionally. Juice bars are abundant and serve exotic fruit juices and smoothies. Coffee is the national drink, and cachaça is the national liquor. Rice and beans are staples in most Brazilian regional cuisines.
The Brazilian meal structure is much like ours. Breakfast, or cafe-da-manha, consists of coffee and fruit or bread. Brunch, or lanche-da-manha, consists of normal breakfast foods. Lunch, or almoco, is usually the largest meal of the day. It is consumed either at home or in social gatherings in restaurants. Salad, rice, beans, meat, and a side dish are common lunch items. An afternoon snack, or cafe-da-tarde, is similar to breakfast. Finally, dinner, or jantar, consists of a lighter meal, such as a sandwich, soup, or salad.
When traveling always use common sense. Only use registered taxis or, better yet, plan all your transfers before you leave for your vacation. Plan your transfers here. Never take anything of value to the beach and avoid wandering around after dark.
Brazil’s North Region is the largest region in the country, but it is also the least inhabited. The Amazon Rainforest is located in this region. Brazil is categorized as a “mega-diverse” country because of the unrivaled biodiversity found in the sprawling jungle. In fact, the Amazon Rainforest makes up more than 50 percent of the remaining rainforest area in the world, and approximately, one-third of all species reside in the dense wetland. Unsurprisingly, the North Region is a burgeoning center for ecotourism, especially in the state of Amazonas. The newest national park is in this region, just outside of Palmas, Jalapao is for the outdoor enthusiast. 392,610 acres of area, driving dirt roads, sand dunes, and waterfalls. Some of the cleanest water in the world can be found here, Northern Brazil! Anyone who wants to do something a little different needs to go swimming in the bottomless pools while sand rises up from the Earth to surround them. Escorted tours operate overnight safaris – including hiking, climbing massive sand dunes and swimming.
This Northeast Region was the first to be colonized by Portuguese explorers and is regarded for its culture and history. Salvador, the first capital of Brazil, is located here. Today, Salvador is one of the oldest remaining colonial cities in all of the Americas and is known as the “capital of happiness”.
The “best” beaches in Brazil can be found in the Northeast. Porto Seguro is a city located in the far south of Bahia, it was the first landing point of the Portuguese navigators. Brazilians love this area for vacations, but the tourist will find wonderful hotel properties for a fraction of the price of Rio, the white sandy beaches and the warm ocean water.
Brasilia, the modern-day capital of Brazil, is located in the Central-West Region. The city was a planned city, built originally with the shape of an airplane. The nose is the congress buildings with a flag as large as a football field, that is changed every month with a presentation done by a different state. The tail of the plane is the soccer stadium and museums. The wings are where the apartment buildings, shopping and offices reside. Originally the plan was that you would live, shop and work within the same super block. The middle is the large avenue with roundabouts to drive around the government buildings.
The Pantanal, the largest wetland in the world, is also spread out across this region. Like the Amazon Rainforest, the Pantanal boasts an incredible array of plants and animals, including the Pantanal jaguar. The mountainous city of Bonito makes a wonderful hub to take in the sights and offers its own beautiful waterfalls and prehistoric caverns. Cristalina is very close to Brasilia and is famous for being one of the largest centers of production of precious and semi-precious stones including: amethysts, sapphires, emeralds, blue topazes.
The wealthiest and most populated area of Brazil, the Southeast Region is home to the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Rio is the country’s most popular tourist destination and has become synonymous with Copacabana and Ipanema beaches and beautiful people. Be aware the beaches are known for their undercurrent and waves. The Christ the Redeemer statue, one of the Wonders of the World, is located atop Corcovado Mountain and overlooks the entire city. Take an electric tram to the top, or for the more adventurous, hike 8-miles to the base of the statue for reduced admission. Carnival is the biggest holiday and the largest party in the world, and it does not get any better than Rio de Janeiro! Even if you are not able to visit during Carnival in Rio try out a Samba presentation, there are several Samba houses that you can enjoy a show at a dinner theatre. To catch the best views of the ocean, beaches and Rio de Janeiro hop on a cable car and head to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. Even better, be there as the sun is setting for a colorful light show you won’t soon forget.
What the South Region lacks in size, it makes up for with history, culture and a high standard of living. The area boasts Italian settlements, Germanesque cities and extensive wine regions. Rio Grande do Sul is also an important paleontological tourism center. Geopark Paleorrota teems with fossils dated from 210 to 290 million years old. The south is also home to the famous Iguazu Falls. Much larger than Niagara Falls, Iguazu Falls is considered the largest waterfalls system in the world and can be viewed from both Brazil and Argentina.
Brazil is brimming with sights and activities. From legendary nightlife to arguably the most important ecological region in the world, Brazil undoubtedly has something to offer every traveler. Whether you daydream about sipping a caipirinha on Copacabana Beach or aspire to trek through the Amazon Basin and document the species, this insider’s guide to Brazil will assist you with the basics, so you can get back to the arduous chore of narrowing down your must-see attractions.