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Brazil is a land mass simply too big to describe with one brushstroke. Yet no matter which part of the country you go to, the following tips cover the essential basics that could come in handy at any point during your trip.
It used to be – until 1960. After 1960, the capital was moved to Brasília in the center of the country where the government is currently based. Rio de Janeiro city is the capital of the state of Rio de Janeiro, but not the whole country.
A large number of tourists arrive in Brazil thinking they can get by on Spanish, yet it is important to remember that Portuguese is the official language of the country and more people learn English than Spanish due to its necessity in the business world. While Spanish and Portuguese are fairly similar and learners will certainly notice the ease of learning the other having mastered one, it doesn’t mean that speaking Spanish will make traveling in Brazil a breeze. English is not commonly spoken either, although in São Paulo and touristic spots in Rio de Janeiro, some people have some knowledge of English. Impress the locals by learning some Portuguese expressions. They will appreciate the efforts.
Throughout the country, most places serve beer in small glasses – smaller even than half pint glasses. The logic is simple – most of Brazil experiences extreme heat and beer in a larger glass would warm up quickly and not be pleasant. At bars, beer is usually served in a large bottle of 600ml with a small glass to drink from, or as a chopp which is a small glass of draft beer. The exceptions to this are in the south of the country, where German-influenced towns sometimes serve larger sized beers.
Always double check and wait for cars to completely stop before crossing the road, even if the green man is clearly lit and telling you to cross. It’s not uncommon for a cars to speed up from a distance when the light is turning orange and skip through the lights on red, much to the annoyance of drivers at other junctions. This is general road safety, but skipping through a red light happens enough in Brazil for it to be something to watch out for.
Wines from Italy, France and South Africa may not need to worry too much about new competition just yet, but Brazilian wine – especially sparkling such as the Brut Champenoise made in the south of the country – is particulary good. There are also some wonderful rosés and reds that come from local wineries in Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais. Try going to Canastra or WineHouse in Rio de Janeiro to sample some of the best Brazilian wines. French-owned Canastra sells only Brazilian wines, and WineHouse sells a solid selection of national wines too.
That’s right – Brazil gets snow too. In the very southern tip of Brazil, temperatures reach below freezing in the winter and sometimes get snow. It is rarely more than a thin dusting, but enough to dampen any hopes of warm, tropical days. The north of the country receives tropical climate all year round, but the south gets much colder in winter and can be a nasty surprise for those who packed just shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops.
The south of Brazil has a large German influence that can be seen in the architecture, food, traditions and physical attributes of locals. In Blumenau, a town in Santa Catarina, each October welcomes the traditional German celebration of Oktoberfest. Held over several days, it honors the region’s German heritage with plenty of beer, traditional food, singing and dancing. It is recognized as the second biggest beer festival in the world, after the original Oktoberfest in Munich.
The subways in the major cities have carriages specifically for women, although this rule applies only during peak hours from Monday to Friday, between 6AM and 9AM, and 5PM and 8PM. Men who enter these carriages during this time can face paying a fine of up to R$1,000 (US$320). Outside of these hours both men and women can use the carriages. The subway security don’t tolerate excuses, especially as the carriages are painted pink with women-only warnings written in both English and Portuguese.
The Amazon is one of the world’s most incredible natural habitats. It is also enormous and potentially dangerous for those that attempt to explore it alone. Always use a qualified and reputable guide that knows the paths and the risks that a rainforest brings. The same rule applies for the Pantanal.
Brazil is the source of a lot of bad press, mainly for its crime, violence and high murder rates. The reality is the majority of this criminal activity takes place between gangs that are far from the tourist spots and, on the whole, Brazil is generally safe for tourists. The worst-case scenario usually involves a non-violent mugging or pick-pocketing, but most tourists never encounter this. Just take precautions in major urban areas such as Rio de Janeiro, Recife and Salvador, and keep an eye on your belongings.
It’s automatically assumed that South America is a cheap place to travel, and generally that is a fair assumption. However, the major cities in Brazil such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro can actually be very expensive, especially in wealthy neighborhoods such as Ipanema and Leblon that also happen to be the most popular tourist areas. Brazil is not the country to buy electronics from. With high import taxes, some items can be over double the price of what you would pay in the U.S. or Europe. Food, drink and accomodation can be surprisingly pricey, especially during peak times of the year such as carnival and New Year where prices double or even triple.
Although Brazil is a lot safer than the international press make out, muggings and theft do occur and tourists need to stay aware of this. Hanging your bag over the back of your chair is not recommended as it’s easy for someone to grab it and run. It’s best to keep it on your lap or wrapped around the table leg.
When you arrive at the airport, book a taxi through the agencies there rather than get an unofficial cab. Although a little more expensive, there are no additional charges on arrival, no changes in price due to traffic and a guarantee that you will arrive at your destination without having taken the long way round. Most taxi drivers are honest, yet some take advantage of foreigners’ lack of local knowledge and drive a much longer route to charge more. Avoid this by booking at the airport agency.