Our Brazil Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to Brazil or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
There are few places as beautiful and vibrant as Brazil, with such an abundance of wildlife and so many warm, welcoming people. The landscape is jaw-dropping, with thousands of miles of pristine and often empty beaches backed by dunes the size of deserts or great swathes of swaying coconut palms. The interior boasts table-top mountains covered in verdant plant life and are drained by rivers that tumble down into gorges and cascade over tiered waterfalls. In the Amazon, virgin rainforest stretches in every direction for 2,500km and appears as every shade of green, intercut with a filigree of waterways. Then there's the Pantanal, the world's biggest wetland, which offers the best wildlife watching in the western hemisphere.
Contemporary, cosmopolitan cities such as Sao Paolo, Salvador and Recife contrast strongly with tiny, traditional communities and whitewashed gold-mining towns such as Minas Gerais. First of all though is Rio de Janeiro, where bays and islands, boulder mountains and beaches compete for your attention with the people and music that can be found throughout the city.
The country is bigger than the USA if you discount Alaska and the distance between the north and south borders is about the same as that between New York and Los Angeles. Yet despite its enormous size, it mostly exists for people as a set of stereotypes and imagined images. However, Brazil is coming to the wider world's attention. With a booming economy and a host of large-scale international events, Brazil is big news.
Culture & etiquette
Brazilians are friendly and free-spirited, with an incredible zest for life. They are also passionate conversationalists. Physical contact is part of simple communication; touching arms, elbows and backs is commonplace and acceptable, whilst greetings involve a kiss or a hug. Brazilians also tend to stand close to one another. Don't back away and do take time to greet and say goodbye to each person you meet.
The OK hand signal is considered rude and vulgar so shouldn't be used. The thumbs-up gesture is sued for approval, whilst wiping your hands together means 'it doesn't matter'.
Appearance counts in Brazil and the way that you dress and carry yourself will reflect upon you and your company. Brazilians dress with flair so you should tend towards being elegant and if in doubt, err on the side of over-dressing. Rio's reputation for colourful and sexy outfits is well deserved. Elsewhere though people are more conservative, with the emphasis on smart-casual.
Brazilians in general are also casual about time keeping and being a little late to a meeting is normal. If you're invited to an event or a party, the given time to arrive should be treated as a guide and you ought to factor in being a little late.
The national drink is cachaça, a type of sugarcane rum, which is also known as pinga or paraty. The quality of the drink can vary enormously, from back street firewater to connoisseurs' drink of choice. Mixed with fruit juice, sugar and crushed ice, it forms a batida; served with pulped lime, mountains of sugar and smashed ice it becomes the cocktail caipirinha.
Wine is reasonably widespread, with good value Portuguese and Argentinian varieties the most common. Brazil does produce its own version, and in fact ranks as the third most important wine producer in South America. Largely concentrated in the south where conditions are most suitable, the wine industry is centred on Rio Grande do Sol. The local produce tends to be fairly mediocre and sweet though.
Brazilian beer is generally lager, served ice-cold. Draught beer is called chope but you should ask for a cerveja. There are several domestic brands that include Brahma, Skol, Cerpa, Itaipava and Bohemia; these last two are the best. There are black beers too, most notably Xingu.
Of the non-alcoholic drinks available, fresh fruit juices are the best, with an unrivalled selection of flavours available. Blended with water and crushed ice the juice becomes a suco. Vitaminas are thick fruit drinks mixed with milk; caldo de cana is a sugar cane juice and guarana is a carbonated soft drink. Coconut water is widespread; coffee is ubiquitous and good tea impossible to find unless you're looking for green teas such as chá mate, which is often drunk from a gourd, through a straw.
Carnival is king of the Brazilian festival calendar, and rightly so, but there are plenty of other events and festivities to enjoy on a trip to Brazil; look out too for a dia de festa in towns and rural areas, which is a day of celebration devoted to the local patron saint. Simple processions are accompanied by bands and firecrackers before a thanksgiving mass is held and everyone turns to the secular pleasures of local fairs, markets and inevitably alcohol.
January - Festa de Lemanjá (Festival of Lemanjá), celebrated in Rio on 01 January and in Salvador on 02 February.
Procissão do Senhor Bom Jesus dos Navegantes (Procession of the lord Jesus of Boatmen), celebrated in Salvador, Bahia on 01 January.
Lavagem do Bonfim (Washing of Bonfim Church), a Candomblé festival culminating in the ritual cleaning of the Bonfim Church in Salvador, Bahia on the second Thursday in January.
Carnival, officially runs from Friday to Tuesday before Ash Wednesday but typically celebrations start much earlier.
Semana Santa (Holy Week), takes place during the week before Easter, with particular festivities celebrated in Congonhas, Ouro Prêto and Golás Velho.
Dia do Indio (Indian Day), on April 19
Festas Juninas (June Festivals), celebrated throughout Rio state and much of the country during the whole of June, with a focus on the third week of the month.
Boi-Bumbá, celebrated in Parintins, Amazonas from June 28-30.
Bumba Meu Boi, celebrated in São Luis during late June and the first two weeks of August.
Fortal, an out-of-season carnival that takes place during the last week of July in Fortaleza.
Jubileu do Senhor Bom Jesus do Matosinhos (Jubille of the Saviour of Matosinhos), celebrated in Congonhas from 7-14 September.
Cirio de Nazaré (Festival of the Virgin of Nazaré), celebrated in Belém on the second Sunday in October.
Carnatal, an out-of-season carnival held in Natal during the first week of December.
Food & drink
Brazilians are passionate about their food and claim that it ranks alongside the world's best. Visitors may not entirely agree. Main courses can be heavy, meaty and unspiced; the Brazilian staple is cuts of fried or barbecued meat, chicken or fish accompanied by rice, black or broad beans. Condiments include a mild chilli sauce, olive oil and basic seasoning.
In contrast, in the larger, more cosmopolitan cities such as Rio and Sao Paulo, there is a wider range. Here, a heady mix of immigrants has led to the development of a fusion style food that incorporates French, Italian, Portuguese, Arabic and Japanese influences.
Seek out feijoada, a mixed stew of jerked beef, smoked sausage and salt pork, mixed with fat and beans and stewed for hours. It is then sprinkled with manioc flour and usually served with slices of orange, to be washed down with sugarcane rum; feijoada complete is a Saturday lunch tradition.
Brazil's other main contribution to cuisine is churrasco, mixed grilled meats served in enormous portions and accompanied with green salads, beans and mashed vegetables. The meat is generally excellent and in the best churrascos it is unlimited, making it a great value way to eat out.
Despite the prevalence of fish, Brazil is in fact the world's largest consumer of salt cod, usually served as bacalhau, which is widely available as a snack. Other lighter meals include empadas, baked puff pastries stuffed with prawns, chicken or meat, and tortas, little pies made from the same ingredients.
The best cooking is regional. The cooking in Para is a step up on that found elsewhere and it is here that you'll be able to try unusual fruits and vegetables along with Amazon river fish such as pacu and tambaqui. The regional speciality though is tacaca no tucupi, a prawn broth cooked in manioc juice and jambu leaf. There are a myriad of other flavours to try in the Amazon as well, with fruits such as cupuacu, camu-camu and acai particularly good. Bahia offers an African-infused alternative, with seafood dishes treated in sauces, pepper and chilli. Minas Gerais is famous for its stews.
Brazil occupies almost half of South America and consequently has a hugely varied geography. The country is bordered to the north, west and south by other South American countries and to the east by the Atlantic.
Topographically the country is quite flat, with its highest point, Pico de Nebina, only just exceeding 3,000m. More than half the country lies on a plateau, with the remainder made up of plains. The far south of the country, around the River Plate Basin is more varied, higher and less heavily forested. The Brazilian Highlands of the interior, between the Amazon and the rivers to the south, make up a vast tableland, the Mato Grosso, from which jut a series of steep mountains.
The Amazon basin in the north and west is a vast area of forest covering some 60 per cent of the country; however, this forest is considered the most rapidly depleting forest anywhere in the world, losing amore than 50,000 square miles annually. The Amazon's river system carries more water to the ocean than any other river system in the world and is navigable for its entire 2,000-mile length within Brazil.
Because of the huge distances involved, the occasional internal flight can be a necessity and may not be that much more expensive than the equivalent land journey. There are three national carriers and a number of smaller regional airlines as well.
Buses are the primary means of long distance travel overland and are generally very good; departure times are usually adhered to and the majority of services are clean and comfortable. There are a surprising number of services, with every major city well-connected by bus. Road conditions though vary enormously; the ones in the south are the best, and the coast roads are generally good. The roads of Amazonia and the back roads of the north east are much rougher.
Car hire is another option, with major international chains offering vehicles at reasonable rates. To rent a car you must be 25 years old and hold a current driver's licence from your home country and a credit card in your name. Foreign drivers should be aware of Brazilians lax approach to road safety though; rules are ignored and the police aren't interested in enforcing them.
Sadly, Brazil's passenger train service has been in long-term decline and has been scaled back to almost nothing. Although there are still some 30,000 miles of track, most services are exclusively for cargo and freight. Outstanding rail journeys do remain though, with the trips from Curitiba to Paranaguá and Belo-Horizonte to Vitória especially scenic. There are also a couple of short steam train services including the 13km service from São João del Rei to Tiradentes. The highest stretch of track is on the route from Campos do Jordão to Santo Antonio do Pinhal in Sao Paulo state.
Inside the Amazon, many people resort to river travel. In fact, the region is one of the last great bastions of passenger river travel in the world. Craft of varying sizes and capacity putt up and down every waterway and creek with someone living nearby. Boats are also the best way of exploring the Pantanal and can be the only ways of reaching some of the interesting outlying islands and beaches along the Atlantic coast.
Brazil's people came to the country from Africa, Asia, Europe and other parts of the Americas. These diverse origins have given rise to the racially mixed communities that give the country its unique charm.
What became Brazil was populated for up to 50,000 years before the Portuguese conquistadors arrived in AD1500. By this point it is estimated that there were around 1,000 tribes within the country's current borders. Unlike other South American cultures though, Brazil's early inhabitants never developed a sophisticated civilization and have left few clues as to how they lived.
Brazilian history was irretrievably altered in AD1500 when a fleet of 12 Portuguese ships carrying 1,200 men made land fall close to modern day Porto Seguro. These new arrivals, led by Pedro Alvares Cabral, made contact with indigenous groups, erected a cross and held mass in the land they christened Terra da Vera Cruz, the Land of the True Cross. They then set sail for Asia and Africa; it wouldn't be until 1531 that the first formal Portuguese settlers would arrive.
This initial contact with indigenous groups marked the start of their decline and extermination. As settlers started to arrive they brought European ideas and traditions. Over the next centuries the Indians were subjected to cultural, physical, territorial and biological attacks. Their communities were pillaged by roaming adventurers, their traditions eroded or banned by Jesuits and many were worked to death on sugar plantations. Yet more succumbed to the illnesses that arrived with the settlers and to which the Indians had no resistance. By the start of the 21st century, the indigenous communities had shrunk to around 500,000 people, the majority marginalised in the relatively isolated Amazonian forests.
Early settlers, under the direction of the Portuguese King João III, established São Vicente. They divided the coast into 15 captaincies, which were awarded to minor gentry in the belief that by settling the long coastline it could be secured against other European settlers, especially the French and Dutch who also had designs on Brazil. Four of these captaincies were never settled, four were destroyed by Indians and just two became profitable. Authority was centralized in the hands of Tomé de Sousa, the first governor of Brazil, in 1549. He founded Salvador, which remained the country's capital until 1763, when it was superceded by Rio de Janeiro.
The settlers realised that sugarcane grew well in their new territory and introduced it successfully in 1532. They then attempted to force the Indians to work the fields and plantations. When this failed, they brought in African slaves. By the time the trade was abolished in 1888, more than 3.5 million Africans had been shipped to Brazil. Conditions were brutal and working practices incredibly harsh. Illnesses plagued the slave quarters; malnutrition was rife; exploitation a fact of life. Sexual relations between masters and slaves also led to the rise of a large mixed-race population. Although many slaves escaped and set up their own communities, it wasn't until abolition in 1888 that conditions improved.
Exploration continued throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, with bands of adventurers, known as Bandeirantes, pushing into the interior and expanding the country's borders west. Their greatest discovery was gold, first found in the Sierra do Espinhaço in minas Gerais. Brazil went on to become the greatest producer of gold in the 18th century, with the newfound wealth leading to the creation of grand cities such as Ouro Préto. Rich merchants built grand mansions and Baroque churches, many of which still survive. The discovery also meant that the population shifted from the northeast of the country to the southeast. Slaves too were sent here in huge numbers. The gold boom was short lived though and by 1750 was in decline. Rather than return north, gold-hunters and their hangers on resettled in Rio de Janeiro, which grew rapidly.
During the 18th century calls also rose for independence from Portugal. Early conspirators were rounded up and exiled, their leader Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, known as Tiradentes, executed. The calls continued to come though and in 1822 independence was eventually achieved when the then regent declared himself Emperor Dom Pedro I. Without a shot being fired the Portuguese gave up their colony. A period of crisis and confusion followed before his heir Dom Pedro II ushered in a period of prosperity.
A military coup in 1889 did for the Brazilian monarchy and saw the birth of a republic. For four years a military clique ran the republic in cahoots with increasingly wealthy and influential coffee farmers, who quickly took over from sugar growers as the most powerful people in the country; by 1889 coffee accounted for two thirds of Brazil's exports. To secure workers for the vast coffee ranches, Brazil opened its borders and millions of European immigrants streamed in, adding further textures to the already colourful ethnic mix in major cities such as Rio and São Paulo. Later, Jews arrived fleeing persecution in Europe at the hands of the Nazis, before Nazis arrived trying to escape prosecution for war crimes. Arab traders from the Middle East also made their way to the main centres.
A further economic boom followed in the 19th century when the Amazon gave rise to rubber, which supported the fledgling automobile industry. Belém and Manaus in particular developed on the back of this new industry. Bust followed boom when British sponsored rubber plantations sprung up in South East Asia bringing about competition and reducing the price of rubber.
The Wall St bust of 1929 also saw the coffee industry collapse. Economic and political upheaval followed, with revolution hot on its heels. Following defeat in an election, the newly formed Liberal Alliance party resorted to revolution in 1930. Within three weeks the elected president had been deposed and the defeated candidate, Getúlio Vargas, installed as his replacement. The subsequent creation of the Estado Novo (New State) in 1937 handed Vargas absolute power. Political parties were banned, opponents imprisoned and the press censored as Vargas created a quasi-fascist state.
Nonetheless, he remained popular, especially with workers, for whom he introduced a minimum wage. He even remained popular after being forced out of office after World War II by the military - Brazil had begun supporting Hitler but switched sides after an offer of US investment in 1942. His on-going popularity ensured that he was returned to office, democratically in 1951. This time though, his administration was plagued by corruption, a vice all too often associated with modern Brazilian politics. Hounded by accusations and a failed attempt to assassinate his most vocal critic, Vargas killed himself in 1954.
The new president promised rapid progress and growth but instead oversaw huge increases in inflation, despite an 80% rise in industrial production. A new centre was created, Brasilia, in the heart of the country, to act as a catalyst for internal development. Amidst much hype, the new city was inaugurated as Brazil's capital on 21 April1960, much to the dismay of the country's population who continued their love affair with the 'Marvellous city of Rio de Janeiro.
Plots and coups led to the instigation of a military dictatorship that was at once repressive and conservative but that conversely oversaw a period of rich cultural development too. An economic boom gave rise to 'mega-projects' and heavy borrowing, whilst large scale urban migration saw the evolution of brazil's notorious favelas and slum towns.
As the economic boom subsided, so opposition to the regime spread. A series of strikes and the establishment of a new workers' movement helped to inspire a cautious return to civilian rule, with gradual concessions by the dictatorship that saw an increase in democracy and eventually, in 1985, a presidential election. Despite the defeat of the military candidate, the country suffered at the hands of the new leader, who oversaw a period of runaway inflation and massive debt; by 1990 the international debt stood at more than $115 billion.
Later leaders were plagued by scandal, corruption, drug deals, family feuds and opposition. It wasn't until 1993 that inflation was brought under control, with the introduction of the Real, which saw the rate fall from over 5000% to 'just' 10%. President Henrique Cardoso went on to lead a period of stability and growth, with plenty of foreign investment ensuring that Brazilians within the system benefited. Those living in the favelas felt no such benefit though, with an increase in violent crime in particular felt in urban areas.
In 2002 Brazil's first ever left-of-centre leader was elected. Lula's pragmatic approach and prudent managing of the economy meant that inflation fell, the minimum wage was raised and many of the country's poorest families received a monthly welfare payment. A second term saw a commitment to education and land reforms designed to tackle the root cause of many people's poverty and substantially reduce the wealth gap between the top and bottom portions of society.
In conjunction with this, Brazil's international profile continues to rise, with major sporting events such as the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and Olympic Games in 2016 shining the international spotlight once more on the country.
Although Brazil can't compete with the arts and crafts of the Andes, there are a number of good buys to be had. Look out for beautiful bead jewellery and bags made from Amazon seeds. Clay figures from the northeast, lace from Ceará, leatherwork and fabric hammocks from the Amazon, soapstone carvings from Tocantins and pottery and basketwork from Bahia are all worth picking up.
Gold, diamonds and gemstones are good buys and are often worked into innovative jewellery. Make sure to buy at reputable dealers though. You can also pick up marble and huge slabs of amethyst, quartz and crystal at surprisingly reasonable rates.
The country has long been associated with fashion. If Brazil is South America's fashion capital, São Paulo is its epicentre and the city's fashion show its main event. Local cuts and colours are fresh and daring by US or Western standards. Quality is high and there's an enormous range of bags, bikinis, designer dresses, denim and shoes to choose from.
Equally, Brazil is synonymous with music. Musical instruments are a good buy, with percussion pieces especially popular. Consider the berimbau, a bow with a gourd sound-bell, the cuica friction drum associated with samba, assorted hand drums such as surdo, tambor and timbale. The most typical though is the tambourine. Fiddles and types of ukulele, mandolins and guitars are also common.
Workers in most services get tipped 10%. Given the fact that wages are measly, they need the money too. In restaurants the service charge will usually be included in the bill and is mandatory; by all means leave more than 10% if someone is especially helpful or delivers an excellent service.
There are plenty of places where tipping isn't traditional though but is a welcome gesture. Bars, coffee booths, street vendors and juice stands appreciate the thought whilst parking assistants receive no wages and are dependent on tips. Gas station attendants are also often tipped. Whilst taxi fares are sometimes rounded up, taxi drivers typically do not expect a tip.
Where to eat
The widest range of food and the highest general standard of cooking can be found in the main cities; outside of these it can be a struggle to find interesting food. That said, restaurants are ubiquitous, portions are generous and prices often reasonable. One of the best options is the self-service lunch buffet often available, where you pay according to the weight of your plate. Specialist restaurants such as churrascarias are worth seeking out though for a traditional experience. If you are a vegetarian you might find that you struggle given that Brazil is one of the world's great carnivorous cultures. Look out for fish, if you eat it, or be prepared to often settle for rice, beans and salad.
Whilst exploring Brazil's cities, you'll come across plenty of bakeries selling cheap snacks such as empadas or pãa de queijo, savoury cheese snacks ideally suited to coffee. Bakeries are often attached to a lanchonete, a type of café cum bar that sells beer and rum, snacks and small meals. Alternatively, try the many street vendors who will be touting their dishes on the sides of streets. Treat these pop ups with caution, as hygiene isn't high but don't dismiss them outright as the right stall can serve a delicious snack at a very reasonable rate. Look out too for sorvetarias, ice-cream parlours, where you'll find a wealth of interesting fruit-flavoured dishes.