Brazil is different – in so many fantastic ways!
And as first-time visitors to Brazil in October, we were captivated with this enormous country: the kind and generous people, the incredible cuisine, the magical scenery, and even the sometimes-baffling language. In retrospect, traveling in Brazil felt like visiting a sort of alternate Latin American universe. It’s the same as other South American countries in so many fundamental ways, and utterly different in many others. Brazil is fascinating and mind-blowingly beautiful, and we can’t wait to go back.
We learned a lot during our three weeks in Brazil. Here are the things that will help us navigate our next trip, and might be useful to other first-time visitors.
1. Brazil is HUGE. Focus Your Trip.
If you only have 2-3 weeks for your visit, there’s no way you’ll see it all. For our first trip, we focused on a small portion of the southern coast from Rio de Janeiro south to Florianapolis.
First, we took a direct flight from Medellín, Colombia to Rio, where we spent seven fabulous days (not nearly enough time). From there, we took an express bus south to the port town of Angra Dos Reis and then a 30-minute ferry across to the fantastic and otherworldly Iha Grande. Four days later, back to Angra Dos Reis and a 1.5-hour van transfer to the enchanting seaside town of Paraty. After four days there, we traveled again by express van to Sao Paulo and caught an hour-long flight south to Florianapolis and Santa Catalina Island. After another four days, we had a direct flight back to Rio where we spent two more nights before heading home to Medellín.
We’ll post entries for each of these spectacular destinations soon!
2. Learn a Little Portuguese.
Portuguese almost broke our brains. It’s an incredibly melodic language, filled with softened consonants and shades of French, Spanish, and Italian. With just enough Spanish words and phrases to make us THINK we were getting the gist of it, sometimes. And then we’d get thrown a curve ball.
Here’s an example. The word for pineapple in Spanish is piña. Not too much of a stretch from English, is it? But a pineapple in Portuguese is an abacaxi. I was thinking it was a word derived from an African language (there are SOOO many African influences in Brazil) but it turns out it’s an indigenous word from the Tupi-Guarani people. You could have thrown an abacaxi at us and we would not have figured that one out!
And does knowing a little Spanish help? Yes and no. We came across very few English speakers in Brazil, but a few did speak and understand some Spanish. To a person, the Brazilians we encountered were kind, helpful, and patient with us. And somehow, communication happened most of the time.
It helped immensely to start out with a few key Portuguese phrases, and we picked up a few more as we went along. Here are some phrases we suggest you learn before you travel to Brazil:
- Bom Dia/Boa Tarde/Boa Noite. Good morning, good afternoon, good evening. It’s very similar to the greeting scheme in Spanish. You can also say Olá for “Hello.”
* Pronunciation tip: In Brazilian Portuguese, the “D” often sounds like a hard “J.” Also, the “T” often sounds more like “CH.” Therefore, these words sound like “Bom JEE-A”, “Bwa TARjay,” and “Bwa NoITCHay.”
- Todo bem? Todo bem. All good? All good. This is another very common greeting, asked and answered. If you know some Spanish, it’s just like “Está bien?” Brazilians really light up when you use this one!
- Por favor. Please. Again, easy stuff if you know a little Spanish.
- Obrigado/Obrigada. Thank you. This reflects the speaker’s point of view – if you’re male, use “Obrigado,” and if you’re female, “Obrigada.” It literally means “I’m obliged to you.” A lot of Brazilians drop the “O,” so you’ll hear ‘Brigado or ‘Brigada a lot.
- Onde fica o banheiro? Where is the bathroom? Or you could just say “Por favor, o banheiro?”
- Um cardápio, por favor. A menu, please. When in doubt, “menu” also does the trick.
- A carta de vinhos, por favor. The wine list, please. This one’s REALLY important!
- A conta, por favor. The check, please. But only when you’re ready to pay. Unlike in U.S. restaurants, Brazilian servers will not bring you the bill until you ask for it.
- Quanto custa isso? How much does it cost? Or you could just say, “Quanto custa?” (how much?)
3. Be prepared for culinary adventures.
We found the Brazilian food and beverage scene familiar in a few ways (lots of grilled beef and fabulous seafood) and utterly exotic and unexpected in others. Our favorite dishes were feijoada, a black bean stew with pork that is served with rice and other trimmings; and moqueca, a fish stew that is enriched with coconut milk.
Another favorite treat is açaí, the purple berries of the açaí palm, famous for its antioxidants and other health benefits. Brazilians love their açaí served as a kind of frozen smoothie, and you’ll find it for sale on practically every street corner. Here’s an interesting article about açaí.
Brazil’s national fire water is cachaça, alcohol distilled from sugar cane with a distinctive flavor that reminds us more of tequila than its closer cousin, rum. Cachaça is the kick in Brazil’s national cocktail, the caipirinha, made with chopped-up limes and LOTS of sugar. Caipirinhas are available in many variations; my personal favorite is maracuya (passion fruit).
Tips: Brazilian restaurants tend to serve HUGE portions. It’s a good idea to order a dish to share. Often, many of the entrees on a menu will be sized for two people; you can order an entree for one for 60% (usually) of the two-person price. And if you’d rather not have your caipirinha served tooth-achingly sweet, order it with pouco de acúcar (a little sugar).
5. Other random and interesting stuff
- We had been warned by many to pay attention to personal safety, particularly in Rio where pickpocketing is a problem. We never felt unsafe, but we used the same common sense we’d use in any city: Be aware of your surroundings and don’t flash expensive items. We also bought theft-resistant backpacks just for this trip.
- In general, transportation in Brazil is super-easy. In Rio, Uber is fast and reliable, and the subway system is great. Brazil has many different domestic airlines to choose from, and short-hop flights are inexpensive. We were also glad to discover Paraty Tours, which provided seamless ground transfers between the cities we visited.
- Coming from Colombia, driving in Brazil is a treat! Motorists are much more considerate; they actually let other drivers merge in front of them and stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. And there are far fewer motorcycles than in Colombia, where they’re like annoying, buzzing bees.
- If you’re coming from the United States, know that you’ll need to bring power adapters – but Brazilian outlets are different from those in Europe. (This is also true in Argentina and Uruguay.) Make sure you have “Type G” adapters specific to South America.
- Paper products in Brazil leave a lot to be desired. The paper napkins in restaurants are tiny and fragile, and the paper towels in bathrooms fall apart just like toilet paper when wetted. We’ll pack a good supply of our own next time.
- Tap water is generally undrinkable everywhere, but most hotels provide free bottled water. Our routine is to buy large, 4-liter water jugs and refill our re-usable bottles to carry around. And it’s better for the planet.
- And while we’re talking about the planet, bring some reusable shopping bags. Brazil has not yet gotten on board with outlawing plastic bags, which we believe are one of the great scourges of the Earth.