Whether you go during Carnival or not, Brazil is always a party. You can tan and mingle with the locals on the country’s seemingly endless beaches, from Rio’s glamorous Copacabana to the unspoiled treasures along the northeastern shores. In the vast interior, outdoor adventures thrill: take a spray-soaked boat ride into Iguaçu’s raging waterfalls or spot exotic wildlife in the Pantanal. On rugged treks through the Amazon rain forest or on shopping expeditions in São Paulo’s chic boutiques, you will plunge into a vibrant mix of colors, rhythms, and cultures.
Within a country as big as Brazil, it’s especially important to plan your itinerary with care. Book as far in advance as possible, particularly for weekend travel. Planes tend to fill up on Friday, especially to or from popular destinations like Rio, São Paulo, Brasília, or Manaus. For more booking tips and to check prices and make online flight reservations, see individual airline sites listed at www.infraero.gov.br.
The majority of direct flights to Brazil fly to São Paulo’s Guarhulhos International Airport, although with the increased demand created by the 2016 Olympics, many more direct flights run from New York to Rio than in the past. It’s still the case though that most flights to Rio stop in Miami. Most flights from Los Angeles go through Miami as well, save a few nonstops to São Paulo, and flight times are about 13 hours, not including layover in Miami. For flights to Brasília, Manaus, and Salvador, you can fly nonstop from Miami. The flying time from New York is 10½ hours to Rio and 10 hours to São Paulo. From Miami it’s just under 8 hours to Brasília (the nation’s capital), just under 9 hours to Rio de Janeiro, 8½ hours to São Paulo, and 8 hours to Salvador. Usually the connection time in São Paulo is an hour to 90 minutes.
Reconfirm flights within Brazil, even if you have a ticket and a reservation, as flights tend to operate at full capacity.
When you leave Brazil, be prepared to pay a hefty departure tax, which runs about R$82 ($30) for international flights. A departure tax also applies to flights within Brazil; amounts run as high as R$22 ($8). Although some airports accept credit cards to pay departure taxes, it’s wise to have the appropriate amount in reais.
Transfers Between Airports
In the major hubs, airport transfers are offered between airports: in São Paulo between Guarulhos and Congonhas, and in Rio de Janeiro between Galeão and Santos Dumond. This type of service is not common outside of Rio and São Paulo; most other Brazilian cities have only one commercial airport.
Flights To Brazil
Miami, New York, and Toronto are the major North American gateways for flights to Brazil—typically to São Paulo and Rio, and sometimes Brasília as well. United Airlines flies nonstop from Houston, Newark, and Chicago; American Airlines has direct service from Dallas, Miami, and New York; and Delta offers nonstop service from Atlanta and New York. Air Canada has nonstop service between Toronto and São Paulo.
LATAM Airlines (still known as TAM within Brazil) flies nonstop from Miami to Rio and São Paulo, and from New York to São Paulo with onward service to Rio and many other cities. TAM also offers nonstop service between Miami and Manaus. GOL Linhas Aéreas Intelligentes covers several American cities, including New York, Miami, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Detroit, Austin, and Chicago. The Colombian airline Avianca flies from Washington, D.C., to São Paulo, with a brief stopover in Bogotá.
Flights Within Brazil
There’s regular jet service within the country between all major and most medium-size cities. Remote areas are also accessible—as long as you don’t mind small planes. Flights can be long, lasting several hours for trips to the Amazon, with stops en route. Domestic airlines include TAM and GOL, a reliable low-cost airline with routes covering most major and medium-size Brazilian cities. Another option is Azul Linhas Aéreas, with service to about 100 domestic destinations.
The flight from Rio to São Paulo or Belo Horizonte is 1 hour; Rio to Brasília is 1½ hours; Rio to Salvador is 2 hours; Rio to Belém is 3½ hours; and Rio to Curitiba is 1½ hours. From São Paulo it’s 4 hours to Manaus, 1½ hours to Iguaçu Falls, 2½ hours to Salvador, and just over an hour to Belo Horizonte or Florianópolis.
If you reside outside Brazil, you’re eligible to purchase air passes from TAM or GOL. If you’re planning four or more flights within the country within 30 days, these passes—available online through Miami-based travel agency and tour operator Brol—can save you hundreds of dollars. Prices start around $530 (plus tax), and you must purchase your pass before you enter Brazil. Passes that include flights between Brazil and other South American countries are also available.
The nation’s ônibus (bus) network is affordable, comprehensive, and efficient—compensating for the lack of trains and the high cost of air travel. Every major city can be reached by bus, as can most small to medium-sized communities.
The quality of buses in Brazil is good; in many cases better than in the United States. The number of stops at roadside cafés depends on the length of the journey. A trip from São Paulo to Curitiba, for example, which takes about six hours, has only one 20-minute stop. Usually, buses stop at large outlets with food services, and souvenir and magazine stalls.
Lengthy bus trips can involve travel over some poorly maintained highways, a fact of life in Brazil. Trips to northern, northeastern, and central Brazil tend to be especially trying; the best-paved highways are in the Southeast and the South. When traveling by bus, bring water, toilet paper or tissues, and an additional top layer of clothing (handy if it gets cold or as a pillow). Travel light, dress comfortably and keep a close watch on your belongings—especially in bus stations. If your bus stops at a roadside café, take your belongings with you.
When buying a ticket, you’ll be asked whether you want the ônibus convencional, the simplest option; the ônibus executivo, which gets you a/c, coffee, water, a sandwich, more space between seats, and a pillow and blanket; or the ônibus-leito, where you have all facilities of an executive bus plus a seat that reclines completely. If you’re over 5 ft. 10 in., it’s prudent to buy the most expensive ticket and try for front-row seats, which usually provide more space.
Most buses used for long trips are modern and comfortable, usually with bathrooms and a/c. Note that regular buses used for shorter hauls may be labeled “ar condicionado” (“air-conditioned”) but often are not.
Bus fares are substantially cheaper than in North America or Europe. Between Rio and São Paulo (6½–7 hours), for example, a bus departs every half hour and costs about $28; a night sleeper will run about $60. Sometimes competing companies serve the same routes, so it can pay to shop around.
Tickets are sold at bus-company offices, at city bus terminals, in some travel agencies, and online. Larger cities may have different terminals for buses to different destinations, and some small towns may not have a terminal at all (you’re usually picked up and dropped off at the line’s office, invariably in a central location). Expect to pay with cash, as credit cards aren’t accepted everywhere. Reservations or advance-ticket purchases generally aren’t necessary except for trips to resort areas during high season—particularly on weekends—or during major holidays (Christmas, Carnival, etc.) and school-break periods (July and December/January). In general, arrive at bus stations early, particularly for peak-season travel.
Traveling between Argentina and Brazil by bus is also a good idea if time is not an issue. The same can be said for Uruguay, Chile, Peru, and other neighboring countries. It’s inexpensive and you can enjoy the landscapes. Expect to pay $200 or more for the 14-hour trip between São Paulo and Buenos Aires.
To ensure that your destination is understood, write it down on a piece of paper and present it to bus or taxi drivers, most of whom don’t speak English.
Traveling by car is recommended if you meet the following criteria: you’re not pressed for time, you enjoy driving even in places you do not know well, and you do not want to be limited by airline or bus schedules. Traveling by car is, especially if you avoid driving at night, reasonably safe in most areas and is a wonderful way to see the country and access lesser-known areas.
Driving can be chaotic in cities like São Paulo, but much easier in cities like Curitiba and Brasília. In the countryside, the usually rough roads, lack of clearly marked signs, and language difference can make driving a challenge. Further, the cost of renting can be steep. All that said, certain areas are most enjoyable when explored on your own in a car: the beach areas of Búzios and the Costa Verde (near Rio), and the Belo Horizonte region; the North Shore beaches outside São Paulo; and many of the inland and coastal towns of the South, a region with many good roads.
If you are feeling at all unsure, don’t forget that hiring a car with a driver gives you almost the same level of flexibility with none of the stress of driving in an unfamiliar country. You could hire a car and driver through your hotel concierge, or make a deal with a taxi driver for extended sightseeing at a long-term rate. Often drivers charge a set hourly rate, regardless of the distance traveled. You’ll have to pay cash, but you may actually spend less than you would for a rental car.
Brazil has more than 1.7 million km (1.05 million miles) of highway, about 12% of it paved. While roads in the South are often excellent, the country’s highway department estimates that 40% of the federal highways (those with either the designation BR or a state abbreviation such as RJ or SP), which constitute 70% of Brazil’s total road system, are in a dangerous state of disrepair. Evidence of this is everywhere: potholes, lack of signage, inadequate shoulders. Landslides and flooding after heavy rains are frequent and at times shut down entire stretches of key highways. Recent construction has improved the situation, but independent land travel in Brazil definitely has its liabilities.
The Brazilian federal government maintains a (Portuguese-language) website with up-to-date information on road conditions throughout the country (www.dnit.gov.br); the site also has downloadable state road maps. A private Brazilian company, Quatro Rodas (www.guia4rodas.com.br), publishes road maps that list local phone numbers for obtaining current road conditions; these cost about R$36 ($14).
Apart from toll roads, which generally have their own services, roadside assistance is available only sporadically and informally through local private mechanics. However, the Automóvel Clube do Brasil (Automobile Club of Brazil) provides emergency assistance to foreign motorists who are members of an automobile club in their own nation. If you’re not a member of an automobile club, you can call 193 from anywhere in the country. This is a universal number staffed by local fire departments. The service is in Portuguese only. In case of emergency, the fastest way to summon assistance is to call one of the following services: Fire Brigade (193); Police (190); Federal Highway Patrol (191); Ambulance (192); Civil Defense (199).
Rules of the Road
Brazilians drive on the right, and in general traffic laws are the same as those in the United States. The use of seat belts is mandatory. The minimum driving age is 18 and children should always sit in the backseat. Do not use your cell phone while driving.
The national speed limit ranges from 50 to 90 kph (31 to 56 mph), although vehicles considered light can often travel at higher speeds on freeways. Pay close attention to signs. Some sections of highway have pedestrian crossings and the speed limit drops as you approach them. In large cities like São Paulo, Curitiba and Brasília there are now cameras to detect and fine speeding and aggressive drivers. This has decreased traffic accidents significantly, but you should be careful anyway. Some drivers slow down only when close to these cameras. The worst offenders are bus and truck drivers. In cities be very careful around motorcycles, as their drivers are notorious for flouting traffic rules.
If you get a ticket for some sort of violation, be polite with the police officer and try to solve the issue either by accepting the ticket (if you committed the violation) or by explaining your position (if you did not commit a violation). Even though it’s common to see scams in cases like this, the best option is to solve the problem as honestly as possible, especially if you’re a foreigner.
Traffic and Parking
In major cities, traffic jams are common in rush hours (8 am, 6 pm); the problem is especially bad in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In Brasília, there are special roads for those driving faster (the so-called Eixão, where the limit is 80 kph/49 mph). At rush hour you may find the local driving style more aggressive.
Finding a space in most cities—particularly Rio, São Paulo, Brasília, Belo Horizonte, and Salvador—is a major task. It’s best to head for a garage or a lot and leave your car with the attendant. The cost of parking depends on the city and the neighborhood: downtown garages, close to stores, will certainly be more expensive than those in residential areas. There are no meters; instead, you must post a coupon in your car’s window, which allows you to park for a certain time period (one or two hours). You can buy them from uniformed street-parking attendants or at newsstands. Should you find a space on the street, you’ll probably have to pay a fee for parking services.
No-parking zones are marked by a crossed-out capital letter E (which means estacionamento, Portuguese for “parking”).
Tollbooths, better known as pedagio in Portuguese, are common in Brazil. These are located along many highways, especially in the Southeast and around São Paulo. Fees depend on the type of vehicle you’re driving. Make sure you carry cash, including some small change.
In Brazil gasoline costs around R$2.80 per liter, ($1.05 or about $4 per gallon). Unleaded gas, called especial, costs about the same. Brazil also has an extensive fleet of ethanol-powered cars, carro a álcool, and you might end up with one from a rental agency. Ethanol fuel is sold at all gas stations and is a little cheaper than gasoline. However, these cars get lower mileage, so they offer little advantage over gas-powered cars. Stations are plentiful within cities and on major highways, and many are open 24/7. In smaller towns few stations take credit cards, and their hours are more limited. If you want a receipt, ask for a recibo.
Visitors to Brazil can drive with their home-country driver’s license for the first 180 days they are in the country, as long as they also carry a copy of it translated into Portuguese and another piece of ID. You can also drive with an international driver’s license. International driving permits (IDPs) are available from the American and Canadian automobile associations. These international permits, valid only in conjunction with your regular driver’s license, are universally recognized.
Rates are sometimes—but not always—better if you book in advance or reserve through a rental agency’s website. Although international car-rental agencies have better service and maintenance track records than local firms (they also provide better breakdown assistance), your best bet at getting a good rate is to rent on arrival, particularly from local companies. But reserve ahead if you plan to rent during a holiday period or at a particularly popular destination, or need a specific type of car (an SUV or a van). You can contact local agencies through their websites in advance. At many airports, agencies are open 24 hours.
When you reserve a car, ask about cancellation penalties, taxes, drop-off charges (if you’re planning to pick up the car in one city and leave it in another), and surcharges (for being under or over a certain age, for additional drivers, or for driving across state or country borders or beyond a specific distance from your point of rental). All these things can add substantially to your costs. Request car seats and extras such as a GPS when you book.
Make sure that a confirmed reservation guarantees you a car. Agencies sometimes overbook, particularly for busy weekends and holiday periods.
Some common-sense tips: Always give the rental car a once-over to make sure the headlights, jack, and tires (including the spare) are in working condition. Before you set out, establish an itinerary and ask about gas stations. Be sure to plan your daily driving distance conservatively and don’t drive after dark.
Car insurance is not compulsory when renting a car, but if you have plans to drive in more than one city we strongly recommend buying car insurance, given the bad conditions of Brazilian roads in some states and the risk of accidents. Most car rental companies offer optional insurance against robbery and accidents. The minimum age for renting a car is 21, but some companies require foreign clients to be at least 25 or charge extra for those under 26.
If you own a car, your personal auto insurance may cover a rental to some degree, though not all policies protect you abroad; always read your policy’s fine print. If you don’t have auto insurance, then seriously consider buying the collision- or loss-damage waiver (CDW or LDW) from the car-rental company, which eliminates your liability for damage to the car.
Some credit cards offer CDW coverage, but it’s usually supplemental to your own insurance and rarely covers SUVs, minivans, luxury models, and the like. If your coverage is secondary, you may still be liable for loss-of-use costs from the car-rental company. But no credit-card insurance is valid unless you use that card for all transactions, from reserving to paying the final bill. All companies exclude car rental in some countries, so be sure to find out about the destination to which you are traveling.
Diners Club offers primary CDW coverage on all rentals reserved and paid for with the card. This means that Diner’s Club company—not your own car insurance—pays in case of an accident. It doesn’t mean your car insurance company won’t raise your rates once it discovers you had an accident.
Some rental agencies require you to purchase CDW coverage; many will even include it in quoted rates. All will strongly encourage you to buy CDW—possibly implying that it’s required—so be sure to ask about such things before renting. In most cases, it’s cheaper to add a supplemental CDW plan to your comprehensive travel-insurance policy than to purchase it from a rental company. That said, you don’t want to pay for a supplement if you’re required to buy insurance from the rental company. Another possibility is to purchase insurance through a third-party provider such as Travel Guard (www.travelguide.com), which can cost significantly less than coverage offered by car rental companies.
Internet access is widespread, and Wi-Fi is often available, especially in the big cities. Many hotels have in-room access to Wi-Fi, but some charge $5 to $10 per day for the privilege. In big cities like São Paulo and Rio, 3G access is common but check with your local provider to find a plan that mitigates the often-steep roaming charges. Switching your device from cellular data to Wi-Fi whenever it is available should save you money.
Be discreet about carrying laptops, smartphones, and other obvious displays of wealth, which can make you a target of thieves. Conceal your laptop in a generic bag and keep it close to you at all times.
The good news is that you can now make a direct-dial telephone call from virtually any point on earth. The bad news? You can’t always do so cheaply. Calling from a hotel is almost always the most expensive option; hotels usually add huge surcharges to all calls, particularly international ones. In remote areas, you can phone from call centers or sometimes even the post office, but in big cities, these call centers don’t exist anymore. Calling cards usually keep costs to a minimum, but only if you purchase them locally. And then there are mobile phones, which are sometimes more prevalent—particularly in the developing world—than landlines; as expensive as mobile phone calls can be, they are still usually a much cheaper option than calling from your hotel.
Because of the recent increase in demand for mobile phones in Brazil, an extra digit has been added to mobile phone numbers to make more numbers available. If calling a mobile phone in the states of São Paulo, Rio, Espírito Santo, Amapá, Amazonas, Maranhão, Pará, and Roraima, make sure to add a 9 in front of the usual eight digits of the number. The rest of the country will be included in this change by the end of 2016.
The country code for Brazil is 55. When dialing a Brazilian number from abroad, dial the international access code of your home country, the Brazilian country code, the two-digit area code (drop the initial 0 if there is one), and the local number.
Public phones are everywhere and are called orelhões (big ears) because of their shape. The phones take phone cards only.
Calling Within Brazil
Local calls can be made most easily from payphones, which take phone cards only. A bar or restaurant may allow you to use its private phone for a local call if you’re a customer.
If you want to call from your hotel, remember long-distance calls within Brazil are expensive, and hotels add a surcharge.
With the privatization of the Brazilian telecommunications network, there’s a wide choice of long-distance companies. Hence, to make direct-dial long-distance calls, you must find out which companies serve the area from which you’re calling and then get their access codes—the staff at your hotel can help. (Some hotels have already made the choice for you, so you may not need an access code when calling from the hotel itself.) For long-distance calls within Brazil, dial 0 + the access code + the area code and number. To call Rio, for example, dial 0, then 21 (for Embratel, a major long-distance and international provider), then 21 (Rio’s area code), and then the number.
Calling Outside Brazil
International calls from Brazil are extremely expensive. Hotels also add a surcharge, increasing this cost even more. Calls can be made from public phone booths with a prepaid phone card. You can also try going to a phone office, although with the rise of mobile phones, very few of these still exist. The staff at your hotel may know whether there is one nearby.
For international calls, dial 00 + 23 (for Intelig, a long-distance company) or 21 (for Embratel, another long-distance company) + the country code + the area code and number. For operator-assisted international calls, dial 00–0111. For international information, dial 00–0333. To make a collect long-distance call (which will cost 40% more than a normal call), dial 9 + the area code and the number.
The country code for United States and Canada is 1.
All payphones in Brazil take phone cards only. Buy a phonecard, a cartão telefônico, at a newsstand, drugstore, or post office. Cards come with a varying number of units (each unit is usually worth a couple of minutes), which will determine the price. Buy a couple of cards if you don’t think you’ll have the chance again soon. These phone cards can be used for international, local, and long-distance calls within Brazil. Be aware that calling internationally using these cards is extremely expensive and your units will expire pretty quickly. It’s advisable to buy several cards with the maximum number of units (75 minutes). A 20-minute card costs about $1.25, a 50-minute card about $3.25, and a 75-minute about $5.
In big cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro you can buy an international phone card, which is around the same price as the 75-minute local card.
Big cities in Brazil often have 4G Internet available to anyone with a smartphone, although 3G usually works much better and is more readily available. Roaming charges can be extremely high, however, so make sure to check rates with your provider before arriving in Brazil. Your provider may offer international data plans and should be able to provide details on connectivity. It’s a good idea to use local Wi-Fi when available and to make international calls with services like Skype, Viber, or WhatsApp.
If you will be making many local calls and will be in the country for a few weeks, consider buying a new SIM card (note that your provider may have to unlock your phone for you), and signing up for a pay-as-you-go plan. You’ll then have a local number and can make calls at local rates. Be aware that as a non-Brazilian you must show proof of citizenship (such as a passport) to buy a SIM card, which costs around $10. Note that you’ll use up the credit on your SIM card more quickly when calling numbers in a Brazilian state other than the one in which you purchased the card. Many travelers buy a new SIM card in each state they visit. If you plan on visiting rural areas, find out from locals which mobile phone provider works best in the area before buying your SIM card. There are often several available, but one or two providers tend to get better coverage because of tower locations, especially in Amazonas.
Food in Brazil is delicious, inexpensive (especially compared with North America and Europe), and bountiful. Portions are huge and the presentation is tasteful. A lot of restaurants prepare plates for two people; when you order, be sure to ask if one plate will suffice—or even better, glance around to see the size of portions at other tables.
In major cities the variety of eateries is staggering: restaurants of all sizes and categories, snack bars, and fast-food outlets line downtown streets and fight for space in shopping malls. Pricing systems vary from open menus to buffets where you weigh your plate. In São Paulo, for example, Italian eateries—whose risottos rival those of Bologna—sit beside pan-Asian restaurants, which, like the chicest spots in North America and Europe, serve everything from Thai satay to sushi. In addition, there are excellent Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Lebanese, and Spanish restaurants.
Outside the cities you find primarily typical, low-cost Brazilian meals that consist simply of feijão preto (black beans) and arroz (rice) served with beef, chicken, or fish. Manioc, a root vegetable that’s used in a variety of ways, and beef are adored everywhere.
Many Brazilian dishes are adaptations of Portuguese specialties. Fish stews called caldeiradas and beef stews called cozidos (a wide variety of vegetables boiled with different cuts of beef and pork) are popular, as is bacalhau, salt cod cooked in sauce or grilled. Salgados (literally, “salteds”) are appetizers or snacks served in sit-down restaurants as well as at stand-up lanchonetes (luncheonettes). Dried salted meats form the basis of many dishes from the interior and Northeast of Brazil, and pork is used heavily in dishes from Minas Gerais. Brazil’s national dish is feijoada (a stew of black beans, sausage, pork, and beef), which is often served with rice, shredded kale, orange slices, and manioc flour or meal—called farofa if it’s coarsely ground, farinha if finely ground—that has been fried with onions, oil, and egg.
One of the most avid national passions is the churrascaria, where meats are roasted on spits over an open fire, usually rodízio style. Rodízio means “going around,” and waiters circulate nonstop carrying skewers laden with charbroiled hunks of beef, pork, and chicken, which are sliced onto your plate with ritualistic ardor. For a set price you get all the meat and side dishes you can eat. Starve yourself a little before going to a rodízio place. Then you can sample everything on offer.
At the other end of the spectrum, vegetarians can sometimes find Brazil’s meat-centric culture challenging, especially outside larger cities. Increasingly, though, salads and vegetarian options are offered at nicer restaurants in areas catering to foodies, tourists, and those with more international tastes. You’ll also find salads at buffet restaurants, called quilos, found throughout Brazil.
Brazilian doces (desserts), particularly those of Bahia, are very sweet, and many are descendants of the egg-based custards and puddings of Portugal and France. Cocada is shredded coconut caked with sugar; quindim is a small tart made from egg yolks and coconut; doce de banana (or any other fruit) is banana cooked in sugar; ambrosia is a lumpy milk-and-sugar pudding.
Coffee is served black and strong with sugar in demitasse cups and is called cafezinho. (Requests for descafeinado [decaf] are met with a firm shake of the head “no,” a blank stare, or outright amusement.) Coffee is taken with milk—called café com leite—only at breakfast. Bottled water (agua mineral) is sold carbonated or plain (com gás and sem gás, respectively).
Meals and Mealtimes
Between the extremes of sophistication and austere simplicity, each region has its own cuisine. You find exotic fish dishes in the Amazon, African-spiced dishes in Bahia, and well-seasoned bean mashes in Minas Gerais.
It’s hard to find breakfast (café da manhã) outside a hotel restaurant, but in bakeries (padarias) you can always find something breakfast-like. At lunch (almoço) and dinner (jantar) portions are large. Often a single dish will easily feed two people; no one will be the least bit surprised if you order one entrée and ask for two plates. In addition some restaurants automatically bring a couvert (an appetizer course of such items as bread, cheese, or pâté, olives, quail eggs, and the like). You’ll be charged extra for this, and you’re perfectly within your rights to send it back if you don’t want it.
Mealtimes vary according to locale. In Rio and São Paulo, lunch and dinner are served later than in the United States. In restaurants lunch usually starts around noon and can last until 3. Dinner is always eaten after 7 and in many cases not until 10. In Minas Gerais, the Northeast, and smaller towns in general, dinner and lunch are taken at roughly the same time as in the States.
Credit cards are widely accepted at restaurants in the major cities. In the countryside, all but the smallest establishments generally accept credit cards as well but check before you order. Smaller, family-run restaurants are sometimes cash-only. Gratuity is 10% of the total sum, and it’s usually included in the bill. The tip is always optional; if you weren’t happy with the service, you can ask for it to be removed from your bill.
Reservations and Dress
Appropriate dress for dinner in Brazil can vary dramatically. As a general rule, dress more formally for expensive restaurants. In most restaurants dress is casual.
Regardless of where you are, it’s a good idea to make a reservation if you can. For popular restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (often 30 days), and reconfirm as soon as you arrive. (Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy.)
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
The national drink is the caipirinha, made of crushed lime, sugar, and pinga or cachaça (sugarcane liquor). When whipped with crushed ice, fruit juices, and condensed milk, the pinga/cachaça becomes a batida. A caipivodka, or caipiroska, is the same cocktail with vodka instead of cachaça. Most bars also make both drinks using a fruit other than lime, such as kiwi and maracujá (passion fruit). Brazil has many brands of bottled beer. In general, though, Brazilians prefer tap beer, called chopp, which is sold in bars and restaurants. Be sure to try the carbonated soft drink guaraná, made using the Amazonian fruit of the same name. It’s extremely popular in Brazil.
The current in Brazil isn’t regulated: in São Paulo and Rio it’s 110 or 120 volts (the same as in the United States and Canada); in Recife and Brasília it’s 220 volts (the same as in Europe); and in Manaus and Salvador it’s 127 volts. Electricity is AC (alternating current) at 60 Hz, similar to that in Europe. To use electric-powered equipment purchased in the United States or Canada, it’s wise to bring a converter and adapter, although these days, increasingly, most electronics are designed to convert themselves—if your device specifies a range of 100 to 240 volts, you won’t have any problem using it in Brazil. Wall outlets take Continental-type plugs, with two or three round prongs, although you may come across older outlets that take two-pronged flat plugs. Consider buying a universal adapter, which has several types of plugs in one handy unit. Some hotels are equipped to handle various types of plugs and electrical devices.
Calling the fire brigade is a good option since they’re considered one of the most efficient and trustworthy institutions in Brazil. If you need urgent and immediate support, talk to the people around you. Brazilians are friendly and willing to help. They’ll go out of their way to speak your language and find help.
If you’ve been robbed or assaulted, report it to the police. Unfortunately, you shouldn’t expect huge results for your trouble. Call your embassy if your passport has been stolen or if you need help dealing with the police.
The most common types of illnesses are caused by contaminated food and water. Especially in developing countries, drink only bottled, boiled, or purified water and drinks; don’t drink from public fountains or use ice. It’s even prudent to use bottled water to brush your teeth. Make sure food has been thoroughly cooked and is served to you fresh and hot; avoid vegetables and fruits that you haven’t washed (in bottled or purified water) or peeled yourself. If you have problems, mild cases of traveler’s diarrhea may respond to over-the-counter medications. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids; if you can’t keep fluids down, seek medical help immediately.
Infectious diseases can be airborne or passed via mosquitoes and ticks and through direct or indirect physical contact with animals or people. Some, including Norwalk-like viruses that affect your digestive tract, can be passed along through contaminated food. If you’re traveling in an area where malaria is prevalent, use a repellent containing DEET and take malaria-prevention medication before, during, and after your trip as directed by your physician. Speak with your physician and/or check the CDC or World Health Organization websites for health alerts, particularly if you’re pregnant, traveling with children, or have a chronic illness.
English-speaking medical assistance in Brazil is rare. It’s best to contact your consulate or embassy if you need medical help. Seek private clinics or hospitals, since getting an appointment in the government’s health-care system is a slow process.
If you’re traveling to the Amazon, extra precautions are necessary.
Do not fly within 24 hours of scuba diving. Neophyte divers should have a complete physical exam before undertaking a dive. If you have travel insurance that covers evacuations, make sure your policy applies to scuba-related injuries, as not all companies provide this coverage.
Food and Drink
The major health risk in Brazil is traveler’s diarrhea, caused by eating contaminated fruit or vegetables or drinking contaminated water. So watch what you eat—on and off the beaten path. Avoid ice, uncooked food, and unpasteurized milk and milk products, and drink only bottled water or water that has been boiled for at least 20 minutes, even when brushing your teeth. The use of bottled water for brushing your teeth is not necessary in large cities, where water is treated. Don’t use ice unless you know it’s made from purified water. (Ice in city restaurants is usually safe.) Peel or thoroughly wash fresh fruits and vegetables. Avoid eating food from street vendors.
Choose industrially packaged beverages when you can. Order tropical juices only from places that appear clean and reliable.
Infectious Diseases and Viruses
The Amazon and a few other remote areas are the only places in Brazil where you really need to worry about infectious diseases. Most travelers to Brazil return home unscathed. However, you should visit a doctor at least six weeks prior to traveling to discuss recommended vaccinations, some of which require multiple shots over a period of weeks. If you get sick weeks, months, or in rare cases, years after your trip, make sure your doctor administers blood tests for tropical diseases.
Meningococcal meningitis and typhoid fever are common in certain areas of Brazil—and not only in remote areas like the Amazon. Meningitis has been a problem around São Paulo in recent years. Dengue fever and malaria—both caused by mosquito bites—are common in Brazil or in certain areas of Brazil, like Rio de Janeiro. Both are usually only a problem in the Amazon, but dengue can affect urban areas and malaria is sometimes found in urban peripheries. Talk with your doctor about what precautions to take.
Pests and Other Hazards
You’ll likely encounter more insects than you’re used to in Brazil, but they generally only present health problems in the Amazon.
Heatstroke and heat prostration are common though easily preventable maladies throughout Brazil. The symptoms for either can vary but always start with headaches, nausea, and dizziness. If ignored, these symptoms can worsen until you require medical attention. In hot weather be sure to rehydrate regularly, wear loose lightweight clothing, and avoid overexerting yourself.
Mild cases of diarrhea may respond to Imodium (known generically as loperamide) or Pepto-Bismol (not as strong), both of which can be purchased over the counter at a farmácia (pharmacy). Drink plenty of purified water or chá (tea)—camomila (chamomile) is a good folk remedy, as is dissolving a tablespoon of cornstarch in a mix of lime juice and water. In severe cases rehydrate yourself with a salt–sugar solution: ½ teaspoon sal (salt) and 4 tablespoons açúcar (sugar) per quart of agua (water).
An effective home remedy for diarrhea is the same as the rehydrating concoction: a teaspoon of sugar plus a quarter teaspoon of salt in a liter of water.
Aspirin is aspirina; Tylenol (acetaminophen; paracetamol) is pronounced tee-luh-nawl. Advil (ibuprofen) is ah-jee-viu.
Shots and Medications
If you travel a lot internationally—particularly to developing nations—refer to the CDC’s Health Information for International Travel (aka Traveler’s Health Yellow Book). Info from it is posted on the CDC website (wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel).
The best recommendation to avoid health problems is to see a doctor before and after traveling, just to be on the safe side. Some vaccines must be applied long before traveling so that their protective effect is guaranteed, and some prophylactic medicines must be taken also in advance so that the doctor and the patient are aware of possible side effects.
Vaccinations against hepatitis A and B, meningitis, typhoid, and yellow fever are highly recommended. Consult your doctor about whether to get a rabies vaccination. Check with the CDC’s International Travelers’ Hotline if you plan to visit remote regions or stay for more than six weeks.
Discuss the option of taking antimalarial drugs with your doctor. Note that in parts of northern Brazil a particularly aggressive strain of malaria has become resistant to one antimalarial drug—chloroquine. Some antimalarial drugs have rather unpleasant side effects—from headaches, nausea, and dizziness to psychosis, convulsions, and hallucinations.
For travel anywhere in Brazil, it’s recommended that you have updated vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus, and polio. Children must additionally have current inoculations against measles, mumps, and rubella.
Yellow fever immunization is compulsory to enter Brazil if you’re traveling directly from one of the following countries in South America (or from one of several African countries): Bolivia; Colombia; Ecuador; French Guiana; Peru; or Venezuela. You must have an International Certificate of Immunization proving that you’ve been vaccinated.
Brazil’s unit of currency is the real (R$; plural: reais). One real is 100 centavos (cents). There are notes worth 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, and 100 reais, together with coins worth 5, 10, 25, and 50 centavos and 1 real.
ATMs and Banks
Your own bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you’ll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office. And extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.
PINs with more than four digits are not recognized at ATMs in many countries. If yours has five or more, remember to change it before you leave.
Nearly all the nation’s major banks have ATMs, known in Brazil as caixas eletrônicos, for which you must use a card with a credit-card logo. MasterCard/Cirrus holders can withdraw at Banco Itau, Banco do Brasil, HSBC, and Banco24horas ATMs; Visa holders can use Bradesco ATMs and those at Banco do Brasil. American Express cardholders can make withdrawals at most Bradesco ATMs marked “24 horas.” To be on the safe side, carry a variety of cards. For your card to function in some ATMs, you may need to hit a screen command (perhaps, estrangeiro or inglês) if you are a foreign client.
Banks are, with a few exceptions, open weekdays 10 to 4. Avoid using ATM machines alone and at night, and use ATMs in busy, highly visible locations whenever possible.
It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you’re going abroad and don’t travel internationally very often. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you’re prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you’re abroad) if your card is lost, but you’re better off calling the number of your issuing bank, since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank’s number is usually printed on your card.
If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you’ll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Although it’s usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there’s a problem), note that some credit card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they’re in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won’t be any surprises when you get the bill. Credit card fraud does happen in Brazil, so always conceal PIN numbers and keep your receipts.
Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases, you’ll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.
Dynamic currency conversion programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don’t always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn’t an option.
In Brazil’s largest cities and leading tourist centers, restaurants, hotels, and shops accept major international credit cards. Off the beaten track, you may have more difficulty using them. Many gas stations in rural Brazil don’t take credit cards.
For costly items use your credit card whenever possible—you’ll come out ahead, whether the exchange rate at which your purchase is calculated is the one in effect the day the vendor’s bank abroad processes the charge or the one prevailing on the day the charge company’s service center processes it at home.
Currency and Exchange
For the most favorable rates, change money through banks. Although ATM transaction fees may be higher abroad than at home, ATM rates are excellent because they’re based on wholesale rates offered only by major banks. You won’t do as well at casas de câmbio (exchange houses), in airports or bus stations, in hotels, in restaurants, or in stores. ATMs also allow you to avoid the often long lines at airport exchange booths.
Outside larger cities, changing money in Brazil becomes more of a challenge. When leaving a large city for a smaller town, bring enough cash for your trip.
Even if a currency-exchange booth has a sign promising no commission, rest assured that there’s some kind of huge, hidden fee. And as for rates, you’re almost always better off getting foreign currency at an ATM or exchanging money at a bank.
For sightseeing, casual clothing and good walking shoes are appropriate; most restaurants don’t require formal attire. For beach vacations, bring lightweight sportswear, a bathing suit, a beach cover-up, a sun hat, and waterproof sunscreen that is at least SPF 30. A sarong or a light cotton blanket makes a handy beach towel, picnic blanket, and cushion for hard seats, among other things.
If you’re going to coastal cities like Rio, Florianópolis, and Salvador in summer (December, January, and February), dress more informally and feel free to wear flip-flops (thongs) all day—and don’t forget your sunglasses. Southeastern cities like São Paulo, Curitiba, and Porto Alegre, which have lower temperatures, tend to be more formal and more conservative when it comes to clothing (sometimes even Brazilians are shocked by the way people in Rio dress). In urban areas, it’s always a good idea to have some nice outfits for going out at night.
Travel in rain-forest areas requires long-sleeved shirts, long pants, socks, waterproof hiking boots (sneakers are less desirable, but work in a pinch), a hat, a light waterproof jacket, a bathing suit, and plenty of strong insect repellent. (Amazonian bugs tend to be oblivious to non-DEET or non-picaridin repellents.) Other useful items include a screw-top water container that you can fill with bottled water, a money pouch, a travel flashlight and extra batteries, a Swiss Army knife with a bottle opener, a medical kit, binoculars, a pocket calculator, spare camera batteries, and a high-capacity memory card.
PASSPORTS AND VISAS
At this writing, passports and visas are required for citizens—even infants—of the United States and Canada for entry to Brazil. Business travelers may need a special business visa. It has all the same requirements as a tourist visa, but you’ll also need a letter on company letterhead addressed to the embassy or consulate and signed by an authorized representative (other than you), stating the nature of your business in Brazil, itinerary, business contacts, dates of arrival and departure, and that the company assumes all financial and moral responsibility while you’re in Brazil.
When in Brazil, carry your passport or a copy with you at all times. Make two photocopies of the data page (one for someone at home and another for you, carried separately from your passport). If you lose your passport, promptly call the nearest embassy or consulate and the local police.
If your passport is lost or stolen, first call the police—having the police report can make replacement easier—and then call your embassy. You’ll get a temporary Emergency Travel Document that will need to be replaced once you return home. Fees vary according to how fast you need the passport; in some cases, the fee covers your permanent replacement as well. The new document will not have your entry stamps; ask if your embassy takes care of this, or whether it’s your responsibility to get the necessary immigration authorization.
The word for “bathroom” is banheiro, though the term sanitários (toilets) is also used. Homens means “men” and mulheres means “women.” Around major tourist attractions and along the main beaches in big cities, you can find public restrooms, which aren’t necessarily clean. In some smaller beach cities, there are no facilities at the beach, so be prepared to walk a bit to find a bathroom. In other areas you may have to rely on the kindness of local restaurant and shop owners. If a smile and polite request (“Por favor, posso usar o banheiro?”) doesn’t work, become a customer—the purchase of a drink or a knickknack might just buy you a trip to the bathroom. Rest areas with relatively clean, well-equipped bathrooms are plentiful along major highways. Still, carry a pocket-size package of tissues in case there’s no toilet paper. Tip bathroom attendants with a few spare centavos.
Sales tax is included in the prices shown on goods in stores but listed separately on the bottom of your receipt. Hotel, meal, and car-rental taxes are usually tacked on in addition to the costs shown on menus and brochures. At this writing, hotel taxes are roughly 5%, meal taxes 10%, and car-rental taxes 12%.
Departure taxes on international flights from Brazil aren’t always included in your ticket and can run as high as R$82 ($30); domestic flights may incur a R$22 ($8) tax. Although U.S. dollars are accepted in some airports, be prepared to pay departure taxes in reais.
Wages can be paltry in Brazil, so a little generosity in tipping can go a long way. Tipping in dollars is not recommended—at best it’s insulting; at worst, you might be targeted for a robbery. Large hotels that receive lots of international guests are the exception. Some restaurants add a 10% service charge onto the check. If there’s no service charge, you can leave as much as you want, but 15% is a good amount. In deluxe hotels tip porters R$2 per bag, chambermaids R$2 per day, and bellhops R$4–R$6 for room and valet service. Tips for doormen and concierges vary, depending on the services provided. A good tip is around R$30, with the average at about R$15. For moderate and inexpensive hotels, tips tend to be minimal (salaries are so low that virtually anything is well received). If a taxi driver helps you with your luggage, a per-bag charge of about R$1 is levied in addition to the fare. In general, you don’t tip taxi drivers. If a service station attendant does anything beyond filling up the gas tank, leave him a small tip of some spare change. Tipping in bars and cafés follows the rules of restaurants, although at outdoor bars Brazilians rarely leave a gratuity if they have had only a soft drink or a beer. At airports and at train and bus stations, tip the last porter who puts your bags into the cab (R$1 a bag at airports, 50 centavos a bag at bus and train stations).
Comprehensive trip insurance is recommended for all vacations purchased through Vacays4U. Comprehensive policies typically cover trip cancellation and interruption, letting you cancel or cut your trip short because of illness, or, in some cases, acts of terrorism. Ask about insurance policies that cover evacuation and medical care. Some also cover you for trip delays because of bad weather or mechanical problems as well as for lost or delayed luggage.
Always read the fine print of your policy to make sure you’re covered for the risks that most concern you. Compare several policies to be sure you’re getting the best price and range of coverage available.