From the sun-drenched beaches of Rio de Janeiro to the steamy jungles of the Amazon, Brazil has emerged as one of the world’s most intoxicating destinations. It’s the energy of capoeira in the streets, the glitz and glamour of Carnival, and sipping caipirinhas while watching the sunset over the Atlantic Ocean.
Beyond the streets of Rio and São Paulo, you’ll find idyllic islands along the Costa Verde and the charming colonial town of Paraty, not to mention the wildlife-filled wetlands of the Pantanal. The spectacular Iguaçu Falls plunge along the border with Argentina while to the north is the neat capital, Brasilia, and the enchanting Afro-Brazilian city of Salvador da Bahia. Venture a little further and you’ll discover the immense sand dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses National Park and the dramatic scenery of Chapada Diamantina National Park.
Exploring Brazil is about much more than just ticking off attractions. It’s about delving into the local culture, understanding the Brazilian experience, and gaining insight into their infectious love of life. With Adventure Unbound, we’ll take you beyond the sights and peel back the layers to uncover what it is that makes Brazil so enduringly fascinating.
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Pottery excavated in the Amazon basin has been radiocarbon dated to 8,000 years while human remains discovered in Minas Gerais indicate that Brazil has been inhabited for at least the last 11,000 years. By the time the Portuguese arrived in 1500, the country we now call “Brazil” was home to around seven million Indigenous people who led a semi-nomadic lifestyle of hunting, fishing, and gathering. These included the Tupi, Guarani, Arawak, and Gê people, who were regularly at war with one another due to differences in moral and cultural beliefs.
The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas designated the territory for the Portuguese Empire and a fleet commanded by Pedro Alvares Cabral arrived on 22 April 1500. The first Portuguese settlement was founded three decades later and colonization officially began in 1534, with Salvador as the capital. Over the following two centuries, frequent wars broke out between the Indigenous people and the European colonizers.
By the middle of the 16th century, the exportation of sugar cane became key in the growth of the local economy and slaves were being purchased from Sub-Saharan Africa to work the plantations. Between 1500 and 1800, it is estimated that more than 2.8 million African slaves were brought to Portuguese Brazil.
Gold was discovered by Bandeirantes (a name given to slave runners, explorers, and fortune hunters) in the 1690s and resulted in the Brazilian Gold Rush, which saw thousands of new settlers from Portuguese colonies around the globe. Bandeirantes continued to expand the colony’s original frontiers across South America while at the same time, other European powers were attempting to colonize parts of Portuguese Brazil.
In the early 19th century, Prince Regent João moved the royal court from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, resulting in the establishment of financial institutions and local stock exchanges. This effectively opened Brazil up to trade with other nations. At the end of the Peninsular War, there was pressure on Prince Regent João and Queen Maria I to return to Portugal but instead, they established the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves.
In 1822, Price Pedro declared Brazil independent from Portugal and the Brazilian War of Independence ignited the country. In 1824, the last Portuguese soldiers surrendered and Brazil was officially recognized as an independent nation the following year. In 1850, the Atlantic slave trade was officially declared over with the signing of the Aberdeen Act but it wasn’t until 1888 that this fully came into effect in Brazil.
The late 19th century was marked by several wars with neighboring states, including the Uruguayan War, the Paraguayan War, and the Platine War. On 15 November 1889, the monarchy was overthrown by a military coup and this event is now celebrated each year as Republic Day. The early government was a military dictatorship and it wasn’t until 1894 that civilians took power.
Brazil experienced a period of financial, political, and social instability during the early 20th century, leading to the Revolution of 1930. Getulio Vargas closed down Congress, ended the Constitution, and replaced elected state governors with his own people.
In the early years of World War II, Brazil remained neutral but eventually joined the Allies in August 1942 and participated in the Battle of the Atlantic. Vargas was swiftly overthrown in the wake of the war during another military coup and Juscelino Kubitschek eventually came to power in 1956. He was responsible for the construction of the new capital, Brasilia, and significant economic and industrial growth.
In the years since, Brazil has experienced military coups, authoritarian regimes, and dictatorships, as well as hyperinflation and corruption inquiries. The peaceful transition of power to Lula da Silva in 2002 was seen as a sign that Brazil had finally achieved political stability. But this was short-lived, with protests erupting during Dilma Rousseff’s presidency before she was impeached by the Brazilian Congress in 2016.
Today Brazil is the biggest economy in South America and is an important global breadbasket as the largest producer of coffee in the world. In 2014, it hosted the FIFA World Cup in what was hailed by fans as one of the greatest ever held.
Wildlife of Brazil
Brazil is renowned for its biodiversity, particularly in the Amazon Rainforest. Here you’ll find hummingbirds, toucans, parrots, and colorful macaws, as well as a brilliant array of butterflies. Inhabiting the forest canopy are sloths and several species of monkeys, not to mention anacondas and boas, while capybaras, pumas, and jaguars roam the forest floors. In the rivers that snake their way through the Amazon, keep your eyes peeled for otters, pink river dolphins, and turtles, as well as the infamous piranha.
Also rich in wildlife is the Pantanal, an area of flooded grasslands, savannas, and tropical forests in Brazil’s west. It boasts the highest concentration of wildlife in South America, with pampas deer, tapir, puma, and jaguar all calling the region “home”. Giant anteaters, coatis, and raccoons are also known to inhabit the Pantanal, together with more than 650 bird species that include spoonbills, crowned eagles, and hyacinth macaws. A highlight of any visit is seeing a flightless rhea - Brazil’s largest bird.
Cuisine in Brazil
Brazilian cuisine draws on European, African, and Amerindian influences and features significant regional variations throughout the country. It incorporates native ingredients such as açaí, cassava, yams, and cashews, as well as those that were brought by early Portuguese colonizers, such as wine and dairy products. Over time, waves of immigrants from Asia (particularly Japan) brought their unique flavors, which have also left their mark on the nation’s diet.
The most distinct regional cuisines are those from Minas Gerais and Bahia, with the former known for its European-influenced pão de queijo. Bahian cuisine is heavily influenced by African traditions, as can be seen in acarajé (cowpea fritters served with shrimps and okra) and vatapá (shrimp stew).
If you’re a meat-eater, you can’t visit Brazil without trying feijoada, a black bean, pork and beef stew, coxinha (chicken stuffed with mashed manioc), or kibe rissoles. Mixed grills known as churrasco are also incredibly popular, as is spicy linguiça sausage. Along the coast, you’ll find bolinhos de bacalhau (cod fishcakes) and moqueca (seafood and coconut milk stew).
When it comes to sweets, you can’t go past chocolate fudge brigadeiros or coconut beijinhos and there are plenty of traditional bolos (cakes) in a variety of flavors. Tropical fruits such as papaya, cupuaçu, and açaí are delicious eaten alone, in juices, or transformed into ice cream.
One of Brazil’s more unique drinks is guaraná, which is revered for being an energy booster and is made using the extract of an Amazonian plant. The sugarcane spirit of cachaça is mixed with sugar and ice to make caipirinha cocktails - Brazil’s national drink.
Geography of Brazil
Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world and the only nation with both the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn traversing it. Stretching for 4,395 kilometers from north to south, it also holds the title of the world’s longest country.
Brazil sprawls across the center and east coast of South America, as well as encompassing several oceanic archipelagos. It shares its southern borders with Uruguay, Argentina, and Paraguay while Bolivia and Peru lie to the west. To the north is Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. The only two South American countries that Brazil doesn’t share borders with are Ecuador and Chile.
From high mountains to grasslands and blissful beaches, Brazil’s topography is highly diverse. It also has one of the world’s most extensive river systems, with the mighty Amazon among the most famous.
Flora of Brazil
Brazil is home to around a quarter of the world’s known plant species, making it one of the most biodiverse nations on the globe. In the Amazon region, you’ll find tropical rainforest dominated by Brazil nut and ceiba trees, as well as an abundance of orchids, vines, and wild rubber trees.
As you head south, the vegetation transforms into semi-deciduous forest and thorn scrub, with large tracts of carnauba wax palm. Tropical fruits such as mango, guava, and jackfruit grow along the humid coastline while the inland region features savanna and agricultural fields.
Brazil’s southern region is ideal for the growth of flowering quaresma trees and temperate plateau forests where umbrella pines grow. Large areas of Rio Grande do Sul are dominated by the grasslands of the pampas.
Conservation in Brazil
Scientists have estimated that Brazil’s total number of plant and animal species is around four million. However, the habitat for flora and fauna is rapidly diminishing with the loss of forest cover in the Amazon, which is of global concern. It’s believed that protecting the forests, savannas, and wetlands of Brazil against cattle ranching, intensive agriculture and expansion is essential in stopping billions of tons of carbon from being released into the atmosphere.
Brazil’s first protected natural areas were established in the 1930s and they now cover around 25% of the country’s territory. The oldest national park in Brazil is Itatiaia, which protects some of the country’s highest mountains. In the west is the wildlife-rich Pantanal Matogrossense National Park, one of the most visited national parks in Brazil. In the state of Ceara, you’ll find the striking dunes of Jericoacoara National Park while cliffs, caves, and canyons dominate Chapada dos Guimaraes National Park. One of the world’s most impressive waterfalls is the centerpiece of Iguaçu National Park along Brazil’s border with Argentina.
Geology in Brazil
Just over a third of Brazil is characterized by Precambrian crystalline shields, with most of its mountain ranges under 2,000 meters in elevation. In the north are the highest ranges along the border with Venezuela, French Guiana, Suriname, and Guyana while the vast Planalto Central dominates the heart of the country.
The sedimentary basins drained by the Amazon, Javari, Madeira, and Tocantins rivers (among others) contain soluble limestone, dolomite, and gypsum, with the high temperatures and precipitation of the region resulting in impressive karst formations.
Money in Brazil
Brazil uses the Brazilian real as its currency. Banknotes are available in R$200, R$100, R$50, R$20, R$10, R$5, R$2 while coins come in R$1, 50, 25, 10, and 5 centavos.
$1USD is equal to around R$5.6 at the time of writing (October 2021)
ATMs and Credit Cards
ATMs are widely available throughout Brazilian towns and cities, although they might be more difficult to find in rural areas. Most ATMs are located behind lockable doors that will close overnight for security purposes, so it’s best to withdraw cash in the daytime.
Banks are generally open from 10:00 to 16:00 Monday to Friday and most have foreign currency exchange services. However, withdrawing reals directly from an ATM is usually more convenient. It’s a good idea to check with your bank before you leave home about any withdrawal limits and the fees they charge for international transactions.
Credit cards are widely accepted at large businesses, hotels, restaurants, and retail stores in Brazil but some smaller stores, cafes, and markets may only take cash payments. Visa and Mastercard are the most readily accepted, although Diners Club and American Express can also be used at some businesses.
Health & Safety in Brazil
While there are no compulsory immunizations for travel to Brazil, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that travelers are up-to-date on their routine vaccinations before visiting. This includes tetanus, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, Diptheria, and typhoid, as well as measles, mumps, and rubella. Yellow fever is present in some parts of Brazil and being vaccinated against the disease is highly recommended. Everyone over 12 years of age should also be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 before travel.
Travel insurance is not compulsory to visit Brazil but it is highly recommended to cover you in case of an accident, criminal incident, or medical emergency. Before purchasing a policy, always check exactly what is covered and any “known events” that are exempt from payouts.
Entry Requirements for Brazil
Visas are not required to enter Brazil for citizens of most European countries, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, who can stay in the country for up to 90 days over a 12 month period. However, you will need a passport with at least six months validity at the time of arrival in Brazil and two free pages for entry and exit stamps. You may also be required to show proof of sufficient funds for your stay and/or onward flight tickets.
Internet & Phone Service in Brazil
If you plan on using your mobile phone in Brazil, check with your cell provider before leaving home that it will work and what the international data roaming charges might be. If you want to put a Brazilian sim card in your phone to make local calls, your cell must be unlocked to do so.
Most accommodation providers in Brazil offer complimentary Wi-Fi access, as do many cafes and restaurants. If you want to have internet access at all times, we recommend renting a pocket Wi-Fi or mini router for the duration of your stay.
Power in Brazil
Brazil’s electricity is supplied at 127/220 volts and the country uses both Type C and Type N plugs. Type C plugs have two round pins while Type N plugs have two round pins, plus a grounding pin.
Getting to Brazil
Tom Jobim International Airport in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo International Airport are the main aviation gateways to Brazil, with scheduled flights from destinations around the globe. You’ll also find well-connected airports serving Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre, and Salvador. TAM, American, Air Canada, Continental, Delta, and United all have flights between Brazil and North America while TAM and British Airways connect to the UK. Air France, Iberia, and Lufthansa are just some of the options for travelers coming from Europe. Aerolíneas Argentinas and LAN Chile are the main operators for travelers flying to Brazil from Australia and New Zealand.
Brazil shares its borders with 10 different countries, including Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru. Long-distance buses serve most of the border crossings where you may or may not have to change operators before continuing on the other side.
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While there are no required vaccinations for visiting Brazil, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that you are up-to-date on your routine vaccinations. These include measles, chickenpox, Diptheria, tetanus, and polio. You may also want to consider being vaccinated against hepatitis A, hepatitis B and rabies if you plan on being in close contact with animals.
Yellow fever is present in some parts of Brazil and being vaccinated against the disease is highly recommended. Everyone over 12 years of age should also be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 before travel.
While tap water in Brazil is safe to drink in most areas, it doesn’t always taste the best due to the treatment process. Most Brazilians prefer to drink bottled or filtered water and this is recommended to be on the safe side. That being said, it is usually safe to brush your teeth and rinse food products with tap water.
The Brazilian currency is the Brazilian real, which is divided into 100 centavos. Banknotes are available in R$200, R$100, R$50, R$20, R$10, R$5, R$2 while coins come in R$1, 50, 25, 10, and 5 centavos.
US dollars are generally not accepted in Brazil but you will find foreign currency exchange services at banks and independent exchange houses. Banks are generally open from 10:00 to 16:00 Monday to Friday. ATMs are widely available, although many are located behind lockable doors that may be closed late at night.
Credit cards are widely accepted at hotels, restaurants, and retail stores in Brazil but some smaller stores, cafes, and markets may only take cash payments. Visa and Mastercard are the most readily accepted, although Diners Club and American Express can also be used at some businesses.
Brazil operates across four time zones. From west to east, these are Acre Time (ACT), Amazon Time (AMT), Brasilia Time (BRT), and Fernando de Noronha Time (FNT). Daylight savings time is not observed in the country.
Portuguese is the official language of Brazil and is spoken by the vast majority of its population. However, the pronunciations, meaning of words, and vocabularies have diverged widely between Brazilian Portuguese and its Iberian counterpart since the language was introduced to the colony in the 16th century. Brazilian Portuguese has adopted expressions from its Italian, German, Japanese and Spanish-speaking immigrants, and all of these languages are still spoken by minority groups in the country.
Brazil’s Indigenous peoples also speak their own languages, which have left their mark on Brazilian Portuguese in the form of words and expressions. Before European arrival, Tupian was the dominant language of Brazil’s Indigenous people and for many years it was the language used for communication between the native people and Portuguese colonizers and missionaries. Tupian is also credited with being the reason why Brazilians enunciate their words so clearly and with more nasal speech patterns than the Portuguese.
After recent changes to Brazil’s visa policy, citizens of most European countries, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand do not need a visa for tourist stays up to 90 days. However, you will need a passport with at least six months validity at the time of arrival in Brazil and two free pages for entry and exit stamps. You may also be required to show proof of sufficient funds for your stay and/or onward flight tickets.
While it’s not compulsory to have travel insurance when visiting Brazil, we highly recommended you purchase a policy to cover you in case the unexpected happens. Travel insurance will protect you against any financial loss from injury, illness, or theft, as well as cover the costs of transport cancellations or delays. Always check what a provider does and doesn’t cover before purchasing a travel insurance policy so you aren’t left with any surprises later on.
Considering its enormous size, it should come as no surprise that air travel is a convenient way of getting around Brazil. Airports serve all of the major cities and in some parts of Amazonia, flights are the only option for getting around due to a lack of rivers and/or roads.
That being said, the bus system in Brazil is impressive, with hundreds of private companies offering safe and comfortable intercity journeys. Most have onboard toilets but will stop every two or three hours for breaks. For a touch of luxury, opt for an overnight leitos bus with fully reclining seats and curtained partitions. It’s always best to buy bus tickets at least a day in advance, except on the Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo route, which has shuttles leaving every 15 minutes.
Renting a car in Brazil is relatively straightforward, with most of the big-name international companies represented, alongside several reliable local options. However, driving standards in the country are low and Brazil has one of the highest death tolls from driving-related accidents in the world. Road quality also varies between regions, with the South and Northeast tending to be better than the interior. In Amazonia, floods can cause devastating damage to roads during the rainy season and certain routes may close for weeks at a time.
As a result, boat transport is the preferred way of getting around much of Amazonia, with ferries connecting the riverside cities of Belem, Manaus, and Santarem. Boat transport on the Amazon ranges from luxury tourist vessels to three-level riverboats with sweltering cabins and more breezy hammock spaces.
Brazil is a year-round destination, with varying climatic zones across the country. December through to March are the summer months while June through to September is winter, with heat and humidity rising the further north you go. The best time to visit will depend on the region you want to visit, although most travelers opt for the warm and dry summer months.
The Amazon is hot and humid throughout the year, with continual rainfall and flooding from January to May. June through to September is considered the best time to visit the region before the heavier rains descend.
In the Pantanal, you can expect heavy rainfall between December and March when the landscape transforms into an immense lake. The best time of year for wildlife spotting is the dry season (July through to October) when the Pantanal appears like an African savanna.
Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are best visited in the warm summer months from December to March when you can expect sunny skies and limited rainfall. Brazil’s far south experiences four distinct seasons, with hot summers that are ideal for being at the beaches and cold winters that can be subject to heavy rains and wind.
Brazil’s electricity is supplied at 127/220 volts and the country uses both Type C and Type N plugs. Type C plugs have two round pins while Type N plugs have two round pins, plus a grounding pin.
Tipping in Brazil is not part of the culture or mandatory, although you may see a 10% “servico” charge added to restaurant or drink bills (which most people choose to pay, although it’s not legally required). That being said, it is customary to tip for room service, maids, and bellboys, and rounding up to the nearest real is expected in cabs. In fact, most Brazilians don’t like dealing with small change and even supermarket cashiers will round up prices to the nearest five centavos.
As with many travel destinations, it’s important that you are cautious and aware throughout your stay. Many tourist hotspots are targets for muggings and pickpockets, so never carry valuables where they can easily be grabbed. Avoid using unregistered taxis and never accept food or drinks from strangers in case they have been spiked.
When using ATMs, be aware of who is around you and never walk alone at night, even in tourist areas. Avoid entering favelas, unless you are with a trusted tour company. If you choose to rent a car, always keep the vehicle locked and never leave valuables in sight.
Travelers who are concerned about their safety should explore Brazil with a reputable tour company for peace of mind.
Brazil has a reputation for being an open and friendly country, with tolerance to different religions and views on life. That being said, around 65% of the population identifies as Roman Catholic and you should avoid expressing strong atheistic views in conversations with locals.
When greeting one another, men usually shake hands while women kiss one another on the left, then right cheeks. It’s not uncommon for Brazilians to leave little distance when talking, which can come as a shock to some visitors. Being late for dinners or social engagements is not frowned upon, provided it’s not more than half an hour or so.
Despite the mixing of ethnicities over time, Brazil still experiences social discrimination based on the color of skin and there is a wide disparity in lifestyle and wages. Although it is rapidly changing, there is still a slight distinction between gender roles in the country as a result of the “machismo” concept brought by the colonizing Portuguese.
Brazil’s successive waves of immigration have brought culinary influences from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Italy, and Spain while existing Amerindian traditions and native ingredients are still used today. Rice and beans are a staple in the Brazilian diet and are often complemented by a range of vegetables, meats, and tropical fruits.
Keep an eye out for feijoada, (a black bean, pork and beef stew), coxinha (chicken stuffed with mashed manioc), and kibe rissoles, as well as churrasco mixed grills. Along the coast, you’ll find bolinhos de bacalhau (cod fishcakes), moqueca de peixe (seafood and coconut milk stew), and acarajé (cowpea fritters served with shrimps and okra), as well as vatapá (shrimp stew). Street markets known as feira are a great place to find local snacks and dishes, including filled pastries known as pastels.
Sweet treats include chocolate fudge brigadeiros and coconut beijinhos, as well as tropical fruit ice cream featuring papaya, cupuaçu, and açaí. Brazil’s national drink is the capirinha - a cocktail made using the sugarcane spirit known as cachaça.