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Tours to Brazil: what to expect

Kieran Meeke / 20 June 2017

Rio Carnival, Christ the Redeemer and the Amazon Rain Forest! Brazil is home to a few bucket list attractions and is a great place to embark on a tour.

Aerial panorama of Christ and Sugar Loaf Mountain, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. Vintage colors
Possibly the most famous statue in the world? Christ the Redeemer stands proudly on top on Sugar Loaf Mountain in Rio de Janerio, Brazil.

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The people & history of Brazil

Brazil owes its diverse population to a history of Portuguese colonisation and slavery. The Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, and their biggest legacy remains the Portuguese language. Independence dates to 1882.

The Portuguese brought disease that wiped out most of the native tribes and they started importing African slaves to grow sugar and tobacco. 

Forty per cent of the slaves landed in the Americas arrived in Brazil, a total of around five million people who brought their cuisine, music, dance, religions and languages with them.

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Health and safety in Brazil

Brazil is a vast country, incorporating jungle and beach as well as mountains, so health concerns vary from region to region. 

Sunburn is the usual issue for most visitors but malaria a major one for those visiting the Amazon. Mosquitoes also carry dengue fever, a problem in Rio. 

The Zika virus is another worry, particularly for pregnant women. The best protection is to cover up and wear insect repellent to prevent being bitten in the first place butmr ask your doctor for advice once you know your itinerary.

The tap water in cities is safe to drink, and certainly brush your teeth with, but most people prefer the taste – and temperature – of bottled water.

Urban centres such as Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Recife have a reputation for crime that they may not deserve. 

I’ve wandered around, even at night, with no trouble but take the same precautions you would in any big city. Ask locals where it’s safe to go, avoid places where there aren’t other people, and dress down.

Expect pickpockets and scam artists in crowded tourist areas or public transport. Take a small amount of cash and leave valuables in your hotel or, even better, at home.

Brazilian Language and culture

The Rio Olympics brought a boost in English speakers but it is still rare to meet fluency outside major tourist spots. However, Spanish is widely understood because the country has so many Spanish-speaking neighbours.

One of the most distinctive forms of Brazilian culture is capoeira, a dance-like martial art that you might see on Copacabana beach in Rio. It has its origins in Angola and, practised in secret by slaves, was illegal until 1937.

Pure dance is seen in the seductive samba, in which many hotels offer classes. It is only one of many variations on a theme that the Rio Carnival has made famous.

Rio’s Carnival held in February/March probably needs no description – its fame is universal – but it’s worth knowing that many other places also have their own weeklong festivities. 

You can find a smaller alternative or visit several over various nights. São Paulo’s, for example, peaks on a Saturday, while Rio’s is Sunday and Monday.

One of the best for visitors is Recife, where everyone has to join in. The week before carnival is also a great time to be around, as the excitement is building and the partying has already started.

It’s no coincidence that carnival is so big here. Music, dance and having a good time are key parts of Brazilian culture. No matter where you do in the country, you will be welcomed and enjoy a good time.

That also applies in football stadiums but you will need a good guide or local friend to find tickets and stay safe if you want to experience the excitement of the stands. 

It’s a sport that is met with passion both on and off the field.

You can find the sport being played on the beaches, and both Copacabana and Ipanema are famous for “futevolei”, a mix of football and volleyball with no hands.

Brazil's must-see attractions

Rio de Janeiro, with its Sugarloaf Mountain, is one of the world’s most photographed sights. From its Copacabana or Ipanema to the statue of Christ the Redeemer, there are few views you have not seen before on film or TV but reality lives up to expectations.

While the beaches of Rio attract tourists, locals prefer to head off to resorts such as Buzios – made famous by Brigitte Bardot in her day – Ilha Grande, or the Unesco-listed Paraty. 

They offer fewer crowds, more exclusive hotels, good restaurants and a tropical seaside vibe along with cobbled streets and pretty colonial houses.

The Amazon River is another equally famous destination. The best way to see it is from a riverboat, most of which are based in Manaus, a city of around two million people that is famed for its opera house.

The Pantanal, which sprawls over the borders of Bolivia and Paraguay, is the world’s largest wetland and home to 1,000 bird species and hundreds of fish, reptile and mammal species. 

There are, for example, ten million caimans here and the region is also the world’s jaguar-watching capital. Campo Grande, a city of fine restaurants and lively students, is the gateway.

Iguacu Falls span the border between Brazil and Argentina and is made up of 250 individual falls that together form the largest waterfalls system in the world. However it is the lush jungle setting, as much as their scale, that makes the falls such a dramatic sight.

The city of Florianopolis on the southern coast of Brazil has 60 beaches and has a thriving tourism scene, popular with Argentines for holidays. This is the place to lie on the beach and sip maté tea.

Ouro Preto in the state of Minas Gerais is Unesco recognised for its impressive colonial Baroque architecture. The wealth of the region was based on gold mining and paid for impressive churches and museums filled with precious and historic objects.

Salvador da Bahia is one of the oldest cities in the Americas and is a centre of Afro-Brazilian culture. This is the place to discover the roots of capoeira or samba, or just enjoy listening to some of the best music in the country. Its carnival attracts two million people.

Sao Paulo, with a population of 11,000 people, is the largest city in the Americas (New York is 8.5 million and Mexico City is 9 million). That size supports a great restaurant scene and cultural life that actually far surpass Rio’s. 

Food & drink in Brazil

Brazil’s national dish of feijoada also has its origins in Africa. This bean stew flavoured with beef or pork was the dish fed once a day to slaves.

Originally the meat was low quality, including offal, and that remains popular but most visitors will be served a more refined version.

One distinctive style of restaurant you will find in many places is the “Comida por Quilo” (Food per Kilo). You choose from a buffet, usually offering popular local dishes and your plate is weighed at the till. 

Anyone who picks a salad will pay less than those who load their plate with meat.

You have to be careful, as chips and beans weigh as much as a steak, but these buffets are a good way to try small samples of local cuisine. They also make a good haven for vegetarians, who often struggle to find decent portions of vegetables in other places.

While Brazil might be more famous for its caipirinha, the most popular local drink is beer. Served at near-freezing temperatures, it is very light in alcohol and a good alternative to water on a hot day. 

Cold drink is an obsession and even draught beer is served in small glasses, with a large insulating head of foam, so that you can drink it before it loses its chill.

It’s worth knowing that a “cerveja” is a bottled beer, while a “chope” is draft beer. Like everywhere else, Brazil is experiencing a spurt in microbreweries, so asking for a “chope” will often present you with some interesting choices.

A caipirinha is made from a base of cachaça, a high-alcohol drink distilled from sugarcane juice (rum is made from molasses). Try a pure cachaça as an after-dinner digestif in local style. A caipirinha adds lime wedges and sugar, with lots of ice.

A refreshing non-alcoholic drink is coconut water, sold on any beach by a vendor who cuts the top off a fresh coconut. Once you’re finished drinking, ask to have the empty shell cut open so you can nibble the flesh inside.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.