Brazil is a huge country, larger than the United States if you exclude Alaska. Although it doesn’t have the mountains of its Andean neighbors, it has wetlands, tropical rainforests, and the best beaches in South America. Travellers are especially attracted to Brazil for its vibrant culture and diverse mix of races as well as great music and dancing, rich regional cuisines, lively carnivals, and passionate football fans. Brazil also has a very relaxed and open attitude to sexuality, both gay and straight, that appeals to many travellers.
Readers of this blog know that we’re not great fans of Brazil. We didn’t have great experiences here. Sometimes the stars don’t align on a trip. Or maybe Brazil just wasn’t meant for us. But I’ve had many travellers tell me that they absolutely loved Brazil, that it was one of their all-time travel highlights.
This guide covers the most popular tourist destinations in Brazil and provides an overview of the essentials on traveling this country.
Currency: Reals. Currently 3.2 Reals to the US dollar (Sept 2016).
Visa: Brazil has a reciprocal visa policy meaning that a visa is required by a citizen of any country that requires Brazilian citizens to obtain a visa. Tourist Visas for Canadian nationals $65 (USD) , for Americans $160 USD. Check here for more info or updates.
Lodging: Many people are surprised to find out that Brazil, especially Rio, can be quite expensive. A simple private room in a Hostel starts at around $60 in Rio, and about $50 anywhere else. A shock to anyone used to travelling in Central/South America!
Food: Cheap restaurants will start at around $5/person, expect to pay about $20 for 2 people in a mid-priced restaurant. Again, more expensive in Rio. Lots of food details here.
Transportation: Intercity buses are of good value but because of the vastness of Brazil you should be prepared for long trips. Expect to pay about 150R for a 10 hour bus ride.
More detailed breakdown of costs, living expenses etc here.
Top Places to see
Rio de Janeiro – undoubtedly one of the most scenic cities in the world with some famous landmarks; Corcovado with the statue of Christ the Redeemer, Sugar Loaf with its great views over the city, the famous beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana. Visit the neighborhood of Santa Teresa and take a tram up the hill. Go to the Parque Nacional da Tijuca for hikes, views, even handgliding. Other attractions: the Botanical Gardens, Lagoa (a saltwater lake north of Ipanema – a favorite of locals looking to walk, jog, and bike) and Central Rio (highlights: Natural History museum, Theatro Municipal, Paco Imperial). The Rio Carnival is the most famous street carnival in the world and many travellers come here for this alone - it is usually held in February or March. Make sure to book months in advance and expect prices to go during this period.
Within Rio de Janeiro State, Ilha Grande and Paraty are worth visiting. Ilha Grande is a beautiful, hilly island with beautiful beaches and white sand (it was actually the highlight of our trip). When not hiking or at the beach, the town of Abraao is laid-back and has some good restaurants and bars. Paraty is a colonial town with history dating back to the 1600’s. A romantic town backed by high hills and with beautiful beaches in the vicinity, it is a popular place for travellers.
Iguaçu Falls – sharing the border with Argentina, these incredible falls are one of the most famous in the world and are a World Heritage Site. Make sure to visit the falls on both sides of the border as they offer different viewpoints and highlights.
The Pantanal is the best place in Brazil to see wildlife; whereas the dense tropical jungles of the Amazon makes it difficult to see animals, the Pantanal has open marshes which make them easier to spot. They are the world’s largest wetland (20 times the size of the Everglades in Florida) and cover approximately 210,000 sq km. Giant Anteaters, Hyacinth Macaws, jaguars, caimans, anacondas, iguanas, giant river otters, eagles, tapirs, wolfs, bush dogs and the rare marsh deer make the Pantanal their home.
Salvador. Second only to Rio in the magnificence of its natural setting, on the mouth of the enormous bay of Todos os Santos (All Saints), Salvador has a different feel; hot, humid, slightly seedy but exotic, it is Brazil’s version of New Orleans. It has great swimming beaches along with the largest ensemble of colonial architecture found in Latin America. Add to that an Afro-Caribbean culture which differentiates it from much of the rest of Brazil. Salvador is the most popular travel destination in the Northeastern part of the country.
Olinda, after Salvador, has some of the most beautiful colonial architecture in Brazil: a maze of cobbled streets, hills crowned with brilliant white churches, pastel-coloured houses, Baroque fountains and graceful squares. It was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Founded in 1535, the old city is spread across several small hills looking back towards Recife, but it belongs to a different world. In many ways, Olinda is the Greenwich Village of Recife; it’s here that many of the larger city’s artists, musicians and liberal professionals live, and there’s a significant gay community. Olinda is most renowned, though, for its Carnival, famous throughout Brazil, which attracts visitors from all over the country, as well as from Europe.
Sao Paulo – the third largest city in the world and the largest in South America with over 17 million people. Although lacking the charm of Rio or Salvador, urbanites will enjoy great nightlife, music and cuisine.
Amazonia National Park – about halfway between the cities of Manaus and Belem, this park covers almost 40% of the nation’s landmass and is perfect for birdwatching, trekking and kayaking. Hiking, camping, and river tours are all popular activities.
Brazil essentials: watch a game of football (soccer), drink Caipirinha, listen and dance to Samba, watch some capoeira.
Feel free to comment with recommendations, tips, or your stories on Brazil. Have I missed anything? I’m always looking to supplement/update the above and welcome all constructive feedback!
Planning on going to Brazil? If so check out my favorite affiliated companies. I book all my hotel stays with Booking.com (because you don’t have to pay upfront). I’m also a big fan of Lonely Planet’s guides because they have lots of detailed information that I can’t possibly cover on this page. Book through the links below to get special discounts.