A Gap Year in South America's Best
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Just the name Brazil can conjure up images of beaches, parties and jungle. From Copacabana to Carnaval to the Amazon, Brazil is everything you would expect and more.
Miles of coastline, blue seas backed by lush greenery lead inland to the biggest rainforest in the world – natural beauty flanked by the awe inspiring sight of the Amazon River.
Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, with a population of over 190 million and covering an area of 8.5 million sq km (3.3 million sq miles). Consequently, there is a land border with ten countries (Chile and Ecuador are the only South American exclusions), making it incredibly accessible and therefore a must stop destination for all backpackers in South America.
Brazil is a mainly Roman Catholic country and you will see many churches in the towns and cities. But there are many other religions brought across from Africa with the slaves. These religions include Candomblé, Umbanda, Quimbanda and Kardecism.
Brazil has five principal ecosystems: wetlands, savannah, semiarid land, Atlantic rain forest and Amazonian rain forest. The wetlands are found in the Pantanal, to the Southeast, 140,000 sq km (54,054 sq miles) of it in Brazil making it the largest inland wetland anywhere on the planet. It is a haven for flora and fauna with thousands of plant species and hundreds of birds and is also home to the capybara – the world’s largest rodent. The savannah are covers about 2 million sq km (772,204 sq miles) in the central part of Brazil, although this is only half of the original savannah area due to mining and intensive farming. There are an estimated 10,000 different species of plant life found in the savannah of which almost 50 per cent are found nowhere else. The semiarid land rarely sees rainfall and the vegetation has adapted to this. Any wildlife tends to be nocturnal but due to destruction of the habitat is being depleted. This area is found in the interior to the Northeast. Along the Southeast facing coast, you find the Atlantic rainforest although only seven per cent of the original forest remains. Many wildlife species that live here are endangered. 17 of the 21 primates that live there are unique to the rainforest as are more than 900 of more than 2000 kinds of butterflies. 33 separate areas of the Atlantic rainforest have been places on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. The Amazonian rainforest covers the majority of the North of Brazil, in fact it covers 42 per cent of the whole of Brazil – a total of 3.6 million sq km (1.4 million sq miles). It is the largest tropical rainforest in the world and the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystem. The facts speak for themselves – the Amazon is home to 20 per cent of the world’s bird species, 20 per cent of plant species, 10 per cent of the world’s mammal species and between 2000-3000 fish species, compared to just 200 in Europe. There are also many human communities that live in the rainforest, with the belief that there are some communities that have never had contact with the outside world.
Brazilians are crazy about their football and the National Team is the only one in the world to have won five world cups. Each of the main cities has at least one team and capacity in the stadiums can reach as much as 100,000. The majority of the best Brazilian players ply their trade at one of the major European clubs. Brazil has also won the right to host the 2014 World Cup. Brazil have had some great motor racing drivers, the most famous being the late Ayrton Senna. Sao Paulo hosts the Brazilian grand prix in late on in the year, occasionally with the prestigious position of being the final race of the season. Volleyball is Brazil’s other top sport and you will see it played a lot on the beaches. There are also many gyms dotted along the beaches where you will see many people posing in Speedos thinking they are God’s gift as they work out.
There are many famous Brazilians including:
- Alice Braga – starred in I Am Legend
- Aryton Senna – three time F1 World Champion, died in a horrific car crash during the San Marino Grand Prix
- Astrud Gilberto – female singer best known for her international hit and Grammy award winning recording of “The Girls from Ipanema”
- Carmen Miranda – Portuguese born Brazilian, Broadway actress and Hollywood film star
- Chico Mendes – fought to preserve the Amazon rainforest and advocated for the human rights of Brazilian peasants and indigenous people
- Felipe Massa – F1 driver
- Gisele Bündchen – the supermodel who has previously dated Leonardo DiCaprio
- Heitor Villa-Lobos – classical musician and composer
- Luciana Gimenez Morad – swimwear model who hit the headlines when it emerged Mick Jagger had fathered her son Lucas, leading to his divorce from Jerry Hall
- Pelé – the most famous Brazilian footballer, three time World Cup winner
- Ronaldinho – footballer with Barcelona and AC Milan, listed in FIFA’s top 100 ever footballers, won one world cup
- Ronaldo – won football world cup twice
The Portuguese first arrived in 1500 and at that time there were over 1000 local indigenous tribes. The French and Dutch attempted at various times to colonise the nation but were beaten back by the Portuguese. The Portuguese Royal Family took sanctuary after fleeing Napoleon, and eventually declared themselves rulers in 1816, but it wasn’t too last. In 1822, independence was reached, but a period of crisis followed including a war with Paraguay. Coffee beans were found in the early 1800’s creating a new wave of exports and an influx of European immigrants.
During WWII, the fascist Brazilian government sided originally with Hitler before switching sides. During the dictatorship, whilst being a rich period in Brazil’s history, freedom of speech and political parties were banned. By the 1970s and 1980s people were being to oppose the existing system and the election of 1985 produced a non-military winner, causing the nation to celebrate. Today, Brazil is still blighted by massive foreign debt and has seen its local indigenous tribes lowered to less than 200.
These days Brazil is ruled by a Democratic president, who is elected for a four year term with the possibility of a second stint. The current president was elected on the 1 January 2011. She is both the Head of State and the Head of Government. The National Congress of Brazil is the legislative part of the government and consists of 15 political parties. The main parties are the Workers Party, Brazilian Social Democracy Party, Brazilian Democratic Movement Party and the Democrats. All members of the congress are elected into office, with voting compulsory for those aged between 18 and 70 and optional for those aged 16-18 or over 70, plus those deemed illiterate.
There are 26 states in Brazil, split between five regions. Each of these states has many smaller municipalities. Each state is responsible for collecting taxes and has its own governor elected into power by the voters. However, they cannot create their own laws. The five regions, North, Northeast, Central-West, Southeast and South, are defined by law but are merely geographical. They have no political power.
With a country the size of Brazil the weather will vary depending on which region you are in. Rio can get humid in the summer, although temperatures are usually between 20-30ºc (68-86º f) year round. Iguassu can suffer from unbearable humidity though temperatures are more varied between summer and winter. The Pantanal has definite wet and dry seasons – rainy between November and March, dry season the rest of the year. The Amazon is one of the wettest places on the planet and consequently between January and March some roads are impassable. The North East coast has far more bearable temperatures with lower humidity whilst in the South temperatures cool right down to as much as 13ºc (55ºf) at night in winter.
Aside from the normal vaccinations, you should also consider having a Yellow Fever vaccination as you can get asked for your certificate upon entering the country. If you don’t have the certificate you may be forced to have the jab there and then. Malaria is prevalent within the Amazon area and anti-malarials should be taken. Dengue fever is also present within Brazil. It can be transmitted by mosquitoes in much the same way as malaria. There is no preventative treatment for Dengue, instead the best option is to avoid getting bitten. Wearing long sleeves and trousers around dawn and dusk and wearing enclosed shoes rather than sandals is a good start. Insect repellent is required and the most effective ones contain DEET, between 25-35 per cent is best.
Visa requirements will obviously change depending on what passport you travel on. Currently British, Irish and most European countries do not require a visa whilst Australian, New Zealand, American and Canadian citizens will require one. Costs vary wildly between countries. At present, Australians will need to pay A$49, New Zealanders pay NZ$32, American pay US$140 and Canadians pay CAD$81.25. Check with the embassy in your country for further details. Visas are usually valid for 90 days. You may also need to present a valid Yellow Fever Certificate upon entering Brazil.
The main airport for most backpackers in Brazil is the Galeão International Airport in Rio and is easily accessed from other places in South America, North America or Europe. From Australia and New Zealand expect to have to connect elsewhere, most likely in Santiago or Buenos Aires.
If you are planning lots of flights within South America you can buy an airpass. There are a couple of variations on this as One World, TAM and LAN all offer one. All work on the same principles – the ticket is valid for 12 months, available to foreigners when bought outside of South America and segments cannot be flown twice. The price is dependent on how many segments you choose, which segments you want to fly and the availability at time of booking. It is also worth noting that prices will change depending on which carrier you arrive on the continent with.
Because of the size of the country there are land borders with virtually all other South American countries – Chile and Ecuador the only exceptions. The most commonly used border crossings include Foz do Iguaçu (Argentina/Paraguay), Chui (Uruguay) and Corumbá (Bolivia).
Due to the size of the country it’s very possible that you will want to fly certain routes on your journey in order to maximise time. There are numerous routes available, particularly out of the major cities – Rio, Sao Paulo and Brasilia. If you think you may end up taking a lot of flights it is worth buying a Brazil air pass. This must be bought outside the country but will save you time and money. The major domestic airlines (Varig, VARS and TAM) all offer these passes. The initial pass consists of four flights, and will cost you from $500 depending on destination and time of flights. You can then add on additional flights for $130 each. The pass is only valid for a period of 21 days, you cannot fly the same route in the same direction more than once and you may have a maximum of two connections between destinations provided the connecting time does not exceed four hours. These passes will save you money, but be aware that once booked the route and dates of flights cannot be changed and refunds are not granted after departure on the first flight.
It is very likely that during your time in Brazil you will take at least one long distance bus. These buses cover the entire country with the exception of the Amazon basin. Most Brazilians travel by bus as do a large number of backpackers so you’ll get meet fellow travellers whilst doing it “the local way”. Depending on how much you are prepared to pay you can even find yourself on a rather luxurious bus. There are four classes of bus in Brazil. Convencional are basic buses, which may or may not have a toilet. Executivo buses have a toilet, air conditioning, a sound/video system and a minibar with hot and cold drinks. The seats will be slightly larger than in the Convencional buses, have slightly more leg room and will recline slightly further. Semi-Leito buses are the same as Executivo buses but again have slightly larger seats, with more leg room and will recline further. These seats will also have leg rests. Food is also provided on longer journeys. The final class of bus is the Leito. These are the most luxurious, with only three rows of seats. The seats are much larger, recline to almost horizontal, with leg rests and a much larger distance between the seats. There are many bus companies to choose from and it is possible to just turn up at the Rodoviária (bus station) and go on whichever bus is leaving next. When travelling long distance there are usually films shown on the bus. These can either be in English with Portuguese subtitles or the other way round. Occasionally, they will be dubbed in Portuguese which can be highly amusing depending on the choice of actors’ voice.
There are very few train lines in Brazil and it’s very possible that you won’t meet a single backpacker who has used one. Rio and Sao Paulo both have subway systems. The Rio metro is divided into two lines, with a third being built, and currently consists of 35 stations. Line one (orange) goes from Ipanema to Saens Peña with an extension to Uruguai in 2014, built in time for the World Cup. Line two (green) goes from Botafogo to Pavuna in the North. This line will take you to the Maracanã stadium. Line four (silver) is due to be completed in 2016 and will run from Ipanema to Barra da Tijuca, where the Olympics are due to be held. A new change to the subway means that in rush hour the final carriage on each train is designated as women only. A one-way subway only ticket will cost around 2.80 real (R), whilst a ticket to combine with a bus journey will cost between R2.80 – R4.40. The last train runs after midnight although during Carnaval the metro runs 24 hours a day. In Sao Paulo there are five lines. Line one (blue) travels from Tucuruvi to Jabaquara, line two (green) from Villa Madalena – Vila Prudente, line three (orange) from Palmeiras – Corinthians, line four (yellow) from Butantã – Paulista and line five (purple) from Capão Redondo – Largo Treze. Current works are being made to extend each of the five existing lines and to add in a sixth line. Single tickets cost R2.90 and most lines run until after midnight. In both cities, beware of pickpockets as the subway and stations are a favourite place for them to “work”.
In the Amazon, boat travel is often the easiest way to travel, and if you go far enough you can even cross into Peru. Passenger carrying boats plough up and down the Amazon and you will find it far more convenient and often far more interesting to travel this way. Boat travel is also one of the best ways to travel in the Pantanal region and can be the only way to get to some islands of the coast.
Car hire is possible in Brazil but isn’t encouraged as traffic laws are ignored, police have little interest in road safety and car jackings are frequent and violent. In Sao Paulo, it is legal to pass through a red light late at night if the way is clear to try and avoid unsavoury incidents. If you do decide to hire, you must always carry the registration document and proof of insurance in the car with you.
If you don’t fancy backpacking Brazil on your own there are plenty of tour companies who you can go with. Some of the more popular backpacker orientated ones include GAP Adventures, Intrepid Travel, Imaginative Traveller, Tucan Travel and Dragoman. All of these operators provide trips that either cover an area of Brazil, the whole of Brazil or Brazil combined with other countries within South America. Obviously these trips work out more expensive than travelling on your own but you do have the comfort of knowing that someone else will book all your transport and accommodation, that you won’t miss out on the best tourist attractions or that, in the worst case scenario, you have backup of a guide and a head office outside of South America.
Rio Carnival – the original and the best. Held the Friday to Tuesday before lent, this is still the World’s biggest street party. The Carnaval attracts more than 2 million people per day, coming from all over the world, just for this event. Planning for the event begins in September, involves 14 samba schools and many hundreds of elaborate costumes.
New Year’s Eve – Known as Reveillon, one of the biggest celebrations is in Rio where more than 1 million people crowd onto Copacabana beach for a spectacular fireworks display. Flowers are thrown into the sea before Midnight for luck, and after midnight seven waves are jumped, with each wave you make a wish. Clothes must be carefully chosen as each colour represents a different wish for the coming year; white – peace, red – passion, green – health, blue – luck, pink – love,yellow –good fortune. Black is considered to bring bad luck.
Football Matches – there is nothing quite like the atmosphere at a Brazilian football match with the samba drums beating so loudly that you can barely hear yourself think. Unfortunately, when I was in Brazil it was during the close season and so I didn’t get to a match, so time your visit carefully if you really want to see a game. The Maracanã stadium, home to Botafogo, Flamengo, Fluminense and Vasco de Gama, is one of the favourites to visit and many of the Rio hostels will arrange a visit for you including transport and ticket.
Rio de Janeiro – probably the first place on all backpackers list and with good reason. Miles of beaches stretching around the bay, backed by mountains and full of beautiful people. Enjoy the nightlife, the sun and some of the biggest and most famous parties on the planet. Visit the Cristo Redentor, take the cable car up Sugar Loaf and launch yourself from Pedra Bonita whilst doing the obligatory hang-glide. At night, head over to Lapa for a night partying to Samba beats. For Carnaval you want to be heading to the Sambadrome area, whilst at New Year head to Copacabana to share the fireworks with 1 million others, then carry on the party at one of the Ipanema beach parties. For accommodation there’s a fantastic gated street in Ipanema, home to three or four hostels, where you would always find someone to talk to about travels and experiences. My favourite was Lighthouse Hostel, a very small hostel but with staff that really looked after you and took us down to the Ipanema beach parties after the New Years Eve Copacabana fireworks. Next door to one of the hostels lived one lovely old lady who would make her own Caipirinha’s and sell them to the backpackers. In true Brazilian style they were incredibly strong and one would keep you going for half the night. On another occasion, a man turned up at Hostel in Botafogo, asking for anyone who wanted to be an extra in the Brazilian soap opera ‘Belissima’. For R40, I was chauffeur driven to the TV studio, dressed in a purple skirt and orange wedges to make me look like a gringa and arrive at an “airport”, walking through customs, passport in hand.
Ilha Grande – a beautiful island to the South West of Rio. There are no cars on the island and no real roads either, instead lots of sandy dirt tracks. The town centre itself, consists of just three roads and two bars opposite each other. However, once there you have your fill of 102 beaches to choose from, the nicest of which is Lopez Mendez. To get here requires a short ferry ride followed by a 30 minute hike through the jungle. To get to the island itself you need to take a bus to Mangaratiba or Angra dos Ries from where you can catch a ferry to the island. The HI Hostel felt like it was in the middle of the rainforest, with hammocks surrounded by trees.
Parati – a colonial town, surrounded by around 65 islands and over 300 beaches. Trindade beach about 10km (3.8 miles) from the centre of town is definitely one of the best.
Sao Paulo – has a reputation for being dangerous and for good reason. It is probably best avoided although if you do end up here then the Museu de Arte is worth a visit.
Florianópolis – a big surfing capital, Floripa recently hosted the world surfing championships at Joaquina Beach. The historic centre is on an island with approximately 42 beaches all a short drive from the colonial centre. The island is also home to a Forró club, a Brazilian style of dance usually only found in the Northeast of the country. The club also had a large swimming pool in the middle of it.
Iguassu Falls – straddling the Brazil/Argentine border these impressive waterfalls put Niagara to shame. Comprising of around 275 falls, the largest at over 80m (262 ft) high, are set in the rain forest giving them a spectacular backdrop. The Parana river provides the natural border between the two countries meaning that the Brazilian side gives the best views, whilst the Argentine side allows you to get up close and personal. The most spectacular fall is the Gargantua Del Diablo (Devils Throat) and it has a walkway that enables you to stand right over the drop and get a sensation of the full force of the water. There are also opportunities to do a boat trip up close to the falls, visit a bird park or to do a rappel. Also nearby is the Itaipu dam, spanning the Brazil/Paraguayan border is worth a visit for the sheer size of the project. On either side of the border are two HI hostels, more like mini resorts than backpackers. Both had swimming pools and organised trips to the falls. Book in advance here though, otherwise you may be disappointed.
Brasilia – although the capital of Brazil there is very little going on here. The city was purpose built in 1955 to be the capital power was moved in 1960 from Rio. The main districts of the city were designed in the shape of an aeroplane when viewed from above (although this is pretty useless as it rarely is). There is a very limited public transport system here making it very hard to find your own way around.
Pantanal – these wetlands are home to many thousands of species of wildlife from birds, caimans, monkeys, capybaras and parrots including the almost extinct blue macaw. The gateway to the Pantanal is in Cuiaba and standard tours from here last two days and one night or, if you want to get further in to increase your chances of seeing the best animals, three days and two nights and include accommodation, transport and a local guide. Other activities in the area include horse riding. Bring clothing for wet and dry weather, hot and cold days and nights respectively and plenty of mosquito repellent. Don’t expect to be very contactable out here, there’s barely any phone coverage and very few landlines in accommodation.
Salvador – home to Brazil’s second largest carnaval, though many tend to think of it as more “authentic” as it’s largely a fully Brazilian affair rather than plying to the tourists as Rio does, Salvador’s centre is recognisable by its highly coloured buildings and many churches all linked together by a network of underground tunnels. The town is divided in two with the Upper City, Pelourinho, connected to the Lower City, Cidade Baixa, by a lift. Pelourinho is generally regarded to be the safer part of the city and many of the best hostels are located here including the Nega Maluca hostel, in Pelourinho (safer part). For entertainment you can watch some of the many capoeira dancers (Brazilian dance/martial art) or visit a cachaça bar each drink just R1.
Olinda – the cultural heart of the North East, is one of the best preserved colonial towns with its many colourful buildings, sits on a hill, overlooking the beach. Carnaval here lasts for 11 days.
Jericoacoara – known as Jeri by the locals which is handy if you can’t pronounce it properly. Wind surfing is very popular here due to the perfect conditions. It’s a tiny town, so connect in the larger Fortaleza, though you still need to take a 4WD all terrain vehicle for the final part. The town itself is nothing more than two parallel streets running off the beach full of per kilo restaurants. However, the beaches are lovely and there is a real chilled out atmosphere here.
Manaus – is the gateway to the Amazon. Popular trips generally last four days, three nights and cover sights such as Lago Mamori and Encontro das Aguas or the meeting of the waters, where the Rio Negra meets the Rio Solimões. There is a distinct line in water between dark and light coloured water. Activities on these trips include piranha fishing, trekking through the rainforest and looking for pink dolphins or the smallest frog in the world. Accommodation on the trip can include sleeping in hammocks, looking at the stars, listening to the sound of the rainforest. If you like you can even try maggots, which apparently taste like coconut.
Generally speaking Brazil is the most expensive country in South America. However, compared to Western Europe or the US it can still be fairly reasonably priced. Bus travel works out at about R8 for every hour you are travelling whilst hostels work out about R30-40. Expect to spend around R100 a day for accommodation, travel, food and sightseeing. However, costs will vary depending on when you visit. Expect room rates to be tripled around Carnaval and New Year, whilst beach resorts will be busier on weekends so better deals can be found midweek.
Tipping is often included on the bills in restaurants and is mandatory. This will be 10 per cent but feel free to tip more if you feel it appropriate. Tipping in taxis is not necessary but round up to the nearest Real whilst in bars and on juice stands tipping is unnecessary. Beach vendors are rarely tipped.
Portuguese is the official language in Brazil, although some native indigenous languages are still spoken. You should be able to find some English speakers in the main tourist places but don’t count on it outside of them.
Safety is an issue in Brazil and it’s a subject that will only gain more air time with the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. The truth is that, yes, Brazil does have its share of dubious characters but with a little bit of common sense you should be fine. Don’t be the idiot backpacker (and yes this person does exist) who, when asked why he was covered in bruises, says “I was walking along Copacabana beach, alone, at 2.00am last night, really drunk and I got mugged.” Or the one who was arrested for streaking in public and had to try to explain to non-English speaking police officers how his wallet and clothes had been stolen whilst he went skinny dipping at 2.00am on Copacabana Beach (yes, this person exists too). Should you encounter any threatening situation, however, just give them what they want. Insurance can reimburse you your possessions but not your life. Driving around Brazil can cause some problems, with car jackings a serious issue. See the section on getting around for more information.
You are spoilt for choice for budget accommodation options in Brazil. With plenty of backpackers, hostels have sprung up just about everywhere you could want with many of them affiliated to the HI chain. All hostels will have dorm or private rooms along with communal facilities including a kitchen should you want to cook for yourself. Another option is a pousada; at the budget end they are similar to a hostel. Most will include breakfast and often they are small and personal. In some areas, such as the Pantanal, there are mainly only pousadas.
The currency in Brazil is the real (R) which can be divided down into 100 centavos. At the time of writing exchange rates were 1USD = 1.57BRL, 1GBP = 2.53BRL, 1EUR = 2.23BRL.
One thing is for sure – you won’t starve in Brazil. There is an abundance of food and restaurants to choose from. Some of the more popular styles are the per kilo restaurants or the all you can eat asado’s. In a per kilo restaurant, you get a plate, fill it with food, then take it to the till where they weigh it and you pay for as much as you have on your plate. Think carefully about what you are putting on your plate though. If you get boned meat, you will be paying for the bone as well. The all you can eat churrascarias or BBQ’s do more or less exactly what they say on the tin. You pay a fixed price and eat as much as you like. Normally, salads and sides can be found in the centre of the restaurant whilst the waiters bring round the joints of meat to your table and cut you a piece right there. One chain of these restaurants is Por Cau and here they give you a card to put at your place with either a “yes please” or a “no thanks”. If you’ve had enough meat for the time being and want to eat what’s on your plate before you continue, just leave the no side showing and you won’t be bothered by the waiters. Of course, even if the yes side is showing you are under no obligation to eat what they offer you. These restaurants also come in other styles such as the Pizza Rodizio, where various pizzas are brought round to your table on trays. To drink you will find all your usual favourites – beer, wine, spirits. The famous national cocktail is the caipirinha, made with sugar, lime and lots of cachaça. For soft drinks there are many different flavours of fresh juices or smoothies such as passionfruit or mango, but try the açaí berry, a deep purple colour with a slightly addictive taste, often served with yoghurt and granolas as an all day snack. You will find plenty of coffee as well, but not as much tea. You will also find fresh fruit readily available and so much juicier and tastier than back home. In particular, the pineapple in UK doesn’t even begin to compare with pineapple in the Brazil. Beach vendors are a great place for snacks. You will also see them walking up and down the beach and the shouts of “Agua” or “Cola” turn into a soundtrack for beach life. They also sell fruit – coconuts or pineapples being the favourite and some even had mini BBQ’s so that they could cook the food you requested in front of you. Just be aware that the food has been out of a fridge for a long period of time and so you may want to consider how fresh it is before committing yourself to it. I know of some backpackers who nick named the Prawn skewers “Death on a stick”.