Samba to the beat of Brazil
My personal list of handy Brazil travel tips. All first hand knowledge - written during my travels in Brazil.
All the tips have been categorised into sections. Just click on each tab to open fully and start reading.
- Although Brazil is larger than Australia yet it's easier to travel around the country with their huge array of bus companies to choose from. The bus fares depend upon the type of bus service you choose:
Convencional – means the standard bus we are used to, thus also the cheapest. Sometimes there is a toilet on board. I recommend these buses for short distances.
Executivo – extra comfort than Conventional buses with more leg room and extra padded seats that recline further. Plus air-con and toilet seems to be the norm. Some companies will offer free mineral water and at times I got a free snack too.
Semi – leito – a half sleeper. The seats almost fully recline and therefore are more comfortable. Extra on-board services like blankets and pillows are included in the price. I got decent meals on most trips.
Leito – a sleeper bus. Has wider and fully reclining seats with leg rests. Same inclusions above but also include TV’s and headsets. Ideal for long and overnight journeys in which sleep time is important for you.
Brazil travel tips - Cities
RIO DE JANIERO
- Where to find banks and ATMs at the airport:
Terminal 1 – third floor
Terminal 2 – all floors
- Where to find currency exchanges at the airport:
Terminal 1 – first & third floor
Terminal 2 – first & third floor
Ensure you have some local cash on you before you arrive, or have a credit/debit card to withdraw from ATMs, as sometimes the currency exchange booths may be closed (as I found when I arrived on a Saturday afternoon).
- The Novo Rio bus station (rodoviaria) now has currency exchangers as well as ATMs. As well as luggage lockers and free Wifi.
- Beware: While lying on the beaches of Rio, for instance Ipanema or Copacabana beaches, watch your bags and belongings at all times. Most importantly, keep your eyes open at all times and avoid sleeping on the beach. Crafty Brazilians will sit close by on their own and while your eyes are closed, they slowly shimmy their way to your bag and walk off with it without you realising. Don’t expect any warnings by locals who are sitting nearby because they’ll only watch but not get involved.
- When staying in Rio choose accommodation somewhere in the south zones, for example, Ipanema, Leblon and Copacabana, which also happen to be the most touristy places. Flamengo is a good option too, but their beach was very dirty and can be dangerous at night. One time I stayed in Catete (next too Flamengo) which people say to avoid but I felt safer here than the neighbouring Gloria district especially at night. Also, we found lots of good and cheap places to eat in Catete. But no matter where you stay, night time is always the most dangerous. Most importantly don’t walk down unlit streets at night on your own. Tourists are always a target for the criminals, no matter where you stay.
- There are several ways to get to the top of Christ The Redeemer statue (for absolutely stunning views); a 20 minute taxi or van ride, pay for the cog train or you can hike for 2-3 hours (steep and hot). If hiking go early in the morning to avoid the heat and be aware that there have been muggings in this area (as in other places of Rio). Don’t take valuables and preferably don’t hike alone.
- Shops and restaurants tend to closed for the weekend, especially on Sundays.
- Parties and street parades abound during the week of festivities, known as the Rio Carnival. Just walk around anywhere.
- A definite must is to see the colour, floats and energetic dancing by the samba schools of Rio at the Sambadrome. How wonderful you can buy tickets online now – not like when I went as we gambled buying tickets from ticket touts in the streets. Prices depend upon which night you go. Typically samba heats and themed nights are cheaper than the final on Saturday which showcases the top 6 Samba finalists. I highly recommend seeing the best samba schools if you can. Prices will also vary according to where you sit in the Sambadrome. We sat in the cheap seats at the end of the Sambadrome and most dancers slow down their vigour and pace by then. But it was still spectacular to see. However, do expect a late night as the first parade starts at 10pm.
- Behind the Sambadrome is the Terreirao do Samba, which is an outdoor venue surrounded by bars with people dancing in the middle. There is a different Samba band on every hour. It was so much fun trying to dance Samba with the locals. Not even the rain stops them.
- About 2.5 hours from Rio. A cute cobblestone, ritzy, glitzy seaside village made famous by Bridget Bardot, simply because it was her favourite beach.
- Have to walk or drive a car to neighbouring beaches.
- The best place to eat in town is Chez Michou, with the best crepes I have ever had. I ate there every day.
- Vitoria is a beach holiday destination for Brazilians. If you don’t like beaches surrounded by hotels and apartments, then you can safely miss this part of Brazil. There are many other beaches to see. It’s easy to visit surrounding beaches by local bus. My thoughts on the beaches:
Camburi beach – lined with holiday apartments. Not a pretty beach as it overlooks an industrial area to its northern end and the ocean tastes/smells like river water.
Praia do Canto – this area seems nicer and newer to stay in. Lots of bars and restaurants here too.
Vila Vehlo – in my opinion a much nicer beach than Camburi with nice yellow sand and small waves lapping upon the shore. It too was lined with apartments mainly but it seemed more upmarket than the other places. I would stay here next time I visit
- Has the most colourful colonial houses, all facing along the coast. If staying in town, opt to stay in a low key posada along the colourful street of Avenida Portugal.
- There are no beaches in town but its easy to take a bus to the beautiful northern beaches. Coroa Vermelha is a small village with low key accommodation and palm trees on the beach. Also has an indian market selling wares typical of the Pataxos Indians.
- Or check out the southern beaches by going to Arraial D’Ajuda. There is a water aquatic Eco Parque there but continue walking further down the steep stairs to the beach instead. Then take a leisurely stroll southwards to Praia da Pitinga (a picturesque beach with bright red cliffs) and make swimming stops in between drinks at the various beach baraccas (bars). All the magical beaches are south of Pitinga as the coastline is unspoilt and without hotels.
- Must try the local speciality dish called Peixe Mocqueca. Consists of fish and prawns in a coconut type sauce, rice and a vegetable puree. Absolutely delicious.
- The snorkelling tour to Recife do Fora was average. You walk across the reef to a little lagoon where you do the snorkelling. There wasn’t a huge variety or numbers of fish. But be aware that they charge extra for snorkel and shoe hire.
- Olodum is the famous drumming band of Brazil – made famous when they featured in Michael Jacksons hit ‘They don’t care about us’. Tuesday nights is their rehearsal night in the historical centre of Pelourinho. Stand outside and listen for free or pay to go inside the open courtyard of Praca Teresa Batista to watch and dance with the crowd. You can’t help but move with the rhythm of the drums and percussions.
- Barra is the closest beach to town, 10 minutes by taxi. Watching the sunset by the lighthouse is quite popular
- You may be approached by ‘guides’ in the street offering to take you to a secret Candomble session. Candomble ceremonies are a mixed old rituals (Portuguese Catholicism & African paganism) which incorporates dancing to the gods and then some falling into trance, followed by a dinner once its all over. Do you research carefully as some ceremonies are just tourist traps rather than the real authentic ritual. Check with the tourist information office first. I went to one which didn’t feel authentic to me as there were about 20 tourists amongst the locals.
- For a sunny, beachy day I recommend the 1.5 hour bus journey south to the classy Praia do Forte. Better still, stay for a night or two if you can. It has nice beaches. When the tide is out, little rock pools form that you can laze in. Amazing sunsets to watch. You might be lucky enough to watch the staff of the Eco Parque release turtles into the ocean. Ensure you choose a bus company that takes you right into the town of Praia do Forte as the larger bus companies drop you off on the main highway and then you have to hitch your way to the coast.
- If you like trekking, the best spot I found was the mountains and waterfalls of Chapada Diamantina. The base town is a village nestled in the hills called Lencois, a 6 hour bus ride from Salvador. Many tour companies line the main street, so research well when choosing your trekking company. Tours range from 1 to 4 days. Don’t go for the cheapest price but choose the company with the best experience and gear (tents). One tourist I met laughed at me for paying a higher price but later I found out that his bags got washed away as the river levels suddenly raised during the night (his inexperienced tour guide set up camp in the wrong spot). Alternatively, you can also do short hikes from town – to the Blue Caves, Sossego Falls, a natural rock slide, Serrano (natural rock pools), Cachoerina (curtain waterfall) and Primavera.
- For a peaceful and relaxing island getaway, take the 2 hour ferry to Morro Do Sao Paulo. Porters with wheelbarrows wait at the port as there are no cars on the island, just sandy roads. Many pousada’s to choose from – in the main village, first beach, second beach and third beach.
SALVADOR CARNIVAL TIPS
- For the action at Porta da Barra, buy tickets online at www.centraldocarnaval.com.br . Two types of tickets:
Blocos – where you dance behind a moving truck with the band standing on top of a huge sound system. The area behind the truck is closed off to ticket holders only (the ticket is a specially designed t-shirt you must wear) and guarded by security. Its a must to wear closed in shoes because your feet will get trampled.
Camarote – where you stand in a grandstand or perhaps a hotel with its own bar and sometimes entertainment. Then you can watch the whole procession go by and see all the bands – again in total security.
- In the old town of Pelourinho, there are free smaller mini processions in the streets – much less rough than following the blocos in Barra. Has a more traditional feel about it.
- A few bars and restaurants host some live Brazilian music too.
- It feels more unsafe here than in Rio as all the celebrations are outdoors and people are jammed packed on the streets. Therefore, don’t bring anything with you (jewellery, bags, cameras etc) or put anything in your pockets – pick-pocketing is rife. Strangers hands were going into my pockets all the time.
- Expect to be knocked around a lot if you are dancing in the streets while following a band on a truck.
- The town and surrounding beaches are lined with apartments and hotels. Stroll along the beach footpath and there is a barraca (beach bar) nearly every 50 metres. But people mainly come here to use as a base for exploring further afield.
- My favourite tour was to Praia Gunga – miles and miles of unspoilt beach lined with palm tree plantations. Water was so clear. It was just paradise.
- The tour to Sao Francisco Delta was scenic and worthwhile to see.
- Antigo Recife (old town) is my favourite part of Recife. It has beautiful ornate old buildings. Rua do Apolo and Praca do Arsenal are streets with multi coloured buildings containing craft shops, restaurants and bars. Rua Bom Jesus is the nicest street with a French feel – table and chairs fill the sidewalks protected by branches of huge oak trees. It is quite lively at night.
- Take a 15 minute bus ride to the quaint town of Olinda. The old town is beautiful with its cobbled streets and multi coloured houses. Lots of cafes and bars. Walk up to the Catedral Alto de Se – a simple church but fantastic views of Olinda, Recife and the ocean.
- Not much to do around town but at least it is cleaner and not as big/busy/scary as Recife. Also, it had the nicest town beach compared to other coastal towns I have been to. However, I chose to stay at a smaller coastal town south called Ponta Negra – nice beaches and line with bars and restaurants.
- I recommend doing a buggy tour to explore other beaches and rivers. You can select to go south of Natal (see the largest cashew tree, swim under a reef, beach swimming, lunch at scenic beach town of Pipa). Or for adventure junkies go north (up and over huge sand dunes, swim in fresh water lagoons, explore beaches, flying fox or sand board into a lake. You have the option to select 'Emotion' for big thrills.
- If you like snorkelling, the snorkelling tour to Maracajau is good. A sleepy coastal village but the restaurants have their own boats to take you to their pontoon out on the reef. The snorkelling here was much better than in Maceio.
- For a different but spectacular coastal town, stay in this rustic village where the streets are red dirt. Walk down towards the beach and you’ll find yourself standing on bright red cliffs looking down upon the white sandy beach and a light blue ocean. A magical place to relax in one of the baraccas that line the beach with the red cliffs in the background.
- Affectionately known as Jeri, this place was the highlight of my Brazilian holiday. No roads lead to this coastal village. A bus will take you to Jijoca where you change onto a jardineiras (like an army truck) and travel the last 30 minutes along the beach until you reach the town. No cars and only sandy roads. Pousadas and restaurants abound. So picturesque, so quiet and relaxing.
- Sometimes you’ll find the locals selling home cooked ‘plates of the day’ in their private homes. One way of saving money as its cheaper and you get a chance to eat like a local.
- Highly recommend doing a buggy tour to swim in lagoons, explore the beautiful coastline (was strange to see grassy fields right to the beach) and watch the sunset over the ocean.
- Or go on your own walking and exploring tour. Walk the rocky coastline to Pedra Fudur'; over sand dunes to an oasis with a swimming lagoon.
- As there are no ATMs in Jeri, ensure you have local cash on you before you arrive. Also try to get small denominations as it can be tricky to get change. Jijoca (where you transfer from bus to truck on your way to Jeri) is the last chance to use an ATM or bank. Credit cards are accepted in Jeri. It is possible to exchange money (USD & EUR) but we found it difficult. We asked at numerous places until we found one restaurant that would however the exchange rate was not so good.
JERICOACOARA TO SAO LUIS - the scenic, off the main highway
Instead of backtracking to Forteleza to catch a bus to the next major town of Sao Luis, we decided to go overland along the beach and what an adventure we had. Here is quick run down of what we did. It took 4 days in total but was well worth it!
- Jericoacoara to Tabajuda – Firstly we paid a local for a ride in his 4x4 landrover.
- Took a local boat across the river, where buggies were waiting on the other side.
- Tabajuda to Camocim – by buggy. If the driver is willing, ask to spend a little time in Ilha Amor instead of the town centre. A 5 minute walk behind the baraccas and over the sand dune is a colony of lagoons nestled inbetween all the white coloured sand dunes. You wont be able to resist a swim in the fresh water pools. We paid the driver extra to take the buggy through the second river and drive us to the bus station. Alternatively, you can take the passenger boat across the river and then walk to the bus station.
- Camocim to Parnaiba – almost a 3 hour bus ride. Stay overnight.
- Parnaiba to Tutoia – by boat from Porto do Barcas. You can rent a hammock on the top deck. As we arrived in the evening, we accepted the offer to sleep on board in the hammocks for free instead of paying for a pousada.
- Tutioa to Cabure – by 4WD on unpaved bumpy roads. The scenery is amazing –lush green forests and sand dunes! If you have the time, its worth overnighting in Cabure.
- Cabure to Barreirinhas – by speedboat. It cost us more but we couldn’t wait until 4am for the regular collective boat. We stayed overnight in Barreirinhas. A definite must is to book a tour to the Lencois Maranheses National Park (we went with Ecodunas). Be pleasantly surprised to come across miles of sand dunes in the middle of a lush forest. You can spend hours swimming in all the natural lagoons nestled in-between. You could easily spend two days here.
- Barreirinhas to Sao Luis – by a regular bus! Definitely worth a short stay in Sao Luis. It's a world heritage listed city with stunning colours and architecture.
SAILING THE AMAZON RIVER TIPS - by ferry
- Choose to start the journey from Belem (mouth of the Amazon river). By sailing up river, against the current, the boat sails at a slower pace. Thereby giving you more time to view the Amazon jungle.
- From Belem you can buy ferry tickets at the tour agency located at the bus station, your hotel reception or at the port.
- The cheapest ticket is to hang your hammock on the open deck – which I found a very comfortable sleep. Or choose a ferry that offers cabins.
- Be flexible – the ferries never depart or arrive on time! We were meant to arrive Manaus at 4pm and eventually got in at 1.40am.
- You’ll never run of water or food to eat with all the village stops you make. Local sellers are always waiting for you when you dock and sometimes sail beside your ferry.
- If you choose to sleep in hammocks on deck, ensure you hook up your bags around a pole with lock and chain and sleep with your daypack in your hammock. Otherwise, it can go missing while you sleep!
- Popular route is Belem – Santarem – Manaus – Tabatinga – Iquitos. Many small villages in between.
- Must stop at Santarem and take bus to Alter Do Chao to relax by the ‘river beach’ for a couple of days – a beautiful white coloured sandbar with trees and baracca’s.
- Stop in Manaus, the centre of the Amazon, not for the city but to use as your base to join a multi-day jungle trek staying in either cabins or sleep in hammocks in the jungle. I recommend to do jungle tours south of Manaus as vegetation and fauna are much more abundant. I can highly recommend Iguana Turismo.
- If stopping at Tabatinga on your way to Iquitos, I recommend staying in Leticia – a 20 minute walk across the border into Colombia. It is very much geared for tourists with souvenir shops and nicer restaurants/cafes. However, all the ferry boats leave from Tabatinga (the Brazilian side). Remember to get your Brazil exit stamped in your passport before boarding the boat into Peru (if you are heading to Iquitos).
- Stop in Manaus, the centre of the Amazon, not for the city but to use as your base to join a multi-day jungle trek staying in either cabins or sleep in hammocks in the jungle. Ensure you book with a licenced agency. Don’t believe the touts in the streets – if they recommend an agency then go direct to that agency. Always ask for an itinerary and what is included before you hand over your money.
- I did two jungle treks: a 4 night trek south of Manaus with Iguana Turismo and two nights on a floating lodge north of Manaus. They say there is less mosquitos north on Rio Negro, however I can confirm its not true as I still got attacked. Was not impressed with the lack of jungle density and wildlife in the north. Therefore, I would recommend doing a jungle tour south of Manaus for more variety.
- The wet season (Dec to Jun) is better for canoe trips to get further into the jungle to see wildlife. Fishing is better in the dry season.
- The only building worth seeing is the opera house Amazon Theatre, the most famous theatre in South America. Well worth paying to go inside and view the opulence.
- Florianopolis is the main commercial town on the island of Isla Santa Catarina. Many apartments to choose from to use as a base and visit the islands beaches during the day. Their bus system services the whole island but it does consume valuable beach time. Therefore, I would recommend hiring a car or scooter instead.
- I found the north part of the island very touristy. Apartments and hotels built right up to the beach front therefore a narrow sandy beach along the coastline. For example, popular beaches are Ingelese and Canasvieras.
- Much preferred the quieter, less touristy beach areas of the south. For example, Pantano do Sul and Campeche. My highlight was walking south of Campeche to explore the beautiful unspoilt beaches.
- Another alternative is to stay in the centre of the island at Lagoa da Conceicao. Therefore, a great base to visit different beaches every day. It's situated on a scenic lake. It has a nice restaurant/café strip with lots of people about. On weekends it is lined with art/craft stalls.
- Spend two full days here – one day to view the falls from the Brazilian side and then the other day to get a different perspective from the Argentine side.
- If you’re staying on the Brazil side in Foz do Iguacu, you can take bus 120 ‘Parque Nacional Bus’ from various city centre points to the park entrance on the Brazil side. Then the national park runs a shuttle bus from the visitors centre to the falls, to various tour operators (safaris & boat rides) and to the beginning of the Cataratas Trail. The trail takes about 1 hour 15 minutes to walk, including all the photo stops! Seeing the falls from this side gives you a great panoramic, overall view of these grand falls (about 247 waterfalls!). Each viewpoint was so different. The best bit was at the end where you can walk out on a platform to the edge of one section of the falls and get absolutely drenched. But you dry in seconds due to the heat.
- From the Brazil side you can easily spend day 2 visiting the Argentine side of the falls, which you can get close and personal with the falls. Hotels/hostels in Foz will try to sell you a transportation ticket with a private car transfer to the Argentine side – a 45 minute drive total. Or you can do for half the price with local buses but it will be a lot more hassle. Firstly, several companies run buses from downtown Foz to Puerto Iguazu in Argentina but you need to remind the bus driver that you need to get off at the Brazil border to get your passport stamped. However, they don’t wait for you so you need to get a ticket from the driver to be able to get on the next bus that comes through which is about a 40 minute wait. Once you're back on the bus, you make a stop at Argentina immigration and everyone gets off the bus for passport stamps. The bus waits and then continues for 20 minutes more to Puerto Iguazu terminal where you then need to find the local buses which travels 30 minutes to the National Park. In conclusion, take the first option of a private transfer!
- On the Argentine side there are a number of circuits/trails to walk. Circuit Garganta del Diablo takes you to a platform right to the edge of the falls – thunderous noise and lots of spray. Circuito Superior is mainly steel walkways follow the edge of the falls – great views looking down the falls from above. Circuito Inferior provided distant views of one part of these wide falls. They say to allow 8 hours to do the falls on this side but we did it in 5 hours (we didn’t do Isla San Martin or any tours).
ILHA GRANDE (Big Island)
- The typical island getaway where there are no cars and sandy streets are the norm. Get to Ilha Grande by ferry from Angra Dos Reis on the mainland. Will need to get the local bus from the bus station to the ferry port.
- Private boat owners will offer to take you across to the island for higher prices. If you have time on your hands, wait for the regular ferry service at a fraction of the cost.
- Although the island got its first ATM machine in 2017, I would recommend bringing cash with you (withdraw from ATM on the mainland before boarding the ferry) as the one and only ATM can empty out quickly.
- Basically three things to do on this island:
1. Hike the many trails to other beaches (so bring your walking shoes)
2. Take a boat ride to remote beaches or neighbouring islands
- Highly recommend taking a boat ride from Abrao to Pouso and then do a 15 minute hike over a hill through the jungle to the most beautiful beach in the world – Lopes Mendes. No buildings or kiosks. The beach is simply lined with jungle vegetation and palm trees. The sandy beach is made of pure white, very soft sand which the grains are so small that it squeaks when you walk on it. I felt like I was on a deserted island.