Carnival, caipirinhas and curious hostels: the ultimate guide to backpacking Brazil

Carnival, caipirinhas and curious hostels: the ultimate guide to backpacking Brazil

Everything about Brazil is big. Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival is big. São Paulo’s skyline is big. The swimwear might be microscopic, but the golden beaches are big.

The towering Iguaçu Falls, the iconic Maracanã football stadium, the epic wetlands of the Pantanal, the flavours in a steaming bowl of feijoada, the sand dunes sweeping Lençóis Maranhenses, the candy colours that plaster Salvador’s colonial-era streets, the sheer size of the Amazon, the length of the marathon bus trips between cities… all big.

This giant country covers half the South American continent and gives travellers a to-do list that’s almost as massive. No idea where to start? Here’s everything you need to know before backpacking Brazil.

Jump straight to:

  1. The best time to visit Brazil
  2. Brazil visa
  3. Travelling around Brazil
  4. Accommodation in Brazil
  5. Places to visit in Brazil
  6. Brazil backpacking itinerary
  7. Backpacking Brazil costs
  8. Brazil food
  9. Brazil culture
  10. Is Brazil safe?
  11. Brazil travel advice

backpacking brazil, view of rio de janeiro with the city and sea

📍 Rio De Janeiro 📷 @agussdiaz28

Best time to visit Brazil

Brazil is a gigantic country with a diverse climate, but the weather can be summed up in one word: hot. You can break it up into three main regions — the south, the north-east and the interior — that each have their own weather, getting warmer the further north you go.

The south — including mega-cities Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo — sizzles over summer (December to March) before cooling down between June and August, although you’d hardly call it a winter. The north-east — covering the coast between Salvador and São Luís — swelters between 25 and 30 degrees year-round, but is particularly wet from April to July. The rain comes a little earlier in the Amazon and the Pantanal, where it belts down from December to March.

Down south, crowds swell between Christmas and Carnival season (anywhere between February and early March), when Rio’s beaches are at their warmest, the city’s nightlife is at its most hedonistic and hostel beds are at their most expensive. High-season prices return in July, when local schools and universities take their mid-year break, plus August, when Europeans travel on their summer holidays.

It’s also busy further north, where it’s not so rainy over the new-year period. In fact, that dry season (which runs from August to March, roughly) coincides with the best conditions for wind-surfing, which attracts plenty of travellers to the north-east coast around Fortaleza.

The wet weather poses more of a problem in the Pantanal, where rainfall routinely floods roads between December and March. Couple those biblical downpours with plagues of mosquitos and it’s no mystery why many hostels in this part of the world close at this time of year. The best time to visit the Pantanal is September and October, when the water levels dip down to reveal grass poking through the marsh — perfect for bird watching and spotting jaguars.

It’s a similar story up in the Amazon, where it’s driest in July and August. The jungle is always sultry, but the water level is highest in the middle of the year, before it gets even hotter in September.

backpacking brazil, man standing in the middle of palm trees in Maracaipe

📍 Maracaipe 📷 @ckturistando

Best time to visit Rio de Janeiro

From the moment fireworks explode over Copacabana to christen the new year to the weekend when 90,000 people pack into the Sambadrome for Carnival, Rio feels like one non-stop party. As the mercury soars to 30 degrees every day, so do the crowds, which means prices rocket too.

If you’re planning to check out Carnival (or Carnaval, in Portuguese), you’ll need to book a bed weeks or months in advance. The date changes each year — the six-day celebration begins the Friday before Ash Wednesday, which marks 40 days before Easter, to be precise — and kicks off on February 21st in 2020.

backpacking brazil, man drumming at rio carnival

📷 @andyfalconerphotography

When the humidity dials down in April and May, you’ll enjoy clear views from Corcovado and Sugarloaf — as well as smaller crowds to contend with. Temperatures still hit 25 every day even in depths of ‘winter’ — easily warm enough to strip everything off on the sand — then start climbing again in September and October, which is the best time to visit Rio de Janeiro in the spring sunshine.

Best time to visit São Paulo

São Paulo’s weather is very similar to Rio’s, only 400 or so kilometres away. Winter is a little cooler — it gets as frosty as 13 degrees overnight in July, with max temps in the low 20s during the day — and so is summer, but the humid conditions can feel more stifling surrounded by SP’s concrete skyscrapers instead of Rio’s ocean breeze. That’s why so many Paulistas (São Paulo locals) escape to the coast to cool off at the beach around Christmas. The slightly chilly winter and sweltering summer make autumn (April-May) then spring (September-October) the best time to visit São Paulo, with mild weather and moderate prices.

Brazil winter

Winter in Brazil is a bit like the tooth fairy or the flat earth conspiracy — it doesn’t really exist, and only some people believe in it. OK, it gets a little chilly in cities like Belo Horizonte, São Paulo and Porto Alegre between June and September, but temperatures hit 20 degrees almost every day in most of the country. That’s called summer in the UK.

Urupema — a little village 200 kilometres inland from Florianópolis — is famously Brazil’s coldest place. Even though it snows there during winter, the coldest month (June) still has an average daily high above 15 degrees. When it dips below freezing anywhere else, it’s big news.

One excellent reason to head south in winter is whale watching between July and November, particularly off the coast of Ilha de Santa Catarina. The middle of the year is also a great time to venture north — August, September and October give you drier and slightly cooler conditions to crawl along the coast of the north-east.

Brazil visa

Brazil visa requirements

About half the nations on earth don’t need a visa to enter Brazil as a tourist for 90 days. Citizens of neighbouring South American countries only need to flash their identity cards, while passport-holders from almost all the nations in Europe, North and Central America, plus Australia and New Zealand benefit from a visa exemption. That’s news for Australia, Canada, Japan and the United States, who only received their visa waiver in June 2019.

On the other hand, citizens of most countries in Africa (with the exception of Morocco, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa and Tunisia), the Middle East (besides Israel and the UAE) and Asia (excluding Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, Mongolia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand) need to obtain their visa in advance. The time it takes to process those applications depends on your country, the time of year, and sheer luck. Contact your nearest Brazilian embassy for details and give yourself at least two weeks.

If you’re lucky enough to come from one of the countries that doesn’t need to apply for a tourist visa, there are still a couple of boxes you need to tick to enter Brazil. Your passport must be valid for another six months after arrival, and you may have to provide proof of a return ticket, onward travel or sufficient funds. You don’t need to prepare proof of your yellow fever vaccination if you’re travelling to affected areas like the Amazon or the Pantanal, but you should get the jab anyway.

Other than that, customs is a straightforward process — just expect long queues at major airports like Guarulhos, and don’t lose the stamped entry card the official gives you (it saves a headache upon exit). Some nationalities can also apply to extend their stay for another 90 days with the local Polícia Federal once you’re in.

backpacking brazil, girl standing by painted map on the wall

📍 Rio de Janeiro 📷 @romane_r

Oh, and if you’re a dual citizen belonging to Brazil and another nation, remember to travel on your Brazilian passport — otherwise you’ll have to be processed as a foreigner then jump through a stack of bureaucratic hoops to extend your stay.

Travelling around Brazil

Brazil buses

Comfortable? Yes. Affordable? Reasonably. Quick? Not so much. But like Meat Loaf told us, two out of three ain’t bad. Brazil buses are usually pretty plush — and they’d better be, because most backpackers spend an awfully long time inside them as they cover the huge distances between destinations.

Coaches (called an ônibus in Portuguese) come in four classes — the basic convencional (often without even a toilet), the nice executivo (a solid, standard coach), the fancy semi-leito (with seats that recline a long way), and the luxe leito (with seats that recline even further). They depart from bus stations (called rodoviárias) usually located on the outskirts of town. There’s a secure luggage compartment underneath, and the driver gives you a ticket to collect your backpack at the other end, but you should carry your valuables on you inside the bus. Oh, and don’t forget to pack a jumper (or a ski jacket) — Brazil buses are always air-conditioned to an Antarctic temperature. Although don’t be so fussed about food, because you’ll stop every two to three hours at tidy road stops offering warm meals and snacks on major routes.

The trip from Rio to Belo Horizonte takes seven hours and costs R$100, from Rio to Iguaçu takes 24 hours and costs R$250, and from Rio to Salvador takes 32 hours and costs R$350. Tickets are pricier for semi-leito and leito services, which also go less frequently, but you’ll never be gouged because of plenty of competition between operators. Busca Onibus is your go-to website for Brazil buses. Always check what a flight costs for the same journey — you can often save hours (and occasionally even a few reais) by flying instead.

Rio to São Paulo bus

While it’s a good idea to book your seat in advance from a travel agent or the rodoviária itself for most routes, you can just rock up if you’re hopping on a Rio to São Paulo bus. Between 6am and midnight, services go every 15 minutes or so (then a little less frequently overnight) — the journey takes six or seven hours and costs about R$100.

If you belt out that journey in one hit, though, you’ll skip some of Brazil’s most beautiful beaches along the Costa Verde. Paraty — a R$80, four-hour trip in either direction — is the perfect pitstop roughly halfway in between these two mammoth cities. Flying is also often a cheaper (and much quicker) option.

Brazil planes

There are three big airlines in Brazil — Gol, LATAM and Azul — and competition between them means that flying can sometimes be affordable. Even when tickets are expensive though, they can be a valuable investment if they add remote, spectacular destinations like the Amazon, Pantanal and Iguaçu to your trip.

If you’ve only got a couple of weeks and flexibility isn’t so much of an issue, booking flights allows you to squeeze so much more into your Brazil backpacking itinerary. Scan the price comparison sites a couple of weeks before you travel and you’ll spot seats from São Paulo’s Guarulhos airport to Salvador (two-and-a-half hours) for less than R$200, to Iguaçu (one-and-a-half hours) for the same price, or all the way up north to Belém or Fortaleza (three-and-a-half hours) for around R$300.

Many airlines also offer air passes — multi-trip tickets that typically give you four flights in a 21-day period for about R$2000. But with so much red tape to wade through and little flexibility to change your plans — you must buy your air pass before you arrive in Brazil, and normally have to reserve all four trips at the same time — booking individual flights might be smarter.

backpacking brazil, girl standing by painted wall in São Paulo

📍 São Paulo 📷 @hopewarrenx

Trains in Brazil

An extensive rail network covers Brazil… it just doesn’t carry travellers. Even the few passenger trains that run alongside the cargo services are normally slower than the bus. Journeys from Curitiba to Morretes, Belo Horizonte to Vitória and Ouro Preto to Mariana are scenic trips that aren’t well trodden by backpackers, while the north’s only passenger route stretches from São Luís to near the Parque Nacional Chapada das Mesas.

There are, however, metro systems in most major cities, including big networks in São Paulo and Rio, the latter revamped for the 2016 Olympics. Trains run from around 5am until midnight (7am to 11pm on Sunday), and a single fare costs R$4.60 in Rio and R$4.30 in SP (cheaper if you have one of their rechargeable travel cards). The metro is usually a safer and speedier alternative to local buses, which cost about R$3 to R$4.50.

And if you’re searching for a São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro train, sorry to be the bearer of bad news. It doesn’t exist. The good news? Rio to SP is the fourth busiest air route on the planet, and the busiest in the Americas, with more than 100 flights a day making the short one-hour journey from as little as R$100. The ônibus is another dependable option, leaving every 15 minutes for a similar price, taking six or seven hours.

Brazil boats and ferries

Brazil’s coastline stretches more than 7000 kilometres, so you’ll probably travel across the water at some stage. The crosstown commuter ferry from the Praça Quinze de Novembro to Niterói is a quintessential Rio experience, while on the Costa Verde, a daily 80-minute ferry links Angra dos Reis with Ilha Grande. The two-hour catamaran from Salvador to Morro de São Paulo is a choppy but cheap (R$80) trip. Then there’s the Amazon, where comfy ferries connect Belém with the river island of Marajó, while spartan cruises spend five days chugging down the river towards Manaus. There are also plenty of coastal cruises, but they don’t usually fit into a backpacker’s bank account!

Brazil taxis

Yellow or white licensed cabs are an affordable way to dash around the city. In Rio, for example, fares start at R$5.75 then add R$2.60 per kilometre, meaning the 10-kilometre journey from Lapa to Copacabana is a tick over R$30, plus a tip for good service. Metered cabs run at a more expensive rate on Sundays, nights and around airports and bus stations, which are also sometimes covered by a taxi co-operative, where you have to buy a coupon for your trip in advance. If the car doesn’t have a meter, agree on a fare in advance to avoid getting ripped off. Uber operates in 125 cities and towns across the country as well.

Driving around Brazil

Dodgem-car drivers, damaged roads and dangerous trucks make driving a nightmare in Brazil. The condition of roads is decent in the south, OK along the coast in the north and terrible in the interior, but street lights are uncommon and hazards are plentiful, so avoid driving at night if you do choose to jump behind the wheel. The government is clamping down on drink drivers and speeding with electronic speed traps and strict laws, but there’s a long way to go. Car-jacking is another problem — more on that in the safety section below.

You can rent a car from any of the major chains from around $R100 a day, but there aren’t many vehicles up to the task of tackling some of Brazil’s dodgier roads. Your foreign licence is fine but an international driving permit is handy too. Plus, petrol isn’t cheap — well over R$4 a litre — which is another reason why backpackers should park the car idea.

Accommodation in Brazil

Hostels in Brazil

From the sands of Rio to the banks of the Amazon, Brazil is blanketed with hundreds of high quality hostels, or pousadas, as budget accommodation in Brazil is often called. From as little as R$20 a night, you’ll find pool parties, vegan bakeries and converted shipping containers at these top hostels in Brazil.

Hostels in Rio de Janeiro

There are almost a hundred spectacular hostels in Rio de Janeiro, hugging the coast and hanging off the mountainside. Aquarela do Leme delivers stunning seaside views, Discovery Hostel fizzes with atmosphere, Books Hostel offers budget beds in nightlife hub Lapa, Mambembe has a chilled-out vibe, Che Lagarto Suites gives a little extra luxury and El Misti boasts locations just steps from the beach in Copacabana and Ipanema.

backpacking brazil, discovery hostel social area

📍 Discovery Hostel

Down the Costa Verde, Mambembe is also the top-rated hostel on Ilha Grande, while the treetop Remo Hostel and the secluded Happy Hammock Eco are the picks in Paraty. East of Rio, Yoho Hostel puts on the best party in Búzios.

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Hostels in São Paulo

There’s a forest of hostels amid the concrete jungle that is São Paulo, centred mainly on the artsy neighbourhood of Vila Madalena. Ô de Casa, Brazil Boutique Hostel and Hostel Alice — home to its very own on-site vegan bakery — are all stylish choices. Soul Hostel is your best bet closer to the city’s central spine, Avenida Paulista.

backpacking brazil, outside view of O de Casa Hostel 

📍 O de Casa Hostel 

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Hostels in Salvador

Hostels in Salvador are split across two main locations. Some — like the pool parties at Galeria 13 and the family feeling of the Nega Maluca Guesthouse — are set among the colourful colonial buildings of the Pelourinho, Salvador’s historic centre. Others — such as the cosy Tô em Casa Hostel and the modern Casarão 65 — are closer to the sand in the beachy Barra district.

Sun-seekers should also hop across to Morro de São Paulo, checking into the super central Che Lagarto hostel or the sustainable Universo Pol Bamboo Hostel deep in the jungle.

📍 Universo Pol Bamboo Hostel

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Hostels in Foz do Iguaçu

There are more than 20 hostels in the mist of these mighty waterfalls on the border with Argentina and Paraguay. Tetris Container Hostel — made from 15 colourfully repurposed shipping containers, including one that’s been transformed into a pool — is the one that pops off the page, but the Concept Design Hostel, Pousada El Shaddai and Hostel Poesia also earn strong reviews.

📍 Tetris Container Hostel

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Hostels in Florianópolis

Visitors to Florianópolis have a smorgasbord of seaside locations on Ilha de Santa Catarina to choose from, such as the lush Search House Beachfront Hostel in Barra da Lagoa, the sun-drenched Floripa Surf Hostel a stroll from Campeche beach and Geckos Hostel in Lagoa da Conceição.

backpacking brazil, Gecko Hostel social area with ping pong table

📍 Gecko Hostel

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Hostels in the Pantanal

There are two towns backpackers can stay in when they come to these vast wetlands. One is Bonito, where Papaya Hostel is the top-rated option. The other is Campo Grande, home to the family-owned H Hostel Orla Morena.

📍 Papaya Hostel

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Hostels in the north-east

Stretching from Recife all the way to São Luís via a string of stunning beaches, the north-east is linked by a chain of excellent pousadas. In Recife, Piratas da Praia is just a stroll from the beaches and beaches of Pina and Boa Viagem, and beneath the colonial churches of Olinda, the HI hostel is a reliable choice.

There’s a handful of hostels in Natal, but backpackers should make a beeline to Pipa instead, where Lagarto na Banana, Zicatela and Hostel do Ceu all rake in sky-high ratings.

backpacking brazil, people sitting on terrace at Lagarto na Banana hostel

📍 Lagarto na Banana

Refúgio is an urban oasis in Fortaleza, but to truly relax, leg it to Jericoacoara. Jeri Central Hostel is the backpackers’ favourite, whereas Villa Chic Hostel Pousada is a little more upscale.

There are a few guesthouses in Barreirinhas before the trip into the sand dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses, then in steamy São Luís, Tanan Hostel is a laid-back property on the lagoon.

Hostels in the Amazon

Belém Hostel is the go-to budget option at the mouth of the Amazon, Belém. Down the river in Manaus, Local Hostel and Hostel Manaus are brilliant backpacker spots in the shadow of the iconic Teatro Amazonas and Palacio Rio Negro.

📍 Local Hostel Manaus

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Hostels in the south-west

Although Curitiba won’t appear on every Brazil backpacking itinerary, this tidy southern city is peppered with properties rated above nine by Hostelworld guests, including 1950s mansion Motter Home, the homely Curitiba Casa Hostel, the contemporary Social Hostel and the welcoming Matilda.

Solar 63 provides the best backpacker beds further south in Porto Alegre, but it might be more fun to stay in the alpine resort towns of Gramado  — including the sweet-toothed Hostel Chocolatche.

📍 Social Hostel

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Hostels in Belo Horizonte

Bar-hopping in Belo Horizonte? Artsy hostels Savassi and Samba Rooms are budget-friendly boutique bases to crash at. And if you’re heading to the quaint colonial town of Ouro Preto down the road, Freedom Hostel headlines a small but excellent group of places to stay among the cobblestone streets.

📍 Hostel Savassi

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Hostels in Brasília

The modernist architecture that covers the capital isn’t exactly full of budget accommodation, but Joy Hostel — a homely guesthouse run by three childhood friends — is a terrific choice.

📍 Joy Hostel

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Places to visit in Brazil

Christ the Redeemer, Iguaçu Falls, the Amazon, Copacabana beach, Lençóis Maranhenses, the Pantanal, Sugarloaf Mountain — these are only a handful of famous places in Brazil that travellers flock to, and this is where you’ll find them.

Brazil main cities

You might imagine Brazil being all beaches and rainforest, but it’s actually one of the most urbanised nations on earth. The country contains 28 cities with more than a million inhabitants — the United States only has 10, by comparison — including the 12 million Cariocas that squeeze into Rio de Janeiro.

Few cities on the planet boast the natural beauty of Rio, sandwiched between the mountains and the sea. The 30-metre-tall Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) statue claims the best view of it all, gazing down from the summit of Corcovado mountain, while the vistas from the cablecar sliding up to Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar) aren’t too shabby, either. Curvaceous beaches like Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon and Leme snake along the sparkling coastline, and after Cariocas are finished letting it all hang out on the sand, they dive into some of South America’s liveliest nightlife, particularly around Lapa. The Cidade Maravilhosa (the Marvellous City) nickname is well earned.

backpacking brazil, Rio de Janeiro at sunset

📍 Rio de Janeiro 📷 @hopewarrenx

São Paulo can’t match Rio for looks, but it certainly beats it for sheer size. A country famous for its rainforest also boasts this almighty concrete jungle — Brazil’s biggest city is made up of almost 200 buildings soaring higher than 100 metres, helping house almost 22 million people. So many, in fact, that you could squish in every resident of Berlin, Sydney, Prague, Toronto and Vienna and you’d still have space left over. You won’t find any beaches in SP, nor much nature at all outside of Ibirapuera Park, but you will stumble upon loads of culture in this cosmopolitan melting pot, headlined by the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), the brilliant murals that cake Beco do Batman and the bars of Vila Madalena.

backpacking brazil, view of São Paulo high rises

📍 São Paulo 📷 @ckturistando

So which of Brazil’s two main cities is the capital? Neither, in fact. That title falls to Brasília, a centrally planned capital like Australia’s Canberra or Turkey’s Ankara. Remember that old cartoon The Jetsons? That’s pretty much what Brasília feels like, minus the flying cars — the image of what someone in the 1950s thought the new millennium was going to look like. Founded in 1960 and carved out of the red dust that lies at the heart of the nation, Brazil basically handed a blank slate to legendary architect Oscar Niemeyer, who created a time capsule of mind-blowing modernist architecture. This zany collection of space-age buildings isn’t worth adding to every backpacking itinerary, but architecture nerds and fans of the weird will love it.

The other big city in this corner of the country is Belo Horizonte — another town that’s no backpacker hotspot, but perhaps it should be, because it claims to have the highest concentration of bars per capita in the world. Another hive of Niemeyer’s architectural creations about six hours north of Rio, bars aren’t the only reason to visit Belo Horizonte — the stunning colonial town of Ouro Preto (which means Black Gold) is just down the road, where gold plasters the baroque buildings and church towers pierce the lush countryside.

Salvador, Recife, Natal and Fortaleza are Brazil’s main cities in the north, while Porto Alegre and Curitiba — as well as Rio and São Paulo, of course — dominate the south. More on them below.

Best beaches in Brazil

Brazil has more than 7000 kilometres of coastline and most of it is covered by golden sand. Lots of the best beaches in Brazil are sitting just outside your hostel in Rio — the iconic Copacabana, upscale Ipanema in the shadow of the Morro Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers Mountain), surf haven Prainha, and the lengthy Barra da Tijuca.

backpacking brazil, food and drink hut by beach in ipanema

📍 Ipanema 📷 @hopewarrenx

The road trip from Rio to SP via the Costa Verde also reveals some of the best beaches in Brazil. Plan pitstops on Ilha Grande — including Lopes Mendes Beach, flanked by Morro dos Castelhanos and Morro do Ferreira — plus Paraty, Ubatuba and São Sebastião on the mainland, before making a beeline to Santos, the cradle of football demigod Pelé and Paulistas’ go-to seaside escape from the city. Sun worshippers should continue further south to Ilha de Santa Catarina, too. Búzios is a more upmarket beach resort town three hours’ east of Rio.

Up north, the turquoise water of Porto de Galinhas lures travellers south of Recife to snorkel among the tropical fish and sheltered reef pools, while the white sand of Praia dos Carneiros in nearby Tamandaré is shaded by swaying palm trees. A sleepy fishing town that was discovered by surfers in the 1970s, the word is well and truly out about Pipa near Natal, and it’s the same deal with Bahia beaches like Caraíva and Taipús de Fora. And way up on the north coast, the hippie haven of Jericoacoara near Fortaleza is paradise on earth.

backpacking brazil, girl chilling by the beach in pipa

📍 Pipa 📷 @_carol.urt

Southern Brazil

On top of Rio, São Paulo and the stunning Costa Verde, southern Brazil spills over with outdoor adventures. Foz do Iguaçu — 250 towering waterfalls that form the natural border with Spanish-speaking neighbours Argentina and Paraguay — sits at the top of the list. While the boardwalks winding through the Argentine side throw you right in to the thunder of the falls, the Brazilian chunk provides better panoramic vistas — especially the 80-metre Devils’ Throat (Garganta do Diabo) — plus wildlife like ocelots (tiny, adorable wild cats) and capybaras (big-nosed rodents).

backpacking brazil, Foz do Iguaçu

📍 Foz do Iguaçu 📷 @hopewarrenx

You’ll spot even more animals in the Pantanal, the largest wetlands in the world. Jaguars, giant anteaters, howler monkeys, piranhas, green anacondas, macaws, vultures, tapirs, marsh deer – you name it. Hopping on a guided tour is the best way to conquer these rugged landscapes and the towns of Bonito and Campo Grande are good bases, depending on where else you’re heading on your Brazil backpacking itinerary.

Curitiba — Brazil’s eighth largest city, and a triumph of modern urban planning — isn’t particularly exciting, but it breaks up the road trip from São Paulo to Florianópolis, the gateway to Santa Catarina Island. Keep heading in the Uruguay direction and you hit the city of Porto Alegre, the capital of Rio Grande do Sul — a state with a strong gaúcho culture, as well as German settlements like Gramado and Canela that could’ve been transplanted straight out of Bavaria.

Brazilian islands

The Costa Verde from Rio to São Paulo is also sprinkled with sun-drenched islands, starting with Ilha Grande. Only an hour from Rio, this pristine island housed a leper colony then a maximum-security prison until the jail was closed in 1962 and travellers began filling beds instead, flocking here for the beaches, waterfalls, reefs and laid-back lifestyle. There are no cars on the island, nor any lepers or convicts these days, either. Ilhabela — home to the Bonete and Baía de Castelhanos beaches — is beautiful, too.

backpacking brazil, Ilha Grande

📍 Ilha Grande 📷 @thifalcao

On the other side of São Paulo, the unspoiled Ilha do Cardoso and the sweetly named llha do Mel (Island of Honey) have hardly been touched by tourism. Ilha de Santa Catarina, though, is a favourite of travelling Argentines as well as backpackers treading the path from Rio to Buenos Aires, sunning themselves at the saltwater Lagoa da Conceição and the dazzling Praia do Campeche.

North Brazil also has its fair share of gorgeous islands — none more famous than Fernando de Noronha, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed archipelago 350 kilometres off the north-east coast. The 5000 inhabitants of these 21 islands are outnumbered by tropical fish, stingrays, turtles, sharks and dolphins, but not tourists, whose population is limited to less than 500 a day. That plus the flight takes some serious planning and savings, although the craggy coastline is worth the effort.

Ilha de Tinharé — particularly the village of Morro de São Paulo — is a touristy but postcard-perfect sojourn from the city of Salvador, while Ilha de Itamaracá — with its 16th Century Dutch fort and acres of rainforest — sits on Recife’s doorstep.

Perhaps the most unique Brazilian island is Ilha do Marajó — a chunk of land the size of Switzerland sitting at the mouth of the Amazon near the city of Belém. This enormous river island accommodates 400,000 people and an even larger number of domesticated water buffalo, including some horned beasts that the police ride to patrol the streets. True story.

North Brazil

Curving around the Atlantic coast, Brazil’s north-east is a buffet of quaint colonial towns, glittering beaches and otherworldly natural wonders.

Start in Salvador, the 16th Century colonial capital where Brazil’s African influence shines brightest. One of the first slave ports in the Americas, Salvador pulses with the sound of drum groups, Candomblé ceremonies and capoeira martial-arts displays, with the pastel-hued Pelourinho old town and gold-plated churches supplying a colourful backdrop to the Afro-Brazilian culture. Praia do Porto da Barra is a scenic city beach beneath a 16th Century fort, but sun-loving backpackers drift south to Trancoso and Porto Seguro plus Morro de São Paulo closer by, while adventurous types grab a guide to explore the dramatic cliffs and electric blue underwater pools of Chapada Diamantina.

backpacking brazil, coloured houses in salvador

📍 Salvador

Further north is Recife, a gritty city generously nicknamed the Venice of Brazil for its network of peninsulas and islets. On the other hand, Recife’s next-door neighbour Olinda is one of the most charming chapters of North Brazil — a UNESCO World Heritage-listed maze of convents, mansions and artists’ studios clinging to a leafy hilltop. And Pernambuco’s beaches are among the best in Brazil, too.

Next stop Natal, another nice enough city that caters more to package tourists than budget travellers. Backpackers should stick to Pipa, an hour south of the city — a tiny town with a huge reputation for its buzzing nightlife and cliffside beach, always well populated by surfers, marine life and party people nursing hangovers.

Fortaleza — Brazil’s fifth biggest metropolis — also offers a lively bar scene, beautiful weather and solid city beaches such as Iracema, Meireles, Mucuripe and the never-ending Praia do Futuro, crowded with beach bars (barracas) on the sand. The best beach, however, is an unpaved six-hour bus ride away — and it’s worth every bump. Jericoacoara isn’t the secret it once was, but this bohemian beach town is still one of Brazil’s most enchanting destinations thanks to its phenomenal coastline, fabled sunsets and off-the-grid vibe — Jeri only got electricity two decades ago.

Another long, bumpy drive along the coast brings you to Lençóis Maranhenses — the stunning national park where freshwater lakes slither between sand dunes as far as the eye can see. São Luís — another UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its colonial splendour and Afro-Brazilian culture — is the gateway to Lençóis, which means bed sheets in English, named after the dunes’ resemblance to white linen rippling across the landscape.

North Brazil’s most famous draw, of course, is the Amazon. This mammoth web of jungle, rivers, savanna and marshland is a miracle of nature, crawling with animals like pink dolphins and see-through frogs that you won’t find anywhere else on earth. But to be completely honest, Amazon cruises don’t earn rave reviews — the five-day trip between the cities of Belém and Manaus takes in a lot of brown water and not much else.

backpacking brazil, monkey sitting on a tree

📷 @entrycube

Anyway, you can grab a lot of the highlights — such as the meeting of the tea-coloured Solimões River and the coffee-coloured Negro River you’ve probably seen on Instagram, or visiting an Indigenous Amazonian tribe, or spotting those weird river dolphins — on a day trip from Manaus, a city known for its opulent European architecture. And Belém — particularly the fried fish sizzling at the Ver-o-Peso market — dishes up another taste of the Amazon without having to lock yourself on an unglamorous boat for five days.

Brazil backpacking itinerary

In the 57 hours it takes to drive from Rio de Janeiro to Manaus in the heart of the Amazon, you could road-trip from London all the way to Azerbaijan, which underlines just how enormous Brazil is — and just how difficult it is to jam every Brazilian destination into a short stay. You could spend 12 months in the country and still not get around to every nook and cranny. Really, you could spend 12 months sunning yourself on Copacabana beach and not feel like coming home. But here’s how to build a Brazil backpacking itinerary on a stricter timeline.

Backpacking Brazil 2 weeks

If you’ve only got two weeks backpacking Brazil, then Rio, São Paulo and the Costa Verde in between gives you the best bang for your buck. Most international flights jet in and out of these two mega-cities, so they’re the logical start and end points to a short two-week stay.

You need at least four days — more, if you’ve got time — to even scratch the surface of Rio de Janeiro. Slogging it to the top of Corcovado to see Christ the Redeemer can be an all-day activity, either queuing for the cog train in the Cosme Velho neighbourhood or an approved van into the national park, and Sugarloaf is worth plenty of time, too — take the cablecar at sunset for the best Instagram fodder. Culture vultures should swoop on the Museu Histórico Nacional, the Sambadrome and the street art tiling the Escadaria Selarón in Lapa, where you’ll also shimmy the night away sipping caipirinhas in a samba club. Oh, then there are the beaches: Copacabana, Ipanema, Prainha, Leme, São Conrado, Barra da Tijuca, Vermelha, the list goes on.

backpacking brazil, girl standing by coloured steps in rio

📍Rio de Janeiro 📷 @hopewarrenx

More sun-kissed sand sits a five hour bus away in Paraty, where verdant jungle flows into a sheltered bay with an immaculately preserved, totally car-free, cobblestoned colonial town in between. Throw in a trip to the untouched Ilha Grande, a boat to the cannot-miss Trindade beach, a kayak through the Jabaquara mangroves, and plates full of ocean-fresh seafood and two days on the Costa Verde flies by.

Another six-hour bus and you’re in Brazil’s densest concrete jungle, where it’s worth investing at least three nights. São Paulo is spilling over with culture — including world-class art museums like MASP and Pinacoteca, the iconic Catedral da Sé and Theatro Municipal, and the mouth-watering Mercado Municipal — but the city’s favourite museum might be the Museu do Futebol inside the Pacaembu stadium, devoted to Brazil’s national sporting obsession. A day strolling through the vast Parque Ibirapuera, the suffocating street art of Beco do Batman and the bohemian bars and eateries of Vila Madalena is also a must.

backpacking brazil, van selling t-shirts in  São Paulo

📍 São Paulo 📷 @hopewarrenx

So that’s nine days down, five to go. Where you go next depends on whether you want to delve into Brazil’s awe-inspiring wilderness, or fly up north to the country’s most colourful city. Outdoor adventurers will hop on a 16-hour overnight bus (or a much speedier 90-minute flight) to Iguaçu — the natural wonder that’s most accessible for budget travellers, as well as the one that’s most likely to knock your socks off. Take one day to gawk at the roaring falls from the Brazilian side, and if your visa situation permits, spend the second on the Argentine side, wandering through the mist.

Then it’s another long haul to Campo Grande where you’ll have three nights to explore the rain-swept landscapes of the Pantanal, swarming with wildlife wherever you turn. Sit back and let the experts do the planning — the town has stacks of budget two-night tours from about R$800, but they’re not luxurious nor necessarily the best value, so do your research into your tour operator if you’re keen on this part of the itinerary.

If you’re not, just add another couple of days on the beach in Rio or the Costa Verde, or substitute a totally different corner of the country. Salvador — an affordable flight from Iguaçu via São Paulo when you book in advance, and even cheaper if you go direct from SP — is the first place you should check out in the north. This colourful colonial capital blends Brazil’s strongest African influences, eye-popping colonial churches, non-stop nightlife, and idyllic beaches at nearby Morro de São Paulo to round off your two weeks backpacking Brazil.

Backpacking Brazil 3 weeks

That two-week itinerary forms the foundation of a 21-day trip, too. Then you’ve got a simple question when it comes to that extra week: north or south?

The north begins in kaleidoscopic Salvador — an intense city that easily soaks up two or three nights — before either continuing inland to the time-carved terrain of the Chapada Diamantina region, putting your feet up on Ilha de Tinharé, or trekking it 10 hours down the coast to the beach towns of Trancoso and Porto Seguro. There might even be time to head further north to Recife and Olinda, Natal and Pipa, or Fortaleza and Jericoacoara if you’re flying. Salvador plus a combination of those other options equals an extra week well spent.

The south makes more sense if you’re on an epic backpacking trip that keeps going in the Argentina direction. With seven more days to play with, you can schedule a little more time to properly appreciate the Pantanal and Iguaçu, adding sun-bathed Florianópolis after São Paulo (an 11-hour bus or one-hour flight). Practice your Spanish with all the Argentine travellers sunning themselves on Ilha de Santa Catarina — a treasure trove of pine forests, glassy lagoons and snow-white beaches — before trekking it to Campo Grande to explore the Pantanal or Iguaçu, a neat entry point to Argentina.

And if the bars of Belo Horizonte (seven-hour bus or one-hour flight from Rio) and the modernist masterpieces of Brasília (20-hour bus or two-hour flight from Rio) catch your eye, that double-header is another option for your third week, especially if you can nab a cheap flight. But if you’re hopping on a plane, direct four-hour flights from SP to Manaus or Belém are a surprisingly affordable way to tick the Amazon off your bucket list.

Or, you know, there’s always more beaches. You could put your feet up for seven more days relaxing along the Costa Verde — especially if all this talk of overnight buses is your idea of hell in a backpack — plus there’s the swanky (read: expensive) Búzios resort town east of Rio.

The rest of Brazil

If you can afford to spend longer than three weeks backpacking Brazil, then swinging through Rio, Paraty, São Paulo, Florianópolis, Iguaçu, the Pantanal, Brasília and Salvador crams in most of the big guidebook highlights. But if you’re hungry to gobble up every morsel that the Brazilian buffet plates up, there’s still plenty more to add to your Brazil backpacking itinerary in the tropical north.

backpacking brazil, girl walking down cobbled street in paraty

📍 Paraty 📷 @hopewarrenx

From Salvador, the plan virtually writes itself: just hug the coast. When the ocean’s on the right-hand side of the bus, you’re moving in the right direction. First stop? Recife (14-hour bus or one-hour flight from Salvador) — the launch pad to the world-class beaches of Pernambuco and next-door neighbour to quaint, colonial Olinda. Then it’s Pipa — a must for backpackers in this part of world — reachable via a three-hour taxi from Recife (not too pricey when you fill the car), a one-hour bus from Natal, or the spectacularly scenic coastal route from Natal on the back of a dune buggy.

Fortaleza is a lively city nine hours along the highway, but the real treat comes a bumpy six-hour bus trip later in Jericoacoara. This ultra-isolated beach town isn’t easy to get to, but backpackers make the pilgrimage to tread its sandy streets and even sandier dunes. Private 4WDs link Jeri with the town of Barreirinhas — again, an affordable one-day trip when you split it with three or four passengers — from where you venture into Lençóis Maranhenses, the martian landscape of sand dunes punctuated by serene freshwater lakes.

São Luís (five-hour bus from Barreirinhas) feels like a mini-Salvador, before Belém (13-hour bus or one-hour flight) throws you into the mouth of the Amazon. The long and not-so-luxurious five-day river cruise to Manaus isn’t for everyone, but if conquering the Amazon is an itch you need to scratch, go for your life.

If you’re heading the other way — snaking down from the Amazon to Salvador then onwards to the south by road — then the sands of Trancoso and Porto Seguro, hiking hotspots Parque Nacional de Caparaó and Parque Estadual da Pedra Azul, and the glam beaches of Búzios are logical pitstops on the road to Rio.

You’d be rushing such an epic trip in any less than two months, so take as much time as you can afford. You only really need one or two days to ‘see’ towns like Jeri and Pipa, but they’re the sort of special places that suck you in to staying even longer.

Backpacking Brazil costs

Cost of living in Brazil

If your backpacking trip winds through Peru and Bolivia before arriving in Brazil, your bank account might be in for a shock. Although it’s cheaper than Western Europe or the United States, backpacking Brazil costs more than anywhere else in Latin America, especially in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. But don’t let that put you off — the place is worth every real.

Hundreds of good-quality and great-value hostels and pousadas aren’t the problem — you can sniff out a top-rated bunk in Rio for as little as R$40, and from R$20 in the rest of the country. Travelling the huge distances between destinations is what really adds up. Bus trips cost roughly R$10 for every hour you’re on the road, while flights start at around R$100 for each hour you’re in the air. That means you can grab a flight or a bus from Rio to SP for about R$100. In such an enormous country with so many irresistible places to visit, transport becomes the biggest strain on your credit card.

A bus or metro ticket goes for R$4, and the taxi meter ticks over at R$2.50 a kilometre. A beer in Rio will set you back R$10 or so — less in smaller towns — and a cheap caipirinha carries a similar price tag. A bottle of water is about R$5 and a cheap meal costs anywhere from R$20-40, plus there’s loads of street food for a bargain. Tipping is appreciated but not mandatory for taxi drivers and tour guides, and plenty of restaurants add a 10% service charge.

Brazil’s big-ticket attractions also sit at the pricier end of the South American scale. The train up Corcovado to see Christ the Redeemer is R$65 in low season and R$79 in high season, the cable car to Sugarloaf Mountain comes to R$116, and entrance to Iguaçu national park asks R$70. All well and truly worth it, of course. But not dirt cheap.

Let’s tally that all up. A nice hostel bed for R$50, one meal out plus groceries to cook in the hostel kitchen (R$50), a couple of metro tickets (R$10), a few beers at the beach as well as a cheeky cocktail (R$40), then some wiggle room for extras like a coffee, a cab or a bowl of açaí, and R$200 a day is a comfortable backpacker’s budget with some scope to splash out. Throw in the cost of travel, and estimating your trip at R$250 per night is about right.

You’ll be able to stretch your savings a bit further by escaping the big cities and sitting on the beach in the north-east, but burn through them a little quicker buying bottomless caipirinhas in Lapa or jetting all over the place. If you can afford it, throwing a bit of extra dosh at flights can add so much to your itinerary, opening up far-flung gems like Iguaçu and Salvador even on a limited timeline.

backpacking brazil, girl standing by Foz do Iguaçu

📍 Foz do Iguaçu 📷 @hopewarrenx

What is the currency in Brazil

Brazil’s currency has been on a steady decline since 2011. The Brazilian real — plural reais, pronounced he-ice — comes in notes of two, five, 10, 20, 50 and 100, plus coins worth five, 10, 25 and 50 centavos (cents) and one real. Australians will notice a southern cross on the shrapnel, but no, it’s not a homage to all the Aussie backpackers flying halfway across the globe to swill cans of Brahma on Copacabana.

One Euro or British Pound buys about five reais, one US dollar buys four, and a Canadian or Australian dollar buys three. Easy maths and a decent exchange rate… win-win.

All the major high-street banks — you’ll spot the names of Bradesco, Caixa, Itaú and Banrisul everywhere — have dependable ATMs, although they’re locked at night, so plan ahead if you want to invest hundreds of reais in some Carioca nightclub. Some ATMs can be funny about foreign cards, and they’re sometimes hard to find in remote locations like the Amazon.

Mastercard and Visa credit cards are accepted almost everywhere, but you’ll also need to carry a decent amount of cash for street food, markets and beach vendors selling those woven friendship bracelets you’ll inevitably wind up with an arm full of.

It’s generally safe to use your credit card, taking all the regular precautions you normally would with your PIN. Keep your eyes peeled for skimmers. As with any international backpacking trip, use a card with no foreign transaction fees — 3% every time adds up real quick.

Brazil food

Brazilian food is much like the country itself — intense, colourful, and over-the-top. There’s no single national cuisine — it’s way too big of a country for that — but rather a buffet of dishes seasoned by flavours from Europe, Africa, South America, Japan and their own backyard. Brazil’s coast, jungle and farmland produces plenty of fresh ingredients, including loads that are unique to this part of the world. Oh, and then there’s the deep-frying. So. Much. Deep-frying. Hungry to try the famous food Brazil cooks up? This is what you’ve got to sink your teeth into.

For meat-lovers: Brazil and Argentina share a ferocious rivalry over football, as well one as that’s almost as intense in the kitchen. The next-door neighbours both claim to be the South American champion of barbecued meat — asado in Argentina, or churrasco here in Brazil. Both countries’ love affair with beef stems from gaucho culture, which thrives in southern Brazil. Brazil might just edge the battle though, because many churrascarias (steakhouses) are all-you-can-eat, where the waiters buzz around carving meat straight from the skewer to your plate. Picanha (rump cap or sirloin cap) is the most mouth-watering cut, served alongside queijo coalho (barbecued cheese on a stick), chicken hearts and any combination of pork, lamb and boar you can stuff on a sword and barbecue.

backpacking brazil, a brazilian dish of meat and bread

📷 @hopewarrenx

One dish that’s uniquely Brazilian — and one of the rare foods that’s eaten right across the country — is feijoada, a stew of black beans, sausages and cuts of pork from the tail all the way down to the snout. When done properly, the production process takes a whole 24 hours to soak the beans, desalt the pork then pop it on the boil until the meat melts in your mouth. The juices are mopped up with rice and farofa — fried tapioca/cassava flour that accompanies so many juicy Brazilian favourites.

Moqueca is one of these favourites, and there are two versions of this northern seafood stew — in Bahia they add palm oil, peppers and coconut milk to the base of fish, tomatoes, onions and coriander, while in neighbouring Espírito Santo, they spice it up with annatto seeds. It’s worth ordering for the theatre alone — moqueca is served in a clay pot that the waiter unlids at the table, releasing steam and a saliva-inducing aroma billowing into the air.

Down south in São Paulo, the city’s dining scene has been shaped by their huge immigrant communities. SP is home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan, giving us a smorgasbord of Asian eateries in the Liberdade district. Plenty is traditional, plenty is not — try hot rolls, where sushi is breaded and deep-fried like so much finger-licking Brazilian fare. A big Italian influence also makes SP a legendary pizza destination, again blending the authentic with the imaginative. The bases are always doughy and well toasted, but some of the toppings — such as tuna, corn or crusts stuffed with requeijão cheese — wouldn’t go down well in Naples.

Pay-by-weight restaurants are particularly popular in SP and have spread throughout the country, providing a great budget option for backpackers wanting to sample a variety of Brazilian delicacies for cheap. These buffets — also called kilo restaurants — typically cost about R$5 per hundred grams.

For sweet-lovers: Brigadeiros are the sort of snack that parents make for a kids party but then gobble down themselves. These sickly sweet balls of goodness are made by mixing condensed milk with cocoa powder and butter before rolling them through chocolate sprinkles. Brazil’s national dessert is traditionally milk chocolate flavoured, but you’ll sometimes see them made of white chocolate or with a whole strawberry stuck in the middle. There’s also a coconut version called the beijinho de coco, which literally means a little kiss of coconut. Aww, sweet.

A healthier alternative is açaí, which has been scarfed down in the Amazon for centuries before it earned a reputation as a superfood in the west. This purple berry was traditionally used as an Amazonian sauce before it was imported to Rio in the 1980s as a frozen sorbet scooped on top of muesli, or fruit, or whatever other bits and bobs that calorie-conscious beachy types like to swirl around in a bowl. The taste of this purple paste isn’t for everyone, and there’s no shortage of açaí joints on Rio street corners where you can try it for yourself. For a more authentic sample, head to Belém’s Ver-o-Peso market gazing over the Amazon, where your fried fish is slathered in açaí sauce with rice and beans on the side.

backpacking brazil, a brazilian snack of bananas in a pot with açaí

📷 @bratpackerss

Any list of Brazil famous food is littered with desserts. Sweet-tooths should also indulge in peanut-flavoured paçoca, Bahia specialty quindim (flan with coconut on the bottom), moorish canjica (corn, coconut milk and condensed milk with cinnamon sprinkled on top) and the romantically named Romeu and Julieta (jelly-like guava paste sandwiched between two slices of white cheese, sometimes baked into a pastry).

For street-food lovers: Fans of deep-fried delicacies, get ready to drool. Brazil is brimming with oily, greasy, heavenly snacks, starting with Salvador’s African-inspired favourite acarajé. This patty of black-eyed peas and onions is fried in palm oil (dendê) then stuffed with vatapá (a paste of prawns, vegetables, coconut milk, nuts and spices, also served as a dish on its own) then splashed with chilli.

Pão de queijo — cheese buns — are crusty on the outside, chewy on the inside, and full of fluffy goodness. Made of cassava flour, eggs and grated cheese from the state of Minas Gerais, pão de queijo is sometimes served with a smear of jam over breakfast, or stuffed with fillings like cream cheese and meat.

Speaking of stuffings, pastéis are São Paulo’s street food of choice — rectangle-shaped bundles of  pastry jammed full of minced beef, melty cheese or sometimes sweets like caramel or chocolate. Empadas — the Brazilian spin on their Argentine amigos’ empanada — and kibe — Middle Eastern minced beef fried up by street vendors — are other street food faves.

For booze-lovers: Beer drinkers will love how icy one-litre cold bottles of Brahma or Skol are served, shielded from the heat by a giant insulated sleeve with a couple of tiny glasses so the drop never gets too warm. The perfect accompaniment? Any of those street foods, nicknamed salgadinhos (literally little salties), or more deliciously deep-fried dishes like coxinhas — little thighs, so called for their resemblance to a chicken leg — and bolinhos — little balls of fried fish. Coxhinhas — shredded chicken mixed with cheese then crumbed and fried — are Brazil’s go-to boozy bar snack.

For a fancier tipple, the caipirinha is Brazil’s national cocktail, based on a fermented sugarcane juice called cachaça that varies in quality from home-made hooch to barrel-aged nectar. The caipirinha is traditionally made with lime, sugar and ice, but you’ll spot bars mixing modern versions with kiwi fruit, pineapple, strawberry and other tropical fruits.

backpacking brazil, cheap cocktail stall

📷 @hopewarrenx

Then to sober up the next morning, a good Brazilian coffee is never far away. In fact, Brazil is the largest exporter of coffee on the planet, accounting for about a third of beans worldwide. The crop was brought in from Ethiopia in the 18th Century and flourished in the north, bumping sugarcane off the top of the country’s export charts. The best stuff is still shipped overseas but there’s a growing market in Brazil itself, usually served strong and black.

Brazil culture

Brazil language

Ninety-nine per cent of Brazilians speak Portuguese — the few exceptions being the handful of remote Indigenous groups that were untouched by Portugal’s three centuries of intense colonial rule. Although the accent and vernacular you hear in Rio sounds very different to what you get in Lisbon — much like how Australian English or Quebecois French have diverged from their respective mother tongues — Brazilian Portuguese-speakers now outnumber those from Portugal 20 to one.

Finding Brazilians who speak English is hit-and-miss, especially outside Rio and São Paulo, but a combination of the locals’ friendly attitude, some dodgy sign language and any Portuguese phrases you can cobble together usually gets you where you need to go. Speaking Spanish can help — the mongrel mix of Portuguese and Español is known as Portuñol/Portunhol — but you run the risk of looking like some dopey tourist who doesn’t know that Brazil is one of the rare South American countries that doesn’t speak Spanish. And even though the Brazilians can probably understand what you’re blurting out in Spanish, you might not be able to figure out what they’re saying back (which is probably a good thing if they’re cursing you for being some language-mangling gringo).

Learning a few words of Portuguese is much appreciated — olá is hello, tchau (pronounced chow) is goodbye, obrigado (if you’re a man) and obrigada (if you’re a woman) is thanks, por favor is please, sim and não are yes and no. But if all that’s too hard to remember, just keep this phrase on the tip of your tongue: você fala inglês? (do you speak English?).

Brazil facts

Brazil culture is never as colourfully on display as it is during Carnival, the six-day extravaganza in the lead-up to Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of the 40-day fasting period of Lent. Events take place across the country but the biggest, of course, grips Rio, where the city’s regional samba schools organise huge parades that shuffle through the Sambadrome in front of 90,000 party animals, and millions more flooding the streets.

Carnival has a distinctly different flavour in the north-east, where the Afro-Caribbean influence infuses the music, folklore and food in cities like Recife, Olinda, Salvador and Fortaleza. In Pernambuco, the music pulsing through the streets is called frevo — a name from the Portuguese word meaning boil, such is the effect the irresistible rhythm has on dancers. Steamy.

backpacking brazil, man standing people's hands at carnival in recife

📍 Carnival, Recife

Bumba Meu Boi might not be as famous overseas, but it’s almost as big inside Brazil’s borders. This tradition started in the 18th Century as a way for the poor to take the mickey out of the ruling class — a pageant involving a resurrected bull, cowboys, pregnant women, priests, bad guys and loads of audience involvement. In other words, the best pantomime you’ve ever seen. Bumba Meu Boi is held across the country from June 13 to June 29, then Christmas to January 6, particularly in the north-east and the Amazon.

Carnival is the reason why African-inspired samba beats are Brazil’s most well-known musical export, but the music scene is as diverse as the country itself. Bossa nova — a jazz-samba hybrid coming out of Rio in the 1950s — is also big, while axé in Bahia shares Samba’s Afro-Brazilian roots. Forró in the north-east, sertanejo in the south and choro in Rio are other styles you’ll find yourself clumsily shaking your hips to.

One thing that does bring the entire country together, though, is the canary-coloured shirt of the Seleção, Brazil’s national football team — the only side to have competed at every single FIFA World Cup, as well as the only one to have hoisted the trophy five times. Santos legend Pelé is often considered the greatest footballer ever to grace the planet — just don’t mention that to any Argentines in your hostel, unless you feel like sitting through a lecture on how much better Maradona was.

Going to the stadium for a game is one of the greatest cultural experiences you can have in Brazil. The season starts with the regional championships (all the Rio teams playing each other, all the SP teams playing each other, etc.) between February and April, before the national league kicks off in May and runs until December, alongside knockout cups and continental competitions. Confused? Long story short, wherever you are at whatever time of year, there’s probably a game on. Rio’s Maracanã — redeveloped for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics — is one of the most iconic footballing arenas on earth, while SP’s Estádio do Pacaembu is an Art Deco masterpiece that houses the brilliant Museu do Futebol (Museum of Football).

backpacking brazil, two people at maracanã football stadium

📍 Maracanã Stadium 📷 @hopewarrenx

Looking for a film to introduce you to Brazil culture? Cidade de Deus (City of God) is IMDB’s top-rated Brazilian film for its evocative portrait of favela life, while Central do Brasil (Central Station) and Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad) are equally gritty yet classic Brazilian flicks.

Brazilian people

Portugal’s colonisation shaped so much of modern Brazil — the language, the religion, the food, the architecture — although the make-up of the Brazilian people has also been shaped by Indigenous peoples, African slaves, and waves of migration throughout the 20th Century. Europeans wiped out millions of Indigenous people and hundreds of different languages in what is now Brazil after first arriving in the year 1500, before bringing millions of slaves across the Atlantic to send gold, diamonds and sugarcane to Europe. Following independence in 1822 and the abolition of slavery in 1888, immigrants from every corner of the globe — particularly Italy, Japan, Germany and the Middle East, among others — were tossed into the melting pot, and today, the 210 million Brazilian people are roughly 50% white, 40% mixed race and 10% black.

Racial equality has taken giant strides since slaves were exploited to build the colonisers’ riches, but race contributes to the stark inequality that exists in Brazil. Nowhere is this more obvious than Rio, where the favelas hanging off the sides of the mountains peer over million-dollar luxury apartments below. There are loads of favela tours on offer to backpackers — particularly in the colourful Santa Marta area — but there’s a huge question mark hanging over whether it’s ethical to gawk at poverty like an exhibit in a zoo. If you do book one, at least make sure your guide is a local and all the profits go back into the community.

It’s no surprise that religion is pretty important to a country whose most recognisable attraction is a 38-metre-tall statue of Jesus Christ. About 80 per cent of Brazilian people consider themselves religious — the huge majority are Catholic thanks to zealous Portuguese missionaries, followed by a small portion of Protestants and some unique African traditions like Candomblé and Umbanda in the north-east, once banned as cults before they were legalised in the late 19th Century. Gilt-edged colonial churches — such as São Francisco in Salvador and São Bento Monastery in Olinda — are some of the most stunning sights on any Brazilian itinerary.

Brazilian people are typically very laid-back — you’d have to be to get away with some of the kit that struts its stuff on Ipanema beach. Expect a kiss on the cheek or a hug from strangers, and shorts and a t-shirt is almost considered formalwear in such heat. There are some touchy subjects that travellers should steer clear of, though, such as religion, poverty and government — modern Brazilian politics is a can of worms that I’m not about to crack open.

Is Brazil safe?

When you tell your mum you’ve booked a backpacking trip to Brazil, three words are guaranteed to come out of her mouth: is Brazil safe? And it’s not easy to sugarcoat your answer, because the truth is that travelling in Brazil can be dangerous. That’s not a reason to avoid this beautiful country — countless backpackers wind their way through Brazil without incident — but the risks are real.

Enormous inequality plus millions of tourists equals loads of petty theft, particularly in Rio. You can minimise the threat of being pick-pocketed or mugged by not being a soft target. Don’t wear flashy jewellery. Don’t whip out your DSLR camera in a crowded area. Don’t leave your bulging wallet sitting on your towel at the beach, or your iPhone shining on a table as you sink your seventh Skol of the evening.

Muggers can be armed, and express kidnappings — where criminals bundle you away to an ATM for a whopping withdrawal before they let you go — also happen. If you’re unlucky enough to find yourself tangled up in one of these situations, don’t be a hero — just get out in one piece.

Don’t venture into favelas — they’re often ruled by drug gangs who aren’t too keen on outsiders sniffing around. That also means you can’t totally trust Google Maps to get you where you’re going — Siri doesn’t keep up to speed with which routes wind through favelas and which don’t, nor the ever-changing security situation in the communities.

ATMs are another big target, particularly in the north-east. Don’t stick your card in anything that looks tampered with, trust the major banks, and use machines that are inside rather than out on the street. And keep your wits about you for all the standard tourist scams, which are particularly well practiced around Carnival time.

backpacking brazil, street art of a woman's face in São Paulo

📍 São Paulo 📷 @hopewarrenx

The great outdoors pose their own set of problems. Know your limits when swimming at the beach, particularly around Recife, where the sharks are hungry. Look out for snakes, spiders and frogs in the Amazon, where zika virus, dengue fever, chikungunya, malaria and yellow fever are also a threat. Get all the vaccinations you can before flying.

Flying is another risk in rural areas, where safety standards are often terrifyingly low. If you’re hopping in one of these aero-taxis through the Amazon and the carrier isn’t called Gol, LATAM or Azul, do your research carefully, unless you fancy a game of roulette with dodgy airstrips, overloaded craft and unqualified pilots.

Tap water is normally OK to drink, although it might have a funny taste if you’re gulping it down rather than just using it to brush your teeth. Plenty of places have a filter and bottled water is cheap anyway. Street food is also fine, so long as you’re not dipping into some bucket of prawns that’s been roasting in the sun all day.

Oh, and buy travel insurance. Duh.

Is Brazil safe to travel alone?

Don’t wander around with headphones in. Don’t flash your iPhone around on a busy bus. Don’t walk alone at night, particularly down empty streets or beaches. Don’t fight if you find yourself in a mugger’s crosshairs. Don’t forget to keep most of your cash and cards locked up in your hostel, only carrying what you need. And don’t accept free food or drink from strangers, especially if you’re a woman, sadly.

Sorry for that naggy list of things not to do, so here’s a piece of positive advice. If you’re asking is Brazil safe to travel alone, stay at a hostel. Team up with some new friends from your dorm or on a free walking tour — bonus points if they look big and tough and un-muggable — for some safety in numbers against petty theft. The friendly faces on the hostel reception desk are often a great source of local safety tips too.

The risks of Brazil at night are cranked up from the risks of Brazil during the day, so don’t plan any midnight strolls through a favela or leaving a wad of R$1000 sitting on the table while you’re smashing eight or nine caipirinhas. Stick to registered, metered taxis — preferably pre-booked rather than flagged down off the street — for the safest path back to your hostel.

Is São Paulo safe?

Although there are fewer pickpockets and petty criminals praying on tourists than there are prowling Rio, São Paulo isn’t without risk. Praça de Sé next to the cathedral attracts some interesting characters, while the richer western chunk of the city is a hotspot for express kidnappings.

SP’s most unique safety issue, though, is carjacking. While this won’t be a problem for most backpackers in Brazil, if you do end up behind the wheel, keep your doors locked — especially at red lights. You’ll spot locals speeding through stop signs just to avoid the threat of being robbed.

backpacking brazil, walls covered in street art in São Paulo

📍 São Paulo 📷 @andyfalconerphotography

Brazil travel advice

Brazil vaccinations

The World Health Organisation recommends vaccinations for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, typhoid, yellow fever, rabies, meningitis, polio, MMR (measles, mumps and rubella), Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis), chickenpox, shingles, pneumonia and influenza.

Head spinning? Two months before you jet off, ask a travel doctor about all the Brazil vaccinations you need and they’ll sort you out. The yellow fever vaccine is especially important if you’re travelling to the Amazon, where you must bring netting and insect repellent, too — malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya and zika virus are all buzzing around in mosquitos and can’t be immunised against.

Brazil packing list

Brazilians dress casually — particularly in the heat — so shorts, T-shirts, summer dresses and your skimpiest Speedos or bikini make up the bulk of your Brazil packing list. Save some room for something a little nicer to go out in at night — although that really only means a pair of jeans for men and a slightly dressier dress for women — plus a jumper for winter (as well as those glacial bus trips) and a rain jacket for wet season.

Sunscreen and insect repellent are both absolute must-pack items, and don’t forget a lock for the hostel. Power adaptors are a little tricky. Brazil used to use type C plugs — the two round pins, just like Europe — but has moved towards its own, called type N, with three round pins. You’ll bump into both sockets, so a universal adaptor is handy.

One thing you don’t need to pack? Havaianas, the iconic Brazilian flip-flops that are sold cheap all over the country, and make an authentic, practical souvenir to take home at the end of your trip.

backpacking brazil, statue of christ the redeemer in rio

📍 Rio de Janeiro 📷 @phaelnogueira

Phew, we covered a lot of ground there – much like you will when you embark on your epic backpacking trip around one of the world’s biggest countries! Are you feeling ready to explore the behemoth that is Brazil? We think you’ll fall in love with this colourful, cultural nation… it’s impossible not to!

Don’t know where to begin? Browsing all of our hostels in Brazil is a good start!

About the author:

Tom Smith is an Australian writer living in Manchester. Obsessed with sport and travel, Tom has watched cricket in Cardiff, football in Fortaleza, baseball in the Bay Area, and there’s still plenty more to tick off the bucket list yet. Read more of his work here.

Keep reading: ⬇️

🌟 The 10 best things to do in São Paulo on a backpacker’s budget

🌟 The best hostels in Rio de Janeiro

🌟 The ultimate guide to backpacking South America

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About The Author

Hope Warren

Travel habits include stretching my budget way beyond its means, making it to the gate with seconds to spare and constantly daydreaming about my next adventure. Social media and content executive and #HostelworldInsider. 🌍 Favourite place on earth: Yangshuo, China. 🏡 Favourite hostel: O De Casa - Sao Paulo, Brazil. 📷 Follow me on Instagram: @hopewarrenx

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