Brazilians often say they live in a continent rather than a country. It’s an excusable exaggeration. The landmass is bigger than the United States if you exclude Alaska; the journey from Recife in the east to the western border with Peru is longer than that from London to Moscow, and the distance between the northern and southern borders is about the same as that between New York and Los Angeles. Brazil has no mountains to compare with its Andean neighbours, but in every other respect it has all the scenic – and cultural – variety you would expect from so vast a country.
Despite the immense expanses of the interior, roughly two-thirds of Brazil’s population live on or near the coast and well over half live in cities – even in the Amazon. In Rio and São Paulo, Brazil has two of the world’s great metropolises, and ten other cities have over a million inhabitants. Yet Brazil still thinks of itself as a frontier country, and certainly the deeper into the interior you go, the thinner the population becomes.
Other South Americans regard Brazilians as a race apart, and language has a lot to do with it – Brazilians understand Spanish, just about, but Spanish-speakers won’t understand Portuguese. Brazilians also look different. In the extreme south German and eastern European immigration has left distinctive traces; São Paulo has the world’s largest Japanese community outside Japan; slavery lies behind a large Afro-Brazilian population concentrated in Rio, Salvador and São Luís; while the Indian influence is still very visible in the Amazon. Italian and Portuguese immigration has been so great that its influence is felt across the entire country.
Brazil is a land of profound economic contradictions. Rapid post-war industrialization made it one of the world’s ten largest economies by the 1990s and it is misleading to think of Brazil as a developing country; it is quickly becoming the world’s leading agricultural exporter and has several home-grown multinationals competing successfully in world markets. The last decade has seen millions of Brazilians haul their way into the country’s expanding middle class, and across-the-board improvements in social indicators like life expectancy and basic education. But yawning social divides are still a fact of life in Brazil. The cities are dotted with favelas, shantytowns that crowd around the skyscrapers, and there are wide regional differences, too: Brazilians talk of a “Switzerland” in the South, centred on the Rio–São Paulo axis, and an “India” above it, and although this is a simplification the level of economic development does fall the further north or east you go. Brazil has enormous natural resources but their exploitation has benefited fewer than it should. Institutionalized corruption, a bloated and inefficient public sector and the reluctance of the country’s middle class to do anything that might jeopardize its comfortable lifestyle are a big part of the problem. Levels of violence that would be considered a public emergency in most countries are fatalistically accepted in Brazil – an average of seventeen murders per day in the city of Rio de Janeiro, for example.
These difficulties, however, don’t overshadow everyday life in Brazil, and violence rarely affects tourists. It’s fair to say that nowhere in the world do people enjoy themselves more – most famously in the annual orgiastic celebrations of Carnaval, but reflected, too, in the lively year-round nightlife that you’ll find in any decent-sized town. This national hedonism also manifests itself in Brazil’s highly developed beach culture, superb music and dancing, rich regional cuisines and the most relaxed and tolerant attitude to sexuality – gay and straight – that you’ll find anywhere in South America.
The most heavily populated part of the country is the Southeast, where the three largest cities – São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte – form a triangle around which the economy pivots. All are worth visiting but Rio, which really is as beautiful as it seems in pictures, is the one essential destination. The South, encompassing the states of Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul, is the most economically advanced part of the country and includes much of the enormous Paraná river system. The spectacular Iguaçu Falls on the border with Argentina is one of the great natural wonders of South America.
Central Brazil is dominated by an enormous plateau of savanna and rock escarpments, the Planalto Central. In the middle stands Brasília, the country’s space-age capital, built from scratch in the late 1950s and still developing today. The capital is the gateway to a vast interior, Mato Grosso, only fully charted and settled over the last fifty years; it includes the Pantanal, the largest wetlands in the world and the richest wildlife reserve anywhere in the Americas. North and west Mato Grosso shades into the Amazon, the world’s largest river basin and a mosaic of jungle, rivers, savanna and marshland that also contains two major cities – Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon itself, and Manaus, some 1600km upstream. The tributaries of the Amazon, rivers like the Tapajós, the Xingú, the Negro, the Araguaia or the Tocantins, are virtually unknown outside Brazil, but each is a huge river system in its own right.
The other major sub-region of Brazil is the Northeast, the part of the country that curves out into the Atlantic Ocean. This was the first part of Brazil to be settled by the Portuguese and colonial remains are thicker on the ground here than anywhere else in the country – notably in the cities of Salvador and São Luís and the lovely town of Olinda. It’s a region of dramatic contrasts: a lush tropical coastline with the best beaches in Brazil quickly gives way to the sertão, a semi-arid interior plagued by drought and grinding poverty. All the major cities of the Northeast are on the coast; the two largest are sprawling Recife and Salvador, Brazil’s most heavily Afro-Brazilian city and a fascinating place to visit. The coast of the Northeast is developing rapidly these days, taking advantage of proximity to Europe to attract package tourists and holiday-home buyers. But it is big enough for it still to be possible to get away from it all.
Carnaval is the most important festival in Brazil, but there are other parties, too, from saints’ days to celebrations based around elections or the World Cup.
When Carnaval comes, the country gets down to some of the most serious partying in the world. A Caribbean carnival might prepare you a little, but what happens in Brazil is more spectacular, goes on longer and is on a far larger scale. Every place in Brazil, large or small, has some form of Carnaval, and in three places especially – Rio, Salvador and Olinda, just outside Recife – Carnaval has become a mass event, involving seemingly the entire populations of the cities and drawing visitors from all over the world.
When exactly Carnaval begins depends on the ecclesiastical calendar: it starts at midnight of the Friday before Ash Wednesday and ends on the Wednesday night, though effectively people start partying on Friday afternoon – over four days of continuous, determined celebration. It usually happens in the middle of February, although very occasionally it can be early March. But in effect, the entire period from Christmas is a kind of run-up to Carnaval. People start working on costumes, songs are composed and rehearsals staged in school playgrounds and backyards, so that Carnaval comes as a culmination rather than a sudden burst of excitement and colour.
During the couple of weekends immediately before Carnaval proper, there are carnival balls (bailes carnavalescos), which get pretty wild. Don’t expect to find many things open or to get much done in the week before Carnaval, or the week after it, when the country takes a few days off to shake off its enormous collective hangover. During Carnaval itself, stores open briefly on Monday and Tuesday mornings, but banks and offices stay closed. Domestic airlines, local and inter-city buses run a Sunday service during the period.
The most familiar and most spectacular Carnaval is in Rio, dominated by samba and the parade of samba schools down the enormous concrete expanse of the gloriously named Sambódromo. One of the world’s great sights, and televised live to the whole country, Rio’s Carnaval has its critics. It is certainly less participatory than Olinda or Salvador, with people crammed into grandstands watching, rather than down following the schools.
Salvador is, in many ways, the antithesis of Rio, with several focuses around the old city centre: the parade is only one of a number of things going on, and people follow parading schools and the trio elétrico, groups playing on top of trucks wired for sound. Samba is only one of several types of music being played; indeed, if it’s music you’re interested in, Salvador is the best place to hear and see it.
Olinda, in a magical colonial setting just outside Recife, has a character all its own, less frantic than Rio and Salvador; musically, it’s dominated by frevo, the fast, whirling beat of Pernambuco, and is in some ways the most distinctive visually, with its bonecos, large papier-mâché figures that are the centrepiece of the Olinda street parades.
Some places you would expect to be large enough to have an impressive Carnaval are in fact notoriously bad at it: cities in this category are São Paulo, Brasília and Belo Horizonte. On the other hand, there are also places that have much better Carnavals than you would imagine: the one in Belém is very distinctive, with the Amazonian food and rhythms of the carimbó, and Fortaleza also has a good reputation. The South, usually written off by most people as far as Carnaval is concerned, has major events in Florianópolis, primarily aimed at attracting Argentine and São Paulo tourists, and the smaller but more distinctive Carnaval in Laguna. For full details of the events, music and happenings at each of the main Carnavals, see under the relevant sections of the Guide.
The third week in June has festas juninas, geared mainly towards children, who dress up in straw hats and checked shirts and release paper balloons with candles attached (to provide the hot air), causing anything from a fright to a major conflagration when they land.
Elections and the World Cup are usually excuses for impromptu celebrations, while official celebrations, with military parades and patriotic speeches, take place on September 7 (Independence Day) and November 15, the anniversary of the declaration of the Republic.
In towns and rural areas, you may well stumble across a dia de festa, the day of the local patron saint, a very simple event in which the image of the saint is paraded through the town, with a band and firecrackers, a thanksgiving Mass is celebrated, and then everyone turns to the secular pleasures of the fair, the market and the bottle. In Belém, this tradition reaches its zenith in the annual Cirio on the second Sunday of October, when crowds of over a million follow the procession of the image of Nossa Senhora de Nazaré, but most festas are small-scale, small-town events.
In recent years, many towns have created new festivals, usually glorified industrial fairs or agricultural shows. Often these events are named after the local area’s most important product, such as the Festa Nacional do Frango e do Peru (chickens and turkeys) in Chapecó. Occasionally, these local government creations can be worth attending as some promote local popular culture as well as industry. One of the best is Pomerode’s annual Festa Pomerana, which takes place in the first half of January and has done much to encourage the promotion of local German traditions.
Going to a football match in Brazil is something even those bored by the game will enjoy as spectacle: the stadiums are sights in themselves and big matches are watched behind a screen of tickertape and waving flags, huge banners, massed drums, fireworks and firecrackers, to the chants, roars and whistling of the world’s most passionate football supporters.
Brazil’s major teams are concentrated in Rio and São Paulo. In Rio, Flamengo is the best-supported team in the country, and its distinctive shirt of red and black hoops is seen everywhere. Its clashes with perennial Rio rival Fluminense (maroon, green and white stripes) is one of the most intense matches in Brazilian club football, rivalled only by the games between São Paulo’s two leading teams, São Paulo (white with red and black hoops) and Coríntians (white). In Rio, Botafogo (black and white stripes with the famous white-star badge) and Vasco (white with black diagonal stripe) vie with Fla-Flu for dominance, while Palmeiras (green) and Santos (white) make up the big four in São Paulo. The only teams that consistently live with the best of Rio and São Paulo are Internacional (red) and Grêmio (blue, white and black stripes) from Porto Alegre, and Atlético Mineiro (white) and Cruzeiro (dark blue) from Belo Horizonte.
Brazilian stadiums tend to be enormous, concrete, and with a few exceptions rather dingy and lacking in character: they are rarely full save for clássicos, matches between major teams, and rely on the supporters rather than their architecture for colour and feeling. Most pitches are separated from supporters by a wide running track and sometimes even a moat, which puts the play further from the terraces than British fans will be used to. But some stadiums are worth going out of your way for: the Maracanã in Rio, it goes without saying, but also the beautiful Art Deco Pacaembú in São Paulo. No football fan should visit Rio without leaving a morning for the excellent tour of the Maracanã, or miss the superb new Museu de Futbol when in São Paulo.
Tickets are very cheap by European standards; good seats at a clássico will cost no more than R$50, but an ordinary match will be half that or less – the issue is availability rather than price. For clássicos, hotels often have packages that include transport, tickets and a guide for around R$100 all in, an expensive way of doing it but often the only practical option if you can’t get a ticket a few days in advance. For ordinary matches, you can almost always turn up half an hour beforehand and look for the bilheteria, the ticket office, which usually only takes cash. All stadiums are two-deckers, most are now all-seaters but a few still have terracing on the lower deck: upper-deck seats are arquibancada, lower-deck geral. There is not as much of a problem with crowd violence in Brazil as in many European countries, but don’t wear a Brazilian club shirt just to be on the safe side: non-Brazilian shirts are no problem (except for Argentinian ones – the two countries don’t get on well in footballing terms), and Brazilian fans are extremely friendly to foreigners. December is the off season; otherwise, a mixture of state and national championships ensures constant football.
Learning some Portuguese before you go to Brazil is an extremely good idea. Although many well-educated Brazilians speak English, and it’s now the main second language taught in schools, this hasn’t filtered through to most of the population. If you know Spanish you’re halfway there: there are obvious similarities in the grammar and vocabulary, so you should be able to make yourself understood if you speak slowly, and reading won’t present you with too many problems. However, Portuguese pronunciation is utterly different and much less straightforward than Spanish, so unless you take the trouble to learn a bit about it you won’t have a clue what Brazilians are talking about. And contrary to what you might expect, very few Brazilians speak Spanish themselves.
Unfortunately, far too many people – especially Spanish-speakers – are put off going to Brazil precisely by the language, but in reality this should be one of your main reasons for going. Brazilian Portuguese is a colourful, sensual language full of wonderfully rude and exotic vowel sounds, swooping intonation and hilarious idiomatic expressions. You’ll also find that Brazilians will greatly appreciate even your most rudimentary efforts, and every small improvement in your Portuguese will make your stay in Brazil ten times more enjoyable.
People who have learned their Portuguese in Portugal or in Lusophone Africa won’t have any real problems with the language in Brazil, but there are some quite big differences. There are many variations in vocabulary, and Brazilians take more liberties with the language, but the most notable differences are in pronunciation: Brazilian Portuguese is spoken more slowly and clearly; the neutral vowels so characteristic of European Portuguese tend to be sounded in full; in much of Brazil outside Rio the slushy “sh” sound doesn’t exist; and the “de” and “te” endings of words like cidade and diferente are palatalized so they end up sounding like “sidadgee” and “djiferentchee”.
Carnaval plunges Brazil into the most serious partying in the world. Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Notting Hill in London are not even close; nothing approaches the sheer scale and spectacle of Carnaval in Rio, Salvador and Olinda, just outside Recife. But Carnaval also speaks to the streak of melancholy that is the other side of the stereotype of fun-loving Brazil.
Part of the reason is Carnaval’s origins at the time when Brazil was still the largest slaveholding country in the Americas. The celebrations just before Lent acquired a kind of “world turned upside down” character, with slaveowners ceremonially serving their slaves food and allowing them time off work – giving a particularly double-edged feel to Carnaval as servitude reasserted itself come Ash Wedneday. Brazil has come a long way since then, but the traditional freedom to transgress that comes with Carnaval gives its partying an edge that deepens in the small hours, as alcohol and crowds generate their usual tensions – the already high murder rate hits its peak over the festival and traffic deaths are also at their annual high. There is a big difference between day and night. Carnaval during the day is for families, and you can relax along with the Pierrots, masks and brass bands that ply the streets and squares: if you travel with children they will remember a good Carnaval for the rest of their lives. Carnaval at night is memorably spectacular in Rio and the biggest street party you will ever see in Salvador and Olinda, but it’s best to keep your wits about you and your head clear. For more information, see Carnaval dates and the relevant sections of the guide for more information.
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