Attitudes vary from region to region. The two most popular gay destinations are Rio and Salvador. Rural areas and small towns, especially in Minas Gerais, the Northeast and the South, are conservative; the medium-sized and larger cities less so. A useful resource to consult before your trip is w www.guiagaybrasil.com.br; although the text is in Portuguese, there are enough English indicators to allow non-Portuguese speakers to navigate easily through it and benefit from the listings and tips.
Mail within Brazil takes three or four days, longer in the North and Northeast, while airmail letters to Europe and North America usually take about a week. Surface mail takes about a month to North America, and two to Europe. Although the postal system is generally very reliable, it is not advisable to send valuables through the mail.
A useful compendium of city maps and main road networks is published by Guias Quatro Rodas, a Brazilian motoring organization, which also has maps to Rio, São Paulo and other cities, states and regions. These are easy to find in bookstores, newsagents and magazine stalls. Very clear 1:960,000 maps of individual states are published by On Line Editora, and are usually available in Brazilian bookstores and newspaper kiosks; topographical and hiking maps are difficult to come by, though very occasionally they are available from municipal tourist offices or national parks in Brazil, or from local trekking equipment shops or tour operators.
The dialling tone is a single continuous note, engaged is rapid pips, and the ringing tone is regular peals, as in the US. The phone system in Brazil is continually overloaded. If you get an engaged tone, keep trying – nine times out of ten, the phone is not actually engaged and you get through after seven or eight attempts. The smaller the place, the more often you need to try.
Long-distance and international calls can also be made from a posto telefônico, which all operate in the same way: you ask at the counter for a chave, are given a numbered key, go to the booth, insert the key and turn it to the right, and can then make up to three completed calls. You are billed when you return the key. To make a call between cities, you need to dial the trunk code, the código DDD (pronounced “daydayday”), listed at the front of phone directories. For international calls, ask for chamada internacional; a reverse-charge call is a chamada a cobrar. Reversing the charges costs about twice as much as paying locally, and it is much cheaper to use a telephone charge-card from home. Except in the most remote parts of Amazônia and the Northeast, everything from a small town upwards has a posto, though note that outside large cities they shut at 10pm.
As different phone companies predominate in different areas of the country, pay phones will display which company code should be used from that particular phone, or the hotel receptionist will let you know the correct code to be used if calling from your hotel. The commonest codes are 21, 23 and 14. If you want to reverse the charges, dial 90 and then the number with company code as above. To reverse the charges on an international call, dial 00080 followed by the country code. As ever, the simplest option to make international calls is a phonecard bought before you leave.
Popular destinations such as Rio, Salvador, the Northeast beach resorts, and towns throughout the South have efficient and helpful tourist offices, but anywhere off the beaten track has nothing at all – only Manaus, Belém and Porto Velho have offices in the Amazon region, for example.
Most state capitals have tourist information offices, which are announced by signs saying Informações Turísticas. Many of these provide free city maps and booklets, but they are usually all in Portuguese. As a rule, only the airport tourist offices have hotel-booking services, and none of them is very good on advising about budget accommodation. Tourist offices are run by the different state and municipal governments, so you have to learn a new acronym every time you cross a state line. In Rio, for example, you’ll find TurisRio, which advises on the state, and Riotur, which provides information on the city. There’s also EMBRATUR, the national tourist organization, but it doesn’t have direct dealings with the general public apart from its excellent website.
Buses in cities are really only suitable for the agile; taxis, however, are plentiful, and most can accommodate wheelchairs. Long-distance buses are generally quite comfortable, with the special leito services offering fully reclining seats. Internal airlines are helpful, and wheelchairs are available at all the main airports.
On the whole, Brazil is very much a viable destination for the budget traveller. The cheapness of food and budget hotels – and the fact that the best attractions, such as the beaches, are free – still make it possible to have an enjoyable time on a budget of less than R$125 a day. Staying in good hotels, travelling by comfortable buses or planes and not stinting on the extras is likely to cost you around R$400 a day.
The Brazilian currency is the real (pronounced “hey-al”); its plural is reís (pronounced “hey-ice”), written R$. The real is made up of one hundred centavos, written ¢. The rather pleasing notes, themed after Brazilian wildlife and all the same size but different colours, are for 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 reís; coins are 1, 5, 10, 25, 50 centavos and the 1 real. You will occasionally see a tattered R$1 note but these are being phased out, although they are legal tender. Throughout the Guide, all prices are given in Brazilian reís unless otherwise noted. However, US dollars and euros are easy enough to change in banks and exchange offices anywhere, and are also readily accepted by luxury hotels, tour companies and souvenir shops in the big cities.
Changing money in Brazil is simple; just take your bank or credit card with PIN (Personal Identification Number, which you must set up with your bank before your trip), and use ATMs – they are now ubiquitous in Brazil, to be found in most supermarkets, many pharmacies and all airports, as well as banks. Only Visa cards can be used to withdraw cash advances at the ATMs of Banco do Brasil and Banco Bradesco; only MasterCard at HSBC, Itaú and Banco Mercantil. Increasing numbers of Brazilian banks are linking their cash dispensers to the Cirrus and Maestro networks; the most reliable and widespread is the Banco 24 Horas network and HSBC. One important thing to note is that for security reasons most bank ATMs stop dispensing cash after 8pm, although Banco 24 Horas in large supermarkets will dispense until 10pm. Airport ATMs are the only ones that dispense cash all hours.
The main credit cards are widely accepted by shops, hotels and restaurants throughout Brazil, even in rural areas. MasterCard and Visa are the most prevalent, with Diners Club and American Express also widespread. It’s a good idea to inform your credit-card issuer about your trip before you leave so that the card isn’t stopped for uncharacteristic use.
Given the ease of using plastic, traveller’s cheques are not recommended, unless you want a small emergency reserve. Only the head offices of major banks (Banco do Brasil, HSBC, Banco Itaú, Banespa) will have an exchange department (ask for câmbio); whether changing cash or traveller’s cheques, you’ll need your passport. You can also change cash and traveller’s cheques in smart hotels and in some large travel agencies. Airport banks are open seven days a week, others only Monday to Friday.
Exchange rates were stable in the US$1.80–2.20 range for years but rose against the dollar with the financial crisis of late 2008, making Brazil cheaper for North Americans but more expensive for Europeans, especially Britons. But since Brazil’s newfound economic stability means it is now well placed to weather crises, exchange-rate turbulence is unlikely to be a feature of your stay. You will see two rates quoted in hotels: the oficial, or interbank rate, which you will be able to get in a casa de câmbio, an exchange counter in a travel agency or specialized exchange dealer (although these are now thin on the ground), and the turismo, a few cents less – more in hotels, where they bank on the ignorance of the clientele. Rates out of ATMs are usually the oficial, making plastic an even better option.
Criminals know that any injury to a foreign tourist is going to mean a heavy clampdown, which in turn means no pickings for a while. So unless you resist during an incident, nothing is likely to happen to you. That said, having a knife or a gun held on you is something of a shock: it’s very difficult to think rationally. But if you are unlucky enough to be the victim of an assalto (a hold-up), try to remember that it’s your possessions rather than you that are the target. Your money and anything you’re carrying will be snatched, your watch will get pulled off your wrist, but within a couple of seconds it will be over. On no account resist: it isn’t worth the risk.
You need to take special care when carrying a laptop – around business-oriented airports, like Congonhas in São Paulo and Santos Dumont in Rio, laptop stealing has become epidemic. Scouts wait at exits and phone ahead to thieves on motorbikes, who pull alongside your taxi when it is stuck in traffic and tap on the window with a revolver. Conceal laptops inside bags that do not look like computer bags, and try to avoid looking like a businessperson even if you are one.
More common than an assalto is a simple theft, a furto. Brand-new, designer-label bags are an obvious target, so go for the downmarket look. You’re at your most vulnerable when travelling and though the luggage compartments of buses are pretty safe – remember to get a baggage check from the person putting them in and don’t throw it away – the overhead racks inside are less safe; keep an eye on things you stash there, especially on night journeys. On a city beach, never leave things unattended while you take a dip: any beachside bar will stow things for you. Most hotels (even the cheaper ones) will have a safe, a caixa, and unless you have serious doubts about the place you should lock away your most valuable things: the better the hotel, the more secure it’s likely to be. In cheaper hotels, where rooms are shared, the risks are obviously greater – some people take along a small padlock for extra security and many wardrobes in cheaper hotels have latches fitted for this very purpose. Finally, take care at Carnaval as it’s a notorious time for pickpockets and thieves.
At international airports, particularly Rio and São Paulo, certain scams operate; for instance, well-dressed and official-looking men target tourists arriving off international flights in the arrivals lounge, identify themselves as policemen, often flashing a card, and tell the tourists to go with them. The tourists are then pushed into a car outside and robbed. If anyone, no matter how polite or well dressed they are, or how good their English is, identifies themselves as a policeman to you, be instantly on your guard – real policemen generally leave foreigners well alone. They won’t try anything actually inside a terminal building, so go to any airline desk or grab one of the security guards, and on no account leave the terminal building with them or leave any luggage in their hands.
If you have to deal with the police, there are various kinds. The best are usually the Polícia de Turismo, or tourist police, who are used to tourists and their problems and often speak some English, but they’re thin on the ground outside Rio. In a city, their number should be displayed on or near the desk of all hotels. The most efficient police by far are the Polícia Federal, the Brazilian equivalent of the American FBI, who deal with visas and their extension; they have offices at frontier posts, airports and ports and in state capitals. The ones you see on every street corner are the Polícia Militar, with blue or green uniforms and caps. They look mean – and very often are – but, apart from at highway road blocks, they generally leave gringos alone. There is also a plain-clothes Polícia Civil, to whom thefts are reported if there is no tourist police post around – they are overworked, underpaid and extremely slow. If you decide to go to the police in a city where there is a consulate, get in touch with the consulate first and do as they tell you.
Cocaine is not as common as you might think, as most of it simply passes through Brazil from Bolivia or Colombia bound for Europe. Nevertheless, the home market has grown in recent years, controlled by young and vicious gang-leaders from the favelas of the major cities.
Be careful about taking anything illegal on buses: they are sometimes stopped and searched at state lines. The stupidest thing you could do would be to take anything illegal anywhere near Bolivia, as buses heading to or from that direction get vigorously searched by the federais. Much the same can be said of smuggling along the rivers into Peru and Colombia: don’t even think about it.
If you are unlucky enough to need medical treatment in Brazil, forget about the public hospitals – as a foreigner, you have virtually no chance of getting a bed unless you have an infectious disease, and the level of health care offered by most is appalling. You can get good medical and dental care privately: North Americans will think it fairly inexpensive, Europeans used to state-subsidized health care will not. A doctor’s visit will cost on average US$40–75; drugs are relatively cheap. Hotels in big cities will have lists of English-speaking doctors; ask for a médico. Outside the larger centres, you will probably have to try out your Portuguese. Any Brazilian doctor will also understand – although not necessarily speak – Spanish.
You should, of course, take particular care with seafood, especially shellfish – don’t eat anything that’s at all suspicious. Fruit and salad ingredients should be washed in bottled or purified water or, preferably, peeled. Ultimately, you are going to run some risks with food, so if you’re going to enjoy your stay to the full, you can’t be too paranoid.
Even in the most remote towns and villages mineral water (água mineral), either sparkling (com gás) or still (sem gás), is easily available and cheap. To avoid dehydration be sure to drink plenty of non-alcoholic liquids, always carry a bottle of water on long trips, and check that the seal on any bottled water you use is intact.
As with food, it’s difficult to be on guard all the time whilst drinking; fruit juices are often diluted with water, and ice is rarely made with filtered water outside a smart hotel. It is not realistic to restrict all water intake to mineral water, but if you are sensible you can at least minimize risk.
There is one dangerous form of dengue, hemorraghic dengue, which kills hundreds of people a year in Brazil. Tourists tend not to get it, since you almost always need to have had a previous attack of dengue to be vulnerable to it. It is particularly dangerous to children. The body’s immune system is provoked to attack itself by the dengue virus, resulting in internal bleeding that can quickly get out of hand. If dengue-like symptoms are accompanied by bleeding from the nose and ears or highly bloodshot eyes, get yourself to a private hospital fast. Even if you are unlucky enough to get it, in the vast majority of cases getting timely treatment will mean a few days in hospital is all that’s needed for complete recovery. You will feel very weak and should take things easy for a couple of weeks after you leave hospital, however.
If your diarrhoea contains blood or mucus, the cause may be dysentery or giardia. With a fever, it could well be caused by bacillic dysentery and may clear up without treatment. If you’re sure you need it, a course of antibiotics such as tetracyclin or ampicillin (travel with a supply if you are going off the beaten track for a while) should sort you out, but they also destroy “gut flora” that help protect you. Similar symptoms without fever indicate amoebic dysentery, which is much more serious, and can damage your gut if untreated. The usual cure is a course of metronidazole (Flagyl), an antibiotic that may itself make you feel ill, and should not be taken with alcohol. Similar symptoms, plus rotten-egg belches and farts, indicate giardia, for which the treatment is again metronidazole. If you suspect you have any of these, seek medical help, and only start on the metronidazole (750mg three times daily for a week for adults) if there is definitely blood in your diarrhoea and it is impossible to see a doctor.
A straightforward understanding of the disease and how it is transmitted is the best defence. Firstly, HIV is not evenly distributed throughout Brazil. A majority of HIV carriers are concentrated in the big cities. As anywhere else, sex with a prostitute is a high-risk activity. The situation with blood and blood products has now improved enormously, but in remoter parts of the country, especially the Amazon, make sure that if you have an injection it is with a needle you see being removed from its packaging. Finally, use a condom. Only a tiny minority of sexually active Brazilian men carry them as a matter of course. They are widely available in pharmacies, where you should ask for a camisinha.
If you will be sleeping in a rural area anywhere else in the Amazon, however, it is a good idea to take precautions. In recent years, rates have climbed as mosquitoes have become more resistant to insecticides and drugs, and a few unwary tourists die avoidably every year. Southern Pará state and much of rural Rondônia state are the riskiest areas for malaria. However, with simple precautions you can minimize the chances of getting it even in highly malarial areas, and, properly treated, a dose of malaria should be no worse than a severe bout of flu. But make no mistake – unless you follow the precautions outlined here, and take malaria prophylaxis when appropriate, malaria can kill.
There are two kinds of malaria in Brazil: falciparum, which is more serious but less common, and vivax. Both are transmitted by anopheles mosquitoes, which are most active at sunrise and for an hour or so before sunset. Even in very malarial areas, only around five percent of anopheles are infected with malarial parasites, so the more you minimize mosquito bites, the less likely you are to catch it. Use insect repellent: the most commonly used in Brazil is Autan, often in combination with Johnson’s Baby Oil to minimize skin irritation. The most effective mosquito repellents – worth looking out for before you leave home – contain DEET (diethyl toluamide). DEET is strong stuff, so follow the manufacturers’ instructions, particularly with use on children. If you have sensitive skin, a natural alternative is citronella or, in the UK, Mosi-guard Natural, made from a blend of eucalyptus oils (though still use DEET on clothes and nets). Wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers, shoes and socks during the times of day when mosquitoes are most active. Sleep under a sheet and, crucially, use a mosquito net. Nets for hammocks (mosqueteiro para rede) are reasonable and easily available in Amazonian cities and towns. Mosquito coils also help keep the insects at bay.
When taking preventive tablets it’s important to keep a routine and cover the period before and after your trip with doses. Doctors can advise on which kind to take. As resistance to chloroquin-based drugs increases, mefloquin, which goes under the brand name of Lariam, has become the recommended prophylactic for most travellers to Brazil. This has very strong side effects, and its use is controversial.
Malaria has an incubation period of around two weeks. The first signs of malaria are remarkably similar to flu – muscle pains, weakness and pain in the joints, which will last for a day or two before the onset of malaria fever proper – and may take months to appear: if you suspect anything go to a hospital or clinic immediately. You need immediate treatment and a blood test to identify the strain. Malaria treatment is one public-health area where Brazil can take some credit. Dotted in malarial parts of the Amazon are small malaria control posts and clinics, run by the anti-malaria agency SUCAM – ask for the posto da SUCAM. They may not look like much, but the people who staff them are very experienced and know their local strains better than any city specialist. Treatment in a posto is free, and if you do catch malaria you should get yourself taken to one as quickly as possible; don’t shiver in your hammock and wait for it to pass. It often does, but it can also kill. If in a city and you get the same symptoms (a fever and the shakes), make sure you get a blood test right away; you’ll get your results in a few hours, and quick diagnosis is vital. Remember that the incubation period means that the symptoms may only appear after you return home – make sure to tell your doctor where you’ve been if you get a fever shortly after your return home.
Malaria is a much more serious issue for a child. We specifically recommend avoiding the state of Rondônia other than Porto Velho, rural Acre and Amapá and southern Pará if you are travelling with children.
Snakes are timid and, unless you’re unlucky, only attack if you step on them. Many of the most poisonous snakes are tiny, easily able to snuggle inside a shoe or a rucksack pocket. Always shake out your hammock and clothes, keep rucksack pockets tightly closed and take special care when it rains, as snakes, scorpions and other nasty beasties quite sensibly head for shelter in huts. If you do get bitten by a snake, try to kill it for identification – but only if this can easily be done. Use a shoelace or a torn piece of shirt wound round the limb with a stick as a tourniquet, which you should repeatedly tighten for twenty seconds and then release for a minute, to slow down the action of the poison. Contrary to popular belief, cutting yourself and sucking out blood will do you more harm than good. It goes without saying that you should get yourself to a doctor as soon as possible. If you are well off the beaten track, health posts in the nearest town may have serum, but you must know the type of snake involved.
Due to the humidity, any cut or wound gets infected very easily. Always clean cuts or bites with alcohol or purified water before dressing. As a general rule, leave all insects alone and never handle them. Even the smallest ants, caterpillars and bees can give you nasty stings and bites, and scorpions, large soldier ants and some species of bee will give you a fever for a day or two as well.
There are also two good weekly current-affairs magazines: Veja and Isto É. They are expensive, around US$5, since their readership is exclusively middle class. You will find Brazilian editions of most major fashion and women’s magazines. The weekly Placar is essential for anyone wanting to get to serious grips with Brazilian football. Vogue Brasil, edited in São Paulo and published by Condé Nast, is a quality magazine offering great insight into the style of the Brazilian elite, while Plástica is a glossy monthly magazine that sheds light on Brazil’s apparent obsession with plastic surgery.
Apart from in airports, Rio and São Paulo, where you can find the International Herald Tribune and the Economist, English-language newspapers and magazines are very difficult to find in Brazil. The exceptions are Time and Newsweek, which are widely available in newspaper kiosks in big cities, albeit often weeks old.
The channels are dominated by telenovelas, glossy soap operas that have massive audiences in the evenings. Football coverage is also worth paying attention to, a gabbling, incomprehensible stream of commentary, punctuated by remarkably elongated shouts of “Gooooool” whenever anyone scores – which is often, Brazilian defenses being what they are. However, there are a few genuine highlights, notably Jô Soares, the funniest and cleverest of Brazilian comedians, who hosts a very civilized late-night chat show on Globo every weekday.
Travelling around Brazil takes time, so try not to be too ambitious in terms of how much you aim to cover. Because of frequent scheduled stops and unscheduled delays it can take all day to fly from one part of the country to another. Long bus journeys are scheduled overnight and can be exhausting. Children pay full fare on buses if they take up a seat, ten percent on planes if under 2 years old, half-fare between 2 and 12, and full fare thereafter. Newer airports have a nursery (berçário) where you can change or nurse your baby and where an attendant will run your baby a bath, great on a hot day or if your plane’s delayed. If you plan on renting a car, bring your own child or baby seat as rental companies never supply them and they are very expensive in Brazil. Cars are fitted with three-point shoulder seatbelts in the front, but many only have lap seatbelts in the back.
In hotels, kids are generally free up to the age of 5, and rooms often include both a double and a single bed; a baby’s cot may be available, but don’t count on it. It’s rare that a room will sleep more than three, but larger hotels sometimes have rooms with an interlinking door. Hotels will sometimes offer discounts, especially if children share rooms and even beds with siblings or parents; the lower- to mid-range hotels are probably the most flexible in this regard. If you’re planning on staying more than a few days in a city, you may find it cheaper and more convenient to stay in an apartment-hotel, which will sleep several people and comes with basic cooking facilities. Baths are rare in Brazil, so get your kids used to showers before leaving home. Occasionally, a hotel will provide a plastic baby bath, but bring along a travel plug, as shower pans are often just about deep enough to create a bath.
Many of the mid- and upper-range hotels have TV lounges, TVs in rooms, swimming pools, gardens and even games rooms, which are often useful in entertaining kids. Most large towns also have cinemas, the best often being the new multiplexes found in shopping centres.
Food shouldn’t be a problem as, even if your kids aren’t adventurous eaters, familiar dishes are always available and there’s also the ubiquitous comida por kilo option. Portions tend to be huge, often sufficient for two large appetites, and it’s perfectly acceptable to request additional plates and cutlery. Most hotels and restaurants provide high chairs (cadeira alta) as well. Commercial baby food is sold in Brazilian supermarkets. Remember to avoid tap water and use only mineral water when preparing formula and washing out bottles. Mid-range hotels and upwards have a minibar (frigobar) in the rooms where you can store bottles and baby food, but where there isn’t one you will be able to store things in the hotel’s refrigerator. A small cooler box or insulated bag is a good idea and, while ice compartments of frigobars are useless, you can always place your freezer blocks in the hotel’s freezer (congelador).
In general, Brazilian infants don’t use disposable nappies/diapers (fraldas), due to the cost, around R$12 for twenty – very expensive for most Brazilians. As brands such as Pampers are sold in pharmacies and supermarkets, it’s worth only bringing a minimum with you until you can make it to a shop.
Health shouldn’t be a problem, but before planning your itinerary check which areas entail taking anti-malarial tablets (the state of Rondônia other than Porto Velho, rural Acre and Amapá and southern Pará is rife with malaria and should be avoided), and make enquiries as to whether the vaccines recommended or required in some parts of Brazil (in particular the Amazon) are likely to have any unpleasant side effects for babies or young children. For most of Brazil, the only likely problem will be the strength of the tropical sun and the viciousness of the mosquitoes: bring plenty of sunscreen (at least factor 20 for babies and factor 15 for young children) and an easy-to-apply non-toxic insect repellent.