The cost of living in Brazil is low outside the main tourist spots, and even within them shopping around can lower costs a lot. Europeans will mostly think Brazil cheap, North Americans a little less so but still comparing favourably with the US for most things. Particularly reasonable are hotels (except in Rio), foodstuffs (including eating out) and bus travel, while most museums are free. The exception is internal plane tickets, which a near-monopoly between TAM and Gol make expensive, unless you have an airpass. Other relatively expensive things are sunblock, good-quality clothing, cameras and anything to do with computers (except internet cafés, which are very cheap).
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.