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As July 2019 draws to a close, we’ve now sadly come to the end of our first trip to Brazil. We have no doubts whatsoever that we’ll be back for more one day, and we’ve already built up quite a Brazil bucketlist for places to visit upon our return. As always, though, there have been lows along with the highs – no stint of full-time travel would be right without them. 3 months in Brazil is generally considered a long time for nothing too bad to happen – we’ve not been the victims of violent crime, which is a relief, though Andy’s Havaianas were stolen from right next to him on Copacabana beach on our very last day – but the usual trials and tribulations of travel have still hovered over us.
Saying that, our 3 months in Brazil has shown us what an incredible part of the world this is – it’s truly a country like no other. Nowhere else have we experienced such vibrance and energy, and despite this being the first country we visited in the last 21 months in which neither of us has fluency in the official language (more on that later), we’ve still felt welcomed and connected to many of the local people we’ve met along the way.
After this round-up of the highs and lows of 3 months in Brazil, you may also enjoy:
Like, whoa. This is the kind of natural wonder that you need to see in real life to truly believe it’s not the result of photoshop. Lençóis Maranheses was our last bout of exploration of our 3 months in Brazil, and what an adventure it was! These sand dunes get filled with water during rainy season, and create natural pools for the rest of the year. The pools are clean, turquoise and incredibly refreshing to jump into. Getting to Lençóis Maranheses is of course a pain in the arse, but eventually so very worth it. Check out our complete guide to Lençóis Maranhenses to plan your trip.
Watching Brasil win the Copa America
For those who don’t know/care, Copa America is a regional football championship with the same standing in this part of the world as the Euros in Europe. In 2019, Copa America was hosted in Brazil, and although we didn’t get to watch any live matches, we did get to watch the final on the big screen at Barra, Salvador. The capacity of the area was 10,000 people, though the crowd present was probably only 2000 because the rain and wind really did have us wondering if we were experiencing our first hurricane. Celebrating every penalty, substitution and goal with soggy, drunken Brazilians as they won the match against Peru was second to none. It did take us a few days to feel fully dry again, though. In fact, the rain was so bad that some people had taken to cramming into the portaloos like sardines – that could not have smelt good!
Kayaking with dolphins in Pipa
Wild dolphins are always breath-takingly beautiful, but seeing them from a few metres away as you bob along in a sea kayak is a next-level experience. The wild dolphins of Pipa have become famous for being completely unfazed by the humans around them as they hunt fish by the shore. Spending 4 hours along the beaches of Praia dos Golfinhos and Praia do Madeiro, we saw dolphins surfacing hundreds of times. It was one of those situations in which you have to pinch yourself to make sure it isn’t a dream – definitely the best wildlife encounter we’ve had during our 3 months in Brazil!
Christ the Redeemer & Sugarloaf Mountain
Some views you can’t explain. Christ the Redeemer & Sugarloaf Mountain, with look-outs over opposite angles of Rio de Janeiro were both views that we don’t really have words for. Not being religious, nor into heavily-touristed places, we didn’t feel the burning desire to go up to see Christ the Redeemer before Lozzy’s sister said she really wanted to go, but BLOODY HELL are we glad we did. Even on a misty day, it was incredible, whilst Sugarloaf Mountain at sunset blew us away – twice! Check out our post on top things to do in Rio de Janeiro to find out the best time to visit Christ the Redeemer & Sugarloaf Mountain, and how to get there.
Volunteering at Ricardo Moura Idiomas, Juara
We met our good friend Ricardo over Christmas 2017 in Santiago, Chile. It was our first Christmas away from home, and as a result our new hostel friends became our family for the week. We travelled to a couple of other places with Ricardo and his group, then vowed to meet again one day when we had to part ways. Fast-forward 18 months, and we arrived in the small, unheard-of town of Juara, Mato Grosso for a 2-week stay with Ricardo.
He runs a school in the town, Ricardo Moura Idiomas, and we agreed to help out with conversations for the students (kids and adults) in return for him pretty much funding our existence (good man – that’s a lot of beer). While we’re not gonna pretend that these were underprivileged kids – quite the opposite for most of the students – guiding them in learning English was incredibly rewarding, and we were made to feel welcome in a way that only rural Brazilians can. Check out this day we had by the river with our new group of friends:
Everyone remembers their first time. And anyone who has been invited into a Brazilian household to experience a home-cooked churrasco will agree that Brazilian BBQ is actually significantly better than sex. Picanha cuts are out of this world – we can now look back and laugh at the time when we thought Argentina produced the best steak on the planet. Oh, and blocks of grilled cheese on sticks is a thing, by the way. During our time in cowboy-country Mato Grosso, we ate 4-5 churrascos a week – sometimes 2 in one day, and each got better and better. Churrasco is a true skill, and lighting up the BBQ to cook a week’s worth of meat is the best way Brazilians know to welcome someone into their home, so take in the honour along with the flavours. Restaurant churrascos are not to be scoffed at, either, with some of the best meat being served from the BBQ skewer straight onto your plate by the waiter. See more of mouth-watering South America foods here.
Andy’s cowboy experience
Not many people can say they’ve been a real-life cowboy for the day, but our guy Andy can! When in Juara (we really need to stop banging on about this place), our friend Murillo said he needed some help on his friend’s farm the next day. They needed to herd and move some 150 cows on a farm 170km away. Before we knew it, Andy was being kitted out with an authentic Brazilian cowboy hat, old jeans, a silver-buckled belt and leather boots, then told to be ready for a pick-up at 4am the next day. After a 4-hour drive on barely-existent roads, he helped the real cowboys to sort, herd and transport the cows from one place to another. He also somehow found time to pose for some photos. A pretty unforgettable way to experience how our friends in Mato Grosso maintain their livelihood!
The lows of 3 months in Brazil
The 28-hour bus to São Luis
Ever get the feeling the windows of your bus are slowly closing in on you? Such was the 26-turned-28 hour bus from Recife to São Luis. We decided to brave this £75pp journey since flying within Brazil is so expensive, and previous experiences of 24 hour buses in Peru hadn’t been that bad – maybe even enjoyable. Progresso wasn’t going to afford us that luxury though, and as the only company offering this route, they don’t provide executive seats, only standard ones, with no frills except a toilet and a water fountain.
The first few hours were passable, with us feeling content dozing off and watching Netflix, but come midnight the driver whacked the aircon up, presumably to keep himself awake, and having the only seats directly in the line of air made for a horrendous night for ever-cold Lozzy. By hour 23, we were bouncing off the walls with cabin fever, held in a gentle balance between laughing and crying. You can imagine the feeling among camp when our ETA of 26 hours came and went, and we eventually arrived in São Luis at 12am, having left at 8pm the night before – uncomfortably in the knowledge that the next morning would have us travelling another 5 hours by bus to Barreirinhas. Thank the powers that be that São Luis and Lençois Maranheses were totally worth the journey!
Jump-starting our hire car (again) in Paraty
We’ve never had to jump-start quite so many engines as we have during 3 months in Brazil. We don’t know if it’s due to tough conditions or bad maintenance of hire vehicles, but our count is now at 3 – a steep increase up from our previous 28-year record of zero.
In the most stressful instance, we woke up early in Paraty so that we could begin our 4-hour drive to São Paulo Airport at 6am to catch an early afternoon flight. We’d spent a fair while planning out how long it would take and accounting for traffic so we could get to the airport in time for check-in.
Then, at 6:05am (cuz let’s be honest, we were never gonna be exactly on time), we realised our hire car wouldn’t turn on. Cue trying desperately to push-start the car, then trying to get our hotel receptionist to realise we needed to use his phone to call the Avis emergency number because ours wouldn’t work, then his not working either, so literally sprinting down the road to the nearest garage who said they’d send someone out in half an hour, finally getting connected to the emergency number who didn’t have an EFFING clue what to do if nothing in the car turns on, to them finally agreeing to send someone in an hour, to having the garage bloke turn up to charge the battery and manage to start the engine, deciding to pay for him out of our own money instead of waiting for Avis to turn up, then driving the 4 hours petrified of letting the engine turn off for any reason, all the while with the windows open because the shitty battery wouldn’t let us use any electrics inside the car. AND BREATHE. We somehow boarded our flight with about 15 minutes to spare, and Lozzy only cried once which we reckon is quite an achievement during this stressful time. And no, we hadn’t left any lights on overnight.
At least Paraty is a really beautiful place to get stuck?
Booking any flights at all in Brazil
Oh my gosh. Our blood pressure is rising just thinking about it. As previously mentioned, flights within Brazil are uncharacteristically high for a South American country. Sure, this nation is huge (pretty much the size of Europe) but even within Europe we can get flights of a couple of hours for less than £50. Finding flights in Brazil when there are things to see but you’re short on time (yes, 3 months in Brazil really does count as ‘short on time’) is always a major ball ache, and it takes hours of perseverance and a colossal number of Google tabs to be successful. Then, right at the end of your search, when you’ve finally found a palatable combination of price, number of connections and journey time, you go to finally pay and…. Nothing. Nope. Systems down. Payment not accepted. Brazilian citizenship number needed to complete booking. ARRGGGGHHHBFNFLNIEJKWQOIRTUX. The number of times we’ve been stung by this hurts our souls.
Gol in particular is effing terrible at booking online (but always teases you with the cheapest prices) and LatAm’s website & app have been known to shut us out for weeks. The best airline we’ve found has been Azul – the website and app actually work, and the quality in-flight is way above the other domestic carriers (free snacks like you’ve never see before), but unfortunately the price does normally reflect this.
Over-tourism in Brazil
This is something that we sometimes forgot about, but every now and then it snuck back up on us and reared its ugly head. It’s not so much an issue of too many tourists visiting a place – even with a country as large as Brazil you’d expect certain places to become famed and therefore more popular with travellers than most – it’s the mismanagement of the tourism in those places. Whereas other touristic spots have had the sense to spread out and perhaps even regulate the agencies providing tours to beautiful places, in culprits such as Arraial do Cabo, Praia dos Carneiros and Lençois Maranheses, every tour has exactly the same itinerary AND leaves at exactly the same time, when actually there’s no real reason that they can’t visit the different stops in another order, or offer another combination of sights, or leave just 15 minutes after each other. No reason at all. But they descend on the place all at once like an army, trash it and then leave it to sit empty for the rest of the day.
It was totally bizarre to move from a packed Praia do Faro (supposedly Brazil’s most beautiful beach), sail across the bay in a fleet of tour boats to Prainha do Pontal do Atalaia and be able to see Praia do Faro stunningly void of people across the short stretch of water. When visiting Praia dos Carneiros in Pernambuco, we’re not exaggerating when we say we couldn’t actually see the sand of one of the beaches we were taken to. It’s both worrying for the environment and ruins the experience for everyone, whereas in smaller chunks these places still have a very good chance of being enjoyed and sustained. The places where we experienced overtourism in Brazil the worst weren’t even at the mercy of the wider international audience yet; there were only Brazilian and Argentinian tourists. What happens when word of these ‘must-see’ locations gets round to Asia and the Western world?!
The language barrier
Having been happy as Larry in Spanish-speaking countries for the last 21 months, able to converse, get involved in everyday life and discover unpublicised gems across Latin America, arriving in Portuguese-speaking Brazil was mega daunting at first. Over time, our understanding of Portuguese got to a good level, and Andy managed to learn enough to have a 10 minute fight over pricing ethics with a taxi driver (a surefire sign of building proficiency in a language), but that very first day sat in a café in Foz do Iguaçu realising how rude it must seem that we couldn’t even say ‘I would like…’ was a bit of a shock. We were worried that our experience of Brazil would be more superficial than it had been elsewhere (especially as the amount of English spoken outside of the super touristy or super wealthy areas tends to be very low), but in fact the friendliness of the Brazilian people meant that there was no way in hell they were going to let us pass through their town without making us feel at home.
How easy is learning Portuguese for Spanish-speakers?
For those wondering how easy it is to learn/understand Portuguese if you speak Spanish, the answer from us is that the basics are actually quite difficult to get your head around, because it’s almost too similar and it mixes you up, but once you get to grips with the tiny tweaks in common verbs and non-key words, things start to flow very easily. Andy found it a lot easier to grasp because his fluency in Spanish means that he can let go and allow his brain to play around with the small differences of Portuguese. He found Tandem a very useful app to practice what he’d learnt with native speakers (and also get hit on by pervy men every couple of hours – oh, the joys of the internet).
However, for someone like me whose Spanish is not yet rock-solid in their mind, Portuguese became mostly a source of confusion, and I felt myself losing my hold on Spanish. By the end, I could understand Portuguese pretty well, but experienced severe tongue-tie when trying to speak. That being said, it took spending 3 months in Brazil to realise how far I had come with my Spanish-learning, which has definitely given me a much-needed confidence boost. There are luckily more than enough Argentinians in Brazil to keep the Spanish practice going!
Conclusion: 3 months in Brazil is not enough
No, really. When we first started our full-time travels around Latin America, having been used to just European weekend breaks and 7-10 days further afield a couple of times a year, a month in each country felt like a reeeeeally long time. 3 months in a country would have felt excessive, and we’d have worried about having enough to do. For some countries, such as Guatemala or Uruguay, one month is the right length of time to be exploring. Brazil, however, is a different kettle of fish, and if you want to properly explore this country you’re going to need several months. During our 3 months in Brazil, we still had to make sacrifices about which cities we had time for, even though we were on average travelling a lot faster than usual. We stayed still for 2 weeks in Florianópolis, 2 weeks in Juara and 10 days in Rio de Janeiro, but other than that we were moving every 2-3 days for the rest of our 3 months in Brazil. If visas allowed, we could have easily pushed our stay out to 4, 5, maybe 6 months, and still have plenty that we didn’t get round to seeing.
We managed to see 10 states in total, stretching from the far South to the North-East with plenty of Central in between, but our advice if you have less than 3 months in Brazil is to choose one region to explore, and whatever you do, don’t miss the crazy-beautiful Rio de Janeiro. Luckily, the cheapest flights from Europe to Brazil tend to land in Rio, and it has plenty of the cheap[er] internal flights, so we recommend using the city as your base to other adventures. Boa viajem!