beaches

17 Surprising Things About Brazil

From the bizarre beach culture of Rio to the urban sprawl of Sao Paulo, here’s a list of things that will shock you about Brazil travel.

The girl (and boys) from Ipanema Beach in Rio

The girl (and boys) from Ipanema Beach in Rio

“What drew you to Brazil?” I asked first off. I’m always interested in knowing what draws people to destinations. The exoticism of Southeast Asia and Morocco appeal to Duke and me, but we have yet to visit South America together.

“Cheap airfare,” my friend Ben replied without a moment’s hesitation. He and his boyfriend Derrick subscribe to Scott’s Cheap Flights, a mailing list that informs you of airline deals. It’s well worth paying $30 a year for the premium version.

(I signed us up, and we’ve already received a few emails that have inspired us try to figure out a creative way to use a long weekend.)

Derrick and Ben share their experience of traveling to Brazil

Derrick and Ben share their experience of traveling to Brazil

Brazil is a study in extreme contrasts. You have poverty and wealth, beauty and squalor, all of these opposing forces, in a very small space.

Ben pointed out that within 24 hours of booking, airlines are required by law to refund your money, unless it’s within seven days of the flight. So you call jump on a good price — and back out the next day if you’d like.

“We booked three trips almost immediately: Japan, Brazil and Spain,” he said, “And it all cost less than our trip to Australia the year before.” The trip to Brazil ran them only about $400.

The botanical gardens in Rio felt like you’re on the grounds of an abandoned plantation

The botanical gardens in Rio felt like you’re on the grounds of an abandoned plantation

Neither of them had been to South America before, and “another upside was that it was their summer and our winter,” Derrick said.

The fellas stayed about five days in Rio and two and a half in São Paulo.

The Selaron Steps in Rio de Janeiro, where Michael Jackson danced in a music video

The Selaron Steps in Rio de Janeiro, where Michael Jackson danced in a music video

They chose a different neighborhood each day, deciding upon a site or two to see — like the steps where Michael Jackson danced in the controversial “They Don’t Care About Us” music video, directed by Spike Lee, for instance — and then wandered around.

Here are their observations about Brazil, a country they found to be more complicated than they ever imagined.

 

1. Rio has a huge beach culture — but hardly anyone lays out or goes swimming.

People flock to the beaches in Rio, where they engage in athletic activities: volleyball, soccer or paddleball.

“But almost nobody goes in the water,” Derrick said. “It’s not the thing to do.”

“People aren’t laying down,” Ben added. “They’re all standing, and maybe sitting a little bit.”

The beaches are very large, but after you walk about five minutes, you’ve got the gist, because it repeats itself, Derrick said.

There’s a pretty black and white tiled path that runs the entire length of the seaside. And all along it, you have different restaurants and vendors, where you can get, say, a 5-pound coconut.

The waterfront is divided into different sectors, called postos. Each is known for different things, Ben says: One might be where the models hang out, one’s where the gay guys are, and another’s for families.

Cachaça vendors can whip you up a caipirinha to go for a few bucks

Cachaça vendors can whip you up a caipirinha to go for a few bucks

2. It’s super cheap to drink in Rio.

By the sidewalk are the officially sanctioned snack kiosks, but as you go 100 yards or so onto the sand, you get unofficial tents setups, or guys with insulated backpacks peddling fried cheese, beer and drugs. A lot of people had caipirinha-making kits, and you could buy a drink from them for $3.

A bottle of cachaça, a distilled spirit made from fermented sugarcane juice that’s the national drink of Brazil, could be bought at a store for $2.

Christ the Redeemer towers above Rio. Sometimes he looks like he’s in Heaven

Christ the Redeemer towers above Rio. Sometimes he looks like he’s in Heaven

3. Christ the Redeemer could be lost in the clouds.

When Ben and Derrick went, the 125-foot-tall statue of Jesus that overlooks Rio atop Mount Corcovado was shrouded in fog the entire time they were there. Be sure you take advantage of a clear day and see the sites that are on the 1,000-foot-high rocky outcroppings above the city.

The 125-foot-tall statue stands atop the massive granite dome of Corcovado hill and, since its erection in 1931 has become one of the most famous landmarks in the world.

You take an incline railway up Corcovado. “As we were going up, we were like, still nice, still nice — and then, bam! Fog,” Ben says.

It killed them a bit that they couldn’t get the iconic money shot — but to make themselves feel better, they joked that it was like “seeing Jesus in Heaven.”

The Parque Lage and School of Visual Arts is a gorgeous locale in Rio

The Parque Lage and School of Visual Arts is a gorgeous locale in Rio

4. Brazilians are beautiful — and parade around in next to nothing.

They’ll go from the beach to a food stall, wearing a speedo, shoulder shawl and flip-flops. They all wear Havaianas, the super-trendy, colorful plastic flip-flops created by a Scotsman in 1962.

 

5. But the people aren’t all that friendly.

For a city with a reputation as a party city, Ben and Derrick didn’t find the locals to be that outgoing.

“I’d always been under the impression that Brazilians were super nice, super willing to engage in conversation, that if they recognize an outsider, they’ll talk to them, but that wasn’t the case,” Ben says.

The fellas felt pretty safe wandering around Santa Teresa during the day — but you should always be on your guard with valuables in Rio

The fellas felt pretty safe wandering around Santa Teresa during the day — but you should always be on your guard with valuables in Rio

6. The crime is, unfortunately, as bad as advertised.

When they got to their hotel, they were given cards with the hotel’s contact info and were told to leave their wallet and everything else locked in the room’s safe when they left the premises. “Carry this card and a copy of your passport, and that’s it,” Derrick advised.

They took what money they felt they needed and kept it in their front pockets. “Don’t take out more than you can afford to lose,” Ben said.

“It was a bummer,” he continued, “because I love taking pictures, and my go-to mode is walking around with my camera. Everything I read said, take a photo and then put your camera away immediately in a nondescript bag.

“One afternoon we went out, and within five minutes of leaving the hotel, this guy tapped me on the shoulder and told me, ‘You need to put that away. Don’t have it out,’” Ben said.

He did feel fine using a cellphone as a camera, though. Just don’t draw too much attention to yourself, he added. Expert tip: Use your work phones — just in case they do get stolen, heh heh.

A lot of banks don’t even let you access their interior ATMs after 8 p.m. because of the fear that people will force you to withdraw money, Ben said.

Derrick moved the money he planned to spend on the trip from his checking account into a savings account.

“There’s definitely a feeling of crime,” Derrick says. Someone told them not to have bags facing the streets because bikers could ride by and swipe them.

Kids beg for money, and it’s the second-highest country in terms of child prostitution, next to Thailand, Ben informed me. (He does his research.)

Both of their Kindles got stolen out of their hotel room — the one thing they didn’t put in the safe.

 

7. Brazil is an extremely sexual country.

Prostitutes are everywhere, especially in São Paulo. “You get propositioned all the time,” Derrick says.

There are bathhouses for days, along with love hotels, similar to those found in Japan.

Take a sky tram up to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. Helicopter tours are available from here, from which you can see gorgeous views of the entire city

Take a sky tram up to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. Helicopter tours are available from here, from which you can see gorgeous views of the entire city

8. Rio didn’t get rid of its favelas (the slums built into the hillsides) for the Olympics.

Instead, they’ve had the police go in and take control, Ben said. “It’s like going into a war zone,” he added: police in body armor, SWAT vehicles, guns. They’re trying to drive out the drug dealers and crime lords.

Thousands upon thousands of people live in these communities, and they don’t have running water all the time or reliable electricity.

“They’re very vibrant communities, but are riddled with crime and corruption,” Ben said. The pieced-together shacks are, ironically, very brightly colored and pretty.

“Brazil is a study in extreme contrasts,” Ben said. “You can see the favela as you pass the Maserati dealership. You have poverty and wealth, beauty and squalor, all of these opposing forces, in a very small space.”

Ben and Derrick recommend using a wireless hotspot and rideshare apps to visit spots like Parque Lage and School of Visual Arts

Ben and Derrick recommend using a wireless hotspot and rideshare apps to visit spots like Parque Lage and School of Visual Arts

9. Rideshare companies like Lyft are a convenient way to get around.

Ben and Derrick have found rideshare apps to be a better option in many parts of the world than taxis — some of which can be corrupt. This way, you’re going through an app, your route is mapped out, and no money exchanges hands.

“Brazil is a country where you definitely don’t want to rent a car,” Ben advised. “They have one of the highest rates of traffic fatalities.” (I told you he does his research.)

“Stop signs are suggestions,” Derrick added. “And so are stoplights.”

“There’s a lot of honking and screaming,” Ben said.

The Lapa neighborhood is known for its aqueduct — and boho vibe

The Lapa neighborhood is known for its aqueduct — and boho vibe

10. There are some neighborhoods in Rio you can explore during the day — that turn into wild parties at night.

One day, the boys wandered through Lapa — a neighborhood in central Rio that’s easily identifiable by the aqueduct. Then they took the historic tram up the hill to Santa Teresa, a charming artists’ community. There’s an old mansion that burned down that’s now an art event space.  

Santa Teresa, an arts district in Rio

Santa Teresa, an arts district in Rio

They also checked out Lapa at night, and saw about 300 people hanging out in the Shell gas station parking lot. This is known as the bohemian and samba district. “People are dancing right in the streets. It’s mayhem,” Ben said.

Lapa is directly downhill from a favela, and there’s a lot of pickpocketing on weekends.

A local girl told them that she survived Carnaval without getting anything stolen cuz she had a fanny pack that she wore under her clothes.

“While I’m sure that tourists are more targeted, it also happens to Brazilians,” Ben said.

Marmosets crawl along power lines all over the city

Marmosets crawl along power lines all over the city

11. You’ll see monkeys running around everywhere in Rio.

They’re marmosets and they’re cute and like to scamper over power lines. From Ben and Derrick’s experience, they’re didn’t seem dangerous.

Aside from good restaurants and a cool museum, São Paulo doesn’t have a whole lot to offer

Aside from good restaurants and a cool museum, São Paulo doesn’t have a whole lot to offer

12. There’s not a lot to do in São Paulo.

Despite being the most populous and geographically largest city in all of South America, São Paulo doesn’t offer much for the tourist, according to Ben and Derrick.

“Unless you want to eat really good food and drink really well, there’s not a lot to do during the day,” Ben explained.

Of course, they did find a couple of cool museums to explore: MASP (Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand) and Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo.

Altarpiece No. 1-3  by Hilma af Klint at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo

Altarpiece No. 1-3 by Hilma af Klint at the Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo

13. São Paulo is like the gritty parts of New York — but without the visual appeal.

It’s one rundown, dirty storefront after another, Ben said. Mile after mile of urban sprawl.

They would be walking around and feel safe, and then turn onto a street that felt super sketchy. It was block-by-block.

 

14. There’s a shoe shine scam to watch out for.

In a scam that’s even used here in Chicago, a man will approach you, squat down and smear something all over your shoes. “It looked like a brown sugar mixture,” Ben said.

Then the man will make a big deal about the mess will start to clean it up — wanting, of course, to be paid about $30 for his trouble.

When this happened to the fellas and they declined, the man stood there, cursing them out.

What’s for dinner? Lots of meat — but hopefully not a capybara

What’s for dinner? Lots of meat — but hopefully not a capybara

15. The cuisine consists of lots of meat and lots of beans.

Beef, cow, goat and seafood are omnipresent. Vegetables? Not so much.

You might want to try a dish Brazil is famous for: feijoada, a stew loaded with different types of slowly braised meat that takes five days to make.

The urban sprawl of São Paulo

The urban sprawl of São Paulo

16. Distances can be deceptive in São Paulo.

You can look at a map and think, That’s not too far away — and it’ll end up being an hour Lyft ride, Derrick explained.

Ben’s friend told him that it takes about three hours to drive from one end of the city to the other.

The Luz Railway Station in São Paulo

The Luz Railway Station in São Paulo

17. Overall, Brazil is a difficult country to navigate.

Ben and Derrick have traveled all over the world — and they found Brazil to be one of the more confusing countries. “If you don’t know somebody, if you’re not part of a tour group, if you don’t travel a lot, or if you’re not street smart, it definitely requires a higher level of awareness,” according to Ben.

“In a lot of ways, our trip to Brazil was unremarkable. Brazil is really about being in the moment, taking advantage of what’s there,” Ben said.

“Yah, if you’re a person who likes to go go go, or go out at a reasonable hour, Brazil’s not the place for you,” Derrick concluded. –Wally

The 5 Best Things to Do in Costa Rica

This ecotourism hotspot features amazing destinations, including Monteverde, Manuel Antonio National Park, Dominical and the Arenal Volcano. Here are the best and worst parts about visiting Costa Rica.

Allison and Zach in Manuel Antonio National Park, one of their favorite spots in Costa Rica

Allison and Zach in Manuel Antonio National Park, one of their favorite spots in Costa Rica

I defy you to find a cuter couple than Allison and Zach. They met while we all worked together, fell in love and recently tied the knot. Duke and I have a magical connection with them — we run into them in the oddest of places often enough that we feel our fates must be linked. I always think of them as a shining example of a karass, from the fake religion Bokononism in Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece Cat’s Cradle.

Zach’s dad moved to Costa Rica, so they’ve visited numerous times and were awesome enough to share some insider secrets about the country that has put ecotourism on the map. –Wally
 

The secluded Playa Manuel Antonio is the single most beautiful spot in Costa Rica to me. When people think of Costa Rica, I believe this is the image they have in their head.

What are your favorite places in Costa Rica and what do you like about them?

The Sky Walk in the Monteverde cloud forest looks like it’s only for the brave

The Sky Walk in the Monteverde cloud forest looks like it’s only for the brave

1. Monteverde

Costa Rica’s cloud forest is near a town that’s mostly locals and not as touristy as some other places. There’s a very laidback mountain town feel about it, and it’s generally much cooler than any other part of Costa Rica since it’s almost 5,000 feet above sea level.

There are some amazing ziplining and four wheeling in the area, as well as a beautiful butterfly sanctuary and some of the best coffee in the country. If you get hungry, check out the great wood-fire pizza place in downtown Santa Elena, the largest town in Monteverde.

Playa Manuel Antonio is only accessible via the national park but is worth the $3 or $4 entry fee

Playa Manuel Antonio is only accessible via the national park but is worth the $3 or $4 entry fee

2. Manuel Antonio

This is home to some of the best beaches in Costa Rica as well as the Manuel Antonio National Park (where monkeys will literally steal the food out of your hands, the jerks). While it is tourist-heavy, Manuel Antonio gives you that real “paradise in a bottle” type of feeling — it’s very self-contained, with great restaurants, five-star hotels and late-night bonfire parties on the beach. You could spend an entire week in Manuel Antonio and not go anywhere else in Costa Rica and still have an amazing vacation.

Allison getting breakfast at  Cafe Milagro  — probably the best café and bakery in Manuel Antonio, with great patio seating and some amazing coffee and pastries. They also do lunch, with a variety of sandwiches. You can buy some great varieties of Costa Rican coffee beans here

Allison getting breakfast at Cafe Milagro — probably the best café and bakery in Manuel Antonio, with great patio seating and some amazing coffee and pastries. They also do lunch, with a variety of sandwiches. You can buy some great varieties of Costa Rican coffee beans here

3. Dominical

This is just 30 minutes south of Manuel Antonio and off the beaten path (it was a dirt road up until 2012), with only a couple of bars and rarely that many tourists. There are one or two small “hotels,” but most people come to Dominical for the waves. An estuary runs into the ocean, where you’ll find some of the best (and intense) breaks in this part of Costa Rica.

Dominical Beach is one of Costa Rica’s best-kept secrets and a surfer’s paradise

Dominical Beach is one of Costa Rica’s best-kept secrets and a surfer’s paradise

The estuary itself is worth exploring, as you can walk most of it until it turns into a larger river.

Dominical is peaceful, laidback, local, and an all-around great place to unwind for a day or even two or three.
 

4. Drake Bay/Oso Peninsula

While Dominical might seem off the beaten path, the Oso Peninsula and Drake Bay is wayyy off the beaten path. To get to Drake Bay from Manuel Antonio, you embark on several long dirt roads (drive time is about three hours) that eventually lead to a river port filled with old wooden riverboats. From there you will need to take one or two different boats through the river and into the bay (with a choppy and somewhat harrowing ocean crossing) to Drake Bay. There used to be no roads that led to Drake Bay and it was only accessible by riverboat, but I believe that has changed recently.

The boat will literally just drop you off on a remote beach and you walk to your hotel, which is more of a locally owned bed and breakfast.

There is amazing snorkeling and scuba diving in the area, and locals will take you to a few islands off the coast, where you can hike, snorkel or just lay on the beach.

Arenal Volcano to the right and Laguna de Arenal to the left. The Arenal cloud forest and town of Fortuna are a great destination for one or two days. The Tabacon hot springs are a must, and you can hike to the base of the volcano

Arenal Volcano to the right and Laguna de Arenal to the left. The Arenal cloud forest and town of Fortuna are a great destination for one or two days. The Tabacon hot springs are a must, and you can hike to the base of the volcano

A Costa Rican red-eyed tree frog. There are thousands of types of frogs in Costa Rica, many that exist only there. Allison took this picture near Arenal Volcano

A Costa Rican red-eyed tree frog. There are thousands of types of frogs in Costa Rica, many that exist only there. Allison took this picture near Arenal Volcano

5. Arenal Volcano/Fortuna

To start, you can hike to the base of an active volcano, which is absolutely stunning. The trail and hike aren’t too bad, either — about an hour to the base of the volcano through a lush jungle filled with monkeys.

But the town of Fortuna is equally great. The Tabacon Resort is by far the most unique Costa Rican experience I’ve ever had and has some of the most amazing hot springs we’ve ever been to. Hundreds of natural pools flow into each other, and you can walk around the jungle-like grounds, going from one pool to the next. It is an absolute must when visiting Costa Rica.

The sunsets in Costa Rica are some of the most amazing you’ll ever experience. Here’s Allison on the beach at Tamarindo during one of those breathtaking Costa Rican sunsets

The sunsets in Costa Rica are some of the most amazing you’ll ever experience. Here’s Allison on the beach at Tamarindo during one of those breathtaking Costa Rican sunsets

What’s the most beautiful spot in Costa Rica?
That is a hard question — there are so many! While Manuel Antonio is one of the more popular destinations, the secluded Playa Manuel Antonio on the eastern side of the national park is the single most beautiful spot in Costa Rica to me. The water is almost turquoise, a much different color than the waters anywhere else in Manuel Antonio, and while there might be tourists, it is an absolutely picture-perfect spot. When people think of Costa Rica, I believe this is the image they have in their head.

What type of outdoor activities do you like to do when you visit?
First and foremost: surfing!  Amazing surfing can be found in Costa Rica, and you don’t have to be a professional to do it. A town called Tamarindo on the northern Nicoya Peninsula is in my opinion the best place for wannabe surfers to get their bearings. The water is shallow, neck high at most, and the waves are small and consistent.

Tamarindo Beach, where anyone looking to surf for their first time should head to — it has the most consistent, entry-level waves you can find. This photo is also very typical looking for most beaches in Costa Rica

Tamarindo Beach, where anyone looking to surf for their first time should head to — it has the most consistent, entry-level waves you can find. This photo is also very typical looking for most beaches in Costa Rica

Once in Costa Rica, the best way to get around is by  Sansa Airlines , which is owned and operated out of San Jose, Costa Rica. This will save hours on driving and is rather affordable. For example, you can fly direct from San Jose to Manuel Antonio for $70, and it’s a 20-minute flight, as opposed to making the three-hour drive

Once in Costa Rica, the best way to get around is by Sansa Airlines, which is owned and operated out of San Jose, Costa Rica. This will save hours on driving and is rather affordable. For example, you can fly direct from San Jose to Manuel Antonio for $70, and it’s a 20-minute flight, as opposed to making the three-hour drive

Other than surfing, the list goes on: snorkeling, scuba diving, ziplining, four wheeling, hiking, moonlit nature walks…it’s endless!

What’s the food like?

Very good! Local staples include gallo pinto and arroz con pollo. Gallo pinto is a traditional dish made of rice and black beans, usually with cilantro as well. Gallo pinto topped with a fried egg is a go-to for me.

A typical Costa Rican breakfast: gallo pinto with scrambled eggs, fresh tortillas and a couple slices of queso turrialba, a local cheese made in Monteverde that’s rindless, unaged and has a high water content. The potatoes are not typical but were included because they were at a hotel

A typical Costa Rican breakfast: gallo pinto with scrambled eggs, fresh tortillas and a couple slices of queso turrialba, a local cheese made in Monteverde that’s rindless, unaged and has a high water content. The potatoes are not typical but were included because they were at a hotel

Arroz con pollo, exactly how it is served in all Costa Rican restaurants, with french fries and a side salad

Arroz con pollo, exactly how it is served in all Costa Rican restaurants, with french fries and a side salad

Arroz con pollo (simply rice with chicken) is probably the most famous of Costa Rican dishes. It’s fried rice with veggies — almost always red pepper, onions and tomatoes — and cilantro, mixed with shredded chicken.

Lizano, however, is what makes any dish truly “Costa Rican.” It’s essentially the Costa Rican version of ketchup and is used on everything from fries to rice to steak. It’s hard to describe but it’s almost a sweet, black peppery cumin BBQ sauce. It’s a Costa Rican staple (created and started in Costa Rica in 1920, though the Lizano Company was recently acquired by Unilever) and pairs well with tamales and arroz con pollo.

Any interesting customs you’ve noticed?
Kindness. In any of the smaller, non-touristy towns, the people are wildly nice and caring. I’ve been invited to people’s houses for dinner only minutes after meeting them.

My father has this story from when he travelled to Costa Rica in 1996 for work and his car broke down on a deserted road. Eventually another car came by, and the family invited him to their home, where he stayed for two days while they fixed his car. They treated him like family, feeding him and giving him a bed. He says that was why he eventually decided to move to Costa Rica: the people.

There are usually a few restaurants or bars on every beach. This is a typical layout of such a place, where the chairs and tables are literally right on the sand

There are usually a few restaurants or bars on every beach. This is a typical layout of such a place, where the chairs and tables are literally right on the sand

Costa Ricans have an earnest desire to share what they have and enjoy the company of others, which unfortunately is not the go-to mindset here in the States.

There is also an amazing Christmas tradition where families cook hundreds of Christmas tamales. Tamales are a Christmas staple in Costa Rica, and the best part is that each family makes so many of them that you can eat them for weeks if not months afterwards.

What’s something you’re not the biggest fan of there?

The Costa Rican capuchin monkey is ubiquitous and can be quite menacing at times, hissing, throwing things at you and trying to steal any food you might have

The Costa Rican capuchin monkey is ubiquitous and can be quite menacing at times, hissing, throwing things at you and trying to steal any food you might have

The monkeys that steal your food on the beaches of Manuel Antonio. For real — they are intense!

Aside from that, due to the rising influx of tourists, there are a lot of shady guys out there trying to make a buck and rip off tourists. You have to be careful of whom you go to for things. The shady guys basically look like surfer bros and smoke a lot of weed, so if you don’t do business with the late teen/early 20s guys who whistle at girls when they pass, you should be okay.

Anything else you’d like to mention about Costa Rica?

Costa Rica is a great place and has come to define the term “ecotourism.”

It’s a place that I hold dear to my heart, and I once worked for Habitat for Humanity there for six months building houses for single mothers. When there, I stayed with a local family in their guest bedroom, and from day one was treated as if I had been a part of their family for years. It really is the people that make a country great, and Costa Rica is a shining example of that.