12 Things I Learned About Brazil While Living in Rio

While living in Rio for three months, Amanda Starkey learned a lot about the country. Find out what Brazil is like and what to know about Brazilian culture and people before you go.

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Photo © Getty Images/mikolajn

1. Brazilians love to party

Brazilians are very warm, friendly people. If you are staying with a local, within days the whole neighborhood will know everything about you.

Don't be alarmed, Brazilians love meeting new people, and having a visitor is a novelty for them, especially if you visit a small town. It's inevitable that a party will be thrown in your honor – any excuse to make a batch of feijoada (stew of beans with beef and pork).

There are hundreds of festivals celebrated throughout the year in Brazil. The best known is Carnival, but there are so many more. During the month of June, Festa Junina celebrates the European Midsummer saints, and was introduced by the Portuguese during colonial times. Locals dress up in traditional country clothing, and there's lots of dancing, music, and of course, food.

Whatever you do, don't show up to a party on time – guests are usually between an hour to three hours late. If you arrive on time, you might be waiting alone for a long while.

2. What do Cariocas drink?

Want to feel like a Carioca (resident of Rio)? Drink coconut water or coffee. Along the beach vendors use machetes to cut the top off coconuts. Enjoy sipping on a coconut while you sit on the beach to blend in.

Most Brazilians brew coffee first thing in the morning and keep a flask with them all day. If you're out, you might start to notice local shops and banks always have a thermos on hand for customers.

Drinking Coca Cola is not so popular in Brazil, but if you like soft drinks, try Guarana Antarctica, which gives you a nice little pick-me-up.

3. It's all about the hustle

In Brazil, people work hard to make a few dollars in any way they can. For many years flanelinhas (unofficial parking attendants) would help guide drivers into parking spots, and then request the equivalent of US $0.50 as protection money, as they promise to make sure your car doesn't get keyed in your absence. These men no longer operate in larger cities of Brazil because parking meters have since been introduced, but in a country with a struggling economy, it's easy to see why there are so many hustlers.

Other hustling examples include impressive sand castles in all shapes and sizes along the beaches, but if you stop to take a photo, a man or woman will approach you and ask for a tip. While it is polite to tip the person who built the sand sculptures, this can be an inconvenience because at the time you took the photo, you were unaware of the fee.

People sell all sorts of items on the beaches and streets of Brazil, from lollies and prawns to household items like toothbrushes and shoes. Even jugglers run between cars in traffic jams and juggle balls to make a coin. If you're impressed, help them out.

4. Tipping in Brazil

Unlike tipping culture in the USA and Canada, tipping at bars and restaurants is not a thing in Brazil. But, visitors often do pay a little more than locals would for items sold on the streets. There's an unofficial "tax" that applies to travelers everywhere around the world, and I guess that's just a fee that comes with the privilege of traveling.

5. X marks the Spot

Cheese is such a popular menu item in Brazil that they get a little lazy writing it down, and because X sounds kind of like the word cheese it's written as X instead of queijo. One of the most popular foods in Brazil happens to be the X-TUDO, which is a cheeseburger with the works.

6. Learn a bit of the local language

While most South American countries speak Spanish, in Brazil they speak Portuguese. Don't make the mistake of crossing the border from Argentina to Brazil and continuing to speak Spanish – learn how to speak a bit of Portuguese.

Here are a few words of local slang to help you get by:

  • Legal – Cool
  • Um Beijo – Kisses
  • Tranquilo – Calm down
  • Beleza – Literally means beauty, but is more commonly used as "How's it going?"

Most Brazilians love the sound of English, so be prepared for locals to practice their English on you.

7. Etiquette in Brazil

Brazilians are known to wear skimpy bathing suits. But don't let their revealling swim wear confuse you. Many Brazilians are strictly Catholic, and quite conservative. Mind your manners in Brazil, a foul mouth or using sexual innuendo might lead to trouble or come across as a sign of disrespect.

8. Brazil and music

Across South America music is a huge part of culture. In Brazil, they love the melody and dancing to the beats, and you will definitely be familiar with music pumping through the speakers every now and again – popular music in English speaking countries is popular in Brazil, too. Even if they don't understand the English lyrics, they sing along anyway.

In Rio, Funk parties were once thrown in the slums, but have since been shut down by police who are trying to dismantle the power structure of Rio's armed drug gangs. If you do get invited, only travel there in a group, as they are known to get out of control very fast. The safest option is to politely decline the offer.

9. Motels are not just for sleeping

If you make a new acquaintance and want to take it to the next level, don’t ask “shall we go back to your place?”

With a large majority of young people living at home well into their late twenties and early thirties, it remains taboo to bring home any lovers. So, when a special occasion like this arises, they go to a motel. You can book any time frame, whether it be three hours or the entire night with your new flame.

10. Beware of pickpockets

When you travel around, especially in Rio, be careful with your posessions. Keep it in a secure place, tucked away where nobody can see. Keep some cash in your shoes, underpants, bra – but not your pockets.

When getting money out of an ATM, limit how much you get out at each time, and only use ATMs during the day.

Avoid walking around crowded areas with your phone, camera, wallet or any flashy jewelry on display. Talented pickpockets operate in gangs around crowded areas. One person distracts, one steals, one stashes stolen items, and the other keeps watch.

Don't dismiss advice from locals if they tell you that it's unsafe to be out after dark. In places such as Ipanema and Copacabana, it's best to go inside after 7pm.

11. Don't dress like a tourist

A big mistake many travelers make is wearing outrageous t-shirts, hats and brightly colored clothing. With a bit of sunburn, you can pretty much guarantee you will end up a target for pickpockets. In cities such as Rio and São Paulo there are many people who will take advantage of travelers.

Football is king in Brazil, so unless you know a lot about the sport, don't go wearing a club shirt or you might find yourself involved in a very heated conversation you don't know much about.

12. Flushing and brushing

Plumbing is pretty basic in Brazil, so place your used toilet paper in the bin provided beside the toilet.

When you take a shower, keep your mouth closed and don't use tap water to brush your teeth. Never ever drink the tap water, always boil it first. Try to avoid buying a stack of plastic water bottles – instead purify your own water when you are at your accommodation.

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20 Comments

  • Meg said

    We've been working in SP and RJ for 4 months now and I have to say the article was pretty accurate for us - as Europeans (who speak Spanish and English) we made the effort to speak Portugués and we're amazed at how few spoke any English (unlike other South American countries). The Funk parties are very crazy, but fun, and absolutely Brazilians run at least 1 hour behind. It's a very stark difference for us form a country that thinks 5 minutes late is rude so I can understand cultural differences. What amazed me more however is how many SP citizens tried to put us off RJ saying the crime and poverty was extreme. This was not at all true - RJ is a beautiful state and the city no where near as 'scary' as we were warned!

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  • Mr. Edward W Armstrong said

    Rio de janeiro is one of my most favorite cities in our world. ...have had the good fortune to have visited 11X's; my initial visit was in 2002 where I did make the mistake in terms of language. ...knew Brasilian Portugese was the prime language but thought many more folks spoke Ingles. ...was virtually incorrect; thus I spent fewer days in Rio and aborted the remainder of my long-planned journey and returned home to the US, California. In 2003 I went with an amigo for CARNAVAL and had one hell of an adventure without my encountering any difficulties. From that point on I'd venture there each year until 2011. Had wonderful experiences: love the culture, its people, and related components. ...was mistaken for a native, but once I stated "no fala Portugese-- both of us would laugh. This happened in all instances where I native mistook me as one of them. I loved it but could kick myself a 1000 times over for my never learning another language or two. Traveling is in my blood, and I've done a fare bit in my having lived on two continents and traveled to the others excepting one: Guess which it is?

    Reply

  • Fernando said

    You don't have a clue about what Brazil is.

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  • Carioca Canuck said

    Stupid article that could have been cut and pasted from any low rent guidebook. I've lived in Rio for 18 years now FWIW.

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  • Adriano Papachristodoulou said

    Hello World Nomads,
    I am here to say I liked the most comments about Rio by the guest author this month. However, as Brazilian I have to disagree with his tap water concerns. There is not a such thing ' don't brush your teeth with the tap water '. The most cities in Sao Paulo and Rio the water is treated ,it's ok to.not drink ,but I never heard anyone got sick by brushing their teeth. I found it a bit exaggerated and senseless.
    Many thanks ,
    Adriano

    Reply

  • Marcos Berenstein said

    I'd like to remind that "CARIOCA" means exclusively those who were born in the city of Rio de Janeiro.

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  • Maah Rodrigues said

    As a Brazilian, I need to say that Coca Cola IS popular in Brazil and the tap water concerns are kinda exaggerated

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  • Filipi Soares said

    Well, you should review this post, so many things are wrong in what is said. The basic thing when studying or writing about a local culture is inviting local people to colab with you, so you don't run the risk of making misjudgment.

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  • Renata said

    All my life drinkking tap water in São Paulo, i never have even a flu or fever in my life

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  • Mike said

    In in itabuna for 6 week s now. Drank coke. Asked my wife's son and he said you can drink The water. He doesn't like the taste. I did and didn't get sick. Beautiful country. Seen some great beaches

    Reply

  • Mike said

    In in itabuna for 6 week s now. Drank coke. Asked my wife's son and he said you can drink The water. He doesn't like the taste. I did and didn't get sick. Beautiful country. Seen some great beaches

    Reply

  • Fernanda Lopes Cancado said

    Don't drink tap water... HAHAHAHA! What kind of stupid comment is that? Plus, I have no idea why people expect Brazilians to speak English! The world in Brazil revolves around Brazil, nor the rest of the world. Learn Portuguese!

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  • clay said

    True summary:
    1 - Cariocas love to party
    Everything is correct, but about the delay in Brazil in relation to parties, it means that the party starts from a certain time and there is no problem you arrive 30 or 60 minutes later. The important thing is your presence at some point. There are several reasons for a person to be late, traffic, problems that arise on the day of the party, etc ... So we just understand that and accept it. So the person invited is not suffocated by the time and can go to the party when it is possible and if he is not, there is no problem. We would only like to have that person present, but we will not be rude and we will not stop inviting again.

    2 - What do Cariocas drink?
    Coca Cola is popular in Brazil, maybe it is the main soft drink in Brazil due to the marketing that "The Coca Cola Company" does all the time and because it is a "kind of addictive" soft drink ...
    It is just not more popular than the Café, because the Café is cultural.

    3 - It's all about agitation
    In Brazil, remember: You are not required to pay anything that the law does not require. If you took a picture of a sandcastle on the beach and someone came to charge you for the photo, you can just delete the photo and move on with your life.

    4 - Tipping is not a thing
    We give thanks for a good service and that's it. Nobody is obliged to tip and nobody can force you to tip. About this "Tax for travelers" charging more foreigners, this is called "theft, crime, abuse". You should not pay more for a product just because you are not Brazilian. The product must be the same price for everyone. The best way for a foreigner to buy things in Brazil is to initially go to a decent Brazilian who will force the seller to sell the product correctly, without abusing you, just because you are a foreigner.

    5 - X marks the spot
    Many words from Brazil are in other languages. X-Egg-Bacon for example. And the use of X is not because I am too lazy to write CHEESE, it is because writing X-TUDO pleases customers more than writing CHEESE-EVERYTHING. It's just a matter of marketing. That's why many words are in other languages, because those words for some reason sound more interesting to people. It's pure marketing.

    6 - Speak English
    We Brazilians are hospitable by nature and that is why we always try to learn other languages, even if we never meet with a foreigner. Unlike other countries where most people only care about their own language, we in Brazil care that anyone who comes from outside Brazil can be treated well and have a good time in Brazil. I have already traveled to the United States, China and some other countries and I think they should take this culture from Brazil to them. A lot of people don't know how scary it is to be in a country and just meet people who don't care about them or look at you with disgust as if they were disgusted with the person ONLY because they are not from the country and don't know how to communicate very well in the language native.

    7 - Conservative and polite
    Just to add: Short clothes are just fashion. It is part of the culture, it has no direct relation to the person's character.

    8 - Brazil and Music
    About funk parties, the ideal is to go once to meet, but with a group of people you have known for a long time. The ideal is to stay away from funk parties in the first year you are in Brazil, until you are able to understand well what is happening around you. "A glance or a phrase said incorrectly can turn into a problem with no return ..." This environment should only be attended when you know what you are REALLY DOING.

    9 - Motels are not for sleeping
    (͡ ° ͜ʖ ͡ °)

    10 - Riding the bus
    That's what was said in the topic, but remember. Nowhere in the world will you be more secure in purchasing a product than directly in a store. It is not possible to guarantee the origin of the product sold on the street by street vendors, but many buy in stores and sell a little more expensive to get some money.

    11 - Local Advertising
    Advertising, you can do it in many ways. From the "Car with speaker above" how to deliver flyers, business cards, billboards, among others. Even in small towns. You only need to do this to the extent permitted by law.

    12 - Put your money where?
    Much of what has been said is true, but you can eliminate all of these problems by just walking with your credit card and phone. Putting them in unconventional places is also a good idea, but if your card is stolen, all you have to do is call the bank, ask to block the card that was stolen and request a new card. Always look for places that you can only pay by card, so you avoid having to carry cash.

    13 - What you wear counts
    Just dress in basic clothes that are not themed, like football, movies, series, cartoons, etc ...

    14 - Washing and brushing
    Everything that has been said here is not true. The only reason to be told not to drink water directly from the tap is because it contains chlorine and if you keep drinking tap water, chlorine can be harmful. About showering and worrying about your mouth or not brushing your teeth with tap water ... This is a lot of fantasy ... It's like arriving in the USA and believing that you can buy Neverland with 1 day of work at any store, because Americans are all millionaires and you will stay overnight too ...

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  • Thomas said

    If you are planning spend some time in Brazil and stay in Rio de Janeiro or even worse São Paulo you Brazilian experience gonna be quite limited. Do yourself a favor and fly to Salvador in Bahia, terrific Recife and Olinda in Pernambuco, absolute magic Minas Gerais state or the Brazilian South.

    Reply

  • Guilherme said

    In advance, I'm Brazilian... Now... What was this?

    "Don't buy water. Purify your own."

    What the heck? I've never been to Rio, but I doubt mineral water is that bad in Rio.

    Also, tap water is, generally speaking around the country, potable. Still, it is always good to ask at the hotel reception.

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  • Paul Green said

    I am English and I been living in Brazil 3 years and well for there are some errors in transaltion here for the phases learned whilst in Brazil.

    Tranquilo or fique tranquilo is used as a way of saying no problems or no worries, sem problemas more than to say calm down which is very similar in English and people here usually say calmo/calma to say calm down.

    Beleza as a slang term is also is wrong and it's used in a way to express agreement like Great, thanks, all good, tudo certo, combinado, agreed, thumbs up.

    Um beijo means A kiss not kisses which is beijos and is a form of polite affection. Um abraco (A hug) ou um beijo, a kiss.

    Where I live coca cola and Guarana of any type are the most popular soft drinks.

    The water is good to brush your teeth, to wash and some say to drink, it all depends on where you live I suppose but if its a water from the road public supply, probably recommended to buy mineral water which is as good as anywhere else in the world.

    Tipping is not obligatory but people will appreciate it if they receive a tip, there is no rule to not to tip if you wish to or feel that someone deserves it. Many Brazilians do tip when it is deserved but many also don't.

    Many Brazilians are rude and many are not like anywhere else in the world. There are respectful people and disrespectful people. Particularly when you drive here there is little respect or discipline on the roads in Brazil.

    My tip is just be yourself but be aware of your surroundings also, dress simply, don't take anything valuable with you in the street, stick to times of the day when most people are out and about and never put yourself in a situation where you are alone on a deserted street. Plan where you will go and don't go to places where you could get lost. Always stay in places where there are other people and observe your surroundings to learn what is ok and not ok. Funk parties attract drug traffickers so best steering clear of these as a foreigner and if you do not have Brazilian friends to guide you.

    Brazil is a beautiful country but also can be dangerous so you need to do three things use to survive here and this is to always use your common sense first, secondly relax and thirdly enjoy this beautiful country and its people.





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  • evelyn said

    this is really cool, knowing what you guys think of Brazil, and yes it is very difficult to find someone who arrives on time in Brazil haha ​​(it's a laugh)
    isso é muito legal, saber o que vcs acham do Brasil, e sim é muito difícil encontrar alguem que chega no horário no Brasil haha(é uma risada)

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  • Felipe said

    Actually, in Brazil, Coca Cola (oronly Coca) is one of the most famous drinks. In the beaches, we can see venders selling Água de Coco (coconut water) ant Chá Mate (matte tea). We still see a lot of flanelinhas in big cities like Rio, São Paulo and Salvador. Brazil is not a country with collapsing economy. Actually, its the 12th most rich country in the world.

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  • Felipe said

    ITS A LIE!!!!!!!! IN SOME POOR REGIONS, PEOPLE DON'T SPEAK ENGLISH, BUT IN RIO OR SÃO PAULO, ALMOST EVERYONE CON SPEAK A BIT OF ENGLISH! U GUYS FROM EUROPE ARE STUPID FOR STEREOTYPING OUR COUNTRY LIKE THIS! WE DO HAVE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION, OUR TAP WATER IS SAFE FOR BRUSHING OUR TEETH AND LOTS OF BRAZILIANS DO ARRIVE IN TIME!!!! THIS IS DESRESPECTFUL, ABOUT HOW MUCH U STEREOTYPE OUR COUNTRIE, AND EVEN CAME HERE TO SEE WHAT REAL BRAZIL IS.

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  • WLF said

    Also the flip-flops 😭👌

    Reply

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