14 Things I Learned About Brazil While Living in Rio

While living in Rio for three months, Amanda Starkey learnt a lot about the local culture. Here are 14 crazy things you need to know before you go.


Photo © Getty Images/mikolajn

1. Cariocas 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 Portugal when they were colonized. 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 local? 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 drink try Guarana Antarctica, which gives you a nice little pick me up.

3. It's All About the Hustle

In Brazil hustlers 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 is Not a Thing

Unlike tipping culture in the USA and Canada, tipping 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 like the word cheese (but not really) 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 cheese burger with the lot.

6. Falar Inglês

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. Conservative and Polite

Brazilians are known to wear skimpy swim wear. 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 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. Riding the Bus

Purchase a transport card when you arrive in Brazil to make catching public transport easy. Read about where you can buy a transport card and how to top it up here

Buses are rarely on time, so don't stress out – they run on Brazilian time, which means they could be anywhere between twenty minutes to an hour late.

If you happen to start feeling a little peckish on the bus, many street food vendors get on and off the bus offering snacks and sweets. Most sweets are cheap, so keep some coins in your pockets to quickly grab a bite to eat.

11. Local Advertising

Whether you own a small shop or are running a major corporation in Brazil, the only way to advertise is to hire someone with a car and strap a massive speaker to the roof and have them drive around. Most small towns have a ton of cars, motorbikes, and if you've got an ultra-low budget, opt for a donkey and cart.

12. Put Your Money Where?

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.

13. What You Wear Counts

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.

14. Flushing and Brushing

Plumbing is pretty basic in Brazil, so when you wipe, place your 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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  • 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!


  • 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?


  • Fernando said

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


  • 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.


  • 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 ,


  • Marcos Berenstein said

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


  • 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


  • 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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