There’s samba, football and festivals. There are beautiful hips wearing the shortest of clothes. There are even kids playing with guns in the favelas. And then there’s the authentic Brazil, the one we love, that is a mix of all that and even more. The more we crossed the country, the more we fell in love with it. With its food, its lively cities, its culture and its nature; but especially with its people, among the friendliest we’ve ever met. For all that, we’ve put together this guide with our best backpacking travel tips and our favourite destinations in Brazil.
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A few things to know before backpacking in Brazil
Brazilians are very friendly
Famous for their colourful festivals, Brazilians are not all samba and caipirinhas; but many of them do like a good dancing and party! Even Andre, our quiet host in Rio, likes to shake his hips on some wild forró nights.
Besides partying and sensually dancing, Brazilians are also very friendly. They will eagerly strike up a conversation anywhere and come out of their way to help you out. If we’ve read somewhere that a smile was the most universal language, we saw it particularly in Brazil. Even if you’re shy, let yourself go: talking to strangers on your travel is a surefire way to make lifelong memories.
Is backpacking in Brazil safe?
Apart from the big cities, like Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo or Salvador de Bahía, the Brazilian medium and small towns are just as safe as anywhere else. In Curitiba or Porto Alegre, we walked on the streets at night without problem and never felt in danger.
In those big cities the huge differences between rich and poor resulted in the favelas, poor neighbourhoods controlled by drug trafficking and crime. It’s not enough to just avoid these neighbourhoods: one needs to be more careful than usual anywhere in these cities.
Don’t ever walk on the streets at night – rather take an official taxi or an Uber. During the day, don’t show valuables, keep your bag at hand and avoid some neighbourhoods completely. It’s good to ask on your arrival at your accommodation which areas you should avoid. Luckily, the police watches over a wide number of touristy places.
Yes, in the big cities, one needs to practice precautions that are hardly known in Europe. But still, it’s absolutely possible to enjoy these places without any problem. Read our tips on how to stay safe in Rio de Janeiro.
Many of the best landmarks in Brazil, such as the Iguaçu Falls or the Amazon Rainforest are rather safe areas. Wherever you go, it’s a good idea to subscribe to a travel insurance.
There’s incredible food in Brazil
Health freaks might disagree, but in my opinion the best food in Brazil are the cakes. They’re called “bolo” (cake) and you can buy them in any “pastelaria” (bakery). It’s worth being curious about them, because all the cakes I’ve tried were great. However my personal favourites are “bolo de leite” (milk cake) and “bolo de nozes” (nut cake).
Another source of joy is that exotic fruits are sweet and cheap. It’s easy to find new favourites or discover the real taste of those we know from imports. Bring a lunchbox when you buy pineapple (“abacaxí” in Brazilian Portuguese) from street sellers; they’ll peel it and chop it for you, so you don’t need to juggle with the big knife at home.
Finally, another splendid food is “açaí“, the super food. In Brazil, it’s served in a huge glass as a sorbet topped with various add-ons of your choice. Açaí in Brazil is probably the cheapest it can ever get in the whole world.
The Brazilian cuisine is meaty (sad news for vegetarians) and the vegetarian options are generally just with cheese. At markets, food sellers often offer local indigenous food, like acarajé. I really advise you to follow your nose (and your stomach) & to try out different local specialities!
Read more: Our favourite foods from Brazil (cake excluded)
Another (healthier) highlight is the freshly pressed juices that they sell at juice bars at every corner. The bar interiors are beautifully decorated with colourful fruits, and one can order juice (“suco” in Brazilian Portuguese) virtually of any fruit combination. Ask with water or milk to have a smoothie (“batido” in Portuguese). Drink it directly there in the shop, sitting next to locals, from a glass to avoid the takeaway plastic cup. 100% healthy, tasty and cheap!
Cost of backpacking around Brazil
With a lot of cheap food and many Couchsurfing options, it is fairly cheap to backpack in Brazil. If you rather go to hostels, those are affordable too. The major cost to travel in Brazil is probably the transportation, considering the large distances there are to cover.
To give you an idea, here’s a list of average prices in Brazil in February 2020. The currency in Brazil is the Real (pl. Reais).
|Water bottle (33 cl)||R$ 2.80||$0.67 USD||0.60€|
|Cappuccino||R$ 6.20||$1.48 USD||1.33€|
|National beer||R$ 7.00||$1.67 USD||1.51€|
|Menu in a cheap restaurant||R$ 20.10||$4.78 USD||4.31€|
|1 way in public transport||R$ 4.30||$1.02 USD||0.92€|
|Bus Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo||R$ 110||$25.60 USD||23.60€|
|1 night in a hostel dorm||R$ 40||$9.30 USD||8.60€|
Prepare well before backpacking Brazil
Brazilians are particularly picky when it comes to personal hygiene. They often shower twice a day, wash their hands regularly and are very attentive to the state of their clothes. That’s a pattern we found on our travels in Colombia too.
This almost obsessive-compulsive scrubbing applies to the food too. Brazilian cooks use extra measures to protect their food, the same way their customers protect their fingers with plenty napkins. It’s therefore very safe to eat in Brazil, whether it is street food or in a restaurant.
Tap water is drinkable in Brazil. People told us they didn’t like the taste because of how it’s treated, but we found no reason to complain. Safe tap water is a luxury that not everyone can enjoy (especially in Brazil) so we never frown at it.
In order to fly into Brazil, you need to show any kind of ticket exiting the country within the visa limit of 90 days. What we did: we bought a refundable bus ticket on Busbud.com, printed it and showed it when boarding our plane. Busbud offers a very easy and quick way to cancel many tickets directly online.
Once you are in the country, the bus is really the best way to travel around Brazil. Flying is also possible, at a substantial cost. Train lines sparsely exist, so you can’t use it to visit the best places in Brazil.
The bus network in Brazil is quite good. Buses are comfortable and modern, it’s safe to travel day and night. Distances are long here, so keep that in mind when planning your itinerary. We usually opted for night travel – read our tips on how to survive a night on the bus.
Hitchhiking is uncommon but can work in between small towns, rarely near big cities. On our way to Rio no one took us; they were probably scared of Anna.
We found it very easy to couchsurf in Brazil, provided you send enough requests a week or 10 days before. Like in other South American countries, people in Brazil don’t like committing too long in advance. Because Brazilians are usually so friendly, a Couchsurfing experience is often more than a place to sleep. So make sure you dedicate enough time to your host, cook for/with them, go out together, etc.
During our 2 months backpacking through Brazil, we squeezed on a sofa in Salvador, learnt from a Frenchman how to make Polish pancakes in Curitiba, and had a flat for free entirely to ourselves in Porto Alegre.
Best time to go to Brazil
Summer in Brazil takes place when it’s winter in the Northern hemisphere, from December to March. That’s the warmest weather, but also the rainiest, which can be a problem to access nature in the South. It can get quite hot in the north, and prices rise alongside the temperatures everywhere in the country.
Winter (June-September) gets drier and chillier but temps are still very pleasant in the north. For the south or in altitude, bring a good jumper and a thick sleeping bag as nights can be cold.
The best time to travel to Brazil is probably in the shoulder months of September and October. The month of August is dry and enjoys perfect temperatures but can be very busy in the touristic parts; choose it if you plan on visiting lesser-known areas.
If you plan to attend the Rio carnival in February, make sure you book your accommodation long in advance.
Backpacking destinations in Brazil
Brazil is such a huge country that we certainly didn’t manage to visit all of it. We missed for example the Amazon rainforest and the Pantanal wetland region – two very good reasons to come back!
Rio de Janeiro
The former capital of Brazil is one of the best cities to visit on the continent. Why? Not only it has a uniquely chilled atmosphere in various neighbourhoods; it also offers a lot of cultural activities and awesome city beaches, like Copacabana and Ipanema; the home of “The girl from Ipanema” song!
You could spend a week in Rio de Janeiro going from museum to art gallery to cinema. Add a dance class, a yoga workshop and a free walking tour, then finish at the beach and be merry.
Have you visited many large cities in the world that have a lake and a National Park within their boundaries? Rio is surrounded by hills that offer some spectacular views, including the Pão de Açúcar. It’s a tourist magnet for a reason, an unmissable place to visit. If you’re into great views, chilled vibes, culture and dancing, Rio is your place!
You’ll find many cheap accommodations in the districts of Botafogo, Catete, Santa Teresa and Ipanema.
Remember that Rio is not a safe city. It’s important that you keep your wits about you at any time, and always take a taxi after dark. Ask at your accommodation right when you arrive which areas you should avoid altogether.
Start dreaming: Our favourite things to do in Rio de Janeiro
The country’s 5th largest city is more popular with national than international visitors. Its beautiful beaches, like Praia do Futuro, Meireles or Mucuripe, are its best asset. But the gorgeous neoclassical architecture, good food and relaxed vibes are as many reasons to stay. It can get crowded in the summer so plan a visit outside Brazilian holidays; there’s no bad weather in Fortaleza anyway.
It’s a really long time since I visited Fortaleza, but my memories are of colonial palaces lit up by the bright sun; a slow-paced life, busy lazying at the beach and at cafe terraces.
Fortaleza is a charming urban stop before losing your head on the extensive sandy dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses National Park.
We have absolutely no idea why so many “Best Brazil destinations” guides mention Foz do Iguaçu, when that medium-sized town is nothing more than a convenient shithole.
You don’t go to that part of the world to spend time in Foz. You really don’t. If you go there, it’s for the most grandiose waterfalls in South America, surrounded by pristine rainforest. With their 2.7 km width, they’re among the widest waterfalls on Earth! In fact, it’s so awesome that it’s been chosen as one of the new 7 wonders of nature.
Iguaçu is situated at the triple border of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. It’s not close to anything, so you need to make a detour from your normal itinerary. The falls are visible from both Brazil and Argentina (where they call them Iguazú); and they should be visited from both sides to get a very different, but equally majestic view.
So yeah, true, you’ll probably end up staying a night in Foz. Although we would rather advise to stay in Puerto Iguazu, on the Argentinean side; it’s cheaper and probably a bit cuter. But there’s a lot of hostels, restaurants and bars on either sides.
You got it by now, Brazil is a land of superlatives. So here comes another one: the world’s largest tropical wetland area.
The Pantanal region stretches on a large part of Brazil’s Mato Grosso do Sul state, eastern Bolivia and a tiny bit of Paraguay. In the rainy season (October to March), vast areas get flooded, turning it into a unique landscape of freshwater pools. A real treat for nature lovers!
It’s an important ecosystem, where hundreds of species of animals, birds and fish thrive. There are also patches of rain forest where you could sight jaguars, tapirs, giants anteaters or river otters. Are you sold yet?
It’s possible to immerse completely in the region by staying on a local ranch and going on boat trips. Otherwise, there’s accommodation in the little town of Bonito, a backpackers’ heaven 4 hours from the biggest city Campo Grande. From there, it’s easy to explore caverns, dive in underground lakes and snorkel in the Rio da Prata. The nearby Serra da Bodoquena National Park is rich in waterfalls and funny-looking capybaras.
Manaus & the Amazon
Brazil’s 7th largest city seems lost on the map, deep down within the heart of the Amazon jungle. Manaus is a curious patchwork of neoclassical and very modern buildings that looks both beautiful and intriguing. The main landmark is the Amazon Theatre, a remnant of the rubber boom and among the world’s most beautiful theatres.
Many visitors come to Manaus for the wildlife that encases it. It’s also the arrival point of Amazon river cruises that depart from Belém. Hop on for 5 days of peaceful floating down the brown river; slow travel at its best, not recommended to those who are in a hurry to check sites off a list.
We’ve already hammered down our love for the Amazon rain forest. It’s not only beautiful, it’s also an essential ecosystem that’s unlike any other in the world. The city of Manaus is probably the best place to see the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.
Backpacking Brazil off the beaten path
This cute little colonial town only 2 hours from Belo Horizonte is truly one of the jewels of Brazil. A pattern of cobblestone streets going up and down a hilly landscape; a sequence of baroque churches, each one more adorned than the last; a mild climate and a cosy life rhythm on the main square. All that and more is Ouro Preto, one of our favourite towns in Brazil.
The name expresses truly what Ouro Preto is about: gold. No surprise that the town of “Ouro Preto” (Black Gold) is in the state of “Minas Gerais” (General Mines); 30 km away lies the town of “Ouro Branco” (White Gold). The region owes much to its past.
It was the world’s most important town for gold mining in colonial times, extracting thousands of kilos of the mineral; and killing as many slaves. A few of the mines are open to visitors, a great way to learn about that epic and tragic history.
Nowadays, travellers can wonder at the huge amount of gold in the 13 churches that this town –of only 70,000 inhabitants– counts on its hilly landscape. It’s quite close to Rio, so if heavily-ornamented churches and romantic landscapes are your thing, add it to your Brazil itinerary.
Read more: Our favourite things in Ouro Preto
Nature lovers should hitchhike the road to nearby Lavras Novas. From this tiny hamlet, several hikes find their way to hidden waterfalls. The vegetation is dense and the trails not always perfectly marked, so bring a good offline map.
Chapada Diamantina National Park
We heard about this park shortly before flying to Brazil, and it was our very first nature hike on our backpacking route. A “chapada” is a very large high-altitude plateau, equivalent in Brazil to the Andean Altiplano. In Brazilian slang, “chapada” also means ‘high, stoned’. Makes sense…
This rugged landscape of deep canyons and waterfalls is a perfect adventure escape a night bus away from Salvador. There’s a gazillion hikes everywhere, on mountain slopes, along rivers, to hidden pools of an electric blue. We recommend staying in the small backpackers village of Lençois or in the more remote Caeté-Açu (Vale do Capão).
Start dreaming: Look at more photos from Chapada Diamantina
Florianópolis & Ilha de Santa Catarina
While the northern coast between Fortaleza and Recife takes much of the beach spotlight, the small adventure island of Santa Catarina in the south attracts many national visitors in search of outdoor activities. Surfers, windsurfers, scuba divers and sand-boarders love the island for a myriad good reasons.
But if that’s not your thing, there are also a few hikes to pretty beaches and viewpoints. The south of the island is less built-up than the north; it has a more melancholy flair to it with its lonesome lighthouses and fishing boats. Don’t miss the short hike to Lagoinha do Leste and a ball of açai on your way back!
Florianópolis –or simply Floripa for friends– is a good medium-size base to explore the island. Although we’re not much into outdoor sports, we were very happy we added it to our Brazil backpacking route.
Nearby Blumenau is a surprising German village hosting an annual Oktoberfest, but I forgot in which month…
Green Coast (Costa Verde)
Costa Verde is that fragment of coast between Rio & São Paulo, a paradise of coastal mountains along the sea. You’re probably coming over here if you’re spending only 2 weeks in Brazil.
The highlight of this area is Parati, a colourful jewel of colonial houses and cobblestone streets. It’s surrounded by a tropical forest and there are trails leaving town and heading directly to some gorgeous waterfalls. I’m lying: it’s first surrounded by fortifications dating from colonial times. Paraty is rather popular, meaning there are many pousadas (bed-and-breakfast) to choose from.
Further near Rio is another treasure-trove on this emerald coast, dotted with sandy beaches and colonial houses. The bay of Angra dos Reis makes travellers daydream they just landed with their caravel on an unknown land.
There are as many islands in this archipelago as days in the year; the largest one is aptly named Ilha Grande (big isle) and is famous as a scuba diving destination. Put on your mask and discover coral reefs, shipwrecks and plenty of cute little fish blobbing around.
Salvador de Bahia
Salvador was our very first destination on our (almost) year-long South American trip. Back then we were young and innocent… and rather scared something might happen to us right from the start. See, São Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos happens to be one of the most dangerous cities in Brazil.
When all’s said and done, it’s not difficult to enjoy your time in Salvador and explore it without any risk. Make sure you ask at your accommodation where you shouldn’t go and at what time you’d better be back. Then wander on its popular waterfront and into the streets of its historic center, among the oldest in the Americas.
It’s a very lively city, the country’s 3rd largest and the most ethnically mixed. The black roots of Salvador are easily noticed, from its food to its music and the mysterious candomblé. Salvador is almost a world apart, a rainbow of sounds and colours on Brazil’s coastline.
The city of Porto Alegre is admittedly not your usual go-to place in Brazil. We rested our legs there for a couple of days on our way down to Uruguay, without any expectation; and we loved it! Anna was so much into it that she started daydreaming about moving there.
It’s a modern city with a soft pace on its riverfront promenade. People seem to be enjoying the mild climate and the marine breeze as much as their mate. There are vegan restaurants, cultural centres, a few bar streets and a wide river with islands. That’s the kind of town Porto Alegre is, friendly and welcoming.
There are hostels in the historic centre, but we were advised to avoid the proximity of Parque Redenção at night. Well, Porto Alegre can be peaceful, we’re still in Brazil.
It’s worth exploring around too the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Get a glimpse of the Gaucho (South American cowboys) tradition and visit villages that speak their own century-old European dialects.
Travelling further? Check our guide to backpacking in South America!
Eco backpacking travels in Brazil
We won’t bore you again with the same usual recommendations for ecotravels, we know you are a responsible traveller. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading Green Mochila.
We just hope you pick up your rubbish when you hike; maybe even pick up what other hikers have left before you. Also that you don’t camp in protected areas where it’s not allowed and don’t start a fire where it’s forbidden.
Brazil is a rainbow of cultures, backgrounds and beliefs. So please do remember to explore it with an open mind and a smile. Be ready for anything, accept whatever happens and don’t generalise.
The only thing we really want to focus on is the plague that is plastic. In Brazil, every seller uses plastic bags for anything; it’s their habit, but it doesn’t have to be yours.
So be ready with your own reusable cup for takeaway drinks, your own cutlery for the food and your own foldaway bags. And If you don’t have a travel bottle yet, consider getting one because they’re very handy when you’re out hiking; or even for a day in the city.
Please read again our eco travels tips for responsible tourism
Slow travel is a great way of seeing the world in a more eco way. If your situation allows it, consider spending more time in Brazil. Check out Nomads Nation’s suggestion on the best places to live in Brazil, while working remotely.
Are you planning a backpacking trip to Brazil? Do you have any question we’re not answering here?
Feel free to ask us in the comments!
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