Mythbusting Brazil

What do you think of when you hear Brazil? Sparkling, sandy beaches and giant rock formations might come to mind, or an image of the giant Christ statue towering over the city of Rio de Janeiro. Maybe you think of women (and men) in tiny swimsuits and the grandiose costumes of Carnaval. Perhaps you’re thinking of the giant communities built up on hills. Whatever your mental image may be, it’s probably really vivid and full of color. Brazil can definitely have that impression on people.

I made the choice to study abroad in Brazil for 6 months, a summer and fall program combination that would enable me to live in Rio de Janeiro and study at a private university in the city. While there, I“mythbusted”my own preconceived notions about the country, the culture, and its people by observing the reality of life there. Here are some of the most common misconceptions I regularly hear about Brazil and what I learned about them from my time living there.

Brazilians Speak Spanish


Rocinha, one of Brazil’s largest favelas, sits on the side of a giant rock formation.

More often than not, I’ve told people that I came back from Brazil and they ask me if I’m fluent in Spanish. Since Brazil is located in South America and the rest of the continent speaks Spanish, some people just assume that Brazil speaks Spanish too. This is not the case – Brazilians speak Portuguese!

As a tiny history lesson: Brazil was once colonized by Portugal and received independence thereafter. Though many Portuguese people left, the language stuck, and now Brazilian Portuguese is what the entire country speaks. Though the two languages are structurally and developmentally similar, many people in Brazil don’t even understand Spanish very well unless they’ve studied it in school!

Brazilians Speak English

Likewise, plenty of people visit Brazil thinking most people will know how to speak English. This just simply isn’t the case. While many Brazilians who work in tourism (read: hotels and tour guides) can speak English fairly well, the common trend I saw while there is that peoples’ knowledge of English is extremely basic. With that said, it’s important to learn a few phrases in Portuguese before your trip, not only to be able to navigate throughout your stay but also to avoid getting ripped off on things like street markets and taxi rides.

Brazil Is Cheap

The lighthouse in Salvador is one of the city’s beautiful highlights

Because the rest of South America is extremely cheap to travel through, people tend to think that Brazil is the same way. This is definitely a myth. Most of the time, Brazil is just as expensive, if not more, than most major cities in the United States. My $6 face wash from Target costs the equivalent of over $100 in Brazil! Peanut butter easily runs around $15 for a jar and eating out typically costs $15-$20 per person. You can expect anything imported to cost two to three times as much as you’re used to.

Basically, Brazil is not cheap, and my best advice for travelers to Brazil is to bring everything you think you may need from home, especially toiletries, medicine, and clothing. If you don’t, you may have to pay a pretty penny to get it in Brazil.

Brazil Is Rio de Janeiro

Jerocoacoara is one of Brazil’s hidden beach gems, located at least six hours from the nearest major city, Fortaleza.

Usually, when people think of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro comes to mind. Rightly so – Rio is an iconic city with many incredible sights, like the world-famous Christ the Redeemer statue, Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and the soccer fan’s dreamy Maracanã stadium. Despite Rio’s popularity on the world scale, Brazil has a lot of other (arguably more amazing) landmarks and cities worth seeing, each with its own individual personality and highlights.

Just like most other countries, Brazil is divided into states, each with its own unique culture, accent, and food. Most of the civilized areas are along the coast, which means that access to some of the world’s best beaches is plentiful. If you’re planning to visit Brazil, be sure to hit some of the country’s other unique areas, like the Amazon region and the northeast area. Brazil truly does have a lot more to offer than Rio de Janeiro, though it may take some effort and planning to see.

Churrascarias Are Common Food Choices

Many of my meat-loving friends ask me if I ate at churrascarias, or Brazilian steakhouses, all the time. These are now a huge trend in America, and at $40+ per person, you can get a dinner that consists of a full salad bar and unlimited meat selections, brought to your table and cut right in front of you.

In Brazil, these dinners cost just as much, and on a twenty-something’s budget, $40 per person per day would definitely have drained my bank account. Churrascarias are just as much a luxury in Brazil as they are in the United States, as most of these are heavily commercialized and aimed toward special occasions and tourists. A more common food option is a lanchonete, or a small, local restaurant specializing in typical Brazilian foods – rice, black beans, a simple meat dish, and a salad.

Brazil Is Completely Unsafe for Tourists

Copacabana beach is one of Brazil’s most famous beaches, and also home to the largest proportion of hotels in Rio de Janeiro.

Movies like Tropa de Elite and Cidade de Deus portray Brazil as a violent and crime-ridden place. While Brazil does have its fair share of crime, especially against foreigners, hiding your valuables and acting confident can help lower your chances of being targeted. I spent six whole months there, and even though I don’t look the least bit Brazilian, I was able to go the whole time without being robbed or threatened.

Some general tips for avoiding being robbed are to avoid standing out as a tourist. Tourists in Brazil are known for speaking in foreign languages very loudly, wearing flashy clothes, and carrying iPhones and other valuable electronics. If you don’t fit this profile, your chances of getting robbed are a lot lower. Brazil was completely safe for me as an American, non-native-Portuguese-speaking resident, and it can be safe for anyone else, too!

You Can See Brazil In Just A Few Days

I waited five months for this breathtaking sunset, but it was worth it!

While I was living in Brazil, I had the amazing opportunity to travel around the country. In six months, I thought I could see basically everything. Boy, was I wrong! Brazil is massive and, because of the sheer distance between different areas, it requires a lot of time and money to see in its entirety. During my time there, I can’t even say I covered half of what I wanted to see. Most Brazilians can’t even claim to have seen it all.

Brazil is an extremely diverse country and it would take a lifetime to see every gem it has to offer. The good news is that no matter where in the country you go, Brazil has breathtaking beaches, food, and festivities to enjoy and remember for a lifetime.

19 Responses to Mythbusting Brazil

  1. Carmen April 28, 2014 at 10:02 AM #

    Great tips Kay! I certainly agree with the part about Brazil being massive. The best way to get around is actually by plane because it’s so huge – it’s nearly half of South America! I don’t think people understand this.

  2. Rebekah April 28, 2014 at 10:53 AM #

    I think its funny that so often we view these HUGE countries just by one city… most people only think of china as having Beijing and the Great Wall…. Brazil looks amazing and I definitely would love to go there sometime. Crazy import prices though!

  3. Jenna April 28, 2014 at 3:19 PM #

    I agree with these points and always tell people that Brazil is expensive! It has become especially pricey over the last 6 years or so.

  4. Camila April 28, 2014 at 4:27 PM #

    As a brazilian, I really appreciate this post, and the honest way you portrayed my country. And you are right, things here, especially cosmetics, are really expensive. That’s why brazilians love to travel to miami, the prices on clothes, cosmetics and eletronics are so much cheaper there it’s worth the cost of the plane ticket.

  5. Hannah Wasielewski April 28, 2014 at 9:52 PM #

    I’m currently living in Brazil and agree with everything you’ve said, especially the part about speaking Spanish! However I have one thing to correct: everyone looks Brazilian! Brazil is such a diverse country and has people of all different backgrounds, blonde hair and blue eyes are very common in the south of Brazil. I have a blog very similar to this, if you need any more advice about Brazil you should check it out!

  6. Rebecca Jones April 29, 2014 at 2:26 AM #

    The first thing I think about when I think of Brazil is the Amazon. But as you say, it’s a massive country with lots to offer. I guess that here we sometimes don’t quite understand how big a country is, just like some people in Europe sometimes apparently underestimate just how big the US is.

    I find it quite strange that people think they speak Spanish in Brazil, as I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know they spoke Portuguese, but I’ve heard of people believing much crazier things.

    As far as expensive, I knew that too. I had a roommate from Brazil and she was buying all sorts of electronics to take home because she said it was so much cheaper. But she left behind her old stuff, because she said there were import restrictions or something and she could only bring back one of each type of electronics or something.

    I’ll also second what Hannah said about diverse people. Actually my roommate was from the south of Brazil and I met another Brazilian who I was telling about her and he guessed that she has blonde hair and blue eyes! (Actually she is Japanese.)

  7. Christie of The Butterfly Editions April 29, 2014 at 5:46 AM #

    Great post! I’d love to visit Brazil – I’m heading close (kind of) next month when I head to Costa Rica for a few weeks but unfortunately won’t make it this time. Studying in Brazil would have been amazing!

  8. Jen Seligmann April 29, 2014 at 5:50 AM #

    Great tips! I’d love to visit someday as it looks like a really beautiful and interesting country.

  9. Paul Farrugia April 29, 2014 at 8:56 AM #

    Brazil is on our hit list too. It looks like we will have to save the pennies though!

  10. Lisa - Wee Wanders April 29, 2014 at 11:33 AM #

    Great tips, I have so many friends that have visited and said similar things and I would love to visit. South America is definitely on my hit-list after Southeast Asia this summer 🙂

  11. Rachel of Hippie in Heels April 29, 2014 at 12:26 PM #

    I had read before that it was getting quite expensive. This was a great read- thanks!

  12. Sammi May 1, 2014 at 10:20 AM #

    Great post, Kay. Really interesting to read more about Brasil, and definitely a few things I didn’t know mixed in there.

  13. Elli May 7, 2014 at 3:19 AM #

    I´d love to see the Rio Carnival! I get that the accommodation prices must double, or even triple, at this time of the year, but it would definitely be worth every penny, I imagine — more colorful and crazier version of Mardi Gras!:)

  14. Anna May 18, 2014 at 9:22 PM #

    Great post – I’m interested in visiting Brazil and I have to admit whenenver I mention it people say it’s unsafe and ask if I can speak Spanish. There are so many wrong preconceptions – thanks for busting these myths

  15. nicolemuenchow April 11, 2015 at 10:24 PM #

    Nice list. I have to mention that although imports are very expensive all over, prices in Rio and other tourist areas are way higher than in other cities. Here in Uberlandia, Minas Gerais (population 650,000), dinner at the closest churrascaria to my house is $12 a person (including the 10% service, but without beverage.) I don’t eat there very often, however, since compared to the $4 or so I pay for a meal at a self-serve restaurant, it is quite expensive!

  16. Carrie June 18, 2015 at 1:03 AM #

    Hi, I am loving reading about your experiences. I love photography, but also would love to remain safe; what kinds of cameras are safe to bring? & do you have any suggestions about photographing when visiting? Thank you in advance!

    • Steph June 18, 2015 at 11:45 AM #

      Hopefully Kay can chime in, but when I traveled in South America I followed a couple precautions:
      – I insured all of my equipment before I left home.
      – When I was visiting less safe areas I usually carried just my point and shoot (which is more discrete) and left my big camera at the hotel.
      – When I went out after dark I usually left all my cameras at home and only carried a set amount ofm oney.

  17. Carissa Todd May 2, 2016 at 7:43 PM #

    Maybe this was the case in your experience because you were mainly in Rio from the sound of it, but it is not expensive for me to live in Natal. A very nice hammock for 2 cost me 80 Riels, which was $20 at the time. To go to a churrascaria is very cheap and open on the street corners almost every night, very simple and not expensive at all. True that the life style is laid back and relaxed, except when it comes to futbol, but many Brasilians prefer to vacate the city when it comes January. They go to the US to get away from carnival. (They go to Miami) haha Overall I love living in Natal and think that it is a wonderful, funner and more enjoyable place to experience Natal because it doesn’t have the massive attention like Rio.

  18. João Santos May 12, 2016 at 2:30 PM #

    Thanks for posting this! Brazil sometimes gets an underserved reputation in the media as being dangerous, but with common sense safety precautions you can have a great trip there. I had to laugh when you said a common misconception is that Brazilians speak Spanish. Do Americans really think that??? Haha.

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