Home    Bucket List Events Blog
13 Things To Know as a U.S. Tourist in Brazil

With more than four thousand miles separating New York City and Rio de Janeiro, it’s safe to say that Brazil and the United States are a world apart. There are lots of similarities between the two countries, and Brazil is modernizing so rapidly that the remaining major differences are likely to disappear in time. That being said, if you are an American tourist headed to Brazil for the first time, there are quite a few things you should keep in mind to make sure you don’t offend local Brazilians, embarrass yourself, or end up in a dangerous or culturally insensitive situation.

Whether you are travelling to Brazil for the 2016 Summer games, or just heading to Rio for a nice vacation, make sure that you keep in mind these differences in custom and culture when traveling in Brazil as an American tourist. Here’s 13 of the most important things to know about the differences between countries as a traveler.

1. Forget About “Personal Space”

While Americans can be very finicky about their “personal space,” especially when meeting strangers, Brazilians in general don’t have the same ideas around “personal bubbles.”  When visiting Brazil, expect a high level of physicality, and for your notion of “personal space” to feel very violated.  In particular, strangers often kiss each other on the cheek upon meeting as a form of greeting.  A kiss on each cheek is customary in many countries as a greeting and goodbye amongst close friends and family, but in Brazil, expect to get smooched the first time you meet someone.


2. Don’t Expect Much English

In most major world cities the size of Rio, English is commonly spoken in airports, hotels, restaurants, and other areas that cater to tourists. But in Brazil, even hotel staff will commonly not speak any English at all. Portuguese is the national language of Brazil and by far the most spoken, so grab a Portuguese phrasebook before visiting the summer games.  Spanish is the most commonly spoken second language in Brazil, and takes the place of English in much of the tourist economy as an easy way to communicate.


3. Be Careful of Airport Taxis

When you first arrive at the airport in Rio, there are a whole lot of options for taxis, but most of these are designed specifically to rip off tourists. As soon as you pick up your bags, you will be rushed by people advertising taxi services, but ignore all of these: they will quote you extravagant prices. Exit the terminal and look for the taxi stand. Before getting in a Yellow Taxi, make sure that you confirm that the driver will be charging you a flat rate per mile rather than a destination fee, and watch to see the meter is turned on. Taxi is a great way to travel around Rio in general, but airport taxis are known for taking advantage of American tourists.


4. Know The Difference Between “Yellow” and “Radio” Taxis

In Rio and most of Brazil, there are two types of taxis: yellow cabs and radio taxis.  As mentioned above, yellow taxis operate just like cabs in the U.S., and charge a fee per mile.  However, unlike in most U.S. cities, yellow taxis in Brazil can change their rates depending on rush hour and other factors, so you should be careful to watch that your driver isn’t switching the meter to a higher rate when they shouldn’t.  In contrast, radio taxis are dispatched by radio services, and operate more like a private car would in the U.S.  Rates of travel are usually significantly higher, but you are charged a flat rate based on your destination and it’s more reliable that you won’t be overcharged.  In most of the cities, taxi stands are filled with yellow cabs that won’t take advantage of tourists, but in some areas like airports the more reliable and standard radio cabs can be a good option.

5. Buses Beat Out Rental Cars

Public Transportation in Rio is good, and throughout most of Brazil you will be better off taking a bus than renting a car.  While buses can take longer than driving obviously, if you are unfamiliar with driving in Brazil, it is very easy to get lost and add lots of travel time onto your trip.  Buses are cheap and easy to research, and will get you from point A to point B a lot more reliably than driving yourself.

6. Duty Free Liquor is MUCH Cheaper

In Brazil, you are allowed to shop at duty free stores when getting off of flights as well as getting on them, and especially if you are a drinker this can be a great way to save money.  There are high taxes on liquor in Rio especially, and grabbing a few bottles from the duty free shop before leaving the airport will save you a considerable amount.  For example, a bottle of Black Label will run you about $70 in most Rio bottle shops, but cost less than $40 in a the duty free store after you get off your flight.


7. Drinking in Public is OK…

Unlike the U.S., there is no strict prohibition on alcohol consumption in public in Brazil.  While visiting Rio, you can comfortably walk down the street with a beer or drink in hand.  And you can feel free to enjoy your favorite cocktail on one of Brazil’s pristine beaches as well.  The big exception is that most beaches don’t allow any glass bottles, and you can get in trouble for drinking alcohol from a glass vessel even though public consumption isn’t necessarily illegal.


8 ….But Being Drunk in Public is Not

While it is perfectly acceptable to drink in public, getting too intoxicated is a big no-no.  Public drunkenness is illegal, even though public consumption is not.  If you are visibly stumbling or otherwise intoxicated, you could land yourself in legal trouble.  And besides just the legal implications, there are a lot of other reasons why public drunkenness is foolish.  Locals, from shop owners to corrupt cops looking for bribes, will take advantage of visibly drunk tourists and con them out of money or put them in unsafe situations, so if you don’t want that kind of attention, stay on the sober side.


9. Tipping is Not Expected

In general, tipping in Brazil is neither expected nor necessary, and you shouldn’t feel bad about not leaving a tip.  Most bars and restaurants will add a 10% “service fee” at the bottom of the bill which acts like a tip, though you don’t have to pay this fee if you don’t want to.  Unless especially amazing service is provided, there’s no real need for tipping in Brazil, as it isn’t culturally expected or seen as necessary.  However, if you get a taxi driver that helps you carry your bags, or someone else provides you particularly high quality service, a small tip won’t go unappreciated.


10. Expect to See Some Itsy-Bitsy Bikinis

Sunbathing on Brazilian beaches is one of the most popular activities in the city, and a great cheap way to get some fun outside.  Just be aware that in Rio especially, females typically wear very very small bikinis and males typically where speedos.  Brazilians don’t like tan lines, and you should be comfortable seeing a lot of skin if you want to enjoy surfing, swimming, or sunbathing on the beaches.  However, going topless is illegal.


11. Be Very Aware of Your Possessions

Brazilians are very good at recognizing who is a tourist, and small time criminals in Rio and other cities very commonly target Americans and other visitors for theft.  Pick-pocketing is very common, and is often done by children, as they are less likely to be imprisoned.  However, child pick-pocketers are often managed by more dangerous adult criminals, so if you find yourself getting mugged or pick-pocketed it’s best not to react to violently as there are often other criminal co-workers nearby.  The best defense against theft and pick-pocketing is to be very aware of your possessions, hide purses and money under your clothing, and stay in well lit and tourist trafficked areas.

12. Don’t Visit Favelas Alone

Favelas on the edge of major Brazilian cities can be some of the most interesting cultural areas you will find in Brazil, but they can also be incredibly dangerous. Some non-pacified favelas are run by criminals and drug lords, and there are very vague notions of laws.  If you don’t know where you are going or what you are doing, wandering around a Favela alone could quickly end in your injury. IF you want to visit one of these cultural havens, go with a travel company. Some are perfectly safe, some aren’t, and the distinction is difficult for a tourist to figure out on their own.


13. Don’t Make the “OK” Sign

In the U.S., making the “OK” sign with your thumb and index finger is a casual way to show agreement.  But in Brazil, it’s a very offensive hand gesture.  While there’s lots of big important things for you to keep in mind when visiting Rio or other Brazilian cities as far as crime and customs go, the silly little things are important too!


Brazil is a beautiful country, with amazing people. By knowing some of the basics listed here, you’ll be one step ahead of most other tourists. Get a good guide book to keep reading more about the country if you’re planning a visit.

If you’re planning on going for the 2016 Rio Summer Games there’s a few more things you’ll need to know to make the best of your trip.



Comments Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply