1 Month in Brazil
I used to enjoy writing day-by-day recaps of my vacations to exotic places in my 20s. This recap will be a bit different. I just got back from spending 1 month in Brazil. I wasn’t vacationing in Brazil, I was living in Brazil. I was working, exercising, grocery shopping, doing laundry, and taking out garbage, in Brazil. Rio de Janeiro, to be specific.
As such, a day-by-day recap of my experience would probably be quite boring. For instance, last Wednesday it rained, so I spent most of the day in our apartment doing work on my laptop (aside from an evening jog on the beach, and a 30-minute break to get a delicious mango strawberry juice from the nearby juice stand. Juice in Brazil is next level). See, not that interesting.
However, experiencing life in Brazil for a full month was quite interesting—and not something I’ve known many other non-Brazilians to have experienced. So I wanted to share a bit about what it was like, how it was different from the world I’m familiar with, and how it was similar.
But first, some backstory….
As mentioned in previous writings, this trip to Brazil is part of the digital nomad lifestyle my fiancee and I are living this year. We had originally planned to spend April 2023 in Mexico City, but over Christmas, my fiancee received an invitation from her Brazilian friend we couldn’t refuse. It went something like this: come to Rio and stay in a nice apartment in a great part of town for free for the entire month.
Even if I wasn’t working to spin up a freelance business with a volatile month-to-month income, this would be an easy sell.
For the first leg of our trip, we stayed with my fiancee’s friend’s family in their beautiful country home in a remote location near Itamonte (5ish hours from Rio by car). Most of our time in Itamonte was occupied by hiking, swimming, and spending quality time with the extended family (some 25+ people passed through over the week). The remaining 3.5 weeks we spent in Rio, at one of the family’s apartments.
We’re insanely fortunate to have received such a generous offer from an extremely generous family—without which the entire trip probably would not have been possible. Having a network of people we knew locally helped us navigate a foreign city that can be unsafe (more on this later) and where we don’t speak the language (also more on this later) with a lot more confidence. It also provided some sense of community in a faraway land, which matters when you’re staying somewhere for an extended period of time.
If the family in question happens to be reading this, I hope one day we’ll find a way to sufficiently repay your kindness.
Ok, now for my opinions.
Brazil is inexpensive. Or rather, I should say, as someone who lived in New York City for 7 years, Brazil is inexpensive. To give an idea of what things cost, here are a few examples of what we paid for various goods and services:
- An Uber from one side of the city to the other: $9
- Dinner for two at an upscale restaurant (incl. appetizers, drinks, and dessert): $40-$60
- Cocktails at an upscale bar: $5
While we were down there, $100 Brazilian real was equal to around $18-$20 USD. This made the price of everything a lot more reasonable. The only times it felt like we weren’t getting a discount was when we shopped for stuff at tourist traps. Even then, things weren’t overpriced—just priced more in line with what we’d expect (which was kind of deflating after feeling like we were getting a great deal on everything).
Because everything was so cheap, we ate out a lot more than we usually do, and we almost never used public transportation (which is safe, just inconvenient when an Uber costs under $10 to go anywhere).
Of course, the one thing that isn’t cheap is the actual flight to Brazil (we paid around $900 each, round trip). But once you’re here, the prices can’t be beat.
Rio de Janeiro is an impressive combination of mountains and water with city plastered over every inch of available space. It’s unlike any cityscape I’ve ever seen, and not just because there’s a giant Jesus statue looking down on everyone.
While there’s plenty of new development in Rio, the city generally has an older-school feel to it, with many of the buildings looking like they were erected back in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Some of the buildings, particularly in Copacabana and Botafogo, look like they’ve been cooking in the sun a few too many years. By that I mean they’re weatherbeaten, peeling, and cracking at the edges. In Impanema (where we stayed) and nearby Leblon (known as one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in all of South America), there are a lot more charming tree-lined streets, well-manicured lawns, and new glass and concrete apartment buildings.
The most charming neighborhood I explored in Rio was Santa Teresa, which is carved into a hillside overlooking downtown Rio (which is just a mass of office buildings and didn’t seem worth walking around) and gives off a dope, village-like vibe with its windy, uphill cobblestone streets, colorful murals, and decaying old mansions. It’s the most “bohemian” part of Rio I explored, and a great place to shop for cool art.
Of course, no description of Rio’s aesthetics would be complete without mentioning the favelas (Portuguese for “slums”). Like Santa Teresa, these are hillside communities that offer spectacular views of the surrounding area. Unlike Santa Teresa, the favelas exist because Rio’s working class were increasingly pushed out of the city center and forced to build improvised communities that are now overrun with drugs and crime. However, in a not-trying-to-whitewash-poverty kind of way, the favelas are also quite interesting to look at. Because they’re carved into Rio’s various steep mountains, you can literally turn a corner and one pops up out of nowhere. It gives the impression of that scene in “Inception” when the city folds in on top of itself.
The favelas look like scatter plots of corrugated metal huts mixed with colorful brick buildings. Many artists in Brazil sell paintings depicting the favelas, and Rio’s government actually encourages favela tours in a definitely-trying-to-whitewash-poverty kind of way. We did a favela tour, and while it sucks to gawk at people living in poor conditions, it definitely satisfied my curiosity to understand what life is like in there (they have schools, bars, restaurants, and many of the other comforts of modern life. But when it comes to getting clean water and electricity, they have to fend for themselves as the government doesn’t pitch in).
The Brazilian countryside outside of Rio is mountainous and full of hidden waterfalls and whimsical-looking trees called araucaria. These trees have large nuts you can roast that taste like chestnuts. The countryside also offers amazing views of the cosmos.
The beach is the beating heart of Rio. If the sun is shining (which it is most days—and if it’s not, the city becomes a lot more limited), people flock to the beach—regardless of the day of the week. It helps that many neighborhoods in Rio are literally walking distance to a beach, including where we stayed in Impanema.
On a particularly sunny day, Rio’s beaches are organized chaos. Merchants march up and down the shore selling everything from charcoal grilled cheese and corn to clothing and art. You can’t sit alone for more than 5 minutes without being approached by someone trying to sell you something. Huts scattered every 20 yards accommodate beachgoers with everything from chairs and umbrellas to juice and caipirinhas (a cocktail made with a Brazilian liquor called cachaca). The beaches are kept very clean (impressive, considering the amount of usage they get) and the waters are blue and warm.
Back from the water are dozens of courts where locals play volleyball, kick volleyball (volleyball where you can use your legs and head, like soccer), and beach tennis from sun up to sun down. Floodlights lining the beach from the road make it possible for people to use the beach well into the night. On Sundays and holidays, the road in front of the beach closes to traffic and becomes oveerrun with joggers and cyclists.
On that note, I found Brazilians to be generally active and outdoorsy-type people, which I suppose is easy with such a great climate (I don’t recall it dipping below 60 degrees our entire time there—and April is Brazil’s autumn). One public utility I found to be particularly innovative was the bus stops in Rio, which double as public gyms where you can do pullups, dips, and a bunch of other workouts.
Away from the beach, Rio feels like any major city. In my neighborhood, nearby Leblon, and Copacabana, there’s a steady flow of foot traffic and car traffic from sun up to sun down. As is typical in South America, lunch is the largest meal of the day, and dinner is often quite small. Because lunch is so massive, there’s usually a siesta mid-afternoon, and folks sit down for dinner quite late. We often went to dinner at 8-9PM, and many restaurants stay open past midnight.
We didn’t do too much partying, but it seemed there were plenty of options for folks looking for one. In Lapa, a neighborhood near downtown that’s famous for Samba music, we left a concert at 1:30AM to find the outside street jam-packed with pedestrians and traffic (also, Samba music is good! Like a mix of reggae and ska but sang in Portuguese so I don’t understand anything being said).
At bars, there’s usually a soccer game on TV, and most folks in Rio are fans of either Fluminense or Flamengo—two of the best club teams in Brazilian soccer. We had the opportunity to go to a soccer game at Maracana Stadium. The environment was as electric as anything I’ve ever experienced at a U.S. sporting event, with fans singing and waving giant flags throughout the duration of the 90 minutes.
English is not widely spoken in Rio. A decent amount of young people speak and understand English, but only use it if needed. While the language barrier can be tricky to navigate, I found the vast majority of Brazilians I met to be pleasant and friendly people. That being said, it was hard to get a good feel for a lot of people when we didn’t speak the same language.
We were warned repeatedly from every Brazilian we met that Rio can be unsafe for tourists. But it’s hard for me to say how unsafe Rio is, given neither me nor my fiancee were the victims of any crime. Did we not experience any crime because we were hyper-vigilant about crime? Or was the threat of crime overstated? Probably the former. Even still, the more time I spent in Rio, the less concerned I felt about getting robbed. Of course, coming from a big city, I already knew how to take precautions to prevent myself from becoming a victim, like:
- Don’t walk around with your phone out in a crowded area, less someone might snatch it.
- Don’t walk down empty streets late at night, even if it’s a main road.
- If you have your wallet on you, keep it in your front pocket, so it’s less easy to steal from you.
There were some additional precautions folks take in Rio:
- Women don’t wear any jewelry out in public so they won’t be targets for thieves.
- On the beach, nobody leaves their stuff unattended, as the merchants are also known to be thieves. When people want to go for a dip in the ocean, they ask folks sitting nearby to watch their belongings (the key is to ask a group with children, as they’re deemed to be the most trustworthy).
- It’s not advisable to have your phone out in a car if the window is down, as people on motorcycles are known to pull up, reach in, and try to take your phone from you (I never saw this personally, but was warned about it multiple times).
- Speaking English in public generally makes you a bigger target. Whenever we walked by homeless people (Rio has just as many as any other city) or street merchants, we stopped talking.
Most of the Brazilians we talked to had at least one story about how they’d been robbed, which was enough for us to keep our heads on a continuous swivel. I also barely left the house with my wallet, which was easy because most places in Rio accept Apple Pay (and barely anyone asks for ID). I didn’t bother taking my laptop to coffee shops to do work, as most people I spoke to said this was an unnecessary risk.
The only instance that “felt” like a close call was when a kid sped past me on his bike while walking along Copacabana beach, and appeared to reach out his hand to grab for my phone (many of the thieves in Rio are children, given they can make a quick getaway). There was also an unfortunate instance of a cab driver, knowing we were Americans, turning off the meter in his car and then charging us an exorbitant fee for a ride home from the Maracana Stadium. That was the one and only time we used a cab, and I wouldn’t recommend it for other tourists, especially when Ubers are so cheap (just make sure your Uber driver has a high rating).
Side note, but drivers in Rio blow through red lights at night when there’s no traffic. Apparently, this is because idling at a red light at night when there’s nobody around is another good way to get yourself robbed.
But again, I never felt particularly unsafe in Rio. Just take the proper precautions and you’ll be fine.
Brazil is big on meat and fish. In the countryside, we had a live-in chef cooking us delicious traditional Brazilian meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This included tapioca (sort of like a dumpling made of starch and cassava root and filled with meat or cheese or both), pastels (a pastry that also can be filled with meat or cheese), empadaos (a flaky pie filled with chicken and vegetables, sort of like a Brazilian chicken pot pie), bolinho de bacalhau (cod balls), pao de queijo (cheese bread), and picanha (barbecued meats). Most meals came with rice and beans (Brazilians do great things with beans), salad, and hearts of palm—Brazilians love their hearts of palm.
Lunch and dinner also came with dessert—another area where Brazil goes hard. Desserts we sampled included cocada (a pastry made from egg and coconut), brigadero (chocolate truffle balls), chocolate mousse, and canjica (Brazilian rice pudding). There were also more familiar desserts, like cakes, cookies, and pies.
As previously mentioned, we ate out a lot in Rio because food was so cheap. While we didn’t go upscale too many times, a few spots that stood out include Le Blonde (a French restaurant in Leblon), Gurume (a Japanese restaurant in Impanema—Brazilian sushi is very fresh), and Boteco Rainha (great traditional Brazilian food in Leblon). While I ate well at most of the casual spots we went to, my vegetarian fiancee often had a hard time finding non-meat options to satisfy her pallet (another area where the language barrier didn’t help).
It’s also worth mentioning the beach fare, which is unlike anything I ever thought to consume on a beach. Vendors walk around with little transportable grills they use to cook cheese right in front of you and then serve it to you on a stick. Another vendor shucks corn directly off the cob, cooks it, and gives it to you in a plastic bowl drenched in sauce.
I’ll also give a shoutout to Brazilian acai, which I think tastes better than any acai I’ve had in the states. The only shortcoming food-wise for me was breakfast, which is mostly because I like bagels and egg sandwiches—two things you can’t get in Brazil. Otherwise, I’d say you can get everything food-wise in Rio that you’d enjoy anywhere else in the world.
Culture / Misc. Thoughts
I love to learn about the history of a place when I go and visit. I regret not doing too much of that in Rio. The fun facts I came away with were that slavery was legal in Brazil until 1888, and Rio de Janeiro means “river of January.” That might’ve been obvious to many others, but not to me.
The two museums I visited underwhelmed me. The “Museum of Tomorrow,” which was billed as the museum one *HAS* to visit in Rio, was all about how humans screwed up the planet, and what we’ll likely have to do in the future to save it. I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already sort of know, but I suppose it was a cool-looking building. The Museum of Modern Art in Rio is free, and it’s clear why. When I visited, there were literally only 2 exhibits open. You could see everything the museum has to offer in 20 minutes. But again, cool looking building.
In terms of shopping, many of Rio’s stores are located in little mini malls off the street. I suppose this is a safeguard against the sweltering heat during the summer. There are a ton of designer stores for women’s clothes, but not nearly as much for men. As such, I didn’t find much shopping that occupied me (but my fiancee found bargains on lots of goods). If you want to see all the best stores Rio has to offer, I recommend going to Shopping Leblon, which is probably the most upscale mall in the city.
In terms of art, there is a very cool event called the Hippie Market on Sundays in Impanema, where we purchased a few cool art pieces from local merchants that I look forward to framing and hanging. There are also some cool art and vintage stores in Santa Teresa.
My greatest enjoyment simply came from walking the city and seeing what there is to see. Maybe that’s a personal thing, as I love walking any city, but I think it provides the best feel for Rio as a place (my favorite places to walk were the aforementioned Santa Teresa, the large Lagoon next to Impanema, anywhere along the beach, and the waterfront parks in Botafogo and Flamengo).
The verdict from my walks—and this is not that revelatory—is that Rio is on par with any other major international city (NYC, Tokyo, London, etc.). It’s huge, has many distinct neighborhoods with their own unique vibes and quirks, and is hustle and bustle from sun up to way past sundown. Plus, it has the added benefit of sunshine, beaches, and mountains, which gives it sort of a tropical NYC vibe with a bit of San Francisco mixed in (from my very American POV). It’s probably a bit more chaotic than those aforementioned places, given the pockets of extreme poverty spread around the city. All of which is to say, it’s wholly its own kind of place.
- Sugarloaf Mountain for looking at Rio from a high-up place, which is very pleasant (just be wary of the tourists).
- Favela tour not to gawk at how low-income Brazilians live, but because the favelas have their own distinct culture and brutalist sort of charm. The one that’s safest for tourists is Vidigal.
- Two Brothers hike because, again, Rio is very pleasant to look at from a high-up place. You can knock out Two Brothers and a tour of Vidigal together, given the Two Brothers hike starts in the favela.
- Urca for chilling by Half Moon Bay in a cool residential area and drinking beers on the street.
- Santa Teresa for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned.
- Boat tour because Rio is also cool to look at from the water.
- Leblon because there are lots of good stores and restaurants.
- Impanema beaches because they tend to be less crowded than the Copacabana beaches, especially as you move closer to Leblon.
- Watching sunsets because Rio sunsets are dope, especially if you’re viewing them from a high-up place.
- Samba in Lapa because samba music is good and Lapa is famous for samba.
- Escadaria Selarón because it’s a beautiful mosaic staircase that’s near both Lapa and Santa Teresa.
- Botanical gardens because it’s a great place to walk around and it’s full of wild monkeys.
- Maracana Stadium for a soccer game because Brazilians go crazy for soccer, the Maracana hosted the 2014 FIFA World Cup Final, and it’s one of the largest stadiums in South America.
- Waterfall hunting if you’re in the countryside because there are lots of pretty waterfalls in the mountains outside Rio.
- Juice because fruit tastes better closer to the equator.
- Tijuca forest hike because there are lots of good trails and you may also see wild monkeys.
- Hippie Market for good local art and gifts for family and friends.
- Christ the Redeemer simply because you can’t come to Rio and not see it. Yes, it’s the worst tourist trap in the city, and you can get better views from Two Brothers or the Sugarloaf. But the big Jesus statue is synonymous with Rio, so no trip is complete without seeing it up close. Side note, but I found myself looking up at the big Jesus statue multiple times a day from various places around the city. It’s just a cool looking statue (not an endorsement of Christianity). Second side note: I thought the statue would be bigger than it actually is.
- Aprazivel is the restaurant a lot of people recommend for tourists in Santa Teresa because it has cool views, but I thought the food was subpar and it’s kind of a pain to get to.
- Museum of Tomorrow and the Museum of Modern Art for reasons I already mentioned. I do wish I would have found time to check out some of Rio’s other museums. I was also told the Rio Aquarium is cool
- Downtown because it’s just a business district, like most downtowns. If you find yourself in Lapa, you can always walk into the downtown if curious.
- Parque Lage because the Botanical Gardens are better if you’re trying to go for a walk around some well-manicured lawns.
- Sambadrome because there doesn’t appear to be a reason to go if it’s not Carnavale.
- Niteroi, also known as the “New Jersey” to Rio’s “New York City” (i.e., it’s across the bay).
- Play volleyball on the beach which looked really fun, but nobody invited me to 😦
To wrap it up…
I’m publishing this the day after I returned, so I haven’t really had time to let this trip marinate and process everything I experienced. Even so, I suspect this trip will age well. It was a fascinating insight into how people in a totally different part of the world live, and just a cool life experience. Obrigado Brazil.