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Brazil Tourism - A Woman's Guide
How to visit South America's largest country

ZIKA warning: Brazil has been struck hard by the Zika virus. Most women should take sensible precautions to avoid mosquito bites but if you are pregnant, stay away. Here's what the CDC has to say.

The first thing you’ll notice about Brazil is its size and the amount of time it takes to travel around it – it’s much bigger than you think. The second thing you’ll notice is the diversity – of people, of landscapes, a country where no two states and no two families look the same.

Old map of Brazil

Looking around Brazil you’ll find blonds with blue eyes, indigenous tribes from the Amazon, and children as dark as any from Africa. In a quirk of DNA, some of these might belong to a single family. 

The flip side of this diversity, unfortunately, is inequality, a society where class distinctions are strong, where rich and poor live within sight of one another, the favelas of the destitute overlooking the luxurious highrises of the wealthy. This inequality is often covered up by the exuberance and joie de vivre demonstrated by most Brazilians.

Brazil tourism Rio de JaneiroRio's favelas climb down its hills until they touch the wealthiest areas, providing a nearby pool of cheap labor

Women's safety in Brazil

Safety is one of the bigger issues for women in Brazil so let’s get that one out of the way first.

Let me preface a less-than-rosy picture by saying that during my six-month stay in Brazil some years ago the closest I came to hassle was when I lost my guide in the Brazilian Amazon and thought I’d never find my way out of the rainforest. To make sure things hadn't changed too much I checked with my friend Georgiana Braga-Orillard, who runs the United Nations AIDS programme in Brazil and spends much of her time traveling across her country, and made sure I included her input.

There is plenty of violent crime in Brazil, like rape (much of it unreported); in Brazil a woman is assaulted every 15 seconds and the country ranks among the top ten for highest rate of violence against women worldwide. The UK Daily Mail has named Brazil the #2 worst country for women to visit, second only to India. 

While sexual assaults get the most publicity, other crimes do happen. 

This advice might help.

  • Beware the tourist areas. Crimes of any kind will be more prevalent and at their peak during Carnival, especially around prime targets like bus stations and hotel lobbies.
  • Err on the side of caution. Brazil is a country where you’ll need your wits about you, and you’ll need to think before doing simple things like wearing your jewelry or going out after dark.
Brazil tourism Rio at nightGoing out on your own in Brazil isn't usually a great idea. Photo Ben Tubby via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0
  • Beware of theft: it's the most common crime. I encourage you to leave everything home, and I mean everything metal or remotely shiny. 
  • Keep an eye out for other forms of petty crime. Illegal taxis, pickpocketing, overcharging, luggage theft: much of it happens in crowded areas where tourists hang out. Drugging of drinks is also not unknown. 
  • Be especially aware around Carnival. Of course there is crime throughout the year but Carnival is prime time…
  • Avoid ATMs at night. If you find any that are open – because of express kidnappings (quicknappings) designed to empty your bank account. If you’re using your credit card in Brazil it might be wise to check your balance occasionally; cloning of cards is not unknown, but I wouldn’t worry excessively about this. I might even spread my "wealth" over 2-3 cards, each with a small balance. Drop by your bank at home before you leave - they might have some suggestions on keeping an eye on your funds.
  • Stay attentive in daytime too. While crime is more common once the sun goes down there’s plenty of it in daytime, so keep your papers and your money safe and avoid carrying anything that even hints of bling, cellphone included. Brazil is a good candidate for wearing a money belt
  • Be aware of Brazil's macho culture. If you're traveling solo, you may have to put up with a bit of hassle. The same rules apply: don’t make eye contact, ignore the hassler, be firm but polite, or make noise, in that order. Most times light flirtation is as far as it gets. Brazilian men tend to be pretty laid back and it’s quite rare for the hassle to turn violent. You’ll also avoid the overt approaches common in other countries – the pinching or efforts to touch you. That would be quite unusual in Brazil.
  • Don't go places with people you don't know. Brazilians are friendly and will undoubtedly invite you to go to the next bar or even home with them – I’d refuse unless the person is already someone you know well.
  • Don't wander around favelas on your own. Much crime is quartered in the favelas, the urban slums that ring the largest of Brazilian cities. These are not destinations for exploration although there are tours of favelas on which you'll certainly be safer than trying to visit on your own (see this article for insight on slum tourism). The crime rate has vastly improved but I'd still avoid them solo.
  • If you do get attacked - forget the fancy self-defense movesGive them what they want. You won’t win. In fact whenever I visit Brazil I usually have some throwaway cash, $10 or so, as well as an old unusable credit card in my pocket. I’ve never had to hand them over but at least I have them in case of need - and I feel far more confident if I'm being proactive rather than waiting for disaster to happen and then wondering what to do.

A few more travel safety tips for Brazil

Anti-US demo in BrazilStay away from political demonstrations... José Roitberg via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
  • Keep an eye out for the occasional political demonstration and if you see one, head the other way; the police’s occasional heavy-handedness means this isn’t where you should be practising your political solidarity
  • Don’t accept food or drinks from strangers – but then you wouldn’t, would you…
  • Don’t drink so much you’re out of control or unaware of your surroundings
  • As a tropical country you’ll find the usual insects, parasites and other creepy things – make sure your vaccinations are up to date and that you take the proper precautions (like sleeping under a mosquito tent near water and in the rainforest)
  • Tap water isn’t always safe so ask if they have a filter, which is perfectly safe, or stick to bottled water
  • Beware the strong ocean currents; while Brazil has a huge beach scene, the ocean isn’t always safe and has strong riptides. I once spent two weeks in Recife unable to enter the water once because of warnings.
  • And – this is the oddest thing – exploding manhole covers in Rio. Yes, really.

Getting around Brazil

Now that we’ve dealt with safety let’s not forget Brazil is one of the most beautiful countries on earth.

Brazil is certainly not the cheapest country in Latin America, nor is it the most expensive. Food on the other hand is quite inexpensive and depending on your budget you should be able to eat out to your heart’s content. There are an increasing number of ‘kilo restaurants’ where you pay by the weight, worth a try.

I got around this gigantic country in two ways.

First, and this isn’t for the faint of heart, I traveled by bus, mostly on conventional buses but there are upmarket luxury buses that are far more comfortable. This site will give you an idea of prices and help you book. Remember Brazil is huge – and you might be on the bus a long time. I would recommend this for shorter journeys.

For longer journeys I’d fly because when you compare long-distance bus costs with airlines, there might not be a huge price difference. I used an airpass for the longer travel legs. Off-season tickets can be quite inexpensive - you can easily find a $50 return ticket between Rio and Salvador de Bahia. The same ticket can cost you $1000 during peak season. Also check out Decolar or Submarino - but you will need help from a Portuguese-speaking friend. 

In cities I tend to take taxis where possible – official taxis: make sure they display their taxi card and information somewhere visible. Although they’re relatively inexpensive make sure you agree the price before getting in. Taxi apps are more and more common and can give you added safety, as you will have all the driver's info beforehand. Easy Taxi and Uber are widely used in big cities. In Rio the subway has women-only cars, but only during rush hour. Still…

If you’re driving on your own, beware of carjackings (especially at night, at intersections, if caught in traffic). They are not frequent but they do happen and a woman on her own would be an appetizing target. Try not to get lost because a dangerous neighborhood might sit right next to a safe one – and you might not know. Driving standards aren’t the highest (although laws, for example on drinking and driving, are very tough) so a huge amount of caution is required.

A few Brazilian social graces

Packing for Brazil shouldn’t be too complicated: dress up. Brazilian women tend to be elegant and even showy, for the tiniest occasion. Don’t worry about conservatism along the coast – you can show skin, wear a string bikini and a baring tank top if that’s your wish. In the interior, dress is more restrained.

Rio de Janeiro beachIt's a tropical climate and along the coast, beach wear predominates

This is a tropical climate and summers can get incredibly hot, so don’t wear synthetics. I always found linen did the job in Brazil, elegant yet cool.

No trip to Brazil is complete without a visit to its amazing natural environment – the Pantanal or the Amazon, at the very least, and this will require good hiking shoes, lightweight, and preferably as waterproof as you can find them.

OK signNot OK!

As is the case in most European countries or countries with a sizeable European population, people kiss in Brazil, usually once on each cheek. That can vary but follow a Brazilian’s lead and you’ll get it right. You’ll be expected to kiss women you know when you see them, but men too.  Brazilians are quite touchy-feely so if you value your personal space be forewarned: you’ll be hugged and squeezed and gently taken by the shoulder and your new friends will probably stand much closer to you than you expect.

A few more random facts: You cannot smoke in public. Prostitution is legal. Brazil is extremely gay-friendly. English-speakers aren’t that easy to find.

And one small piece of social advice: if you agree with something, please don’t use the OK sign. Give a thumbs up instead. Or you’ll be making a very rude gesture.

What to buy in Brazil

Handicrafts. Jewelry, leather sandals, a hammock (from Fortaleza, its birthplace), things made from fruit, cachaça (alcohol made from sugar cane, the key ingredient in your caipirinha). If you’re in Bahia, head to the Mercado Model, South American’s largest handicraft market. Or any market. They’re always fun and full of food.

And my favorite: art. Brazilian artists are phenomenal and if this is something you like, then you’ll be in paradise in Brazil.

Brazilian artBright and lively colors of Afro-Brazilian art Paul White - CC BY 2.0

Offbeat things to do in Brazil

You’ll find most of your travel needs met by any one of the popular travel guidebook series but here are a few suggestions that I’ve either tried myself or would love to during my next visit:

  • The Fernando de Noronha archipelago – seabirds, whales, sea turtles and a UNESCO World Heritage site 
  • If you love wildlife, a visit to the Pantanal, possibly the most amazing wetland in the world
  • The waterfalls at Iguaçu, on the border with Argentina (where you’ll get a better view)
  • Visit the capital, Brasilia. It’s not your typical city but you’re in for a treat if you like Le Corbusier architecture. Experimente Brasilia specializes in things to do in the city.

In some countries, you can coast in holiday mode, thinking only of what to do next. Brazil isn't like that. It has everything you'd want in a holiday but it's a complex country with problems that haven't been resolved yet, a country in which to keep your wits about you.

Brazil tourism BrasiliaBrasilia is not the quintessential tourist city but if you love modern architecture it's definitely worth a visit

On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the best grade, I’d give Brazil a 2. It's not brilliant and ranks it below South Africa - I'd assess the danger level as equal but English is a common language in South Africa, which makes getting help and understanding things marginally easier. There's no getting around the high rate of crime and of violence against women in Brazil. That said, with strong and sensible precautions there's no reason you can't see this country on your own, and enjoy it as I did!