A First-Time Traveler's Guide: Preparing for Travel to Brazil
The glitzy spectacle of Carnival, beautiful girls on Copacabana or exploring the Amazon jungle - whatever draws you to Brazil, it's a huge, colourful and exotic country but as with most Latin American countries it pays to do your research before you leave. As a first time traveler here are some key tips and information which will help prepare you for the cultural onslaught that meets you on arrival in Brazil.
Before you leave
Assuming you already have a passport that's valid for at least 6 months, US citizens need to obtain an entry visa prior to departure or risk being sent straight back. You can apply for a 90-day tourist visa through local consulate offices or online in FLY Backpackers visa page. You will need a passport-sized photo and a return ticket as proof of you temporary stay. General information including addresses of consulate offices, other types of visa requirements and customs regulations for those wishing to take things in to the country beyond normal tourist baggage can be found here.
As far as vaccinations are concerned you are not 'required' to have any unless you have recently traveled to a Yellow Fever zone in which case you'll need proof of vaccination. However, whilst vaccinations are not required most sources recommend that you are current with your shots for tetanus, polio, typhoid, Hepatitis A and Diphtheria. These are all a precaution and should be seriously considered if you're venturing outside major cities. Likewise, anti-malaria tablets are really only necessary if you're going off the beaten track.
Brazil's currency is called the Real (the plural is reais) and the coins are centavos. Credit cards are now accepted all over the country and there is also an extensive network of ATMS's which are connected to Cirrus (Banco de Brasil and Bradesco are usually the best banks to look for). However, as I found out to my horror many ATM's outside of major cities don't work for foreign cards so to avoid getting stranded and penniless be sure to carry enough cash to cover you between cities. US Dollars and Amex travelers checks are easy to exchange at any of the many 'cambios' that are available and always ask for some small change as well as larger denomination notes.
What to take
Since 90% of Brazil is tropical most visitors only need pack very lightly with cool casual clothes. You can easily buy clothes there if necessary which has the added advantage of making you look less like a tourist and therefore less of an obvious target for theft. Crime is something to be wary of so leave all your valuables at home and always hide your money around your body (don't use money belts because thieves have got wise to them) and take care not to wander in to the poorer outlying areas of cities. Beaches and the crowds of Carnival are notorious for petty thefts so only take what you need in terms of cash and put the rest in the hotel safe. Just in case, take photocopies of your travel documents with you on your trip but keep them in a separate place to your actual documents! Also, if you do become a victim of theft remember you are in a country where authority is corruptible - even the local police have been known to bribe tourists.
Brazil's main language is Portuguese and English is still not very widely spoken, especially outside of touristy areas. Learning a few key phrases beforehand will help you get around and knowledge of Spanish is an advantage since many Brazilians can understand Spanish even if they don't speak it. Traveling around is fairly easy but tourists are advised against hiring cars because Brazilian roads are perilous - road signs are largely non-existent and Brazilians all drive like Formula One driver Ayrton Senna and unfortunately many of them suffer the same fate each year. Taxis, planes and buses are the best and safest way to travel.
Summertime (December-March) is when most Brazilians take their holidays so it's also the busiest and most expensive time of year to travel. If you're going at Carnival time book any internal flights and accommodation well ahead of time because they get booked out months in advance. After Carnival in February it begins to quieten down and you can haggle more effectively for hotel rooms and taxis.
The only other thing you need to know about Brazil is that if you go out for dinner before 10pm you'll be dining alone! Like Europe, in Brazil the nightlife starts late in to the evening so get in to the habit of having a siesta, stay safe and enjoy all that this fabulous country has to offer.
Read more in FAQ - Visa and Passport