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September 11, 2012

Brazilian Vacation: 7 Rules to Save By

Source: New York Times, by Seth Kugel

Brazil is too expensive for budget travelers. Or is it?

Evidence in the affirmative is strong. Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are now the most expensive cities in the Western Hemisphere, by some measures. The dollar that used to get you 3 or almost 4 Brazilian reais at various points in the last decade now gets you just 2. Flying to Brazil from New York takes at least nine hours and can easily run $1,000.

But there is no need to be intimidated.

By following just a few guidelines, a trip to this country of astonishing cultural, geographical, economic, ecological, musical and culinary diversity might just be affordable. Or at least more affordable than you think.

Here are the Frugal Traveler’s Seven Rules for making every dollar (or every real, for that matter) count.


It’s just plain dumb to book a flight to Brazil through big online travel companies or the airlines’ sites. Yes, dumb — as in feeding-cash-to-a-paper-shredder dumb. Instead, to find much lower fares, check with consolidators (agencies that negotiate with airlines for special rates) that specialize in Brazil. I generally call BACC Travel (800-222-2746), but this time, for variety’s sake, I tested a competitor, AirProjects.com. Searching online for a 10-day trip from New York to Rio de Janeiro four weeks out, I found a $923 (taxes and fees included) nonstop fare on the Brazilian carrier TAM. Repeating the search on Kayak and Expedia, the best prices were $998 with a layover or $1,109 for nonstop.

Also, for travel within Brazil, don’t be tricked by the international travel sites that show only one or two airlines operating domestic flights there. As in the United States, multiple airlines (which in Brazil include TAM, Avianca, Gol, Webjet and Azul) compete bitterly over domestic routes, often slashing prices below bus rates if you reserve well in advance. (Beware, though, that it can occasionally be tricky to reserve these online with an American credit card.)


When most Americans imagine a trip to Brazil, they’re thinking about Rio de Janeiro: Ipanema beach, the Christ the Redeemer statue, samba and caipirinha cocktails. That’s a caricature, of course, but not a horribly inaccurate one. The city is painfully gorgeous, its residents famously festive and its offerings ever more culturally sophisticated. You shouldn’t skip it.

But it is expensive, so here’s one way to cut costs: Don’t go during Carnival, New Year’s or during other big events (say, the Confederations Cup soccer tournament in June), when hotel prices soar.

You can also save by staying outside the well-to-do neighborhoods of Ipanema and Leblon or the tourist epicenter of Copacabana. Consider neighborhoods like Glória, Flamengo and Botafogo. Avoid Barra da Tijuca (too far and too bland) and downtown (too dicey).

Apartment rentals can also be great deals, but think beyond Airbnb.com. Search online instead for “rio apartments” and you’ll find a ton of local agencies. I use Vinicio Flats, but that’s just habit; there are lots of good ones. Finally, the site camaecafe.com.br offers good deals for home-stay-like B&Bs in Santa Teresa, a gorgeous Bohemian neighborhood up in the hills above the center of the city. (Cama e Café means “bed-and-breakfast.”)


You can’t stay in Rio the whole time, both because it’s pricey and because you’ll leave with a warped view of what Brazil is — much like a foreign visitor who comes to the United States and sees only Manhattan.

Juice Bars in Rio de Janeiro
$100 Weekend in Rio
$17 a Day on the Amazon
Wildlife in the Pantanal
Lençóis Maranhenses National Park
So how about a hop up to the Amazon, you say? Nope. Too far, too pricey, too complicated. Instead, I suggest traveling to Minas Gerais, one state north of Rio. Its waterfall-studded countryside is great to explore: its 17th- and 18th-century colonial mining towns are well preserved and romantic, and not expensive (the most well known are Ouro Preto, Diamantina and Tiradentes). The area’s farm-fresh pork-and-stews-and-greens-and-sweets cuisine is what I consider the soul food of Brazil.


São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are full of great restaurants; too bad many of them are absurdly overpriced. But even in those cities, and certainly in the rest of the country, there are tons of reasonably priced alternatives. Two genres of dining spots worth seeking are “self-service” buffets where you pay by weight, and diners sometimes called lanchonetes, where set meals are often under 10 reais. Juice stands (which also sell healthy sandwiches) abound in Rio.


Instead of booking hotels, look for pousadas, inns that often include breakfast and whose prices range from very reasonable (well under $100 a night) to stratospheric. Some pousadas come up on search sites like Hotels.com, but in general you need to do some digging.

How? Start with guidebooks (you know, the paper ones), which list lots of options. Then try a site called hiddenpousadasbrazil.com, a rare English-language pousada site nicely curated by an expatriate Englishwoman, Alison McGowan. Beyond that, simply Google “pousada” and the city or town you’re looking for. (Then, if the site is only in Portuguese, run it through Google Translate.)


Brazilians are wonderful people who speak terrible English. That’s a pithy generalization, but is broadly true. English speakers are most likely to be found at major hotels, touristy attractions and pricey restaurants, precisely the places a budget traveler must avoid. So get a phrase book and see if your local library offers its members free access to Mango online Portuguese lessons — New York’s does. (Note: Your Spanish might help, but not as much as you think.)


Rio, São Paulo and the other big cities are not nearly as dangerous as you might think from watching Brazilian movies like … well, like just about all of them. Except for the rarest of exceptions, tourists don’t get killed or kidnapped. But they do get mugged from time to time. So aside from not walking alone at night and taking other appropriate precautions, simply don’t go out with anything you couldn’t stand losing. I take a bit of cash, one credit card and a copy of my passport.

Coming Friday, more ways to save, with tips from a top Brazilian travel blogger, the editor of Brazil’s best budget travel guide, and a Lonely Planet author who lives in São Paulo.




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