latin america routes
Backpacking Route for Brazil
Backpacking in Brazil is challenging due to its sheer size and relative cost in comparison to its near neighbours. Nonetheless it is a hugely rewarding challenge. The country makes up a giant chunk of the South American continent with thousands of miles of stunning coastline, wonderful waterfalls and national parks. You can spend months alone visiting all this before even contemplating venturing into the vast Amazon Rainforest which makes up the North and West of the country. Developing rapidly it may be but Brazilians have not forgotten how to party and visiting during Carnaval season is an experience you will never forget.
TIME NEEDED – 2 MONTHS
If time is no object you could do a week long river trip along the Amazon to Manaus and visit a few other places but 2 months would be a decent amount of time for this route.
POSSIBLE BUDGET – £2450 €2850 $3000
This is based on January 2017 prices and exchange rates. That’s just under 10,000 Reales in local currency. Brazil isn’t cheap these days and is considerably more expensive than most countries in South America. This does not include the cost of flights to/from Brazil, visas or travel insurance.
VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR BRAZIL
90 days visa-free for citizens of almost every country in Europe and Latin America. If you are from the USA, Canada, Japan or Australia you will need one. Find out if you need a Brazilian visa here.
We recommend using World Nomads for backpacking trips in South America.
Brazil Backpacking Route
Sao Paulo is South America’s biggest city and with three major international airports it is very accessible from wherever you’re coming from and a logical starting point for a trip around Brazil. Opinions of the cities are its fair to say mixed amongst travellers and Brazilians alike. To some it’s a large and dangerous crime-ridden city that’s difficult to get around and has little of interest to visitors anyway.
Others see it is a lively and diverse 21st century metropolis with great shopping and by South American standards an open-minded attitude towards issues such as homosexuality which is still considered a taboo in much of the continent. Even if it’s for just a day or two, it’s worth experiencing and if you don’t like it then move on.
More on SP: Sao Paulo is a Monster but you might like it!
This cosmopolitan city in the south of the country has a great history and is home to a mixed population that descends from various parts of Europe. It boasts a lively arts and music scene and has a famous ‘old city’ district in the centre which is over 300 years old. If Sao Paulo was too much for you then Curitiba may be much more to your taste as one of the safest and cleanest cities in Brazil.
ILHA DO MEL
This island is a nice escape from the cities with pleasant beaches, no roads and some great scenery. There are plenty of other nearby islands you can get to by boat either on trips or by hiring your own vessel. The island is very quiet during the week so this is the best time to come if you want to relax. However there is much more in the way of nightlife and parties at the weekend and during holidays.
In and around this city you will find some of the country’s most stunning beaches. The city has a few decent sights such as the 18th century fort and some colourful markets but for backpackers in Brazil, it’s primarily a beach destination. There are some decent budget places to sleep, eat and drink and there is even a party bus complete with bar and DJ that takes visitors to the city’s major nightspots. During the day from the centre you can catch buses to any of Florianopolis’s 42 beaches.
MFT RECOMMENDS – Florida Surf Hostel, Florianopolis
Budget beds, hammocks and chilled out Brazilian beach vibes. Nice place to say.
FOZ DO IGUAÇU
It’s a long and tiring trip out to Foz do Iguaçu and is probably best done via a night bus with two direct daily services from Florianopolis. (You may prefer to visit Florianopolis first and then backtrack to Curtiba from where there are more regular and shorter bus services to Foz do Iguaçu). The city is of a medium size but mainly serves as a base for exploring the Iguaçu Falls which are truly one of the natural wonders of the world.
The stunning waterfalls, arguably the most impressive on the face of the earth are one of the undoubted highlights of backpacking in Brazil and indeed South America. The Falls dissect three countries meaning short trips into Argentina and Paraguay are possible from this point.
A popular eco-tourism hotspot which allows you to see more of the Pantanal than the areas around the more visited Campo Grande. The town is surrounded by waterfalls and rivers which are clean and clear enough to snorkel in and check out the weird and wonderful creatures that inhabit the waters in these parts. It is a long journey from the falls to Bonito, taking around 16 hours including a change of bus in the town of Dourados.
CAMPO GRANDE (For the Pantanal)
Some people opt to skip Bonito as there are regular direct buses going from Foz do Iguaçu to Campo Grande taking 12-15 hours with several companies running the route which is popular with backpackers. The Pantanal is a vast area of wetland that is home to an incredible array of wildlife including caiman, jaguars, anacondas, piranhas and much more. Various types of trips can be arranged in Campo Grande or you can use it as a base and explore the region on your own.
This is a nice stop to break up the long journey back to the coast. Depending on the time of year, you may be able to find a reasonably cheap flight from Campo Grande to Rio but going by bus is normally cheaper if a little more time-consuming. Ribeirão Preto is around 14 hours from Campo Grande and is served by direct night buses. It is a lively city but not really on the regular backpacker trail. This however is part of its charm and with some bustling bars and a reputation as the draft beer capital of Brazil, it can be a very enjoyable little stop.
CAMPOS DO JORDÃO
This is another hidden gem that doesn’t receive much in the way of foreign travellers. The somewhat dodgy looking teleforico is worth a ride as it transports you in individual seats to the top of Morro do Elefante which at 1700m above sea level has stunning views of the town and its surroundings which you can see more of on horseback. In the town the architecture and streets are distinctly ancient and it feels somewhat like stepping back in time to a bygone era. The rickety bondinhos (streetcars) offer a unique way to take in more of this quite unusual city.
Back on the coast and for the first time in the state of Rio de Janeiro. The coastal town was first settled upon by the Portuguese in 1667 and is one of the oldest in Brazil. It’s another place where you feel as though time has somewhat stood still and it is incomparable to the glitzy modern cities of Rio and Sao Paulo which lie a few hundred kilometers on either side of it. In town, wander around the cobbled streets and admire the churches.
There’s plenty of nature around too with hikes, boat trips, kayaking and diving all popular. It’s also famous for the Bloco de Lama (Mud Carnival) where crowds go to cover themselves in mud and chant but sadly it only happens once a year on the weekend before Carnival. It’s well worth visiting if you’re planning on doing the Rio Carnival.
This island 150km west of Rio de Janeiro is another of Brazil’s best beach destinations. By night locals and backpackers alike gather in the main square and drink beers in a chilled out atmosphere with local bands playing live music as the backdrop. If you get hungry there are often beachside barbeques. It also holds a dark past with a history that includes slaves, pirates and leper colonies not to mention the ruins of a jail that once housed the most dangerous criminals in Brazil. Reports of ghosts roaming the beaches are not uncommon!
Once the summer retreat of Brazilian emperors thanks to the cooler temperatures and pleasant mountain air, it is now of more interest to day-trippers from Rio. The Museu Imperial and Palacio de Cristal are worthwhile trips that point to the town’s significant history. It’s also popular with the more energetic kind of travellers who come for hiking and rafting trips.
RIO DE JANEIRO
Rio is by some distance Brazil’s most iconic destination and it doesn’t fail to disappoint. The highlight is undoubtedly the famous Carnival in March when the city puts on one of the greatest parties on Earth. It’s a giant street festival with exotic samba performances and all night drinking, singing and dancing. If you can’t make it then, don’t fret as even during the rest of the year this city is easily one of the most exciting on the planet.
It is a city of great contrasts. From the famous beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana to the violent slums than sit on the slopes of the mountains perched over the beautiful harbours and wealthy districts, this is a city that takes some time to understand. There are of course plenty of museums and sights but you will experience more just by being in Rio for a week or more and living and breathing the pulsating Brazilian way of life in the country’s liveliest city.
It is also a great sporting city with the recently renovated Maracana, which hosted the World Cup Final in 2014, one of the world’s most iconic sporting arenas. Brazilian football is world renowned and an obsession for the people in this country. Nowhere is this more evident than in Rio with numerous clubs boasting loyal and passionate fan-bases and matches played throughout the year with the exception of a small break during the heat of summer.
MFT RECOMMENDS – Walk on the Favela Hostel, Rio de Janeiro
Sociable hostel just up the hill from the world famous Copacabana Beach near one of the city’s lively favelas.
Literally meaning ‘black gold’ this is one of the most significant cities in the history of the Americas. In the mid 18th century over 100,000 lived here (double the population of New York City at the time) and it was very much the epicenter of the gold rush. Today numerous funky little museums give you a fascinating insight into life at that time and the city has maintained much of its architectural charm. Several of the famous gold mines can also be visited.
(If you are pushed for time or fed up of buses, you might want to consider flying from Rio to Salvador and missing out Ouro Preto as it is a long way)
The city and its people are noticeably different from those in the South of the country with Salvador and indeed the whole state of Bahia renowned for being friendly and easy-going. Culturally there is a strong African influence while the city possesses arguably the finest Old Town in the country with some colourful buildings and ancient cobblestone streets. By night it is a great place to party with plenty of cool bars and nightclubs and a varied live music scene that pumps out some of the best beats in Brazil.
The coastal cities of the North East are also known for having the best carnivals in the country. They are all great fun and don’t attract anything like the hordes of tourists that head to the Rio Carnival which bumps prices up for budget travellers. The carnival in Salvador is fantastic and actually bigger than the one in Rio, claiming to be the biggest of its kind in the world.
It’s around 10 hours by road from Salvador to Recife and there aren’t any particularly obvious stops in between but there are long stretches of deserted beaches along the route which could be worth a visit. Just south of town is the coastal city of Maceió which is worth seeing.
Recife is famous for having some of the best urban beaches in the world. Culturally there is a Dutch influence and there are many churches, museums and interesting buildings that reflect the distinct culture of this region. It is also a culinary hotspot with great seafood and sizzling local dishes served up in local restaurants and by plenty of beach vendors. Not a huge backpacking scene though and prices are quite high in the main tourist area.
Only 7km north of Recife is Olinda, which justifies more than just a day-trip from its near neighbour. Since the town was founded almost 500 years ago it is has changed hands several times between the Dutch and the Portuguese and the remnants are very evident in the stunning architecture. Olinda also has a fabulous Carnaval and it is this that the town is most known for. It is basically a 24 hour street party from Friday night to Wednesday morning but with a more local and distinctive small-town feel than the ones further south.
Just south of Natal which is where you will need to head to for your onward journey is the lively beach village of Pipa. Popular with Brazilian students, it has some great parties at weekends especially. By day hit the gorgeous beaches or nearby dunes. Some of the beaches attract dolphins which come very close to shore enabling you to potentially tick the ‘swam with dolphins’ box on your bucket list.
Fortaleza is a large coastal city in the North-East of Brazil. It has vibrant music scene with various festivals throughout catering to many different genres including the local forró music. Shopping is also excellent here with the Iracema Beach market popular with visitors. The city has a seedier side but this is easily avoided. It is also a good base for exploring some fabulous nearby beaches.
The city has a fairly large international airport and is a decent spot to end your trip or extend it by flying to Manaus, the only real city in the Amazon region of Brazil. From Fortaleza there are daily flights to Lisbon with other European and North American destinations available. You can also fly to pretty much any major Brazilian city.
MANAUS (for the Amazon)
Located right in the middle of the Amazon Jungle on the banks of the Rio Negro which flows to form the Amazon River proper just outside town. The only real way to get in is by plane or by boat. The boat trips are stunning but take around five days from Belem on the Atlantic Coast so following this route it would take around a week to reach Manaus from Fortaleza if you don’t fly.
The city is surprisingly big (Population: 2.5 million) considering its isolated location and has a few interesting sights including a pretty opera house that holds free shows. Naturally though the main attraction is exploring the surrounding rainforest and the humongous Amazon River. There are a huge number of tour operators in Manaus and it’s best to ask around before booking one. Bear in mind you need to travel at least 100km from Manaus to see real virgin rainforest and it is possible to stay for a few nights in the rainforest proper. The best time to visit is probably May to August (visiting in the dry season can be seriously hot!).
From Manaus there are flights to many destinations across South America and also some to Miami. The city also hosted games in the 2014 FIFA World Cup so the airport has been expanded to cater for more flights.
Getting Around Brazil & Accommodation
For flights avianca seem to be the cheapest of the domestic airlines. Sometimes it can be cheaper to fly than catch the bus and obviously it is much quicker between some destinations. Brazil is enormous! Otherwise just head to the bus station (often a long way from the centre) and there are usually very regular buses between most nearby cities.
Hostels in Brazil are on the expensive side in comparison to much of South America. Most of the good ones charge a minimum of US$10/night for a bed in a dorm although cheaper options can be found. The quality of hostels vary. Booking in advance is essential if you are visiting during popular times such as Carnaval and is advisable in big cities where you don’t really want to be wandering the streets with all your belongings, looking for somewhere to stay.
Carnival in Brazil is in February or March. It normally begins the Friday before Ash Wednesday and carries on for at least five days, sometimes over a week. The main carnivals are in Rio and Salvador (above) but it is celebrated nationwide.
Many travellers plan there backpacking trip in Brazil around Carnaval and it is certainly a great time to visit. It won’t be possible to take in all the big ones but it is possible to take in the festivities at more than one. Consider doing two days in Salvador and two in Olinda for example.
Extending your trip
In a country the size of Brazil, you will always have to pick and choose locations, even if you spend the best part of a year in the country. We’ve tried to include the main Brazilian travel highlights but it’s not hard to get off the beaten track. Working in the country is also an option and there is a big drive to improve the standard of English so you may find work in the TEFL industry.
Ricardo Moura Idiomas in the city of Juara is one school that is actively looking for native English speakers to come and work for 1-2 months and help out with advanced students and conversation classes. The position includes accommodation, food, Portuguese lessons and a decent income.
Travel-wise, you can leave Brazil and explore other parts of South America. Some destinations in this article feature in our main South America route but the two could be combined into one massive trip if time is no object.
Nature lovers may also want to check out our Patagonia backpacking route which heads to the very South of this continent whilst taking in some of Argentina and Chile’s great sights.
There is a more detailed longer route for the entire continent including destinations in this one in our Backpackers Guide to South America (ebook).
Pictures courtesy of:
from flickr – Carnaval: JACK TWO & Rio: Fernando Stankuns
from sxc.hu – Olinda: zeafonso , Campos do Jordao: migueias , Pantanal: boris1968 , Florianopolis: mterraza , Rio Negro: jpaulocv
This article was last updated in January 2017.