Brazil is a wonderful country to explore as a family. It has a bit of everything: incredible natural beauty, friendly people, vibrant culture and lovely beaches. If you’ve been considering a South America vacation with kids, Brazil is also a relatively safe choice, thanks to its infrastructure and developed tourism industry. The following tips for family travel to Brazil come from my annual trips there with my children over the past nine years.
Brazil Vacation Tips 101
Choose the right time to travel
Brazil can be very expensive compared to other South American destinations, so it’s important to give careful thought to your travel dates. First, you’ll want to avoid the times when Brazilians have vacation: late December through January; July; and during the week before Easter and Carnaval. Flight costs go way up around Christmas and New Year’s as well as in July. An airplane ticket in April, for example, is about half the cost of one in July. Hotels and restaurants can also be quite pricey, especially during peak season. To avoid high prices and crowds, try to travel during other times of the year.
Take basic hygiene precautions
Brazilians take pride in their cleanliness. Many restaurants and shops have a hand-washing or anti-bacterial gel station near the entrance. Public bathrooms are often staffed all day with someone who cleans, and some restaurants even have floss and mouthwash for use in the restrooms! In general, the overall interest in maintaining a clean environment shows.
Tap water is safe to drink in some parts of the country. For example, in São Paulo, the tap water is potable and tastes fine, but you’re better off buying bottled water unless you know for sure that the water is good to drink.
The food in Brazil is generally clean and safe, especially in the heavily touristed areas of Rio de Janeiro and the south. However, because the country is so large, check the area where you’ll be staying first to find out if there are food safety concerns.
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Be proactive about staying healthy
Check the CDC website for detailed health information for each area you plan to visit. Visit your doctor at least a month before traveling to find out what vaccines are necessary. Depending on what part of the country you plan to visit, you and your kids may need typhoid, yellow fever or hepatitis A vaccines. Zika is less of a concern if you’re not pregnant or planning to get pregnant, but it’s still a good idea to discuss it with your doctor. Dengue fever is a more serious risk for both adults and children; a good insect repellent, such as one with Picardin or DEET, is essential in most parts of the country.
Limit the number of travel destinations within the country
Brazil is a massive country with most cities spread out hours from each other, so it’s hard to get from one place to another. Driving in Brazil is not easy and not recommended. Some travelers use domestic flights to travel between destinations; there is also an extensive bus system with nice long-distance buses. Unless you want to fly or take the bus from one place to another, it’s probably a good idea to base yourself in one region.
For example, you could choose to fly into Rio de Janeiro, spend several days there, and then spend a week on the spectacular beaches of the nearby Costa Verde (“Green Coast”). To get there, hire a driver or tour company, or take the bus. If you base yourself in the beautiful colonial town of Paraty, it’s easy to book a tour company to take you by boat to the nearby islands or by car to local towns and other beaches. Finally, once back in Rio, you could fly to another destination before heading home — perhaps Iguacu Falls, the southern coastal city of Florianopolis and its beaches, or Recife or Porto Seguro on the spectacular northeast coast.
Practice common-sense safety
In Brazil, it’s important to use some fundamental safety rules. Avoid going out at night, especially in big cities, and walk in populated areas. Try to blend in with locals as much as possible. Always keep a close eye on your belongings, even in places that seem perfectly safe.
Flashy jewelry and large, expensive cameras will draw unnecessary attention to you and your family. Leave your valuables at home, use a small camera and carry small amounts of cash.
Be vigilant about safety, especially cars, with your children. Brazil can be a very family-friendly, safe destination, but it’s important to practice a heightened level of awareness. If you’re unsure about the area where you’re staying, ask a local for tips.
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Learn a few phrases in the local language
Portuguese is the language of Brazil, but you’ll encounter many people, especially younger people in the tourism industry, who speak good English. Portuguese is similar to Spanish, so if you know some Spanish, that will give you a leg up. If you speak in Spanish to Brazilians, most will understand you, but that doesn’t mean that you will be able to understand them. Portuguese does not sound at all like Spanish, and many of the most common words are completely different.
The local people will appreciate your effort to communicate in Portuguese, so if possible, try to learn some basic phrases before you go. And take note that the most important word, obrigado (thank you), has a masculine and feminine form. If you’re male, say obrigado, but say obrigada if you’re female!
Enjoy the kid-focused attention
Brazilians adore children. You’ll have people approach you and ask about your kids, commenting on the color of their hair or their beautiful smiles. If your kids are being loud during dinner at a restaurant, strangers are more likely to give them an affectionate pat on the head than a dirty look. Although kids’ menus are not common, many restaurants have a playground staffed with a monitor to keep children entertained while you enjoy dinner, and most bathrooms are equipped with diaper-changing tables.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Jenna Francisco except where noted.