Brazil is one of the most mind blowing countries you will ever visit. With an area greater than the United States, inhabited by a population of over 200 million people and a mixture of cultural influences from Portuguese, to African, German and Eastern European to Indian and Lebanese.
It’s a country of contradiction, with the strongest, most independently stable economy in South America and a recently flourishing middle class, yet still maintaining one of the greatest rich-poor divides in the world, still evident in the sprawling favelas which crowd the outskirts of the country’s major cities.
But it’s not just the social, cultural and economic differences that make Brazil so interesting – the country stretches from the warm waters of the northern border with French Guiana and the dense Amazon rain forest to the rolling hills, mountains, and farmland in the center and south.
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Why cruise the coast of Brazil?
Around 65% of Brazil’s population lives on the coast, and much of the social activities and lifestyle are centered around the beach. Fresh seafood, a laid-back lifestyle, music, and dance all take place on white-sand beaches in glorious sunshine.
When is the best time to travel the coast of Brazil?
Brazil is a huge country with several different climate types as you travel from north to south, so be prepared for some varied weather. Regarding tourist seasons, the best times to travel are April to June, and August to October. July is a school holiday month, and mid-December to January are the obvious Christmas holiday season, plus it’s incredibly hot, almost unbearably so.
How to travel the coast of Brazil
Brazil has an amazing public transportation network, with very high-quality buses and coaches traveling all over the country 24/7. There are also plenty of affordable flights if you book early, although they will still be pricier than traveling by road. Booking buses are relatively easy. However, you often need to go to the main bus terminal to do so, and taxis here are very expensive compared to the rest of South America. For this reason, we found that it was just as economical to use a travel agent to organize most of our reservations and transfers, which worked out to be no more expensive overall than booking the tickets ourselves, plus taxi fare. Not to mention the time we saved, which we spent seeing more of Brazil.
We told Green Toad Bus where we wanted to go and when, then they came back to us with a travel itinerary, dates, times, pickup points and even suggestions about how to plan our route a bit better. If you have a limited amount of time, or you simply want to spend all of our time on the beach instead of in a bus station, then this is a great option. Green Toad can also arrange package trips, backpacker bus passes and accommodation all over South America.
Here’s our guide to the best spots along the coast of Brazil, how to get there and the best things to do to make the most of the Brazilian adventure!
1. Rio de Janeiro – The most vibrant city in the world
Rio de Janeiro or the Cidade Marvilhosa to its local inhabitants is a South American super-city of more than 14 million people, is a city of flair, style, history, culture, extravagance, and elegance, all woven together with an inherent vibrancy and sensuality that can be felt nowhere else. Rio is a city where everything blends into everything else, the old and the new, the fast and the slow, the rich and the poor. With one of the most beautiful settings in the world for a city, from the air Rio de Janeiro seems to cascade down the sides of the mountains to the north and spill down to the white-sand shores below, like molten lava flowing down the side of a volcano – slow, almost motionless from a distance, but full of heat and intensity. There are so many things to do in Rio de Janeiro, that you could spend weeks here exploring this city in all of its glorious detail, but if you only have a few days to a week, here’s how we think you could spend your time!
Check out some of the cool and cheap tours you could do in Rio de Janeiro.
Check out our full Rio de Janeiro guide – 7 Awesome Things to do in Rio de Janeiro
Things to do in Rio de Janeiro
Explore the nightlife
Rio’s nightlife is the kind of stuff legends are made of, but we wanted to make sure we experienced the real thing, not just some backpacker bar full of people we can party with back home. We wanted to party with real Brazilian people, in real Brazilian bars and clubs, so we met up with Tours Gone Wild, to experience the real Rio, with guest list access to the best clubs and bars in the city, with barely a backpacker in sight. We had our very own party guide who picked us up at the hotel, took us to Palaphitas Gavea, an exclusive guest list only club, full of beautiful Brazilians and dropped us right back at our hotel again at the end of the night. They also organize tours, both in Rio and other cities all over the world.
When you think Copacabana, the mind flashes images of G-string bikinis, speedos, oily bronzed Brazilians on the beach, Samba and Caipirinhas! The 4 km beach serves many purposes to the community of Copacabana – early morning exercise; dog walking, yoga, working out, sunset walks and football. In the later hours of the evening, it serves as a backdrop to the many beachside bars between the road and the beach, where Samba tunes mix with the background music of the waves breaking onto the shore. Join the locals for an early morning walk along the beach before breakfast, then dive headfirst into the Copacabana shopping district and hop on the Metro for the short ride into the historic center of town. After a few hours exploring the markets and historic buildings, return for an afternoon swim in the Atlantic waters and get started on the Caipirinhas while you wait for a sunset of hundreds of oranges, reds, and purples streaked across the sky!
Check out some of the cool and cheap tours you could do in Copacabana.
Walk the historic downtown
Rio de Janeiro is a fantastic city for urban exploration – the blend of historic Portuguese colonial architecture, modern city life, and that famous Brazilian atmosphere make it one of the most interesting and captivating cities in South America. We recommend a city walking tour with Context Travel – we started at the Convent of Santo Antonio, where the city of Rio de Janeiro was born back in 1608, making it the oldest standing building in the city. We learned all about the rich history of Rio and how it developed from a small colonial outpost to one of the busiest modern cities in the world. Make sure you check out the Confeitaria Colombo, the oldest and most prestigious coffee shop in the world on your way around – it’s an experience all unto itself.
Go Hang Gliding
The landscape of Rio de Janeiro is fascinatingly beautiful – numerous tree-clad mountain peaks cascade down towards the Atlantic Ocean, with white-sand beaches and an archipelago of small islands peppering the waters off the coast. There are many easy to medium hiking routes up to the peaks that give great views of the city and the ocean, but one day, as we walked along one of Rio’s many beaches, we glanced up at the sky just in time to see a giant bird-shaped object fly over our heads. There was something hanging from it – a person – HANG GLIDING! We flew with Rio ASA Delta, and it was one of the greatest experiences we’ve ever had.
Christ the Redeemer
At the peak of the Corcovado Mountain, standing 700 meters high in the Tijuca Forest National Park overlooking the city of Rio de Janeiro is the Christ the Redeemer statue. It’s high on the bucket list of many to stand in front of the 38-meter high statue of Jesus Christ. His arms open wide as a symbol of enduring peace. Even the journey to the top of the mountain is an experience – a 20-minute train ride which winds up the hill through the forest, with views of the city and the ocean.
Check out some of the cool and cheap tours you could do in Christ the Redeemer and Tijuca Forest.
Sunday Market in Gloria
Stalls of fresh fruit, meat, fish, seafood, spices and even artisanal crafts and jewelry. This is not market frequented by many tourists as it’s in the local residential area of Gloria, just a short Metro ride from Copacabana and Cinelandia. Everything is interesting and colorful here, even the garlic and chilies are laid out on small paper plates and arranged in an even pattern across the table tops. Many of the market stalls are held from characterful Volkswagen vans, which combined with the sights, sounds and market buzz, make for amazing photo opportunities as well.
Climb the Lapa Steps
Artist Jorge Selaron, who bought a house in the Lapa District of the city back in the 1980’s and began sticking broken tiles to the walls of the filthy, neglected stairs which ran past his home, linking the Lapa and Santa Teresa neighborhoods. His work started to gain the attention of local passersby, then travelers from around the world, many of whom donated tiles from around the world to the project, although he also painted some tiles himself. Selaron’s life continued like this until January 2013, when his body was found on the steps, covered in paint thinner and with burn marks to his body. In the end, Jorge Selaron was as mysterious in his death as he was unique in his life’s greatest work.
Where to stay in Rio de Janeiro
To get a real taste of the Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro lifestyle, stay in a luxury hotel along the main seafront promenade, with views over the beach to the south and rooftop views of Christ the Redeemer and the mountains to the North. We stayed at the Porto Bay Rio Internacional Hotel, a four-star luxury hotel overlooking the ocean.
If backpacking on a budget is more your style, then check out Limetime Hostel Rio. Famous for their cool atmosphere and Caipirinha party nights, you’ll meet a lot of great people and have a lot of fun.
2. Buzios – A seaside paradise as colorful as its history
Often referred to as the Brazilian Saint Tropez, this refined coastal paradise started life as a settlement of European pirates and slave traders, later growing into a prosperous and tranquil fishing town. When the quaint and picturesque town received a visit from actress Brigitte Bardot in the 1960’s, it quickly shot to fame as a stylish and boutique holiday destination. With over 20 beaches lining the peninsula, boutique shops, restaurants for all tastes and a perfect climate, Buzios is Brazil’s little piece of paradise.
Things to do in Buzios, Brazil
Stroll around the historic streets
With old world charm, historic stone buildings and cobbled-stone streets, walking around and soaking up the atmosphere, pausing here and there for an ice cream, coffee, or perhaps an afternoon Caipirinha, is the perfect, simple way to enjoy a day in Buzios.
Take a Schooner boat tour of the best beaches
After you’ve seen Buzios from the land, the next best way to see the town is from the sea. We organized a morning boat tour with Grayline Brazil, which took us by wooden schooner to the best local swimming spots in the area. With a fun crowd of other Brazilian and international travelers, plus an onboard bar combined with blue skies, sunshine and cool, blue water, a boat tour is one of the best things to do in Buzios, Brazil.
Rent a beach buggy and go beach hopping
A buggy is a classic Volkswagen Beetle, which has been converted into an open-top beach cruising machine, perfect for hopping from around some of many white-sand beaches of Buzios. They can only be driven within the town limits, as they’re not legal on Brazil’s main highways, but they’re great fun!
(All you need is a valid drivers’ license from your home country and a credit card for security.)
Buy fresh fish on the beach
Buzios has countless restaurants with great menus and, of course, there’s a local market where you buy everything from fresh fish and meat to fruit and vegetables, but if you really want your fish as fresh as fish can possibly get, then head down to the far left side of Geriba beach early in the morning (anytime between 6 and 8am) and buy it straight from the fishermen’s boats!
Where to stay in Buzios, Brazil
Boutique Luxury – Porto Bay Boutique, Buzios
We spent our first two nights in Buzios in Porto Bay Boutique Hotel, a four-star collection of stylish suites, set amongst its own carefully maintained forest of trees and tropical plants. There are views over the town to the ocean, and it’s only a 5-minute walk to the town center and the Rua Das Pedras. Breakfast is a great selection of fresh fruits, cereals, eggs, bread and juices, served alongside the pool which is surrounded by trees and birds. The rooms are comfortable, stylish and modern, but with the extra touches of individual style that you expect from a boutique hotel. An eclectic blend of modern, classic and antique furnishings are combined with large expanses of glass, illuminating everything with natural light and enveloping the interior spaces within the trees and foliage outside. This is the perfect place to stay for a combination of comfort, tranquility, convenience and luxury, all in beautiful surroundings.
Backpacker Budget with extra comforts – Yolo Hostel
There are hundreds of hostels in Buzios, making it hard to choose one in particular, but we’re pretty sure we stayed in the perfect hostel. Yolo Hostel is like a big family home, converted into a cool hostel by three friends, complete with outdoor swimming pool, a BBQ and grill area, patios with hammocks, a garden and a massive living room and TV. The relaxed and friendly vibe is really what makes this place great – Everyone has breakfast together by the pool, hanging out in the garden and chilling in the hammocks by day, then having a few drinks and having massive group dance-off tournaments to the X-Box in the evening! It’s only a 5-minute walk to Geriba Beach, where you can buy that boat-fresh fish we mentioned earlier, then cook it up on the grill for lunch.
3. Ilha Grande – From prison to paradise
The natural island retreat of Ilha Grande has one of the most interesting histories you’ll find of any settlement in the world. Like Buzios, it started life as a pirates’ lair, before later being used as a leper colony. Up until the 1990’s, it was also home to Brazil’s most notorious prisons, holding all types of dangerous murderers as well as political prisoners. It was only after the prison was closed and demolished that tourism began to flourish here, but the delay in development ensured that almost all of the virgin rainforest and tropical beaches were preserved and they have now protected parkland. Vila do Abraão is the largest settlement on the island and is home to most of the tourism, accommodation, and restaurants, yet while it’s one of Brazil’s most popular tourist destinations, it has managed to remain a charming and picturesque location. There are no vehicles allowed on the island, with the exception of a fire truck, police vehicle, and garbage truck, so getting around on foot is a relaxing experience. The small town can get quite busy, but with just a five-minute walk you can easily escape into the natural surroundings to dozens of beaches, mountain peaks, and waterfalls.
Getting to Ilha Grande
As with all of our other transport, we decided to save ourselves a lot of time and effort, by asking Green Toad to organize all of our buses and transfers. We traveled by bus from Buzios back to Rio de Janeiro, where we were picked up in Copacabana by minibus for the 2-hour drive down the coast, where a boat was waiting to take us to the island. We were met at each point by a guide who spoke Spanish, English, and Portuguese, and helped us with everything from booking onward travel to finding our hostel when we arrived.
The boat transfer to the island takes about one hour and you are dropped at one of two places, depending on what part of town you’re hostel is in. Again, the transfer guides make sure you know where you need to go.
Things to do in Ilha Grande
There a only two main activities that take place on Ilha Grande – Relaxing in the town and on the main beaches; and hiking around the island’s rainforest to reach waterfalls and desert island beaches. If you’re not up for a big hike up to the top of one of the several peaks on the island, there are several shorter walks which can be done in anywhere from an hour to three hours, so there’s something for everyone.
Where to stay in Ilha Grande
Luxury – Portal dos Borbas
Just a 2-minute walk from Praia do Abraão Beach. Portal dos Borbas offers free Wi-Fi, a buffet breakfast, and 24-hour front desk service. Angra dos Reis Pier has located 100 meters away. This is a real taste of luxury and originality in one of the most beautiful natural settings in the world.
Budget Backpackers – El Misti Hostel Ilha Grande
Just 30 meters from Praia do Abraão Beach. El Misti Hostel Ilha Grande offers a buffet breakfast and free Wi-Fi. Located on the Ilha Grande main street, restaurants, bars and stores are within walking distance. A common kitchen is available for use, and a bar is on-site. A free transfer service can be arranged and day trips and boat tours are on offer. We stayed here for two nights, and it was chilled enough to get a great night’s sleep, yet still full of fellow travelers from all over the world!
4. Paraty – Frozen in Time
Paraty is one of the most beautiful historic towns we have ever seen, easily on a par with Colombia’s Cartagena, which is a pretty huge achievement. It was originally settled by Portuguese colonists in the 1600’s, and its cobbled streets, charming churches, and picturesque coast have hardly changed since. Paraty is another example of a historic Brazilian settlement which escaped over development due to a random turn of events in its history. The town was a key stopping point and haven along the Gold Road for the Portuguese to ship their gold back to Lisbon – This caused the small town to thrive. Then in the 1800’s, the opening of a new inner road effectively took Paraty off the gold route instantly, causing it to be almost abandoned and stalled in time. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that it was brought back to life as a popular tourist destination.
Check out some of the cool and cheap tours you could do in Paraty.
How to get to Paraty
There are plenty of buses plying the route back and forth between Rio and Paraty (4 hours), likewise from Sao Paulo (6 hours).
We traveled straight from Ilha Grande to Paraty, organized by Green Toad, starting with a 1-hour boat transfer from the island to the mainland, where we were picked up by a minibus complete with English / Spanish speaking guides and driven for about 3 hours, straight to our hotel in Paraty.
Things to do in Paraty, Brazil
Explore the old city on foot
The best way to enjoy Paraty is simply to explore its old cobbled streets on foot – its colonial era architecture and an impressive number of churches are all stunningly preserved and restored, and motor vehicles are banned from entering the center.
Hang out in the local bars
Paraty has a very vibrant nightlife, with tables and chairs spilling out of the bars and restaurants onto the streets, so you can enjoy great local food, beers, cocktails and live music, all under the stars adjacent to the main square.
Island Boat Trip
We jumped on a schooner style boat, planned and organized by Green Toad and cruised around some of the best islands in the bay, stopping to dive into the clear blue (if a little cold!) water. The coastline around Paraty is beautifully varied, with steep, cultivated slopes rolling down to secluded beaches and coves all along the coast. It’s a half day trip which lasts about 4 hours, and there are really good food and drinks available on board, all prepared fresh in the kitchen!
Where to Stay in Paraty, Brazil
Rumo dos Ventos – Natural Luxury
We chose to stay slightly outside of the town center, just a relaxing 15-minute walk along the riverside. Built largely from native timber, the hotel has a very natural feel to it, with large open spaces and a grassed garden peppered with trees and colorful plants and a swimming pool alongside the river. There’s even a Turkish-style sauna which is a real luxury in the cooler evenings. The property is surrounded by trees, which are teeming with birds and inquisitive miniature monkeys who venture onto the balconies looking for treats of papaya from the staff and guests.
The rooms are large and comfortable with high ceilings, cable TV, and hot showers. Breakfast was included, with an amazing selection of fruits, bread, cereals and hot food like eggs and local sausage casserole.