Brazil in a nutshell

Welcome to meeting the warm people of Brazil and discovering its most emblematic locality, Rio de Janeiro, the marvelous city.

It is a city that I have always dreamed of visiting, full of contradictions, attractive and frightening at the same time. It is home to the largest carnival in the world, which illustrates Brazilian culture in its joy of living and partying. Brazilians are known for this side of their character and their warm welcome. And for them, only the present moment counts. Later? Another way of saying never.
By contrast, the homicide rate is high, and it is necessary to be aware of this and keep in mind that there is a risk in strolling around town at night. I admit that I avoided night walks during my stay, even if it was tempting, and I always used an Uber to return home at night after an outing.

At the beach, it’s the same. Don’t take valuables with you; just grab some cash to try the delicacies the local vendors offer you throughout the day.

But don’t get paranoid, and make the most of the city’s colorful atmosphere and constant bustle.

Facts about Brazil and Rio de Janeiro

What you will find in this article:

Bikes in Rio

There are plenty of city bikes in Rio, but they’re not for everyone. You must have a local tax number and phone number to register on the application.

It’s a shame because it would have been perfect for the size of the city!

The beaches of Rio de Janeiro

Copacabana Beach

Copacabana‘s nickname is The Little Princess of the Sea. On weekends, in good weather, it’s the favorite place for the Cariocas, who, of course, hate cloudy days.

While the beach is synonymous with sport for some, for others, it’s the equivalent of relaxation and good times with family or friends. In Rio though, one does not typically come here to do nothing.

As soon as the sun rises, the plastic armchairs and umbrellas come out. The round of sellers of cocktails, beers, sandwiches, or shrimp skewers begins. There’s more than a hundred on this 4-km beach!

If there is so many of them, it’s because it’s a business that works.

Be aware that those who bring their picnic are somewhat made fun of. If you persist in doing so, you become “faros ferros,” literally those who get their flour and chicken.

That said, try to avoid being part of them!

The tip of Arpoador and Ipanema Beach

The tip of Arpoador

Ipanema Beach with Morro Dois Irmãos, the hill of the two brothers, Pedra da Gávea further, and the Vidigal favela in the background.

A small staircase winds on the tip of Arpoador and allows reaching its end

The unmissable sunset from the tip of Arpoador

We didn’t miss it in the sense that we went there after a fantastic sunny day, but watched helplessly as the big clouds arrived and stopped right where the sun was supposed to sink into the ocean!

That said, we had a great time, and the colors of the sky were beautiful.

The Arpoador rocks are where Cariocas like to come in the evening during the weekend. A lot of people were there, many with their picnics and drinks to enjoy the moment fully.

The atmosphere was chill and cheerful, as often in Rio.

It seems that they applaud when the spectacle is grandiose. It’s up to you to confirm it with me if you have the chance to appreciate it!

The tip of Arpoador is also very nice to do during the day.

The Cariocas

A Carioca today is simply a native of Rio de Janeiro. This word comes from the Tupi, an indigenous language, and designated the dwellings of white men at the beginning of colonization.

Brazil country name

It comes from the brazilwood tree, one of the main exports at the start of colonization. Brazilwood is an exotic wood that gives a red dye like embers when dried and pulverized. It is also the national tree of the country.

The Brazilian flag

Today, the meaning of the colors is:
– green for the Amazon
– yellow for gold
– blue for the Rio sky of November 19, 1889, the day Brazil declared its independence. Only 21 stars appeared then, representing the 21 states of Brazil.

The current version has 27 stars because a law stipulates that: one, a star must be added to the flag for each new state created and two, the old flag must be burned on November 19, what’s now called Flag Day.

But initially, the colors had other connotations:
– green for the House of Braganza of Pedro I, the first emperor of the nation
– yellow for the House of Habsburg, his wife’s family
– in the center, instead of the sky of Rio, was the coat of arms of the Brazilian Empire.

The national motto

The national motto inscribed in the center of the flag, “Ordem e Progresso,” Order and Progress, is taken from a maxim of Auguste Comte, a French philosopher: Love for principle and order for the base; progress for an end. This motto highlights the founding ideas of the positivist doctrine, which influenced the construction of Republican Brazil.

But love was never part of the motto. Our guide told us that the soldiers of the time were tough people and that love as an emblem was not really to their liking!

The land of sports

Brazilians are keen on sport, and their country pays them back by promoting its development.

There are two main reasons. The first is the cult of the youth and the body that pushes them to take care of themselves. They understood that to have beautiful shapes, one has to give one’s all! The second is the strengthening of social ties and mutual respect. And there’s nothing better than training together as a team or a club to build genuine relationships.

Thus, we see runners, walkers, CrossFitters, beach volleyball players, soccer players, or sand tennis players on Copacabana beach.

There is also no more segregation; people of all ages meet there. Seniors, who felt excluded from the beaches a few years ago, came back in force, despite this damn cult of the firm body! 

The first day I went running along the coast, it was 7:30 in the morning. As a general rule, and in many places, one is relatively alone at this time. Not here! I found myself in the middle of a crowd of early bird athletes, and it was great.

There is also no more segregation; people of all ages meet there. Seniors, who felt excluded from the beaches a few years ago, came back in force, despite this damn cult of the firm body!

The sports

Football

If we had to name just one, it would be this one. More than 16,000 Brazilians play worldwide, and there are more than 776 professional clubs in Brazil.

Matches are therefore regularly televised, and groups of supporters gather on the café terraces, taking care to warn the whole neighborhood, with a lot of noise, when a player commits a fault or scores. I haven’t figured out which shout was related to which action.

Football arrived in Brazil in the 1800s. Its introduction is attributed to a student, Charles Miller, who returned to Sao Paulo after finishing his studies in England, bringing with him two balls and the game’s rules. His enthusiasm for this game was infectious, so much so that it made football the most popular sport in Brazil. We can even add that it is now part of the country’s heritage.

Volleyball

It is the second national sport. The Cariocas claim that beach volleyball was born in Rio and that the Americans “copied” it, formalizing it by adding rules.

What is certain, however, is that Brazil has excellent volleyball champions.

They have a strong love for the game, evident in the many beach volleyball courts for rent in Copacabana beach. As much to tell you, the Cariocas take them by storm from sunrise to sunset.

The capoeira

The fighting techniques of African peoples inspired this Afro-Brazilian martial art during the time of slavery in Brazil. It was a means of entertainment and a disguised way of learning to fight.

Water sports

With 600 km of coastline, Brazil is also ideal for surfing, kitesurfing, or diving.

The samba

Samba for the whole world is Rio and its carnival. It is the icon of Brazilian national identity.

Though the samba is a musical genre and a style of Brazilian dance, its origins come from enslaved Africans, mainly from Angola and Congo.
Even though there are different kinds of samba, the most recognized is that of Rio, the largest city and capital of the then Brazilian empire.

The music is performed by string instruments (cavaquinho and various guitars) and percussion instruments such as the tambourine.

Schools, musicians, and carnival associations centered on samba performances appear in all parts of the country.

This dance is part of the life of the Cariocas.
Thanks to an organized tour, we went to Lapa, Rio’s nightlife district. The atmosphere happens both inside and outside the clubs where local groups play samba. There are dancers all over the street, and the atmosphere is festive.

Brazilian gastronomy

The caïpirinha

It’s the one on the left

The caïpirinha is the national cocktail of Brazil. It is made with cachaça — a distilled alcohol made from fermented sugarcane juice — sugar, and lime.

To taste without fail!

The regional dish, the feijoada

The best known of the traditional specialties found in Rio de Janeiro is the feijoada.
Pieces of pork considered not very noble (ears, tail, legs, etc.) are stewed, then simmered with black beans, rice, and vegetables.
This dish is often served with farofa, a popular side dish made from roasted cassava flour. On the other hand, it must be mixed well with the dish’s sauce before eating it. Otherwise, it’s extra dry and a little stuffy!

Sweetened condensed milk

It is not, strictly speaking, part of Brazilian gastronomy, but you can find it everywhere.

There are cakes, the brigadeiros, made from this milk. The recipe is straightforward, and it’s delicious.
Heat the sweetened condensed milk — plain or with cocoa powder for the chocolate version — and make small balls one can cover with chocolate flakes — again! — and let it cool down.
My mouth is watering just talking about it.

As an accompaniment to a fruit salad, it does too!

The history of Brazil

The history began in 1550 when the Portuguese discovered this land. They imagine having landed on an island but ultimately realize that it is a much larger territory. They then called it The Land of the Holy Cross.

But colonization did not accelerate until thirty years later when the country became the European supplier of sugar and wood, the brazilwood, renowned for its superb vermilion color. But to achieve their ends, the newcomers need enslaved people. Their first idea was to use the natives. But the church prohibited it by quickly signing a law against this exploitation. The reason, however, was not compassion. The goal was to enrich the Portuguese royal family, which developed a slave trade in its African colonies — a business that would quickly prosper and supply the entire American continent.

As for the natives, they were simply pushed back into the mountains.

The Amerindians, the first victims of the Portuguese conquest

Estimated between 4 to 5 million at the arrival of the Portuguese, the Amerindian population quickly suffered from colonization. Beyond the consequences of their expropriation, they were decimated by European diseases.
In 2010, claimed descendants of the tribes numbered around 900,000 people in Brazil.

The 17th Century, a commercial era

Brazil became the world’s largest producer of sugar, enriching itself considerably.
Cities in the style of Lisbon were built, with palaces and public buildings decorated with azulejos, the Portuguese tiles with white and blue patterns.

An aristocracy with metropolitan fashions and traditions was established. They were the Afidalgados, the most prosperous of the settlers.
This historical period also played a significant role in the mixing of the country. As few Western women had made the trip to the new land, the new settlers married African or Amerindian women. It is the birth of the Caboclos community, people of mixed Brazilian and European ancestry.

But in the 18th Century, sugar production slowed down. However, discovering rich mines of gold and diamonds in Minas Gerais gave the colony an economic and demographic second wind.

The gold rush

When large mines were spotted inland, the ensuing rush transformed the settlement. Portuguese immigration and enslaved Africans’ importation increased considerably.
Gold became the main export for more than 50 years, supporting the Portuguese empire worldwide.
But with the exhaustion of the mines, its share in the economy declined precipitously. It was then the turn of coffee to strengthen the country’s growth.

Small parenthesis

Nowadays, the garimpos dominate the gold market. These small miners, not officially employed by mining companies, work independently. They extract minerals using their own resources, usually by hand.

But wealthy settlers wanted more autonomy

Over the following years, they gradually gained the power to free themselves from Portugal on September 7, 1822, eventually — the nowadays national day.
Though the decolonization took place peacefully, the period extending until the end of the 1980s revealed a tormented history with very different regimes (empire, oligarchic republic, dictatorship, etc.).

From the “old” to the “young” republic of Brazil

In 1888, the decision to abolish slavery changed the country’s social structure.
The Emperor of Brazil is deposed by a military revolt supported by the upper class, still angry at the disappearance of enslaved people. Brazil then became a coffee with milk republic, directed and controlled by the large landowners called the coronals.

Two other crucial dates changed the history of the nation. In 1929, the world crisis hit agricultural exports hard, and in 1930, a coup replaced democracy with dictatorship.

Getulio Vargas arrived at the head of the country

Denounced by some as an evil despot, his followers revered him as the Father of the Poor. He brought important social and economic changes, modernized the country, and fought against big industries and landowners.

The aftermath of World War II

After World War II, Brazil again entered a period of political turbulence. The few democratic episodes were interspersed with long, very conservative military tyrannies. It was not until 1979 that a political opening took shape, advocating a gradual return to the republic.
Soon accelerated under popular pressure, a constitution, adopted in 1988, proclaimed the new republic of Brazil.

Brazil today

Today, Brazil is the fifth largest country globally, has over 200 million inhabitants, and is geographically dominated by the Amazon River and the largest rainforest in the world.
It has become an essential world agricultural power. Its main export product is soybeans and other cereals, meat, milk, and eggs.
Brazil has also strongly developed the sector of ethanol – a biofuel made from sugar cane – while being a significant oil producer, in particular thanks to drilling on the high seas.

Final word

I loved Brazil and the atmosphere of Rio de Janeiro. However, it isn’t easy to talk about a country when you have finally visited only one of its cities, even if it’s Rio!
I would have liked to see Sao Paulo, the modern one, or different small towns that are quieter and less touristy.

I think I will have no choice but to go back!

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