It is just me or is Brazil expensive?
When I visited Brazil, a rush of emotions invaded my body as soon as I got out of the airport. While riding to Copacabana, I was faced with favelas (slums), intricate graffiti, rough streets and terrible traffic at the Centro (downtown area). Everything looked very different from what I have seen in other South American countries. However, I was able to overcome the differences and get into the local vibe after a couple of days. Well, I was able to get use to all the things locals except for one. I couldn’t get over (and still can’t) the prices. I mean the unbelievable high prices. After a while, I started to ask myself: it is me or is everything expensive in here?
Let me get you an idea of what I am talking about. Here is an example of some of the prices (prices are in dollars and I am assuming 1 dollar = 1.5 reales):
- Private double room at a hostel = 60 dollars (and I am talking about a bare bones, small room). You can find private double rooms for 20 or less in other countries in the area.
- Big Mac combo – 10 dollars.
- Subway Footlong (without chips or drink) – 10 dollars.
- Typical lunch of rice, beans and chicken fillet – 8 dollars (more expensive if you order meat, drink is not included).
- There is a 10% service tax and most restaurants charge you for the entertainment offered while dining. Their charge you for something as simple as a guy playing a guitar and singing.
After experiencing this kind of prices (and more expensive ones), I wanted to understand if more people were feeling the pain when paying for food and services (because maybe Rio is expensive and the rest of the country is not that bad). Let me clarify that I wanted to investigate the topic because it was my desire to understand better the country. I wasn’t questioning this as the horrible witch that comes from the United States and was expecting to find an uniform, cheap and poor South America. As a traveler, I wanted to take that opportunity to learn about the economics and ways of live in Brazil.
I found out that I wasn’t the only person noticing the high cost of life in Brazil.
- I asked some locals about the prices. A guide told me the minimum salary was 340 dollars a month and that it was difficult for some to keep up with the prices. Another guy told me that the country’s economic expansion is not necessarily benefiting the lower classes.
- I compared notes with other travelers I met on the road (some have been all over Brazil). They told me how some services are less expensive in other areas of the country. However, food and transportation are also costly in other areas.
- I decided Rio de Janeiro was the second most expensive city I have visited after London. Then I met two couples from London and they told me Rio is as expensive as London.
- The research firm Employment Conditions Abroad (the firm studies living costs of international assignees) ranks Rio de Janeiro as 23th most expensive city in the world in its Cost of Living Survey. The most expensive city in the United States in New York which was ranked 44th.
- Michael Sommers, author of the Moon Handbooks’ Brazil guide (this is the guide I used to navigate thru the country), recently posted in his blog how he had to adjust the third edition of the guide to focus on budget or good value opportunities. He couldn’t release a guide of the country by just updating the content. He felt like he needed to help travelers to deal with the rising costs.
- And let not forget about the concrete reasons. In recent years, the Brazilian economy has boomed. As a result, increased wealth and inflation have augmented the prices. Also, the real has valorized like never before and the dollar has taken a plunge lower than the Grand Canyon.
So, why you should care about all this?
Brazil is an interesting, diverse, cosmopolitan and beautiful country (and this is my impression after the few places I experienced). I think every hard core traveler considers the possibility of visiting this superlative nation. So if you are planning to visit soon or somewhere in the future (when things are probably going to be more expensive), you should prepare accordingly. The cost of living of a particular country should not kill your dreams of visiting.
What can I recommend?
- Research, plan and budget accordingly. You don’t want to find yourself short of money while visiting.
- Focus on local places, food options and experiences. In coastal cities, there is a craze about the beach. You can have a good time in some of them without spending a lot. You can always find informal and cheap places to eat things like sandwiches, salads and salgadinhos (fried goodies). Fresh fruit juices and smoothies are everywhere for reasonable prices.
- Buying food and drinks right on the beach can be expensive. Prices drop as soon as you cross the street and walk to a restaurant not directly across the beach.
- Supermarkets offer tasty and hot meals for very good prices. I was surprised at how good the food was.
- Ask if your hostel offer dining opportunities. Our hostel in Paraty offered the option to sign up for the daily dinner offering. The food was flavorsome, local, homey and rightly priced. Plus, there were tons of new people to meet.
- I know that you would like to eat Brazilian food everyday. However, if you want to give your wallet a break, consider eating at “ethnic” places (Chinese and/or Middle Eastern). Make sure you try a beirute (Middle Eastern specialty).
- Ask locals for recommendations. I found extremely good options thanks to friendly locals.
- Consider small or off the beaten path places. Brazil is huge. Therefore, you should be able to find you own paradise. I went to the town of Paraty (not so off the beaten path but much smaller than Rio) and I was able to find accommodation for half the price (when compared to Rio). Additionally, we had double the room space and a fantastic included breakfast. The excursions in the area were reasonably priced.
- If possible, book accommodation in advance.
- Travel in the off season (but take into consideration the weather).
- If you are planning to go to the World Cup or to the Olympics (everybody wants to go), prepare way ahead of time.
- Take taxis when necessary. Public buses and the metro can take you anywhere (and look safe).
- Remember that a 10% service tax is almost included in restaurant bills. Always check your bill and avoid tipping twice.
- Always carry enough reales (in Brazil, the dollar is like the devil, nobody wants to see it). Don’t assume an ATM machine is going to save you (I learned this the hard way). There are a lot of banks but not all are connected to international ATM networks (or they are not connected to Cirrus which is one of the networks we use in the United States). Result: a lot of ATMs situated in local banks are not going to give you money. Go to Bradesco or an international bank (like HSBC) to get money out.
I hope I will make it to Brazil some other day and I will plan accordingly. At least, there are some good news in the horizon. A new Open Skies Agreement with the United States means more airlines flying to the country and possibly a drop in fares. There are rumors that Brazil is going to stop requiring visas for United Stated citizens (U.S. is going to do the same for Brazilians). That equals to savings of 130 dollars per person.
What about you? Have you been to Brazil? What are your impressions? Do you have some money saving tips?
Read more about the costs of traveling in Brazil in this post -> Cost of Traveling in Rio de Janeiro.
UPDATE: Seems like the Open Skies Agreement is not going to materialize anytime soon (as of 2013).