In this article, I discuss why I found Brazil expensive (from a traveler’s perspective) and provide cost-saving tips.
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 shock and get into the local vibe after a couple of days. Well, I was able to get use to most things 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.
Note: When I visited, 1 dollar = 1.5 reales. Nowadays, it is more like 1 dollar = 5 reales. This does not necessarily mean Brazil has gotten more affordable (actually, I believe it is the reverse). Also, I visited during low season. Keep in mind prices can ouble during high season (and more than double during Carnaval).
- 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. They 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 affordable prices in all countries in 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 Brazil 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 restaurant offering dishes from other South American countries, Asia or the Moddle East. 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).
- Take taxis when necessary. Public buses and the metro can take you anywhere (there are ways to use these safetly).
- 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, I am not sure why). 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.
Additional Information: Cost of Traveling in Rio de Janeiro
In this section, I want to provide details about the traveling costs in the Rio de Janeiro state. Brazil is a country avoided by a lot of backpackers and travelers. I want to help people who may be considering a visit soon or in the future.
All prices are in dollars.
Rios de Janeiro (The City)
This is hard to say but it is almost impossible to find a room with a private bathroom for a decent price in the “Marvelous City”. I stayed in Copacabana for $30 per person per night (a total of $60 for my husband and me).
For $60 a night, I was expecting something decent (not fancy but at least comfortable). Instead, I ended up in this tiny room with a piece of foam doubling as a mattress and an old air conditioning unit. My conclusion is that you will need to budget $80 to $100 per night if you want to stay in a comfortable place. These are bad news for those who are in search of budget options.
For backpackers, dorm prices range from $15 to $35 (more expensive for dorms in Leblon). By default, hotels are more expensive than hostels or private rooms.
Tip: Let me clarify something really important. When I visited, I stayed in the Zona Sul (Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblon). You may be tempted to stay in parts of the city offering cheaper accommodations (the difference is not that much in my opinion).
In a city like Rio de Janeiro, you have to take into consideration how safe is the area where you are staying. That is why I highly encourage you to stay in an area with the infrastructure designed to support travelers. In this areas, you will see police patroling the streets, locals walking around and a lively atmosphere.
Tip: Try to stay in a place where breakfast and Wi-Fi are included.
Public transportation is effective and safe. Expect to pay from $1 to $2 to move around the city in a bus. Small buses (a little bit smaller than a van) can be used to move between the beaches. They only cost about 50 cents.
The city has a clean and modern Metro service. Each ride is about $2 (btw, I think this is kind of expensive). Experts consider taxis to be reasonable priced. I never used one during my stay. Consider them if you want to save time.
Tip: Try to use buses during the day or early evening. Always be aware of your surroundings.
Tip: To get from the international airport to the Centro (downtown) or Zona Sul (beaches), you can take a bus that costs $7 per person. You can use this option to save on taxis. Try to sit in the front, close to the driver.
Salgadinhos are the cheapest things to eat around town. They are deep fried snacks (yucca or flour dough stuffed with different types of meat) found in virtually every corner. They cost from $ 1 to $2 a piece. A glass of fruit juice is about $2 (recommended, try as many flavors as possible). Simple salads and sandwiches run from $5 to $7. Combine some of these options to form a meal.
A tasty and filling meal (which you will want most of the time) will cost you $10 to $12. Fruit stands or simple restaurants serve lunches and dinners consisting of one piece of meat and three side dishes.
In my opinion, this is one of the best values you can get in the city. Don’t think fast food chains are going to save you money. Their prices range from $10 to $12 too (shocking, I know) and their food is not as fresh as the one found in local restaurants.
The “comida a kilo” restaurants (where you fill your plate with different goodies and are charged by the weight) do not convince me. The times I visited, I ended up paying from $12 to $15 and I wasn’t even full. If you are a light eater, these places might work for you. Girls with big appetites like me are better off in other establishments.
Be prepared to pay $25 to $50 in a restaurant (way more for fine dining). Churrasquerias charge $30 to $40 per person.
Tip: Everything sold in the beach is overpriced. Walk one block away from the beach if you want to find something more affordable.
Tip: Buy snacks and beverages in supermarkets. There are a lot of small ones around the beaches.
Tip: Most bills include the tip. Check your bill carefully to avoid double tipping.
Tip: Some restaurants charge a fee if there is live music at the moment you are dinning. This is not disclosed upfront. Ask before sitting unless you want to pay $6 to $12 for the music.
The good thing about Rio de Janeiro is that most of its attractions can be visited independently. That fact represents huge savings for the traveler who wants to explore at its own pace.
Here is an example of what you can do:
Walk around the Centro, hit the beach or people watch – Free
Corcovado visit or ride to the top of Pao de Azucar – About $20
The museums, botanical gardens and the Copacabana Fort have very economical entrance fees (about $2).
Now, things are different if you want to explore Rio on a guided excursion. Expect to pay $80 to $100 per person for a city tour including Corcovado, Pao de Azucar, the Centro and lunch.
Adventure related activities are also expensive. A jeep tour around the Tijuca Forest costs about $70 per person and last 4 to 5 hours (it is not even a day tour). Other activities like hiking, mountain biking, climbing or paragliding are more than $100 (these were out of my budget).
Petropolis (to see the Imperial Museum or hiking in the mountains close to the city)
Entrance to Imperial Museum: $6
Bus from Rio de Janeiro to Petropolis: $10
Niteroi (to see Oscar Niemeyer’s futuristic Contemporary Art Museum)
Entrance to museum: $2.5
Ferry from Rio de Janeiro to Niteroi: $1.5
Paraty’s food and transportation costs are comparable to the ones found in Rio de Janeiro. However, this colonial city offers better accommodation and excursions prices.
In this lovely city, I stayed in a room with private bathroom for $15 per person per night ($30 total for my husband and me). The surprising thing is that while I paid half of what I paid in Rio for accommodation, the quality of the accommodation increased by a 100%.
I am not exaggerating on this. I got a big room with a comfortable bed and nice bathroom. The communal areas offered a lot of amenities, the breakfasts were huge and there was the possibility of booking affordable excursions thru the hostel.
Now that is what I call a decent and charming place to stay. I talked to several other travelers and they all found the accommodations nicer and of better value than in Rio (even hotels and B&Bs).
Because I couldn’t afford to pay for adventure in Rio, I was elated when I discovered the prices in Paraty. One day, I booked a catamaran tour around the islands and hidden beaches of the area for $30 per person (5 hours).
Another day, I booked an excursion to the mountains for $45 per person (this was an entire day trip including entrances to four waterfalls and one hacienda). I really loved the affordable tour options in Paraty.
Costs are similar to Paraty.
This place can be more expensive than Rio de Janeiro.
What about you? Have you been to Brazil? What are your impressions? Do you have some money-saving tips?