I read once that local of Rio often say “tenha uma boa praia,” or have a good beach over the much more standard translation for have a good day. It’s a culture-revealing phrase not unlike Thailand’s famous “gin khao reuyang?”, a way of asking what’s up? which literally translates as have you eaten rice yet?
In much of Brazil, the beach isn’t a place you go for a few hours on vacation. It’s a lifestyle. I was warned ahead of time that Rio in particular has a strict beach etiquette and rules that had to be heeded — luckily when it comes to all things sand and sea, I’m a quick learner.
Despite wildly overscheduling my trip and visiting in autumn, when Brazil’s beaches are lightly buzzing but not overblown with people, I managed to hit the beach in Ilha Grande, Rio de Janeiro, Buzios, and Jericoacoara. Here are a few of the rules I learned along the way — the rare kind that are more fun to follow than to break.
Take as little as possible
The frumpy schlep of coolers and chairs and endless beach supplies is a major faux pas in Brazil. A towel in particular is considered a horror-inducing no-no. A canga (the Brazilian term for a sarong), some cash, and maybe a volleyball are basically the only acceptable items to take — anything else you need can be supplied on the sand.
Cangas are fabulous alternatives to towels — they can be worn as cover-ups walking to and from the beach, they can be laid out on the sand to lie on, they can be used as scarves and towels and a million other purposes in a pinch. In my mind, they are a travel essential! They also make for amazing gifts and souvenirs — Ilha Grande in particular was a fun place to shop for a few.
Wear as little as possible
In Brazil, tops stay firmly on – regardless of how small – but another body type entirely is on display. You can’t talk about Brazilian beaches without talking about butts. Women of every age and every size subscribe to the “suns out, buns out” line of thinking, and men don’t stray far behind with their own sunga swimsuits, a kind of modified speedo that would leave most American men recoiling in horror. Why put any extra fabric between your body and the beautiful sun, sand and sea, the thinking seems to go?
I quickly purchased several teeny, cheeky bikini bottoms for myself after receiving several stare-downs for wearing a fralda (or “diaper”, as Brazilians refer to the more full-coverage American bikini). Believe it or not, wearing more modest American styles is apt to draw even more attention than a teeny tiny thong — you’ll stand out as a gringa and some say make yourself more of a target for petty crime from those who target tourists!
While I felt seriously self-conscious at first letting my cheeks and inhibitions fly, I just looked around the beach for inspiration — Brazilian women appear unburdened by the body-hang ups that plague many other cultures, and I marveled at the self-assuredness that strutted down the sand in so many different shapes and sizes.
One government worker from Brasilia who I met while she was vacationing in Jericoacoara told me she dreamed of visiting Miami, but the horror of wearing an American bathing suit had stopped her so far. I am afraid people will look at me in my bikini, but, I just cannot wear that diaper! I cannot!
Brazilians are known as some of the sexiest people on the planet and having shared the sand with them, I feel like I now know their secret — it’s confidence! It speaks to the major difference in our cultures that I uploaded and deleted the following photo so many times, wondering if it was inappropriate to post on my own dang travel blog, even though it’s a beautiful photo that I love taken by one of my closest friends — because the wrong square inches of skin are showing. In Brazil, a grandmother wouldn’t bat an eye wearing these bikini bottoms to the beach with her family. I love this aspect of Brazilian culture!
Say yes to snacks
It’s almost considered rude to bring your own food to the beach in Brazil. Açaí cup, caipirinha, seasoned cheese on a stick, iced tea, puffed crisp Globo and empanada vendors will walk along the beach calling our their offerings and you simply wave them over if interested. Eating out is incredibly expensive in Brazil and so sitting on the beach and grazing on snacks all day is not only fun, it’s also a great way to balance out the pricey dinner you might go out for later.
The very cool thing that I loved was that unlike in other countries where you apparently sign a blood oath to make a purchase if you so much as accidentally make eye contact with a beach vendor, the Brazilian ones were fairly low key and didn’t mind if we called them over to take a look and then decided not to buy. Everything was done with a smile. (We did encounter one over-aggressive bikini salesman who had a hard time hearing no in Copacabana, but he was the exception to what seemed to be the chilled out rule.) Normally I loathe beach vendors but in Rio they were one of my favorite things about the city.
The other beach cities I visited didn’t necessarily have the roaming vendors walking around, but they did have little stands where you could grab any snack you’d need.
Where you beach matters
In Rio especially, all sand is not made equal. The city’s main southern beaches stretch across over five miles of shoreline and are divided by 12 postos, or numbered lifeguard stations. These are for more than just giving directions; they are for finding your tribe. There is a saying in Brazil that you can tell everything you need to know about a person by three things: their favorite soccer team, their favorite samba school, and which posto they lay their canga at.
While Copacabana is the most widely-known beach to foreigners, it’s far from the hip place to be among Cariocas, or Rio residents. We spent an afternoon on touristy Posto 4 in Copacabana but far preferred the trendy, see-and-be-seen Posto 9 in Ipanema, where we spent two beach days in Rio. Certain Postos denote gay beaches, family beaches, and beyond.
Each posto is lined by barracas, semi-permanent beach bars where you can buy fresh coconut water, cold beer, and more caipirinhas, and also hire beach chairs and umbrellas. I was particularly enamored with Barraca Uruguay at Posto 9, both for the lively atmosphere of the easy-on-the-eyes crowd and the fact that the employees were primarily from Uruguay and Argentina, which meant we could chat in Spanish.
When you beach doesn’t really matter
Because there’s never a bad time to be at the beach. We were pretty amazed that even on a Monday in May, the beaches of Rio were pretty darn busy. While summer (December-February) is certainly the most popular time for Brazil’s beaches, don’t expect to ever have the popular ones to yourself. But no worries — that’s part of the fun!
Watch your stuff
This is probably fits in the “duh” category for most travelers, but don’t go swimming in the sea and leave your stuff unattended. Brazil’s crime problem is pretty notorious so I’m guessing most travelers don’t need to hear this, but it does warrant a warning just in case. If you’re really blending in with Brazilians, you brought next-to-nothing to the beach (kudos!) but if you’re like me and can’t resist bringing your phone and camera, too, ask a trustworthy-looking neighbor to watch your things while you go for a dip.
It’s common practice in Brazil and as a bonus, is a great way to get your feet wet with Brazil’s notoriously social beach vibes (see what I did there?)
Don’t you dare bring a book
I’d read before my trip that Brazilians almost never read or listen to music with headphones in at the beach. Well, they can do what they want but I’m going to read my darn magazine, I thought, stubbornly throwing an old issue of Afar into my tote en route to Ipanema.
Yeah, no. I didn’t crack a single page. The beaches of Rio are alive in a way that you just can’t look away from. Impromptu fútball games, flirty chats with the barraca boys, beach vendor picnics…. who could read when there’s so much to do and see?
I suddenly understood the disdain for towels and personal beach chairs. Some beach-goers, I noticed, more or less spend the whole day standing. If they aren’t already engaged with someone, they are scanning the crowd and checking out the scene. It’s one of the most hyper-social situations you can be in, and the people-watching is unmatched.
Heather and I weren’t even being particularly outgoing; with our busy schedules our beach days did double duty as our hangover days and we were still just soaking it all in and getting into the Rio groove. Yet one day, we had a long, in-depth conversation with an empanada entrepreneur around our age who plopped down on the sand to answer our questions about the legalities of beach selling, and on another it only took two trips to our barraca for coconut waters before I was politely asked for my phone number by a cute Argentinian who intended to take me on a date. Some things are worth skipping the next chapter in your beach read for!
Stay for sunset
Don’t leave, the party is just getting started! Sunset on the beach in Brazil is, quite simply, a must. In Ilha Grande, we booked a hostel on the water so we’d never miss one. In Rio, we took it in at Aproador, where a huge crowd had gathered to watch surfers and sip caipirinhas delivered by an enterprising local with a cooler. In Jericoacoara, it was a nightly ritual for the entire town.
. . .
It’s no secret that in many ways I found Brazil to be a frustrating and challenging country. And yet all that seemed to melt away when I was by the sea — I left Brazil completely enamored with its unique and special beach culture.
As much as I loved the tours I went on and the attractions I took in, I vowed that my next trip will involve summer, and include about four times as many unscheduled days to do nothing but plop my bare bum on the beach and watch the Brazilian world go by.
So Brazilians — and Brazil lovers! — tell me what I missed!
Of course, a few days baking in the Brazilian sun hardly make me a cultural anthropologist — please forgive me any misinterpretations of the local culture, and feel free to set me straight in the comments if I’ve erred!
did you see any moms with kids on the beach? I’m wondering what kind of swimsuits the kids were wearing. For those of us not adventurous enough to wear a thong, is it really that bad to wear a regular bathing suit?
in your travels, what are some other countries that would be good beach destinations with kids? I don’t want my travel dreams to die now that I have babies lol
Hey Julie! We didn’t see a lot of kids on the beach in Rio but that’s only because of the posto we were hanging out at! There are certain postos that are specifically perfect for families and kids, I’m sure we’d have seen a sea of them there! I wasn’t sure about the swimsuits for kids question so I looked it up, and it seems like girls transition into Brazilian-style bikinis somewhere between twelve and sixteen, which is on par for the age range when kids in the US start shaving their legs and wearing makeup and whatnot so I guess it’s equivalent!
Brazilians seem very non-judgmental so I think you should wear whatever you feel most comfortable in! More full-coverage suits will probably make you stand out a bit and definitely mark you as a tourist… so maybe it would feel better on the slightly more tourist oriented beaches like Copacabana, over the very local and trendy parts of Ipanema? Just guessing 🙂
I would think anywhere in Southeast Asia would be great with kids — in Thailand there’s well-developed tourism infrastructure and Thai people LOVE Western children so they would get tons of positive attention! There are so many great family travel blogs out there that I bet could give you even more inspiration — check out The Sundance Family, who are in my sidebar right now! Hope that helps!
Kids wear anything! Parents adore dressing up their kids as much as possible. Adorable matching headbands, bikini tops and bottoms that cover diapers for infants! Any underwear (with bikini top for girls), mini short style underwear, shorts (with bikini top for girls) (there are particular beach shorts too), bikinis with or without tops (more with). Anything goes and there’s no rule per se. But young girls wearing some kind of bikini top rather than nothing is more the norm. Definitely in the north, where it’s seriously burning even for very dark skin, rash vests were being worn by all children of working class and upward families. Children wore rashies with their favourite superhero/disney characters or just in a plain colour – plain black was the most available.
Most available bikinis are tiny and show some part of the butt cheek, even for young girls. It kinda depends – the bigger your butt is, the more obvious that will show in a bikini. So girls pre puberty, often with smaller butts, don’t show much cheek even though they are wearing ‘small’ bikinis (compared to bikinis from other countries).
More self conscious adults wear one pieces but they are usually quite cheeky, low cut at the front and with pieces but out of the side and belly area! I.E not much fabric used at all! This includes older grandmothers.
If you really don’t wanna wear a thong/cheeky then wear one under beach shorts – thin, loose fabric which will basically be see thru when wet. Or wear the thong to dip in water and always have your sarong handy to rapidly wrap around when out of the water!
At a swimming pool (where it might be cooler and might be at a residence) there is a little more modesty/shyness. Not all adults swim and at a pool there may be adults who just stay in the shade. It can be seen as immodest to wear a very small bikini in front of these non-swimming adults. Therefore some may wear shorts/tops/shirts/coverups over their bikinis. However, if the group agrees then it’s clothes off and micro bikinis are okay!
The biggest no no is for a man to wear a t-shirt, shorts and sandals on the beach – it MUST come off! The only exception is to wear a rashie when in the water with your kid – because you’ll be in that water and harsh sun glare for HOURS, so that’s sensible.
Interesting insight, Jay! Thanks for the swimwear lessons 🙂
I had no idea the beach culture was so different. Although even here, it is annoying to some when people bring too much to the beach.
It’s super intriguing that beach time = social time. I imagine there’s quite a few parties and festivals that take place on the beach?
As a side note, are you going to write a blog post about some of the more disappointing aspects of Brazil, or maybe you already have? Although I’d understand if you didn’t want to dwell on the negative.
Hey Breanne! Yes I actually have a post coming up this week about all the surprises of Brazil… good and bad 🙂 Stay tuned!
We missed each other, dear Alex! Next time you come I’ll take you to the north shore of São Paulo state, which is absolutely amazing! =)
I’d love to return and see more of Brazil’s beaches someday, for sure!
Wow I never knew that a beach culture could be so different from that of the ‘western world’! Really interesting post – However now all I want to do is head to a Brazilian beach 😉
Ha, me too! This post made me ache for them!
This was such a fun post! Its crazy how cool the beach is there compared to a regular tropical destination. And you looked great in the “scandalous” suit- you do you girl! Thanks for the tips
Thanks Cate! It was fun to step outside from my comfort zone!
1) Frumpy schlep. HA!!!
2) Hell yes to your stainless steel straw.
3) This may be the first-bum-reflection-in-the-sand photo I’ve ever seen and I LIKE it!
4) Of all your incredible, vibrant, heart string-tugging posts about Brazil, I think this is my favourite. As an over-scheduler myself, it’s a reminder that sometimes the simple things are the best things.
Indeed! I guess some places require unscheduled down time more than others, and Brazil, where it is very hard and frustrating sometimes to DO STUFF, is the perfect place to go with the flow and do nothing 😉 And yes, brought my straw everywhere and am very bummed that the acai in this photo didn’t feature my reusable spoon — sometimes they slam the plastic one in before I get the chance to show them I have one of my own!
Yes, yes, yes! You’ve so nailed it all 🙂 this should be a must-read for anyone before hitting a Brazilian beach (especially n Rio) and something I definitely wish I would have read before moving there and embarrassing myself (a towel at the beach – never again!)
Those skimpy bikini bottoms took some getting used to, but I’m a full fledged convert and ALL of my bottoms are Brazilian cheeky style now. I actually find them much more comfortable! Suns out, bums out!
Love that you are a full-fledged convert! I have two pairs of skimpy bottoms purchased in Sao Paulo that I’ve deemed acceptable for most of the rest of the world… but the ones in this photo I use only for private pools and tanning sessions, at least outside Brazil 😉
I would love to be there if the sand didn’t bug the shit out of me…………lol
Ah, you’ve got to embrace the sand 😉 I always come home with pounds of it in my bikini, it seems!
stopppppp writing about Brazil you’re killin me LOL
Ha ha! Just a few more posts to suffer through 😉
I’m loving the energy and passion in your last few Brazil posts. They’ve been making me feel inspired 🙂
Thank you Holly! I’ve been very inspired to get back into my regular posting routine, and these have been so fun to write!
Wow, I seriously had no idea about any of this!! I kept laughing at the diaper references. I’m all for letting more skin show – with the obvious caveat that I don’t want to take any flak for my body type, so it sounds like Brazil is a good fit for my beach dreams! After reading this on a dreary Japan day sitting in the chaotic teachers room at school, I’d say I’m definitely ready for a Brazilian beach day 🙂
You know that meme that’s like, How To Have a Beach Body! Step 1: Go to beach, Step 2: Have a body. That IS Brazil. They don’t care how much junk is in the trunk as long as as much of the trunk as possible is showing. Ha! I loved it! Heather and I would just sit and watch Brazilian women, we were totally hypnotized by their confidence and the way they carried themselves.
Brazil has never really been on my list one way or the other, but your posts have had me lowkey planning itineraries!
Especially this one, because beaches, obviously. Though those bikinis are still pretty intimidating! 😛
It takes a few days of getting used to (and self-consciously walking backwards into the ocean, LOL) and then once you’re in the groove you’ll never feel free-er!
I think you nailed it with this list.
I was never brave enough to buy the bikini bottoms, which I still kick myself for. Maybe next time. The reading thing shocked me. I am a lover of reading on the beach. I think I read like 40 pages in 18 days which is pathetic for me. However if I wasn’t zoning out on the waves I was people watching. The people watching is like nothing else. There was also the few days of sleeping off a hangover on the beach….. Which is the best way to get ride of a hangover.
By the way all these posts have me searching for cheap flights there.
Haha, I FORCED Heather to go to the beach one day when we were so hungover, and I have to say the salty air and the coconut water did revive me somewhat. But Heather was just dying and she didn’t agree 😉 I figure might as well get a tan while I’m too useless to do anything but lie around!
What are the cangas made of? Cotton? Rayon? I used to love wearing my thong suit (when I wasn’t on a nude beach). I remember wearing one to a public pool in the States once and “overhearing” (it was meant to be heard) some remark about ‘showing off her cellulite’. I calmly told the two young ‘ladies’ that it wasn’t cellulite, it was stretch marks and I’m proud of both my children. But now I’m seventy, so it’s boy-shorts bottoms and a top that hides the sagging skin of an aging stomach. I’m afraid I’d do the same in Brazil. But who knows?!
I believe most cangas are made out of cotton! As for your pool story, I love it — you tell ’em! I was really intrigued by seeing women of all decades on the beach in bikinis in Brazil — I love that there isn’t a concept of “dressing for your age,” at least somewhere in the world. You might be surprised by what you’d end up in down there 😉
Great post! It’s always so fascinating to learn about the differences of various locations and cultures. I’m super shy in a bathing suit as is, so I’m not sure I could handle the suggested unofficial dress code, but you never know. When in Rome, right?
You might just be inspired by the confidence of the women around you… I sure was 🙂
I really enjoyed this post. Growing up here in southern California and living for a year in Bocas Del Toro heading to the beach is second nature, but it’s interesting to hear how different the experience can be in Brazil. Your Brazil posts are starting to give me the travel planning bug!
Yes, I love that going to the beach — this very simple act — can be SO different all over the world! Brazil really did stand out though. What a unique culture they have!
This really grabbed my interest Alex. A great post. It made me think of when I worked and lived in Gran Canaria last year – this is a very liberal island the confidence this brings out in a person is huge. It makes you forget all the judgement and attitudes which are there – even if not spoken about in our western culture.
Brazil sounds a very interesting place to submerge yourself in some beach culture and I’m enjoying your writing very much at the moment.
Thanks Janice! I’m having a lot of fun blogging right now — glad it shows.
This actually sounds really cool, I didn’t realize the whole culture that came with going to the beach in Brazil! I’m not big on beaches, but I’m definitely big on new cultures and socializing so I think I would like this just fine lol. And I also love the idea of the bikini bottoms, I feel like everyone should always wear as little clothing as possible! Alas that is not acceptable in most places but it seems like it sure is in Brazil. Brazil as a whole seems to have a really unique culture
Indeed it does! It’s an interesting culture that mixes the largest population of catholics in the world with a very socially liberal society. Fascinating to observe!
Body confidence, fantastic vibes, and socializing in the sun? I am in. Despite years of living on the beach, I never grow old of the sun, sand, and salty water. Brazil’s beach culture seems incredibly unique. Thank you for this novel and informative post.
You are welcome girl! Hope you get to experience it someday!
Alex… this totally makes me want to go to Brazil! Do you think this would be a fun spot to travel sola, or is improved with a girlfriend?
Brazil is one of the very few countries I’ve been to where I’d say… go with a friend. I had a blast my final week traveling solo but had I been alone the entire six weeks I think I would have been extremely isolated due to language barriers and lack of a traditional backpacking community. I’m actually going to address a lot of this in a post tomorrow morning… stay tuned!
You have to go to Bahia girl! Tons of hidden beaches with beautiful hikes that take you there. In my opinion the smaller the beach the better the vibes. Of course hit the popular ones but less is more.
Ah, I’d love to! After Jericoacoara, I’m really convinced northern Brazil is more my scene. Have to go back and see more (ideally, with a Portuguese-speaking friend, lol.)
I almost cried because you totally nailed this and I miss Brazil too much 🙂
It’s all so true!
Aw, glad you enjoyed Nathalia! Beijos xo
This is such a handy post, as it goes against almost everything I normally do & bring to a beach! I’m going to savour these tips for if I go to Brazil one day! I love the canga tip most! I wish I could find a gorgeous sarong which also functions as a beach tower, I’ve been on the look out for one for ages!
Ha, me too — I normally go to the beach looking like I’m moving in for a week. LOL. So I thought it was great to just be so carefree and light! Couldn’t have loved it more!
I was lucky enough to spend a week in Rio several years ago — still desperate to make it back to see other places in Brazil! — and one of my favorite memories is seeing a beach vendor literally selling cookies out of an EZ-Bake oven (I’m sure they have a different brand there, but same general concept). Hilarious
I WOULD HAVE WAVED THAT MAN OVER IN A SECOND. What a hero. Ha! I love Brazilian beach vendors!
I lived in Rio as a kid (by Feira Hippie (have you blogged about that yet – I am sure you have) & Posto 9) … You pretty much stated everything about beach culture well.
The only thing I , might add, is since you don’t bring a beach towel, and want your Kanga comfy … you pretty much dry off by standing up & air drying (& gazing at the Cariocas).
Also the vendors in Brasil (not just on the beach) are not huge hagglers (which is nice). They state their price (with a warm smile) & are not high pressure sales (like you said). It is pleasant buying things from vendors in Rio.
I love Arpoador – one one my favorite spots in Rio / Ipanema / the World)
Oh, … Rio has had a reputation (in the media & travel books) as being a very dangerous city. I tell everyone I know that it is not true (I went back in 2010 & 2014 (for the Copa do Mundo) & felt entirely safe everywhere I went (even in the Favelas – but need to be smart / careful). But, like any place you travel to, you have to be smart (know where & when to go places), and be aware.
Yes, I do love the beach vendors in Rio, you describe them perfectly! What a very cool place to grow up.
I love the details of your article! I’m going to Rio in a couple days and my bum will be out!
Get it, Thayna! Hope you have so much fun in Brazil!
This article very accurately describes my favorite part of Brazilian culture, thanks!
Ah, I can’t wait to go back and experience it again!
Fair post, Alex.
Acctually I didn’t know about those aspects of Rio’s differences between the Postos. I am from the Brazilian Northeast, and we have such organized places like the Postos. but yeah, we have to look for a place over the other if we are going with kids, with elderly, if we preffer bar and beer over the bath, etc.
I am glad I found yout post because so far I was unable to explain to foreigner friends why got depressed visting beaches abroad. Some places like in Latin America I understand that the weather plays an important rule. You can’t do much agianst cold water and low temperatures. But The first beaches I visited in Miami, they look so beautiful, and are conveniently in urban areas and the wather and…. boy☹️
The first time I went very excited because I took a bus for Miami Beach and could watche the amazing views on the road ????, but the beach was not my destiny so far. When I finally manage to hit a beach on a weeken, I was like: WHAAAT? It took me a time to process things around. I got into the calm water for some minuts and leaved, the beach,as I got hungry. I think I spent less than an hour in the beach.
Hey Dea! Thanks for sharing a local perspective 🙂 I look forward to returning to Brazil someday and checking out the Northeast! I LOVE Brazilian beach culture!
How amazing to see an outside perspective about my country. I spent some months as a Portuguese teacher in Peru, and I remember when I went to the beach with my “sunga” ????. People are not used to it, and some even asked if I’m brazilian. Love my tropical culture ????
Haha, both amazing countries! Loved hearing your experience!
I have found your blog a good 5 years later… still going strong with all the comments.
I am planing a little brazil trip with my family, 2 kids and yes, you are so correct. You can not just go to a Brazilian beach just for a few minutes, well you can, but impossible, isn’t it? So much to see, do, chat, eat, swim, sun repeat!
We will leave from Australia, which is a big beach culture too. And now, interesting, few years later and the bikinis bottom here have srunk. Boys still wear long shorts apart from boys rowing out in the sea. Vest is definitely a must, but from the time you leave your house until you return. Not just for the water. I love taking everything to the beach (as per my Brazilian blood): chair, umbrella, eski (thermo with food and drinks). My husband still jokes he only goes for a swim and back. But going to the beach is a ritual! You lay, you pray, you play and that’s is a good day!!!!!
Now, I’m wondering if that Argentinian date really happened??!
Lovely reading your blog
Aw, hi Tatiana! So glad these old posts are still being found and enjoyed 🙂 “You lay, you pray, you play and that’s is a good day” — I think this needs to be my new motto! Sadly I was leaving town the day the date was offered but in retrospect, all these years later, I’d change my plans and say yes, haha.