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!