Brazil used to be cheap. I met two Swedish girls at the Lemon Spirit Hostel in Rio de Janerio, where a dorm bed runs about R$30 per night, that a three-star hotel room on Copacabana Beach had cost them roughly the same amount when they visited six years prior.
Unfortunately, Brazil isn’t cheap anymore. The reasons for this are varied and complex, the strength of the real, Brazil’s national currency, first among them. Ways around high prices do exist (as I detail in my article about dining cheap in Rio) but the bottom line is sobering: If you can’t afford to spend a minimum of $50 per day for the duration of your travel in Brazil, you will have a difficult time getting by.
The Real Problem
The real (plural “reaís,” pronounced “hey-eye“) is Brazil’s official currency. One thing you notice the first time you change money in Brazil is the exchange rate. As of April 2011, one dollar bought about R$1.60. Compared to the three Peruvian soles, four Argentine pesos, seven Bolivian bolivianos or the whopping 485 Chilean pesos the same dollar bought at the time, this was a devastatingly low yield.
Of course, exchange rates and prices are rarely directly proportionate, if they’re related at all: Living isn’t 500 times cheaper in Chile than it is in the United States on account of the exchange rate; in fact, it’s often more expensive. Unfortunately, so too is Brazil.
As one of the emerging potential superpowers — part of the “BRIC” countries alongside Russia, India and China — Brazil’s economy has been growing at breakneck speed for sometime and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. Unlike China’s government, however, which has only barely allowed the yuan to increase in value against the dollar and other currencies, Brazil’s leaders have allowed the real to float freely on the markets, causing its value to increase rapidly and consistently — and in many cases, at a rate faster than merchants can adjust prices downward to compensate.
To be sure, Brazil is even more expensive for locals than it is for the majority of Western tourists, considering their comparatively lower salaries. Of course locals tend to live in more local — which often translates to “more dangerous” — areas than foreigners. Herein lies another root of the problem: Foreign visitors are advised (and is most cases, this is good advice) to stick to the more developed (read: expensive) areas of cities, such as São Paulo’s posh Avenida Paulista or the beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon in Rio de Janeiro.
Room and Board
As the anecdote I recounted earlier in this article reflects, finding a cheap hotel or hostel in Brazil has become increasingly difficult as the country’s economy has continued to explode. To remind you, my hostel dorm bed at the Lemon Spirit Hostel in Rio ran me R$30, while I paid R$35 per night in São Paulo.
This doesn’t seem outrageous until you realize that many of the perks other hostels in South America offer by default are either unavailable or only available for an extra fee in Brazil. The Lime Time Hostel in São Paulo, for example, offered only bottled juice and water for its breakfast selection, where bread, butter and jam had been the bare minimum everywhere else I stayed. Thankfully, Lemon Spirit up in Rio provided fresh fruit, cold cuts and cheese alongside croissants, juice and filter coffee.
In general, you can expect food to expensive in Brazil, although this varies depending on where you are. In the border town of Foz do Iguaçu, for example, I paid just R$3,50 for a bacon cheeseburger, while the same averaged me R$6,50 in Rio and a whopping R$8,50 in São Paulo.
Local specialities don’t tend to be much cheaper. The price of açaí, delicious as it may be, bottoms out at around R$4,00 for a small cup blended with ice and guaraná syrup, while a larger portion coupled with granola and bananas once ran me R$13,50 — and that was in a small café frequented mainly by locals. São Paulo’s famous local feijoada, a sumptuous pork-based meal available only on Thursdays and Saturdays, is nonetheless priced like an import at around R$15,00 per plate.
Dreaming of a cheap stop at a churrascaría, one of Brazil’s world-famous steakhouses? Bad news: Almost every one I passed was more expensive than your friendly neighborhood Fogo de Chão, quality of meat notwithstanding.
Getting In And Around
Transportation costs in Brazil aren’t ridiculously high on the surface. My 17-hour bus from Foz do Iguaçu to São Paulo, for example, cost about as much as I’d paid for the similarly long ride from Buenos Aires to Porto Igauzú, the Argentine town opposite the falls from Foz. The difference lies is quality: Whereas spending 400 pesos on a bus in Argentina gets you a lie-flat bed, three-course meal and your choice or red, white or sparkling, you’ll be lucky if your seat on a R$160 Brazilian bus reclines.
Domestic flights in Brazil are uniformly expensive if you purchase last-minute (as backpackers tend to need to do), although I have heard you can get great deals flying low-cost carrier GOL if you book far enough in advance.
Within cities, transportation costs aren’t ridiculous. One-way journeys on the São Paulo metro cost R$2,80 when I was there, while a single ride on MetroRIO (which includes a complimentary bus to the station if you’re staying somewhere the metro doesn’t directly serve) was just R$3,20.
I didn’t take many taxis, but when I did fares seemed, well, fair. A notable exception to this rule, however, is getting one to or from Rio’s main bus terminal or international airport, which will cost you no less than R$50 one-way. Thankfully, a single subway ticket gets you to or from São Paulo’s bus station, although its international airport is notoriously distant from the city center.
Tips and Tricks
None of this is to say you shouldn’t go to Brazil, even if your budget is lower that the $50 per day I recommend. Several strategies can help you enjoy your time there — the vast majority of what’s great about Brazil doesn’t require you to spend a single real.
First and foremost, I’d advise thinking about money as little as possible. For me, this was simple: I allowed myself to withdraw R$300 from an ATM every three days, which caused me to make financial decisions based on the amount of reaís I had in my pocket, not only how many dollars or euros I might have been spending.
Barring this, you should make peace with prices, rather than dwelling on them or complaining about them. I’m not gonna lie: When I got to São Paulo and açaí was more expensive than at Whole Foods in Austin, TX (even if it was significantly better-tasting), I was bummed out. Once I got over my initial disappointment, however, I realized I could enjoy a healthy and delicious breakfast for just R$4,00. Expensive as it is, açaí is known as a “superfood” for a reason.
Similarly when I arrived in Rio, I realized I could counteract the high cost of caipirinhas not only by buying many of them and bargaining the cost of my final tab, but also by enjoying grilled quiejo coalho and shrimp on the beach as I drank. Craving a churrascaria meal? Splurge and eat until you literally can’t move — I assure you won’t want to do it again on your trip.
If you find accommodation and transport costs to be oppressive, combine them when you can: Take night buses between cities so that you can travel while you sleep — and pay just one price for both. And if you’re really broke by the time you get to Brazil, just do what I do when I have a lot of time and no money: Walk until your legs hurt; take pictures until your battery dies; and go to bed early enough to resist the temptation of going out.
Whatever your strategy, however, do go if you can — Brazil is far too incredible a country to skip because you don’t have much money. Think of it this way: At the very worst, you’ll lose a few pounds before hitting the beach in Rio.
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who’s been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as “CNNGo” and “Shanghaiist” along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.