There are a few things when traveling to Rio de Janeiro that you may find strange. No one will tell you up front. I hope you find these notes helpful.
1 The military police are everywhere and kinda scary.
On my first trip to Rio de Janeiro, after they stamped my passport, one of the first things I saw was the military police: men in military khaki cargos with assault rifles at their side, keeping a watchful eye on all that passes. When you leave the airport, you’ll see military police cars on the road, on random corners, on the beach road, outside of national landmarks. You can’t get away from them. But honestly, the more you go the less you notice them. NOTE: The general advice is to not acknowledge them. Don’t talk to them or take pictures. These aren’t the Queens Guard in England.
2 The paper napkins in restaurants are weird.
Please note: The napkins in the dispensers are really wax paper. They literally remove nothing from your fingers and/or face. Why? BECAUSE THATS NOT WHAT THEY ARE FOR! Brazilians are so clean when they eat that they don’t get food on their face and fingers. Forget clothes. They use these waxed napkins to pick up finger foods so there is never any grease on their fingers. They cut even finger foods into even smaller pieces with a knife and fork so they never get food on their lips and face. Table manners are very important in this culture. Keep that in mind when dining with Brazilians. Even burgers are eaten in a wrapper to keep hands clean.
3 Toothpicks are not strictly for cleaning teeth.
In some restaurants you will find toothpicks on the table. It may seem like a nice post-meal courtesy, but thats not what they are for. At botecos and kiosks, sharing food is common. You rarely eat an entree alone. And to share the food, you don’t need to ask for several plates and forks. You just use the toothpicks to pick up with you’re eating. Whether its fries, slices of picanha, shrimp– you never use your fingers and you never use the fork that you’ve put in your mouth to dig into shared food. Ask for a spoon to shovel food onto your saucer.
4 They don’t use/sell facial towels
I always stay in an apartment found on Airbnb when I visit Rio. They are always fully equipped for our needs with one exception: the closets stock only body towels and hand towels. I was so confused on my first trip. What was I supposed to shower with? The landlord, an American resident of Rio, explained to us that loofahs, sponges and hand towels are the norm. I’m not a fan. I actually left the apartment to walk to the “Lojas Americanas” (portuguese for American Things Store)– and found nothing. I even found a bath linens store, where they confirmed that I would not find what I wanted. We bought our own hand towels and cut them. LOL. Now I bring an arsenal of facial towels from home when I travel to Brazil.
5 American food isn’t worth buying.
Burgers, popcorn, hotdogs, ketchup, pancakes and even pizza (i know that’s really italian, but work with me): They all taste different because all the tasty, bad for you ingredients are banned. (Which actually makes me think twice about what I’m eating in America.) In Rio, common American snacks taste a little off because they are made with local ingredients. So don’t bother. If you’re missing American fast food or American snack foods, you’ll just have to get over it. Its not worth it. PS- American peanut butter is stupid expensive down there. Not worth the expense in my opinion.
6 Rio is super brown.
The mainstream media will have you believe that all Brazilians look like Giselle Bunchen and Adriana Lima. But I met so many people who looked more like a mixture of many races but largely of African descent. Think Tia and Tamera Mowry. And when you leave the south zone (Copacabana, Ipanema) to go north or west (Tijuca, Madueira), you’ll see so many straight up black people it might surprise you! Don’t get me wrong there are plenty of white people in Rio. PLENTY. But its not nearly as white as TV would have you believe. I mean, the only country with more people of African descent than Brazil is Nigeria. Think about that: Nigeria is the only place in the world with more people of African descent than Brazil. America doesn’t even come close.
Even with all of it’s color, race in Brazil is a very sensitive subject. Even a Brazilian who doesn’t identify as black will likely tell you that they have black relatives. But its hard to get Brazilians to talk in depth about race and what it means, even within their life. In fact, sometimes calling someone black can be considered an insult depending on the language and context. And despite how deeply African traditions are ingrained into the Carioca culture, it is never really acknowledged in polite or casual conversation.
7 Laundry service is worth it.
Prior to my first trip to Rio, I always returned from every vacation with dirty clothes. Lavanderias, or wash-n-folds, are on every other block in the south zone, as many apartments don’t have washers and dryers. In 2014, two weeks of clothes for two adults cost R$68, which was less in $20 USD. Pricey for laundry in general, but paying for that convenience was worth it. Now, for a three week vacation, I travel with a week of clothes. I know that I can drop off my clothes and three hours later, they are washed, dried, folded neatly and placed in a bag for pick up.
So my new tradition on the last day of vacation is to drop any dirty clothes at the lavanderia, head to the beach for one last hurrah (swimming, drinking, snacking, hanging with friends, securing that tan). And I pick the clothes up just before heading to the airport. Trust me, you will remember your vacation even more fondly when you get home and all you have to do is put your clothes away.
8 There can be sewage issues even in the best neighborhoods.
In my opinion, Rio lacks a strong sewage infrastructure. It stinks in more places than expected. Its not overwhelming, but it is noticeable if you have a strong or sensitive sense of smell. On my second trip to Rio, my luxury apartment in the posh neighborhood of Ipanema reeked of “nasty sewer” for approximately 2 hours every day. Most Brazilians said they weren’t familiar with anything like this. The landlord even insulted me by suggesting that the smell was because we needed to clean the bathroom. (I think he was surprised when he showed up unannounced with the maid only to find that the only things that needed cleaning were the dishes.) Back to finding the problem, a friend told me that her sisters apartment just outside of the south zone had the same problem and it was due to a problem with pipes in the building. Also, just be prepared as you walk down the street to get wofts of poop, urine, rotten food, raw sewage, etc. at random moments. It’s like New York at times.
9 You can’t flush anything down the toilet.
In Rio, you don’t flush tissue paper down the toilet. In fact you don’t flush anything but your bodily waste. There is always a trash bin near the toilet for the paper that you wipe yourself with. Due to the fragile sewage system/infrastructure, you don’t put anything in the toilet. There are generally signs that say this, but apparently you assume this to be the situation even if the sign is not there. Also there are generally hoses near the toilet that can be used to clean the commode if you don’t get a clean flush. In the apartment, I use that hose like a bidet as well. I feel so much fresher. TMI? Shrugs. Sorry.
10 Drinking the water is debatable.
Most travel guides will recommend that you avoid drinking the water directly from the tap. Some tourist don’t even use the water to brush their teeth. I don’t go that far. If you are uncomfortable, rent an apartment or house with a water filter by the sink so you can drink and cook with clean water. You can also use the filtered water to make ice if you don’t want to buy bags. Buying ice is very common. Even some restaurants don’t have ice makers; they have the ice delivered by a kid on a pedicab. When you order water at a restaurant, they will ask if you want it “sem gas ou com gas”, which is basically “flat or sparkling”. No matter what you choose, it will be an overpriced 12oz prepackaged bottle and it will not come with ice. So just keep that in mind.
The food, the beaches, the parties, the people and more make Rio very special. And all the little protocols I mentioned before make Rio a very unique place. Even with all of these unfamiliar things, I enjoyed my first few trips to Rio immensely. Everyone gave me the physical safety tips, which I have passed along to you, but no one shared these little nuggets; some of which would have been good to know upon arrival– if not before. So I hope you find these random notes helpful. Let me know your thoughts on social media. @DineWithDani