A week ago I arrived home from an eight-day trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As I’ve written extensively about Brazil in past articles, I’m not going to cover the normal tourist stuff. Instead, I’m going to discuss travel during a worldwide pandemic and the different perspectives other populations have regarding Covid-19.
I love Brazil. I first traveled there in 2007 and this was my seventh trip to the county. I last visited in 2015 and was missing the atmosphere. I didn’t have any real purpose for my trip other than getting some time on the beach and eating some good food. I was also growing tired of the cold Ohio winter and the ridiculous curfews and Covid-19 restrictions my state has implemented.
A friend of mine had some time off work and had never visited Brazil. She wanted to go and needed a tour guide. We booked the trip on short notice hoping to enjoy the largest New Years celebration in the world on Copacabana Beach. It didn’t hurt that at the time of the booking, Brazil was one of only five countries in the world accepting American tourists without Coronavirus testing or quarantine. Since our trip, Brazil now requires a negative PCR Covid-19 test in order to enter the country.
The normal New Years celebration involves three million people on the beach. It was cancelled this year because of the pandemic. That was a disappointment, but we still had a good time.
Many of my friends questioned my travel during a global pandemic, especially to a nation like Brazil that is consistently rated among the top three countries in the world for coronavirus infections and deaths.
I think a little perspective is in order. The United Sates leads the world in Covid-19 infections and deaths. Going ANYWHERE ELSE in the world lessens my chance of infection as compared to staying home. I’m certain the medical care in Brazil may not be as good as I would achieve at home. That’s why I bought a travel insurance policy through Safety Wing to cover medical expenses related to Covid-19 and emergency evacuation back to the USA.
As of today, I’ve been home eight days and neither myself nor my travel companion have shown any symptoms of having acquired the virus.
Here are the stats as of today:
Total Coronavirus Cases
Total Covid-19 Deaths
Brazil has a population of 209 million people (roughly 2/3 of the population of the USA), yet has roughly 1/3 the number of infections as compared to the USA. Death rates for both country are rated at three percent. I don’t think it’s any riskier traveling to Brazil as it is staying in the USA.
In speaking with lots of local Brazilians, I learned that the Brazilian death rates are being exaggerated by the government. My local friends told me that if a Brazilian citizen dies with Covid-19, the government would pay all his medical expenses as well as his funeral expenses.
In a poor country with minimal health insurance coverage, there is a huge incentive for doctors to categorize the death as having been related to Covid-19. The family pays nothing for the health care or the funeral. Hospital costs are all covered by the government. My local friends state that anyone dying after having tested positive for the virus is categorized as a Covid-19 fatality. They say this makes Brazil look bad in comparison to other countries.
So what was it like to travel during the pandemic?
Not really much different than traveling at home. In Brazil, masks are required in enclosed public spaces and on public transportation just like at home. That proved a bit more difficult than one might expect. Masks are also required in airports, airplanes, and cabs to and from the airport. It’s one thing to wear a mask at the grocery store. It’s a little different to wear it for 20+ straight hours.
We had to be at the airport two hours before the flight left (completely unnecessary as baggage check and security took us a timed 12 minutes from arrival). We had a two-hour flight to Miami, a four-hour layover, a nine-hour overnight flight, and two more hours in baggage claim and a cab from the airport to our hotel in Ipanema. Our flight home had an additional connecting flight in Sao Paulo which added another two hours to the process. Twenty hours in a mask isn’t fun, but it’s the cost of doing business if you want to travel right now.
Once we arrived in country, it was pretty much like at home without any lockdowns or curfews. If anything, the Brazilians were doing more than the Americans to prevent viral transmission. Use of hand sanitizer was mandatory when entering restaurants and large shops. Many public locations took temperatures of each guest and denied entry to those who had a fever.
The issue of wearing a mask has a cultural component that I had never really considered. My Brazilian friends all mentioned that it was much more difficult for Brazilians to get used to the mask in public. It’s a very appearance-driven culture. Brazil is the plastic surgery capital of the world. There are more than twice the number of plastic surgeries done in Brazil (by population) as compared to the United States. The Brazilians tended to resent covering up their expensive facelifts, nose jobs, and lip implants with a mask.
The culture also prefers very close proxemics. People stand close to each other when speaking and universally greet one another with hugs and kisses on the cheek. The locals I spoke with said they had difficulty adjusting to public masks as it was so anathema to their normal everyday customs. That’s something I hadn’t really considered before visiting.
I noticed a trend when I was down there. The more affluent neighborhoods had much higher rates of mask usage for people just walking down the street. In Ipanema (very wealthy), I would estimate that more than 80% of the people wore masks even when outside. If you drop down a notch to Copacabana (still nice, but not as snooty), mask wearing rates were about 50%. On our visit to a local favela (slum), I would guess that fewer than 25% of the population was wearing masks outside.
It’s hard to know why there was such an extreme variation in mask use between neighborhoods in the same city. It might be that the affluent are more educated and have more resources to buy masks. It might also just be a pandering status thing as well. The well off suffer more from social shaming than the poor do.
One other interesting fact about masks I learned from one of our tour guides was that there was a cultural expectation that tourists wear masks at all times. Since the virus did not originate in Brazil, it was brought there by travelers. The locals think that it’s the travelers’ burden to wear a mask to help protect the locals from the “foreign” virus. Locals were cut more slack with regard to mask enforcement than tourists.
It’s a fascinating perspective. Why don’t Americans feel the same way? The virus was brought here by tourists and business travelers. Why don’t we have the same fear of strangers that the Brazilians have? I’ll probably never figure it out, but I generally wore my mask as much as possible so as not to make waves with the people who live in the city I was visiting.
The concept of “social distancing” wasn’t really a thing in Brazil, even though it is widely suggested by Brazilian health authorities. No one seemed fearful of close physical contact like many people are in the USA. There was no two meter separation in any lines. Parts of the beach were absolutely packed with people. On the beach, no one wore masks. No one feared being in very close proximity with a bunch of strangers. People were friendly and talkative.
As soon as people stepped off the beach and onto the street/sidewalk, the masks came on. It seemed like a weird form of hypocrisy to me. It’s not like people are immune to the virus only when standing on the sand. Odd, but that’s what I saw. It was almost like the Brazilians reluctantly accepted most public mask wearing, but drew the line when it came to masking up at their beloved beaches.
The photo below the most famous spot (Posto 9) on Ipanema beach. It’s where all the “pretty people” hang out. You can see how crowded that section of the beach is, despite there being lots of room to spread out. Brazilians were willing to sacrifice a lot, but they wanted their important beach recreation to be as “normal” as possible.
As my traveling partner had never been to Rio, we did a lot of the traditional tourist activities. We spent a lot of time on the beach. We walked all around Ipanema and Copacabana. We took a guided tour of the Christ statue and the “Sugar Loaf” mountain. We also did a half day favela walking tour.
If you need a tour guide in Brazil, I would highly recommend the services of Vicente Thomas. He gave us an amazing tour of the city. His website is Sunrise Turismo. He can also be reached on Facebook and Instagram at Brazil Sunrise Turismo. Vicente speaks excellent English and is very knowledgeable about both the history and the politics of his home country of Brazil. Book him for a tour if your don’t want to explore on your own or desire a Brazilian perspective on current events.
Besides the tourist attractions and beach, I really enjoy the food in Brazil. If you are a meat lover, you will be in heaven. There is a great “cafe culture” in Rio with almost all bars and restaurants having ample outdoor seating along the street and sidewalk. It’s really enjoyable to have a great meal and a few drinks while people watching from a warm patio. When we weren’t on the beach, we spent a lot of time relaxing on patios. I think I could do that every day for the rest of my life and remain happy.
One of the many reasons I enjoy Rio is the amazing beaches. You can rent a chair and an umbrella from a local vendor for about $10 a day. There is a constant parade of merchants selling every food and drink item imaginable on the beach. Local beers on the beach were less than $2 each. Vendors sold fruit, mixed drinks, grilled chicken and shrimp, empanadas, and acai bowls everywhere.
My favorite beach snack was the “quejo” stick below. It is a block of cheese on a stick. Sellers carry them down the beach in a cooler. When you order them, they heat the cheese on a charcoal grill until warm and then dip the cheese block in oregano. Going rate was three cheese sticks for five US dollars. The walking vendors even took credit card payments via their smart phones.
For what it’s worth, the beach culture in Rio is very different than in the USA. No open container laws. No cops in sight. Rampant marijuana use. Everyone brought loud music, grills, food, and their dogs. It struck me that all these factors made going to the beach a blast in Rio, but all would be prohibited in a “free” country like the USA.
There is a very favorable exchange rate between the Brazilian Real and the US Dollar right now. It’s currently at about 5.2 Reis for each dollar. To put this in perspective, on my first trip to Brazil, the Real was worth 1.7 US dollars. Currently your US currency is worth three times more than what it was valued a decade ago.
The exchange rate meant that dinner at a really nice restaurant ran about $20-$30. Fifteen minute Uber rides in the city cost around $3.00 each. Beers were about $1.50 each and a good lunch at a local place cost somewhere between four and eight dollars. Going to Brazil is a tremendous value right now. The local guides say that the tourism industry has collapsed since Covid-19 arrived.
Guides told us that only Americans were traveling to Brazil right now. Usually there are a lot of European and Australian tourists in the country, but the high rate of Covid infection has scared them off. Americans recognize that infection rates are less in Brazil than their home country. European nations can’t make the same claim, so they avoid visiting Brazil right now.
For what it’s worth, we only saw one other American tourist in the week we were in Rio. Americans are the only people traveling there and we didn’t see any of them. That tells you how bad the tourist industry is in Brazil right now.
As for crime and police issues, we didn’t have any problems. The beaches were considerably less crowded than when I last visited. The roving gangs of child thieves from the favelas simply weren’t present on the beach anymore.
Almost everyone had smart phones at the beach. That would have been unthinkable five years ago. Back then, anything you took to the beach was likely to get stolen and no one brought valuables. I’m happy to say that conditions have improved with regard to the rampant crime that once kept people away from Rio.
On the other hand, drug sales were much more prevalent. Almost every beach vendor offered us weed or cocaine without fear. That would have never occurred during my previous visits.
Cops were more noticeable and seemed to have more standardized uniforms and equipment. All had external body armor carriers and packed either Taurus or Beretta pistols in a variety of cheap nylon duty or vest-mounted holsters. I saw a few cops sporting six inch barreled chrome Taurus .357 magnum revolvers on patrol as well. I hadn’t seen that before.
Cops riding in cruisers were generally paired up. The passenger officer generally carried a FAL rifle with the muzzle poking out the window. There’s no playing around down there.
As many of you who read this page are gun owners, you might be curious about the gun laws in Brazil. There was a government gun “buyback” in Brazil around 2012. After that, Brazilians were generally prohibited from owning guns of any type. The new conservative president changed the laws last year to allow more civilian gun ownership. That news was widely reported in the gun world.
Interestingly, the locals told me that the prime beneficiaries of the gun law changes were rural farmers. The law now allows them to possess guns to defend against violent “squatters” that occupy the farm lands. Those rural areas have minimal police presence and the president primarily changed the firearms ownership laws to court those landowners’ votes. According to my sources, it’s still extremely difficult to get a gun permit in the city despite the supposed loosening of the gun laws throughout the country. The drug dealers in the favelas, however, have no difficulty acquiring machine guns and grenades.
I had another great experience in Rio. If you have any urge to travel there, now is a perfect time. Flights and accommodations are incredibly cheap and there aren’t very many tourists visiting the country. If you want a unique escape, Brazil awaits.