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Live Talk: Brazil & Mexico’s beach towns

Writer Kimberly Sevcik answered your questions on Tuesday, November 23 at noon ET.
/ Source: Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel

Interested in a beach vacation? There are no better, more affordable countries than Brazil and Mexico. Both offer travelers a hearty helping of fun in the sun, along with world-class cuisine, fascinating cultural and archeological sites and some of the best dance clubs in this hemisphere. I've written on both areas and am happy to answer any questions you may have, so fire away.

Kim Sevcik wrote about Brazil in "The Deeper You Go, the Sweeter It Gets" for the December/January issue of Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel magazine. She answered your questions on Tuesday, November 23, at noon ET.

Kimberley Sevcik has been a travel writer and international journalist for 12 years, writing about everything from ecotourism in Honduras to reconstruction in Afghanistan to sex trafficking in Nepal. Last spring, she traveled to northeastern Brazil for her second time, on assignment for Budget Travel; but her interest in Brazilian culture was born in New York, while studying Afro-Brazilian dance and capoeira. She is a contributing writer for Rolling Stone and Marie Claire, and has also written for the New York Times Magazine and Salon.com.

Click here to read Kim's article on Brazil's beach towns.

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Kim Sevcik: Hi there, I'm ready to answer questions about Brazil. I'll do my best to address them all, but there are quite a few already.

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San Diego, CA: I have a pre-conception that the cities in Brazil are very dangerous, what is your opinion on this?

Kim Sevcik: Safety is a relative concept; we all have different thresholds. That said, many of the big Brazilian cities do have high crime rates. If you are very drawn to Brazil, I wouldn’t let this hold you back. There are ways to stay within your comfort level, ways to be smart about how you travel that will keep the risk factor low. Personally, I never had a problem with safety there, and I was a woman traveling alone, both times. I went out at night, and for the most part, I went wherever I wanted to go. Perhaps I was lucky? Hard to know. As a tourist, being pickpocketed/robbed is probably the biggest risk, but there are ways to prevent that as well. One tip I was given was to be as unflashy as possible. I wore no jewelry, I didn’t carry a camera at night, and during the day, I had only a small, discreet one. I don’t dress in designer clothes, really, but if I did, I would have left them home.

Do be particularly careful at crowded street festivals, like the music performances held in Salvador at night. There are professional bands of pickpockets who work them. Again, don’t offer any temptations—and keep your money in a money belt, tight against your stomach, and you should be fine.

At night, use the same kind of caution you would in a big American city, but more so: stick to streets with some amount of foot traffic, and if you’re staying a little off the beaten path, it’s worth shelling out the money for a taxi, especially if coming home late.

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Springfield, IL: I've always wanted to go to Brazil but have been scared away by stories about street crime. Are there areas that are safer? What precautions would a traveler have to take in Brazil? Can a woman travel alone there?

Kim Sevcik: I just answered a similar question like this, so I'm repeating some of that info
below, but I'll address your specific question about whether some areas are safer than others. Definitely, there is more crime in the cities. I'm a woman and
traveled there alone both times I went, to both cities and beach towns and rural areas, and although I didn't have any problems, I did take precautions, and I did feel an edge walking alone in cities late at night—so I generally took taxis when I was in less crowded areas.

I do think that safety is a relative concept; we all have different thresholds. That said, many of the big Brazilian cities do have high crime rates. If you are very drawn to Brazil, I wouldn’t let this hold you back. However, if you feel like the crime might impinge on your ability to enjoy yourself, do spend more time at the beach resorts or in rural areas, which are markedly calmer, with much less of a drug/gang factor. Outside of the cities, I felt as safe and comfortable as I've felt anywhere in the world.

Whether in the city or in beach towns, there are ways to stay within your comfort level, ways to be smart about how you travel that will keep the risk factor low. Personally, I never had a problem with safety there, and I was a woman traveling alone, both times. I went out at night, and for the most part, I went wherever I wanted to go. Perhaps I was lucky? Hard to know. As a tourist, being pickpocketed/robbed is probably the biggest risk, but there are ways to prevent that as well. One tip I was given was to be as unflashy as possible. I wore no jewelry, I didn’t carry a camera at night, and during the day, I had only a small, discreet one. I don’t dress in designer clothes, really, but if I did, I would have left them home.

Do be particularly careful at crowded street festivals, like the music performances held in Salvador at night. There are professional bands of pickpockets who work them. Again, don’t offer any temptations—and keep your money in a money belt, tight against your stomach, and you should be fine.

At night, use the same kind of caution you would in a big American city, but more so: stick to streets with some amount of foot traffic, and if you’re staying a little off the beaten path, it’s worth shelling out the money for a taxi, especially if coming home late.

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Clearwater, FL: Outside of Brazil's largest cities, would you say that finding people that can speak at least some English a common or rare occurrence?

Kim Sevcik: Good question, and all travelers to Brazil should know this: there is not much
English spoken in Brazil, even in the cities. Rio was something of an exception. I haven't been to Sao Paolo, but I imagine there is a fair amount of English spoken there as well. But in the city of Salvador, and in the beach towns and rural areas I've been to, it was critical to have a Brazilian Portuguese dictionary. I also dusted off my Spanish from time to time, and could generally make myself understood that way as well.

If you're willing to invest a little time, I highly recommend buying some language tapes before going. Brazilian Portuguese is a beautiful language, very musical, so learning it is a pleasure. There's a practical element as well: you'll want to hear how it's pronounced, as that can be tricky.

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Austin, Texas: Kim, I'm going to be spending Carnaval in Salvador this upcoming year. Are there any recommendations that you can give me as far as where to go and what to see? Also, do you know of any beautiful unknown beaches to surf at during my downtime?

Kim Sevcik: Carnaval will keep you plenty busy in Salvador, and deposit you smack in the middle of Afro-Brazilian culture. You might not even have the desire or energy to seek out many other activities in the city, as you will get so much of what Salvador is out of Carnaval. That said, don’t miss the Igreja NS do Bonfim, an 18th-century church that draws pilgrims in search of miracle cures. There is a room there crowded with hanging replicas of feet arms, heads, and hearts. They represent parts of the body that devotees claim have been cured, and there are notes of gratitude attached, some of them quite emotional.

Also, make sure you get to a candomble ceremony. Candomble is a syncretic religion that merges Catholicism and traditional African religion. The rituals are fascinating to behold. There is so much to say about candomble, but I don’t have time in this particular forum; I would definitely recommend reading up on it, because understanding candomble is integral to understanding Afro-Brazilian culture. The key is finding a spirit house that isn’t so geared toward tourists that you lose the authenticity, and that can be tricky. The tourist office keeps a list of spirit houses whose candomble ceremonies are open to the public. You might tell them that you’re hoping to find one that’s a little off the beaten path. The other option is to hire a very good guide to take you to one. I’m generally not at all a fan of guides, but there are some very good ones in Salvador, people who have lived there for years, have studied the culture, and make it a priority to take visitors to place that they would otherwise not have access to. There is very little I would recommend a guide for, but this is one area where a guide can help bring you much closer to the culture than you could get on your own. There is an American guy named Charles who co-owns the pousada I stayed at on the island of Boipeba. He has been in Salvador for years and I hear he’s a fantastic guide, very knowledgeable. Phone number there is 55/75-653-6085; or Google their website, which will have an email address.

As for surfing: there is good surfing in Itacare, which you can reach by bus in five or six hours from Salvador—Itacare’s beaches aren’t little known, but they’re not terribly crowded, either. If great surfing is a high priority, you might even consider combining Carnaval in Rio, rather than Carnaval in Salvador, with surfing at Praia Itauna, a gorgeous beach east of Rio reputed to have some of the best surfing in Brazil. The beaches east of Rio are quiet and clean and only two hours from the city by bus.

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Richmond, VA: I am a rising musician. I would like to know about Brazilian music. Is there a place to learn about the music?

Kim Sevcik: So much good music is made in Brazil, but some of the most interesting
music was born in Salvador during the Tropicalismo movement—Caetano Veloso, et. al. I would start by reading a couple books, then book a trip to Salvador and visit some of the blocos, or music schools, there. Olodum is one of the best. Filhos de Gandhi is also wonderful. Depending on how much time you have, you might even be able to arrange to pay to join one for a spell; I've heard of people doing this.

A book called The Brazilian Sound is a great introduction to Brazilian popular music, with good social analysis as well. There is a fantastic book about Tropicalismo—though the
exact title eludes me, if you searched the word Tropicalismo under "books" on Amazon.com, you would surely find it, as I doubt there are many.

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Santa Barbara, CA: I have been to Brazil several times and the food was always one of my favorite parts. How was the food in these smaller towns? And, do you have a favorite Brazilian food? Thanks.

Kim Sevcik: My favorite food in Brazil is in the northeast, in Bahia—spicy and complex,
with lots of fresh seafood. Because the seafood is so fresh, you can find very good food all over, even in small towns, though it will be much simpler there than in the cities—e.g., grilled fish with rice and salad.

My favorite dish in Northeastern Brazil is moqueca, a stew made with seafood, peppers and onions, coconut milk, and palm oil, called dende. Dende is very rich, and seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it ingredient. Obviously, I fall into the former camp!

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El Paso, TX: I had the privilege of working in Manaus - Amazonas, Brazil for 1 1/2 years. Unfortunately, I never made a side trip to the northeast part of Brazil. Many of my local friends would say that I needed to go to Fortaleza, Natal and Recife. Are these places more commercialized in comparison to those you describe so vividly in your article ?

Kim Sevcik: Not at all. In fact, the cities are probably less touristed and commercial than Salvador, although it's hard to beat beach areas like Boipeba and the Marau Peninsula for beautiful, low-key beaches with very little development.

Near Natal, you should try to visit Praia da Pipa, a really lovely small beach resort. I liked Canoa Qebrada near Fortaleza as well, although it's a bit of a party destination on weekends. Tamandare was my favorite place near Recife—perfect beaches, although the accommodations were pretty simple when I was there, so if you're looking for a more upscale pousada, press on farther south to Porto de Galinhas, an easygoing beach resort with more hotel and restaurant
choices.

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Guadalajara, Mexico: Do you have any hotel recommendations for Salvador, Bahia?

Kim Sevcik: I loved the pousada where I stayed—Pousada do Boqueirao. Perfect in every
way, a converted colonial mansion with views of the ocean, and a heavenly breakfast served on the veranda. Not cheap by Brazilian standards—about $50-$60 double, but worth it, I thought.

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Portland, OR: My wife and I have both wanted to explore Brazil for some time. We have two great boys, an 8 year old and a 5 month old. Besides the normal cautions of "traveling with children", are there any gotchas specific to Brazil that we should be wary of when traveling with our boys? Thanks!

Kim Sevcik: The only one that comes to mind is that in cities like Salvador and Rio,
there are huge outdoor music shows where the crowds are packed together chest to back. I'm not sure I'd take small children there, as exciting as these events are—they might feel overwhelmed, and I can imagine you would worry about losing your eight your old in the crush of people.

Other than that, I think Brazil would be a great place to take kids. Lots of interesting cultural stimulation in bold enough strokes that they'd pick it up, and a really lyrical feeling to the beach towns. The kind of place where your kids—well, your eight-year-old boy, at least—would probably befriend Brazilian kids on the beach, language differences be damned.

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Portland, ME: The cost of goods/services seems reasonable. Did you ever feel you were overcharged for anything? Anything specifically we should avoid while we're there?

Kim Sevcik: Rarely did I feel I was overcharged for things. I did make a point of getting
a sense from guidebooks and hotel clerks what the cost of taxi rides would be to certain places, for example, since there is always a little risk of getting ripped off on unposted prices. But I found the people very honest, and didn't feel at all on the defensive about being cheated.

Bargaining at markets is a different story, of course, as it is in most places! It's a game, and if you don't know how to play it, you can walk away having paid much more for an item than it's worth.

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Beverly Hills, CA: I looked at one of the websites linked to your article and it gave prices as $R. What is the exchange rate and what does the "R" stand for?

Kim Sevcik: It stands for reais; the currency is called the REAL, and when i was there the
exchange rate was 2.75, but I'm sure it's changed. I recommend doing an Internet search for "currency exchange", and you can get that info very quickly and accurately that way.

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Napa, CA: Kim, I will be in Rio right after Mardi Gras. We will have two weeks. I would like to see a little of the city, but would like to chill on a beach or in a smaller town for part of the trip. I would really like to see the Amazon, but am afraid that a 3-4 day trip to Manaus would take the relax out of my vacation. Any ideas?

Kim Sevcik: I agree that trying to wedge in a trip to the Amazon might not be relaxing,
and might leave you feeling shortchanged on the experience. The Amazon is really its own trip—or at least the kind of place where I think you need a week to do it justice.

There is a lovely beach area near Rio called Buzios. It’s more trendy beach resort than low-key fishing village, so if that’s appealing to you, you’ll love it. It’s quite developed, but not untastefully. Lots of great restaurants serving everything from sushi to coq au vin, lots of boutiques. Accommodations tend to be a bit higher end and more expensive than in other beach resorts, but you can find charming mid-range pousadas as well.

Personally, I prefer the beach areas two hours east of Rio, though, near the town of Saquarema. They're more rustic, but quieter, more natural.

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New York, NY: I have heard that there are bands of youth gangs that accost and rob people in the major cities- how safe are the rural beaches?

Kim Sevcik: I've answered a couple of questions about safety, so for a more comprehensive response, you might want to check those out. But i will say that the small beach towns felt very safe to me—I was traveling alone, and never once felt uncomfortable walking alone
there, whether at night, or on a deserted beach during the day.

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Keystone, CO: Are the villages gay-friendly?

Kim Sevcik: The islands I went to seemed very gay-friendly. Specifically, Morro de Sao
Paolo and Boipeba.

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Boston, MS: Do you need a working knowledge of Portuguese to travel in Brazil? I have a good knowledge of Spanish - will I get by with this?

Kim Sevcik: I answered another question like this, which you might want to look at—but
basically, you can generally get by with Spanish, though I'd recommend trying to learn a bit of Portuguese, not just to eliminate confusion, but because people really appreciate it and respond to it.

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Los Angeles, CA: What are the difficulties of travel in Brazil away from the large cities, and is it worth visiting the interior of the country? Is renting a vehicle an option to a visitor to Brazil for the first time, or would say a bus tour be safer or more appropriate? Are Brazilians a welcoming people, hospitable to foreigners, do they have any feeling of hate against Americans? Do beaches away from say, Rio de Janeiro, even in other states more enjoyable, and less expensive to visit?

Kim Sevcik: I definitely recommend traveling away from the large cities, which are
fascinating, but frenetic. The interior of Brazil and the beaches are gorgeous and serene, but culturally interesting as well.

I traveled by bus, so I can't speak much about the safety or ease of renting a car, unfortunately. I will say that Brazilians are warm and exceedingly helpful. However—they don't speak much English, especially away from the cities, and for this reason you might prefer a bus tour, or even just taking buses as opposed to cars.

Yes, I found beaches away from Rio a bit less expensive than the trendy resorts nearby like Buzios. That said, you can find beautiful, affordable beach towns two hours east of Rio as well.

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New York, NY: My wife and I would love to vacation in Brazil, but we were wondering about safety as we have some friends who had some problems when they were there about 5-6 years ago (and one of them warned us to be extra careful as my wife is Korean)?

Kim Sevcik: I'm so sorry, my chat hour is up, but please do read my responses to other
questions about safety, I think they will help with your concerns as well.

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Sandy, OR: Are their really great parties on the beach after hours, and how friendly are the females with American guys, typically? I want to get to meet some Brazilian women actually in the country as I have met some in Singapore. Thank you.

Kim Sevcik: Yes, there are particularly good beach parties on the island of Morro de Sao Paolo, near Salvador, and in Troncones, a beach town near Porto Seguro, a bit farther south. Fantastic music, non-stop dancing, bonfires, etc. etc. Not being an American guy, I can’t tell you specifically how friendly the women will be to you. But I will say that Brazilians are very warm, very open, and I met people everywhere I went, despite my limited Portuguese.

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Washington, D.C.: I visited Brazil for the first time earlier this year and was thoroughly disappointed in Salvador do Bahia as a beach town (among other things), particularly in light of what I'd read before choosing to go there. My expensive "beachfront" hotel was separated from the ocean by a busy road; the beach was noisy because of the traffic, and there was hardly any sand — just a 20-foot strip of rocks. As a beach resort, is this town over-hyped? Where did I go wrong?

Kim Sevcik: Ah, well, Salvador is more of a city than a great beach resort. You might read the article I wrote, because I go into some detail about some terrific beach towns not too far from Salvador. My favorite was an island called Boipeba. Pure bliss.

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Kim Sevcik: Thanks again for all your questions.

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