10 Ways To Become Part Of Brazilian Culture

by Dana Carmel Bell

Brazil is South America’s largest country and the fifth largest country in the world so you’ll be hard pressed to run out of places to see and things to do. Additionally, Brazil is a melting pot of cultures as it’s been influenced by Portuguese, African, and indigenous peoples. When volunteering in Brazil, don’t merely observe the country’s colorful culture – absorb it! Here are ten ways to become immersed in the dance, food, and fun that make Brazil unforgettable.

The Cathedral of Brasilia.
The Cathedral of Brasilia. Phot by Noah Peden

1.  Learn Brazilian Portuguese

Although Portuguese is Brazil’s official language, Brazilian Portuguese is written and spoken by most Brazilians, and the differences between the two are most notable when spoken. Brazilian Portuguese is heavily influenced by indigenous or Amerindian languages. It also has traces of African and Asian languages. If you want to engage in conversation with a local Brazilian, chances are that you’ll need to learn some basic Brazilian Portuguese. It is a good idea to study some Portuguese prior to your volunteer program in Brazil, then learn the Brazilian influences during your stay.  

2.  Discover the History of Brazil’s Slave Trade

From 1700-1800, 1.7 million slaves were imported from Africa to Brazil to work on Portuguese-owned cattle ranches, coffee and sugar plantations, and in diamond mines. The last country in the Western world to abolish slavery in 1888, Brazil received about 4 million slaves from Africa. That is nearly 40 percent of the total number of slaves brought to America. Brazil’s slave trade history is very important because it has greatly impacted Brazilians’ ethnic makeup. The population largely influenced many aspects of Brazil’s culture from religion and music to dancing and food.

3.  Dance Samba

Samba is both a dance and a musical genre that originated in Bahia, Brazil and descended from Cape Verde in West Africa. The word samba refers to prayer. Slaves in Brazil danced the style to invoke their personal gods and as a means of expressive freedom. Former slaves who migrated from Bahia introduced the dance to Rio de Janeiro where it has since been influenced by indigenous and European dance forms. In Rio, you’ll find many samba schools that compete annually in Carnival. Today samba is considered a staple of Brazilian identity. 

4.  Go With The Flow: Try Capoeira

Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art that was developed by slaves and combines complex movements, dancing, and music. When Portuguese slaveholders saw their slaves practicing capoeira, they thought that they were merely dancing, but in reality, the slaves were preparing for combat once they gained their freedom by escaping from slavery. Today, the fluid movements of capoeira are practiced around the world. 

Carapicuíba favela

Carapicuíba favela

5.  Visit A Favela

Favelas are Brazilian hillside shantytowns that were first occupied by soldiers who had nowhere to live, and later by ex-slaves who didn’t own land or have work opportunities. Today, favelas are found throughout Brazil and are often run by drug lords and plagued with crime. Take a guided tour of a favela to see what life is really like for many Brazilians. During a favela tour, you’ll learn more about the socio-economic dynamics of favela life, you may get to visit a favela school, and even get the chance to see a private residence and interact with the locals who live there.

6.  Eat Brazilian Cuisine 

If you’ve never experienced Brazilian cuisine, get ready to treat your taste buds! Ingredients such as cassava, açai, guaraná, and tacacá are commonly used in Brazilian dishes which have been influenced by indigenous, European, and African cuisines. Brazil’s national dish is feijoada – a typical Portuguese stew of beans, sausage, and beef and pork parts that’s cooked in a clay pot and served over rice. A paste called vatapá which is made from bread, ground peanuts, shrimp, and coconut milk and served with peeled, deep-fried black-eyed peas known as acarajé, is also loved in Brazil. Another popular Brazilian dish is a seafood stew called moqueca which is made with onions, garlic, tomatoes, and cilantro. In southern Brazil, you’ll find that churrasco barbecue is popular as it’s been adopted from Brazil’s southern neighbors in Argentina and Uruguay. 

7.  Island Hop

Take advantage of the awesome travel opportunities available while volunteering in Brazil. Paraty is an ideal base from which to island hop along Brazil’s Costa Verde (Green Coast) which runs from Itaguaí in the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro to Santos in the São Paulo state.  Paraty is a former colonial port and UNESCO World Heritage site as it’s one of the most important examples of colonial Portuguese architecture. From Paraty, hire a boat and skipper to take you to the various islands around the bay such as Ilha dos Ganchos, Ilha Comprida, and Ilha Catimbau. You can also island hop from Angra dos Reis where you can take a ferry or schooner to Ilha Grande, one of 365 islands off of the city’s coast. Ilha Grande is a car-free island with over 100 primarily secluded beaches including Lopez Mendes Beach which was voted one of the most beautiful beaches in the world by Vogue magazine. 

8.  Watch a Soccer Game

In Brazil, football (i.e., American soccer) is king as it’s the most popular sport in the country, and Brazilians commonly refer to Brazil as “o Pais do Futebol” (“the country of Football”). Brazilians take football very seriously, and at stadiums such as Maracanã, a high police presence, complete with police dogs, is on alert at every game. All throughout Brazil, you’ll find locals playing the sport on the streets, in parks, and at the beach. During the World Cup, many employers even arrange viewing times for their employees. 

Football Stadium in Brazil

9.  Experience Brazilian Nightlife

Brazil is a country known for its parties as evidenced by one of the biggest parties in the world – Carnival. To get a sense of Brazilians’ carefree nature and to get a real taste for Brazilian culture, venture out and experience the local nightlife. Brazil offers a variety of party experiences including baile funk, micaretas (mini-Carnivals), raves that are similar to those in the U.S., and pagodes where people can samba to live music. 

10.  Get Out of Town

Wherever you volunteer in Brazil, be sure to take time out to get out of town every once in a while to see how Brazilians in other parts of the country live. Visit Salvador, the capital of the northeastern state of Bahia and the center of Afro-Brazilian culture, or check out Buzios, a beach town known as the St. Tropez of Brazil. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, take a trip of a lifetime to the Amazon Rainforest where you’ll find more than half of the world’s remaining rainforests, or venture south to Iguazu Falls which lies on the borders of Brazil and Argentina. 

So what are you waiting for? Volunteer in Brazil now!