The official language of Brazil is Portuguese.
With huge numbers of immigrants, other European languages, including German and Italian are spoken in parts of the country, especially in southern cities. In touristy places, Brazilians often speak some Spanish and English and occasionally French. The National Foundation of the Indian (FUNAI) estimates there are 180 indigenous languages that are still spoken among the 200 scheduled tribal languages, but it's important to note that none of these languages are officially recognised by the Brazilian authorities.
Brazil is a deeply mixed country. There are the European whites at around 55% of the population; among them the Portuguese, but also Germans, Italians, Spaniards and Poles from different immigration waves that have occurred over the centuries. At 22%, there are the mixed-race populations; and at 12%, the caboclos, white mestizo and indigenous. Black Africans are now less than 10%. As for the indigenous peoples, they unfortunately represent around 0.1% of the population, largely overtaken by Asian or Arab immigrants.
80% of Brazilians are Catholic. That said, the original African religions brought by slaves and their descendants are preserved by many followers and are part of the landscape. The official percentage of 13% of practitioners of these religions is misleading because, in Brazil, Catholics can still participate in the Afro-Brazilian religion, Macumba, and many follow its mesmerizing rituals when asking for help from the gods. Among these religions, there is Candomblé and Umbanda. Candomblé is the religion of the Yoruba African people of the Niger Delta. The Umbanda mixes African religion elements with both Christian and indigenous. Brazil also has a sizeable Protestant community and small Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist populations.
7 September: commemoration of the independence of Brazil, proclaimed on 7 September 1822.
1 January: New Year's Day. March or April: Good Friday and Easter Monday. 21 April: Festival of Tiradentes. 1 May: Labor Day. 30 May: Corpus Christi. 12 October: Celebration of Our Lady d'Aparecida (Nossa Senhora da Aparecida), the patron saint of Brazil. 2 November: Day of the Dead. 15 November: Commemoration of the proclamation of the Republic on 15 November 1889. 25 December: Christmas. Excluding these national holidays, every Brazilian city celebrates its anniversary and its patron saint, and these two days are local holidays. There's generally a public holiday around the carnival period; most towns hold their own in February, however, there are exceptions and some carnivals are held at other times of the year.
Several million indigeous people lived on the territory of Brazil when the Europeans arrived in 1500; there are now just 700,000. The allocation to Portugal of what would become Brazil is an effect of the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) - an agreement between Spain and Portugal, which divided all the newly discovered lands outside Europe between the two countries. Since these areas were also operating areas, Terra da Vera Cruz quickly became Brazil, named after brazilwood. Around 1530, the pioneers discovering the current Pernambuco was suitable for sugar cane cultivation and colonization really began. The indigenous Brazilians resisted and black slaves were brought over from Africa. To support this, King John III of Portugal "the Pious" divided the territory into 15 captaincies for directors from his court. Governor general, Thome de Souza, was appointed in 1549.
Sao Paulo was founded by the Jesuit Jose de Anchieta in 1554 and Rio in 1565 by Portuguese knight, Estacio de Sa. Meanwhile, the exploration of the interior continued and, in 1693, gold and diamonds were discovered in what would become the Minas Gerais, heralding the Brazilian Gold Rush. An independence movement was formed, led by Tiradentes said Tiradentes, the Inconfidência. It was suppressed by military force and Tirandentes was hanged in 1792. In 1775, the abolition of indigenous Brazillians slavery did not save them and incidentally caused a rise in the slave trade. In 1808, Prince John, Regent of Portugal, arrived in Rio (the country's capital since 1763) anticipating the Napoleonic invasion of Portugal.
In 1815, Brazil was elevated to a kingdom, united with Portugal. This promotion heightened the nationalism, and on 7 September 1822, the viceroy regent, Dom Pedro, whom the John VI "Clement" had entrusted the reins before returning to Europe, pronounced Brazil’s independence. He was then crowned Emperor. The 19th century was an imperial period. Under the long reign of Pedro II, the country developed - it became, for example, the world's largest coffee producer. Infrastructure followed and slavery was finally abolished in 1888 (in total, Brazil absorbed 40% of the slave trade). But in 1889, the Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca inaugurated a long tradition of intervention bayonets in politics: it reversed the emperor and proclaimed the Republic. The 1891 constitution gave the country its contemporary form with a fluctuating international market, focusing on coffee, sugar and rubber until the First World War. Brazil entered the war against Germany in 1917.
The 1920s were strained and, in 1930, the populist Getulio Vargas formulated a coup d'win state. It continued for 15 years and the Estado Novo, or the Second Prepublic, combined social legislation and repression. As WWII approached, 25,000 Brazilian soldiers were sent to fight in Italy alongside the Allies. A shift to the left was introduced in1951 and Vargas committed suicide in 1954. Elected in 1956, Juscelino Kubitschek decided the founding of Brasilia. Meanwhile, industrialisation continued under the wing of the United States.
In 1988, the constitution consolidated democracy. It was not until 1994 and the Real Plan of President Itamar Franco, that the economy began to regain footing. These years also saw the Workers Party ramp up. The election in 2002 saw its charismatic leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Lula inaugurated as the Brazilian president until 2011; he is now in jail on corruption charges. Following the 2018 presidential election, Jair Bolsonaro is the 38th and current president.
Brazil is a constitutional federal republic consisting of 26 states and the Federal District of Brasilia. The president is elected every four years by national vote. He is both head of state and government, and he appoints ministers. Legislative power is held by the National Congress, consisting of two chambers: the Chamber of Deputies (503 members) and the Senate (81 members). Deputies and senators are elected by direct popular vote in each state and the Federal District of Brasilia. The number of members of a state depends on the population of that state. The mandate is four years. There are three senators per state and three for the Federal District. The term is eight years.
When it comes to celebrities in Brazil, they don’t get any bigger than Edson Arantes do Nascimento, AKA Pele. Regarded as the greatest footballer of all time, his incredible popularity shows the quasi-religious status of football in Brazil. When his career ended in 1972, it was seen as a real national disaster. But fittingly, he was then appointed extraordinary sports minister in 1995 in the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. Pele’s not the only Brazilian sports star, however, to be branded a hero.
There was the Formula One racing driver, Ayrton Senna (1960-1994), who tragically died while leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. Arguably one of the world’s greatest Formula one drivers having joined the ranks of super drivers, such as Emerson Fittipaldi and Nelson Piquet, his untimely death hit the nation and a period of mourning swept through the country.
Elsewhere, Brazilian former tennis player Gustavo Kuerten, nicknamed Guga, garnered legions of fans after scooping the French Open single title three times (1997, 2000, 2001), and winning the Tennis Masters Cup in 2000.
The South American country has also spawned significant figures in Brazilian literature, not least José de Anchieta (1534-1597) – a Spanish Jesuit missionary who developed his orthoographical book, Arte de gramática da língua mais usada na costa do Brasil, based around the Old Tupi language of the indigenous people to allow communication between the indigenous Brazillians and the Portuguese.
Other important religious successors include Father Antonio Vieira (1608-1697), considered one of the great classics of Brazilian literature. But it's the 19th century that gave rise to some of the country’s most celebrated writers: José de Alencar (1829-1877), Joaquim Manuel de Macedo (1820-1882), Alfredo d'Escragnolle Taunay (1843-1899) and, above all, Joaquim Machado de Assis (1839- 1908), recognised as one of the masters of Brazilian letters.
The 20th century saw the arrival of Modernism whose leading figures included Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954) and Mário de Andrade (1893-1945). Gradually, Brazilian literature evolved with additional social and regional elements, led by writers such as José Américo de Almeida (1887-1969), Erico Verissimo (1905-1975), Graciliano Ramos (1892-1953), Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987), Rachel de Queiroz (born in 1910) and Jorge Amado (1912-2001). But it’s João Guimarães Rosa (1908-1967) who undoubtedly takes the title as one of the most innovative Brazilian writers. His famous novel Grande Sertão: Veredas (1956), translated into English under the title The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, created a storm of controversy upon publication with its linguistic inventiveness and out-there themes. Today, however, it’s classed as one of the most important novels of Portuguese language literature and South American literature.
In terms of musicians, Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) lays claims to being one of the only internationally known Brazilian classical musicians. There’s also the diplomat-turned-poet-and-lyricist Vinicius de Moraes (1913-1980) and the musician and songwriter Antonio Carlos Jobim (1927-1994), who’s also known as Tom Jobim - the fabled composer and author behind thousands of bossa nova songs, including the famous Garota de Ipanema, or in English, The Girl from Ipanema. Also causing a stir on the historic music scene are Baden Powell, Jorge Ben, Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, João Gilberto, Gal Costa, Maria Bethania, Marisa Monte Roberto Carlos and Milton Nascimento, to name a few.
There’s also the famous architect Oscar Niemeyer (1907-2012) - an artistic figure who was a key player in Brazilian architecture in the 20th century with a fresh and innovative take on design. Born in Rio, Niemeyer designed and developed buildings, bringing them into the modern era and sculpting many with his trademark curves – to reflect his devotion to the female form. Collaborating with fellow Brazilian architect Lúcio Costa, he was asked by president Juscelino Kubitschek to pull together a new capital in Brasilia in less than a decade (1957-64). In total, he left a legacy of more than 500 buildings.
Finally, there’s national hero, Alberto Santos-Dumont (1873-1932) - the engineer and aviator whose life’s work contributed significantly to airship flights. Born in Palmyra (renamed Santos-Dumont), he dedicated his work to aeronautical study and headed to Paris, flying hot air balloons and experimenting with innovative aircraft ideas, before shifting his thinking from light-than-air to heavier-than-air aircraft. He was, in fact, the man behind the first officially observed European flight on 23 October 1906. Later that same year, on 12 November, he also achieved the first world record for flying 722ft in 21.5 seconds. During this flight, he also became the first person to be filmed in an aircraft during a flight.
In most restaurants, service (10%) is included in the bill, but additional tips are always welcome. To holders of luggage at airports and in hotels, it’s customary to leave around R$2 (38p) per bag. For a guide, pay around R$10 (£1.94) per day, per person (drop to around half for a driver). Taxi drivers do not expect a tip, but often passengers round the amount up to a higher number. At major landmarks, a driver can earn between R$32-R$37 (£6.21-£7.18); a guide can earn R$31-R$130 (£6-£25), according to location, qualification and distances. In the northeast, a guide will be paid around R$100 (£19) per day if he returns home in the evening; if accompanying a group, it will be around R$150 (£29) per day plus expenses (transportation, accommodation, food). As for the drivers (who are freelancers and are rented with their car), it’s around R$500 (£97) per day.
Always avoid handing out money to locals on the streets, especially to children as this encourages begging. If you’d like to help by donating school supplies, clothing or medicine, it’s best to give them directly to the school principal, the village chief or the nearest clinic. In general, avoid haggling and always be punctual – Brazilians are generally always on time, be it for appointments or opening times for churches or museums. It’s also important to be patient: the queues can be long at post offices and bank. Stick to light and cool clothing: regardless of age and build, Brazilians do not try to hide their bodies.
Carnival remains the great national holiday and it’s a hugely popular phenomenon with parties of different sizes taking place in most towns and cities. The best known is in Rio de Janeiro – a wild and hedonistic shindig that sees the whole city shimmer and shake. But there are dozens of others, including those in Salvador and Recife. Music is at the heart of the Carnival and in life in general across the country: samba, bossa nova, forró, frevo or chorinho – there’s a rhythm and dance for every state of mind. And you can’t talk about Brazil and not mention sport. Football leads the pack, and its heroes and top players are worshipped like gods.
You can spot games kicking off almost everywhere, from beaches to the steep streets of the favelas and the thrumming stadiums, like Maracana - the largest in the world. There’s also volleyball, basketball, tennis and racing. And then there’s Capoeira: the Brazilian martial art-cum-acrobatic dance, that developed with enslaved Africans as a clandestine means of practising fight moves.
There’s huge variety in the sort of crafts you can buy from across the different regions in Brazil. Indigenous influences are prominent around the north (Manaus, Belem); for a snapshot, head to the Mercado Ver-O-Peso Belem, where stalls are lined with hammocks, woven bags, harem pants and beaded necklaces and bracelets. At Santarem, you’ll find homemade Cuias – hollowed and dried squash plants used as a cup to drink mate tea, and beautifully shaped ceramics and pottery from the island of Marajó with their distinct geometric designs. Tapajônica pottery, made in the region of Santarem, is a popular souvenir, painted with human and animal figures. The northeast has vast collections of crafts, making use of its natural resources, from straw and sisal, to leather, coconut shell and sand taken from the beaches of Natal region, but the two major specialties from the northeast are the statues crafted from clay and lace, and tablecloths, doilies and lace garments meticulously made by lace patients (mulheres rendeiras) in Caruaru. This is the hometown of Mestre Vitalino, the famous clay sculptor who crafted figures depicting everyday life that can be bought from across the northeast.
Elsewhere, over in the Pantanal in the west central region, there are beautiful ceramics, wooden objects and fabrics, and in the State of Goiás, there are incredible pieces made from silver, crystals and semi-precious stones. The southeast, dedicated to tourism, offers all manner of crafts from across the country, but unique to the area is marble soap stone, precious and semi-precious stones, and excavated minerals. A word of warning: Brazil may have rich mineral pickings, but there are many fakes swirling around the markets. Make sure you’re got your eye on the real thing and ask for a certificate from a recognized gemological laboratory.
Brazilian gastronomy is a lot like its geography – varied and complex thanks to its distinct mix of cultures: there are influences from India, Portugal, Africa, Europe and even Asia. This being such a vast, gargantuan country, you’ll always find extraordinarily varied cuisine from region to region. But there are the mainstays: rice (arroz), black beans (feijão) and cassava flour (farofa), and the Brazilian national dish you have to try is feijoada – a rich and earthy casserole of various meats (beef jerky, smoked sausages, ears and pigtails) and black beans, dished up with plain rice, cabbage and slices of orange.
Elsewhere in Bahia, there’s the classic vatapá - shrimp mixed with pieces of fish and cooked with the Dende oil (palm oil), coconut milk, breadcrumbs, ginger and spices, and served with plain rice. There’s also the national churrasco which originated in Rio Grande do Sul: think juicy skewers of prime beef with hunks of chicken and sausage, marinated and spit-roasted over coals. The smoky kebabs are usually accompanied with a sauce of tomatoes and onions. Head over to Brazil’s eastern shores, meanwhile, and the moqueca pops up in menus across the coast – a delicious coconut-milk-based stew with a thick sauce of tomatoes, onions, coriander and lemon, pepped up with fish, crab, shrimp and hunks of just-caught shellfish, dished up with rice, mashed beans and cassava flour.
Always avoid drinking tap water in Brazil; instead order mineral water, either água mineral sin gas (still water) or con gas (sparkling water). There are a wide variety of brands that make use of Brazil’s excellent mineral springs. Brazil is also the largest producer of coffee in the world and you’ll always find cafezinho - very strong and very sweet little coffees, whether in bars or from rudimentary street stalls. It’s also served in many shops whilst you wait. Don’t miss the mate, too - a traditional infusion of the mate herb. There’s also the refreshing chá mate – a grilled infusion of grass, which is drunk cold, and the invigorating chimarão mate of grass or green tea, which is drunk hot.
Given the incredible variety of fruits that grow in Brazil, fresh juices (suco) are delicious and packed with vitamins, whether served straight up or in cocktails. The guarana fruit is an Amazonian plant found only in Brazil. Its juices are made into guarana - the national soda – and in guarana em po, which is a powder, mixed in water for a bitter, unusual drink that hails from the indigenous community for a boost of energy. For an energy drink, look to sugar cane juice (caldo de cana) or the refreshing water of the green coconut (coconut verde).
When it comes to alcoholic drinks, cachaça is the national drink - a strong spirit made from sugar cane. There are many brands of varying quality, but go for Pitu and Ypioca and have it shaken up with crushed lime, cane sugar and ice into a caipirinha. Beer (cerveja) is widely sold, too, and is generally low in alcohol and light blonde. The most common brands are Antarctica, Brahma and Skol. There’s also a small viticulture scene in the southern states but the wines don’t have the same highly regarded reputation as Argentine or Chilean wines.