What It Feels Like to Travel Alone in Brazil

I have a long post saved up inside of me that I haven’t written, probably because the topic felt so overwhelming I didn’t know where to start. I have wanted to travel for several years. The desire was stored up inside me while work took center stage. For years, I was singularly focused on work, whether it was Quirkyalone, my other book and magazine To-Do List, and my street fashion community website stylemob.com. At long last I decided to take the leap, but to be honest, I was petrified. Petrified and elated.

Though I could have traveled with a friend of a friend, I had an intuition that I should embrace my 35th birthday as a single woman and travel to Brazil alone. For some women, maybe this wouldn’t be a big deal. And for the 23-year-old me, who traveled alone in Europe for two months without a second thought, heading off to South America with only a backpack as a companion might have been cake. But not now. Adulthood has a way of calcifying our fears and making them more rigid. The more days I spend in front of this here computer, the one I use to type to you now, the more fearful I am of adventures that take me away from it. This had to stop. And it did.

There’s a quote I discovered in Paul Theroux’s book The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas, a travelogue of the author’s journey by train from Boston to the southern tip of Argentina, that feels like a self-conscious, but very apt, rallying cry for how it felt to take off as a thirty-something woman traveling alone in South America. I discovered it when a fellow-traveler friend, a gay man from Malaysia, showed me the book he was reading for travel inspiration. The introduction began: “Self-dramatization is inevitable in any travel book; most travelers, however dreary and plonkingly pedestrian, see themselves as solitary and heroic adventurers.” Aha, I thought. That is me. I feel like a solitary and heroic adventurer, the woman that another young hostel dweller, traveling with her boyfriend, gasped, at. “Really, you are traveling alone! Scary!”

On the plane ride as we were about to take off from San Francisco to DC (then Sao Paolo, then Salvador), I wrote in my journal: “I am about to take off on my first flight of a 30-hour journey to Brazil! Wow, all the planning, deliberation, obsession, guidebook-gazing, and shopping (bikinis!) columinates. Shall I not crash, shall I enjly myself, shall I feel good in my body and be glad to be alive, shall my mind be broken open (and maybe even my heart) by being in a totally next context. Hurrah! I’m really so proud of myself for traveling alone again after all the resistance to going by myself. I feel triumphant in this moment.”

That feeling of euphoria was not constant. I looked back at that passage in my journal with wistful and mystified eyes when I was feeling bored, lonely, and worst of all, vulnerable. The worst moment came in Salvador when suddenly my ATM card stopped working after it had worked all week, and I had only 40 reais (roughly 20 American dollars) and 40 American dollars in my room. I learned some big traveling lessons. Always keep 200 dollars with you, even if you are afraid of being robbed, that risk is better than the risk of being without cash. Call your bank when you leave the country. And trust. Have faith. You (I) are strong enough to get through it. For those four hours, when I was traversing the city on foot in flip flops and a downpour, and fell hard enough to skin my knee and twist my ankle, I really thought I might cut my trip short by two weeks and come home to San Francisco to spend the rest of my time off from work organizing my files. Seriously! That seemed like a safer bet than traveling alone. A French friend from my pousada (guesthouse) spent the last two hours helping me through my money crisis, telling me not to give up. If I was to give up now, I would miss out. And those American banks, they are big brother, he scoffed! Other people helped steady me, and when I finally got on Skype to Bank of America, we did sort out the situation, and my heartbeat started to calm down. Oh how I jumped up and down in a convenience store, and hugged a new Brazilian friend Ana and her sister when the money finally started to shoot out. It’s so odd, how technology-dependent we are in this age of globalization. Traveler’s cheques are just over.

But on to the good stuff. Why was traveling alone so uniquely satisfying? If you were to look at my pictures, you would think I was traveling with a huge group. I met so many people. After a rough first week in Salvador, which of the three places I visited, did feel the most edgy and dangerous, I met SO many people. Being alone did make me feel risky, but in a way that felt vital and rich, that I grew addicted to as time grew on. I almost couldn’t even imagine having a permanent companion on the trip by the end. It seemed boring, like I wouldn’t be able to jump off in some many divergent adventures. My Portuguese also became much stronger by the end of my trip and I was able to talk with people in full conversations, which helped a lot. My hope did come true–my heart was broken open by the warmth and generosity of Brazilians, in particular, cariocas (Rio residents) I met through the Rent-a-Friend group on couchsurfing.com, and three fantastic bohemian types I met randomly at an outdoor concert (outdoor music and dancing is totally legion in Rio–it’s so easy to meet people there).

I gave a short reading at Litquake, San Francisco’s literary festival, a week ago for ReadyMade magazine. I was still in that breathless, yet relaxed and open state that we are all in when we come back from a trip. I wanted to perform that moment in time, so I read some observations from my trip that I recorded that Saturday morning at a cafe. I will share those with you here. . .
Observation no. 1: Brazilian men really are that good-looking. The women are hot, yes, but it’s the men who bloew me away, simply because I’m used to being surrounded by gorgeous women in San Francisco.Not only are they hot, their eyes are hungry. My (male) classmates in my Portuguese class in downtown San Francisco  warned me about Brazilian mocos–boys. They told me that it was not uncommon for Brazilian guys, when they meet you at a bar or even on the beach, to ask you to ficar (or make out) within fifteen minutes of meeting. Ficar is a Brazilian Portuguese word with diverse meanings: it can mean to stay, to be located, and to make out/have sex.  They thought I would be alarmed by this, but to be honest, I was intrigued. I’ve lived with the ultra-passivity of San Francisco men for 12 years where people won’t even approach you, they’ll scurry home instead to write a missed connections ad on craigslist. What a refreshing cultural contrast for an attractive guy to ask you to make out within fifteen minutes.

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A copy of SoSingular discovered at a bookstore in Ipanema. The clerk even knew the book!!! Yeah! He said he was a quirkyalone before he got into a relationship, but now, not so much. I told him he could still be quirkytogether.

Observation number 2: There’s a reason that a Brazilian version of Quirkyalone has been published. They call it SoSingular. Brazil still has a ways to go with the acceptance of women in the workplace, but it’s a country with an emerging middle class and more and more women workers. When I met women, particular in Rio, they sounded so quirkyalone to me. . . there were plenty of women without children, plenty of single people, and plenty of people complaining about how hard it was to get people to commit, especially in a place where sex happens awfully quickly. At the same time, Brazilians seem to understand something about the centrality of pleasure that we Americans just do not get. Whether it’s beach volleyball or singing along with musica popular brasileira in a bar, they know how to enjoy themselves–felicidade is such a common word. Happiness. That, I think, can also translate into joy in being single–and bringing sensuality into the single state, whether that means hooking up or just enjoying flirtation and eye-fucking in the everyday. When I returned home, I realized that enjoying life–and having fun–are not insignificant personal missions.

Observation number 3: Barack Obama is massively popular in Brazil. So many people brought him up in conversation and so quickly. They didn’t even seem to know McCain’s name—he was a non-starter, nothing to talk about, a continuation of the Bush regime. They did like Hillary, some noting that she was smart and attractive like one of their television presentadors! Funny, we never got to consider Hillary’s attractiveness—all the noise about her drowned that out. But Barack. He is more than a better choice to Bush, he’s a transformational choice, an inspiration and to black Brazilians in particular. Black people make up 40% of the Brazilian population, but there are very few black politicians on the national stage. If Barack is elected, he means change not just for the US and for our foreign policy, but even for domestic politics in Brazil. As one guy put it, Obama is an inspiration, because If the United States can change, so can we. One person I met asked, Where is the Brazilian Barack Obama?

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Observation 4: Skinny jeaans don’t have to be skin-tight. Brazil inspired me to buy my first pair of skinny jeans and I have to say, I am kinda thrilled. I thought that you had to be a beanpole to wear them, but that’s just not true. It took a different world to shake me up enough to try them on. I feel like I have been missing out for five years. Brazilian women’s fashion–with lots of bright colors and short dresses–is through the roof. I heart their style.lisyme.jpg

Observation number four: I feel like a vampire on Brazilian’s happiness—their felicidade. I want it. I’m jealous of it. I miss the sense of connection of Brazil. I’ve already sought out a Brazilian café in Daly City on a strip of used car lots where I can get bowls of acai and passionfruit juice and speak Portuguese with the woman who works there.  I miss the music, the constant eye-candy, the hungry eyes of hot men, the omni-present possibility of a makeout session, the musical sound of Portuguese, the abacaxi juice, the acai, the sense of spirit after a capoeira class, the beachside bars and constant coconut water. The words for fruit: abacaxi, maracaju, morango—I just like the way they sound. Fun things happened all the time because people were so open and friendly. A cab driver was surprised that a friend and I had never tried his favorite beer. So he stopped at a convenience store and bought us one. Maybe he was just trying to run up the meter, my friend suggested. But hey, the cab ride was still much cheaper than what we would have paid in the states, and only $1.50 above the price he quoted us for the trip.

The landing back in the United States—and in  San Francisco—has been hard. It’s been hard to return to my job  and to the news. It’s been a week of panic and complaint, with a sense  of constricting possibilities.  I feel depressed, honestly, and I want to go back to Brazil, where on  average, people are more likely to say tudo bem—everything is well,  and boa tarde, good afternoon, than hi, and what’s up and it’s ok.  Even the expressions they use to communicate in a superficial, everyday  way, are more positive, the sense of warmth between people feels palpable.  They have a shared culture of musica popular brasileira, songs that  everyone knows, and sign along in bars when guitarists play. Right now  I am scheming to go back. I feel a responsibility to bring  more  warmth to my own country, to be more cheerful and friendly, to be a  more welcoming host to foreigners. I now have so much more empathy for  anyone who is traveling alone in a new city and feel responsible to  take people in on the couchsurfing website. To be a little less engrossed  with my own life and be a better host. But part of me just wants to  go back to Brazil.

Update: So much has happened since I wrote this post! I did go back to Brazil for six months in 2010, and then again in 2012, and now I am writing a book about my experiences traveling through South America. Be sure to sign up for my email list to hear about the publication. A third of the book takes place in Brazil!

If you want to travel to Brazil too for an adventure, getting coaching support from me might be the thing to get you going.

I also fell in love with tango in Argentina after my time in Brazil. It’s been a wild ride! I’m so in love with tango (and tango will be part of my upcoming book). I’m organizing this Quirky-Sexy Tango Adventure. You can check all the details HERE. It’s going to be so much fun! See you there!!

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Like this? Be sure to sign up for my mailing list and join me in Buenos Aires to learn about the quirkyalone approach to life and relationships through tango in the Quirky Tango Adventure.

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Sasha Cagen is the author of Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics and To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us. Sign up for Sasha's List to get weekly-ish inspiration for your quirky life, along with news about books, online classes, and in-person events, retreats, and adventures.

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35 comments on “What It Feels Like to Travel Alone in Brazil
  1. Adriana says:

    Oi, em português or english? This article made me smile. I loved the way you described us and your sensitivity to catch our soul. People like you are always welcome in Brazil. By the way, what is the name of the beer that the taxi guy bought for you?

    I’m living in Boulder ad enjoying a lot the americans and the mountains.
    Beijos com gosto de maracujá.

  2. admin says:

    I wish I could remember the name of the beer! Maybe someday I will get in a cab and recognize the driver and ask him. I come to Boulder once a year for the Conference on World Affairs at CU–maybe I will get to meet you there, e podemos falar portuges!

    Beijos,
    Sasha

  3. lisy says:

    Oizinho!

    adorei a minha foto… Também estou com saudades!

    beijinhos da Baianinha Carioca

    lisy

  4. paula says:

    Did you really not see all the problems brasilian people have? Maybee your trip was too short. I live in Rio for one year now and in the beginning I was shocked of children sleeping on the street and the huge amount of poor people, mostly black, living in the streets of Rio. The City is only nice in south Part. If you woud have visited the northern quarters, maybe your naive view would have changed.

    Paula

  5. Geo says:

    I missed going to Brazil with my friends back in 1999, and now I just have to go, but also most friends are either married or can’t go, so I’m really considering going solo. I’m 36 and from L.A., and have traveled alone for work many of times, but something about brazil makes me nervous. but after reading your post, it’s like i want to book tomorrow! Sounds like it can even be more fun alone. I’m not big on hostels anymore, so any recomendations on hotels in rio?

  6. Sasha says:

    Just noticed this question about hostels in Rio–I stayed at two: Rio Hostel in Santa Tereza and Lighthouse Hostel in Ipanema. Both were fun in different ways. Rio is not cheap as far as hostels are concerned if you want a private room, but it’s not totally out of control. You can also look for a room on Craigslist if you think you might stay for longer than a few weeks. Definitely check out couchsurfing.com to hook up with the Carioca commmunity on couchsurfing, they are super friendly.

  7. Martha says:

    Absoultely amazing!
    I will go to Brazil to study abroad…and I am going alone. I was so worried about going somewhere alone as a 19 year old, but after reading this…why go out of my way to find someone from here to share this experience? Sometimes you see the world with clear eyes when you’re alone. Thanks! cheers ;)

    • regina says:

      I always wanted to go. For some reason I feel like its a final destination for me, yet never been there before. No money but a dream I guess. Hope in Dec. I will be there. If anyone will be there around the same time we should meet up:-)

  8. Sam Haley says:

    I have never traveled alone. Brazil is a good country, however I don’t like to travel around it alone. I prefer to travel in a company of friends.

  9. Erika says:

    Thank you so much for your post. I’m about to book a trip to Brazil but was really scared as I read about all the crime and since I am a fair skinned, freckled Asutralian girl thought I would stand out too much. I am in a relationship that is going no where and am bored in my job so have decided to go and travel South America alone in March and teach English. I hope to meet as many friendly people as you did. Do you have any tips for Rio on neighbourhoods to stay in and to stay away from? Cheers :)

    • Lucy says:

      Hi Erika- my email is misslucywood@hotmail.co.uk do get in touch as I am looking to go to Brazil in March also. I’m going to do a Capoeira course!! Would be great to have someone to hook up with when I get there. My situation is similar to yours, relationship going nowhere and job too boring to bear. Time for some soul searching!! Look forward to hearing from you :-)

    • Danielle says:

      Hey Lucy and Erika,
      I am an Aussie girl on my way to Brazil in June and in a simialr situation, I would really love some up to date feedback on how things went for you both? Be great to hear from you.

  10. Stine says:

    Hey! Thank’s for a fantastic article:) I have already been to Brazil in salvador and speak a littlebit portuguese so I’ll manage when it comes to language. It is the traveling alone as a girl that scares me. I feel so much older than the last time I was there. This article reminded me about everything in Brazil. Thank you! You saved the week. From a quirkyalone norwegian ;)

  11. Lucy says:

    I am leaving my job in London and heading out to Rio in March to do a Capoeira course. I am only going for 3 weeks but have blocked out any fear I had about doing it alone. Brazil has been calling me for so long that I can’t ignore it anymore!! I want to see the world in a different light and pick up the brazilian vibe so that it is with me in the next chapter of my life! xx

  12. Laura T says:

    Hi Sasha! I just came back from a small group trip to Rio for Carnival. I am studying and playing Samba percussion, so it was mostly a drumming oriented trip. But it was my first time to Brazil and I’m dying to go back and explore other parts. I happened across this while looking for feedback about women traveling solo in Brazil and it’s a great read. I’ve not before heard about Quirkyalone, but I love it as I’ve always been of the same mindset. Keep it up!

  13. Mirella says:

    Hi Sasha,
    Thank you for sharing your fascinating stories and photos, both on this website and on facebook. I really enjoyed following and reading these.

    In autumn last year I travelled solo to Brazil, Peru, Argentina and Uruguay. I am single and very much consider myself a quirkyalone and this is something I have reflected upon a lot in my travels. I have reflected upon this and as you mentioned in one of your pieces, I also thought about how a lone young woman in her 30′s may be perceived in different cultures and contexts. Of course, this was not my only trip alone. I have made several trips on my own and each one enabled me to learn something new about myself and my ability to deal with situations. Despite this, I have come to enjoy travelling alone and hope that many nations increase their awareness of quirkyalone and enjoy it as much as I do! All the best x

  14. Gaggan says:

    Hi Sasha!

    I typed ‘traveling alone to brazil’ into my google search bar and this godsend article came flying up in .023 seconds. I am leaving in August to teach English, going to Rio and absolutely can’t wait. I’ve been doing tons of reading, Rosetta stone, joined couchsurfing and hosted a few people–everything to compress the feeling of uncertainty.

    I was wondering if you booked any tours while you were there, because I want to go to the Amazon and know how difficult it is to do that. I guess any advice you have would be appreciated!

  15. Amy says:

    This was a FANTASTIC read! I am travelling to Brazil (and other parts of South America) in just two weeks time (arriving on 7th September). I am 25 years old, Australian, fair skin and travelling solo for 6 weeks. After reading a recent news story about a gang of heavily armed gunmen storming an upmarket Rio hotel, I must admit I’ve been wondering if my decision to travel alone was perhaps a little naïve. I have just come out of a bitter divorce and I craved a solo adventure to nurture and heal my soul. But after reading this article, not only am I reassured, I am confident that I CAN and will have this experience that I so desperately need. Thank you for an inspiring read.

    Amy

  16. Pasi says:

    Hi Sasha,
    Brazil sounds like a dream world. I have been living in LA (im from very north Europe) for 4 years now and this place is very very bad to be a single.
    I have many friends in Arizona who were lucky to be able to travel to Manaus, Brazil for business and 3 of them met their wife in there!!
    They all are still very happily married with their Brazilian wifes and having more children.
    Why would I not go there and give it a try??
    I have nothing to lose(unless i dont just do it!)
    I just try to figure out is it Rio or which city to go to?
    Thank you for fantastic writing!!
    I enjoy to read your blog!
    Pasi

  17. Shay says:

    I’ve read your many articles and follow your current blog, don’t know how I could have missed this one. I leave on Nov. 4th for a 18 day trip to Rio ALONE!
    I’m 36 and have always dreamed of traveling, my husband never shared this passion and therefore we never went or did anything other than a cruise. Well, we are no longer together and I am finally going to live my passion and going to do this no matter how scared I am! hehe
    Life is too short not to. I have many online Brazilian friends and can’t wait to meet some of them in Rio. Going to Fortaleza as well. If anyone is going to be there while I am there, let’s meet up. I’m couch surfing as well with a guy while in Rio.
    email me at stratus595@gmail.com

    Sasha…you are living my DREAM LIFE! lol

  18. Jeni says:

    I have always wanted to travel to Brazil. Always put it off to wait for friends to decide their fate with relationships or children. I refuse to wait anymore & really am ready to do it by mid/end of summer 2011. For anyone who went alone recently, can you please share your story?? I am a black female, 33, and just want to go, relax, and soak in some culture & have fun!! Nothing special, just enjoy getting away!! Thanks alot…msjenibee@yahoo.com

  19. Mariola says:

    Hi there!gosh i’ve just come home after my friend told me she cannot go with me to brazil!but we’ve already bought our tickets!gosh!what shall I do?shall I go there alone?i’ve never travelled alone!always with a friend..i’m 30sth now and maybe just about2have a trip of a lifetime!im going in march2011for around 5weeks.therefore i’d love2go to argentina-patagonia as well!pls feel free2give me any advices on places2visit,accomodation etc both in brazil and argentina!B-)mariola(jolcab@poczta.onet.pl)

  20. Erica says:

    Hi!! I just wanna say that I loved your post! I’m from Brazil and I know what you are talking about it… Hope you had the change to come back here!
    I was looking for something on the internet when I found your blog… I know its been awhile that you wrote this but anyway just want to say congrats!
    Muito lindo!
    Beijos

  21. Patrizia says:

    Hi there! Loved your article and can’t wait to go on my own journey to rio in two weeks from now. Is anybody else going to rio in the last week of march?
    Beijos

  22. hadara says:

    im like you, a 34 year old woman who needs a break from sleepy san francisco and modern boring life. I have a huge desire to visit brazil but have no idea where to go that will feel safe. i dont know spanish so i have to be responsible as to where i go.. and since i’ll be alone i probabaly want to avoid dangerous places… what would you recommend?

    • Fabio says:

      Hey Hadara! Bom dia! It seems the only places you know on Brazil are Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Sure those are beautiful places, but they’re also states capitals. There’s a lot of people there and many places to go, it’s a poor country in its way so if a foreigner goes there, chances are he’s being robbed. I’m not being negative, but this is how our is, luckily not entirely. If you wanna pass through calm places, see mountains, forests, vales you should try the towns from Estrada Real (Real Road). All those towns, mine included, are very calm, beautiful and leave with a sense of peacefullness so big that you’d prefer not going back to your place. Search about the town called Congonhas and the church of Bom Jesus de Matozinhos. By the way, this is where I live. Boa sorte e tenha uma boa viagem!

    • Tatiana says:

      Hi!
      My suggestion is to use couchsurfing. Your are going to meet interesting people who will give you valuable tips!
      Have a nice trip!

  23. Charlotte says:

    And hello. It is really nice to read about all this. I have been dying to go to brazil for my birthday for years. I will probably go alone. My friends are not adventurous.

    I can’t wait to meet some beautiful men and beautiful people! Every year my birthday has been pretty lame, so I figure, I am going to surround myself with a massive party and enjoy food and beaches.
    I will patrol the amazon and check out Quito first, for a vision quest to open myself spiritually amongst the forest, then head over to Brazil.

    It’s difficult for me to avoid Rio, since i hear this is where all the carnaval action is going to be. I want to explore other cool little towns and hang with locals for sure. I am very aware of the side cautions, but that’s just life. use common sense. Good to know about that banking situation.

    I knew a chick who went to vietnam and she had sewn a pocket in her bra for money. She got robbed, but they couldn’t find her money ahahah. So I will be very aware.

    Does anyone know the best route to get from Ecuador to Brazil? I don’t even know where to start. Buses hurt my butt and back. i am wondering about trains. Also, is it true that hanging out in Brazil is fairly expensive? I don’t know much.

    Anyhow, I am happy that I read all this, and get more insight, so it’s not so scary.

    If anyone wants to contact me, or friend me, I am here!

  24. Charlotte says:

    And hello. It is really nice to read about all this. I have been dying to go to brazil for my birthday for years. I will probably go alone. My friends are not adventurous.

    I can’t wait to meet some beautiful men and beautiful people! Every year my birthday has been pretty lame, so I figure, I am going to surround myself with a massive party and enjoy food and beaches.
    I will patrol the amazon and check out Quito first, for a vision quest to open myself spiritually amongst the forest, then head over to Brazil.

    It’s difficult for me to avoid Rio, since i hear this is where all the carnaval action is going to be. I want to explore other cool little towns and hang with locals for sure. I am very aware of the side cautions, but that’s just life. use common sense. Good to know about that banking situation.

    I knew a chick who went to vietnam and she had sewn a pocket in her bra for money. She got robbed, but they couldn’t find her money ahahah. So I will be very aware.

    Does anyone know the best route to get from Ecuador to Brazil? I don’t even know where to start. Buses hurt my butt and back. i am wondering about trains. Also, is it true that hanging out in Brazil is fairly expensive? I don’t know much.

    Anyhow, I am happy that I read all this, and get more insight, so it’s not so scary.

    If anyone wants to contact me, or friend me, I am here!

  25. Kaitlin says:

    Hello,

    I’m a 21-year-old female from Minneapolis, MN. I’m leaving for Costa Rica/Panama on the 9th of January and from there, will be in Brazil for 3 months. As you were, I will be traveling alone. I’d love to get any tips I can from a fellow solo female traveler concerning just about anything. Thanks for the money tip!

    Kaitlin

  26. Jodie says:

    Hey

    My name is Jodie and I will be a first time traveller to Brazil for Carnivale in Febuary 2013. I am an Autralian female also travelling solo.
    Will anyone else who has posted comments on here be in Rio at the same time who would like to hang out?

    Cheers

    • Dawn says:

      Hello,
      Single American age 27 traveling to Rio for Carnaval Feb. 2013. Would be great to meet up with other solo travelers. Ill be in Brazil for about a month.

    • Yao Hui says:

      Hey

      21-year-old Singaporean male, travelling solo to Rio to volunteer. Arriving a few days before the glorious Carnaval… Would also love to meet other travelers!

  27. Steve says:

    Hi. I’ve been in Peru for 5 weeks. I’m a 32 year old male from Chicago. I’ve been considering going to Brasil. It’s not that far from here. I don’t speak Portuguese. Will i have the time of my life?!? Beautiful beaches, mountains and women? Why not right?

  28. Antonio José says:

    Nós Brasileiros vamos estar sempre de braços abertos para receber você . :D Obrigado pelos comentários positivos em relação ao meu país.

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