Ye olde travel guide: Rio de Janeiro 1820

Visitors to Brazil's fun-loving capital are guaranteed a great time, says Sara Sheridan – as long as they keep their views on the country's growing independence movement to themselves

Illustration by Jonty Clark.

This article was first published in the April 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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When to go

This tricky question foxes all travellers to this part of South America. The changeable climate presents a constant challenge. Unrelenting tropical rain can last from Christmas until April and often causes mudslides and flooding. The weather is generally hot and humid although very occasionally there is snow or hail, which emanates from the south.
The safest month to visit is said to be August. But, whatever time of year you decide to go, you’ll find that Rio and its environs sport a plethora of breathtaking botanical treasures that thrive on these troublesome weather conditions.

What to take with you

Brazil is rich in natural resources but manufactured goods (apart from leatherwork) are in shorter supply than might be expected. If you wish to profit from your travels, supplies of salt, fine cloth, pottery or mechanical items (if you
can find them, of course) generally show a good return.
For your own use, it is an excellent idea to bring books as there are few available, especially in the English language. Fans to aid against heat and humidity are a must, as are umbrellas for the rain.
Given the likelihood of a nationalist uprising in the coming months, it would do no harm to bear arms. Do not be alarmed – Rio is generally considered a safe city and this is only a precaution.

Costs and money

Portuguese currency is widely used here. Gold cruzados sport a cross on one side and are worth 400 réis each.
A working man might make 80 réis a day and this amount is enough for the daily basics although, like everywhere else, particular comforts come at a price.
When spending your money, service is barely civil. Rio’s shopkeepers are more interested in gossiping than seeing to the needs of their customers. It is sad to note the miserable establishments selling slaves, manacled row upon row.

Sights and activities 

Rio is sociable and there is plenty to do and see, although much is still being planned. The presence of the royal court certainly has an impact on life in Rio, and the Brazilian capital enjoys its balls, card games and tea parties.
Palaces, churches and theatres are built in European style (mostly Italianate) but the real beauty is in the surrounding lush environment of gorgeous plants and exotic birds. The city’s botanical gardens, though unfinished, boast a wealth of tropical plants.

Dangers and annoyances

The political situation in Rio is volatile. Many predict a revolution to ‘free’ the country of Portuguese rule and thereby taxes. Political sensitivities are heightened, so beware of discussing politics, especially appearing to favour one side or the other. It has recently been considered anti-Brazilian to buy goods of Portuguese origin – including port.
If you are travelling by sea, beware of pirates. While venturing into the interior, the jungle itself is your greatest enemy – almost everything appears to have teeth.

Sleeping and accommodation

Happily the British community in Rio is particularly welcoming and it is common for visitors to be put up by their countrymen. There is also a good stock of established, well-appointed houses available to rent. If you wish to explore outside the city there are basic inns. These hostelries do not provide food so you must travel with supplies and your own cook.

Food and drink

Hospitality in Rio is generous and the cuisine is, broadly-speaking, Iberian, with shades of the country’s own flavours. For only a few réis you can eat magnificently. Flesh, fowl and fish are plentiful, as are fruits and vegetables. Coffee is popular, particularly when served with sweetmeats (these delicious local specialities can be bought by the pound). Of note is the manioc meal, or farinha, that is made into thin, broad cakes as a delicacy, eaten like bread alongside a meal. The serving classes also eat manioc, but cooked as a porridge.

Getting around

Mules and horses are generally available for hire and are best suited to the hilly landscape in and around Rio. Load-bearers to transport luggage and tend to the animals are cheap. The weather should be your key consideration – beware those mud slides during the rainy season.
Sara Sheridan is the author of historical novels set in 1820–40 as well as a series of 1950s murder mysteries