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Beachgoing in Brazil

Close your eyes, say the word "Brazil," and one of the first images to float up in your mind most likely will be of a tropical beach: white sands, azure water, and a fringe of palm trees. There's good reason for that. The country boasts 8,000 kilometers of coastline, and most of the population is concentrated along the coast, where the ocean's moderating influence tempers the tropical sun.

Beaches are often the center of social life, and there is one to suit every taste: kitsch paradises where you can sip juice cocktails under brightly colored umbrellas, chichi playgrounds for the rich, windswept gems, hard-to-reach fishing villages, and surfer havens with pounding waves.

In short, beaches are places to tan, strut, eat, drink, play sports, catch up with friends, and chat with strangers. Even if you're not interested in spending hours in the sun, beaches are worth a visit for people-watching and experiencing this quintessential aspect of Brazilian culture.

What to Expect

Brazilians are well known for being comfortable wearing very little. This goes for all ages and body types. Men often wear sungas, Speedo-style swimming trunks, though they avoid high-cut models that show too much leg. In recent years, the popular sungao, a wider model that is around 6 inches at the side, has taken over as the outfit of choice. Surfers wear board shorts, and these are acceptable on and off the beach (and a more discreet alternative for bathers unwilling to go the sunga route.)

Women generally wear two-piece bathing suits. Since details such as size, print, and design vary year to year, fashionistas will buy several bikinis to alternate during the summer. Window-shop a little if you want to get a sense of this year's models. Although the infamous string bikini can still be found, it is no longer as common as it was during the 1990s.

Men and women will generally wear light, easy-to-remove clothes over their bathing suit so that they can undress easily at the beach and then compose themselves enough at the end of the day to make a stop at a beachside restaurant with friends. Havaianas, rubber flip-flops that come in a rainbow of colors, are ubiquitous at the beach.

Finally, cangas (beach towels) are a must. The large rectangles of cloth come in a variety of prints and can be used to sit on the sand and to drape over your lounge chair or around your shoulders after the sun sets.

Forget your canga at the hotel? Never fear, Brazil's inventive beach vendors will happily sell you one, along with everything from sunblock, light summer dresses, bikinis, and even grilled shrimp. Usually, you can rent lounge chairs and sun umbrellas from them as well.

Food vendors offer cheese grilled over live coals, popsicles in myriad fruit flavors, savory pastries like esfihas stuffed with spinach, meat, or cheese, frozen açaí slushies, and slices of fresh fruit. Drinks range from the conventional—water, beer, sodas—to the uniquely Brazilian, such as fresh green coconuts, sweet maté tea, and caipirinhas.

While beaches in Brazil are relatively free of hazards—no sharks or jellyfish to worry about—conditions vary throughout the country. Always heed local warnings about riptides. When in Rio, check the newspaper in the section next to the weather to see if the beach you're planning to go to is clean. Heavy rain showers often wash sewage and trash into the ocean, rendering otherwise beautiful beaches unfit for bathing for at least 24 hours.

Where to Go

Around Rio de Janeiro. Rio's culture revolves around the beach. For a lively, urban experience (in the summer, think beach-goers packed canga-to-canga, with scores of vendors touting their wares), go to Copacabana, Ipanema, or Leblon. Praia Vermelha, at the foot of the Sugar Loaf Mountain, is a tiny, gorgeous beach that is well protected by massive boulders, ideal if you prefer calmer water. The western suburbs of Barra da Tijuca and Recreio offer quieter experiences on sparkling white sands. But the surf here is bigger, so beware of the waves and the undertow even if you're a strong swimmer.

Three hours to the west of Rio is Buzios, a jutting peninsula with 17 beaches. Once the site of fishing villages, it is now expensive and extensively developed, with a pulsing nightlife, high-end restaurants, and a cobblestoned shopping district that overflows with well-to-do Brazilians on vacation.

Around São Paulo. Worth a visit along the Litoral Paulista, or São Paulo coast, is the breathtaking, well-preserved Ilhabela. Its name means beautiful island, and it certainly lives up to the reputation. Its looming peaks are blanketed in dense tropical foliage that harbors parakeets, toucans, and capuchin monkeys.

Southern Brazil. The south boasts a sunny, temperate climate, making its beaches a massive draw during the summer months. Many of the best are around Ilha de Santa Catarina, an island that is home to the state's capital, Florianopolis. The island's north coast is family friendly, with calm waters and many easily accessed hotels and restaurants. For challenging surf and great white dunes, head east to Praia da Joaquina.

Northern Brazil. A quick flight from Natal or Recife, the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha is a marine national park with limited visitation and a required environmental preservation tax. It presents visitors with a dreamscape of untouched beaches, great hikes, surfing, snorkeling, and wildlife-sighting, with the gold star going to the spinner dolphins that pirouette alongside boats.

The Amazon. A surprisingly great beach can be found far from the Atlantic. If you're visiting the Amazon region and want a place to unwind, Alter do Chao is your best bet. Here the Tapajos River forms a white sand bank island, the Ilha do Amor. Locals call it the Amazon's answer to the Caribbean, and during the dry season (June–December) when the water is low and clear, it is easy to see why.

Updated: 2013-09-18

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