In April 1500, Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral landed at present-day Porto Seguro or “Safe Harbor.” Located in the far south of Bahia along the Brazilian coast. Cabral named the area Ilha de Vera Cruz or the “Island of the True Cross.” But during their return voyage, the Portuguese ships soon realized Brazil was no island. This resulted in a quick name change back in Lisbon to Terra de Santa Cruz or “Land of the True Cross.”
When the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci made landfall a year later, he found a hard, reddish wood that reminded him of East Indian bresel wood. Vespucci named the new wood pau brasil (Brazilwood). Unique to the Atlantic Coastal Forest, pau brasil soon gave its name to the fledgling nation of Brazil.
Today, because of its size, diversity, and history, Brazil represents a true cultural melting pot. When it comes to family vacations in Brazil, here are some of the essential things to know about this beautiful nation and its varied cultural roots.
Brazilian Culture by the Region
The fifth largest nation in the world, Brazil covers just under half of the South American continent. Put another way, it’s the same size as the contiguous United States. Because of its massive size, the nation is divided into five regions. Some demographic generalizations can be made about each region. But it’s important to remember that Brazil’s history of regional migrations and intermarriage makes it one of the most racially and culturally diverse nations on the planet.
Let’s start by exploring the Norte (or Northern region) and the Nordeste (Northeast region). Many of Brazil’s indigenous peoples live in the Norte. They rely on the life-giving Amazon for fishing, hunting, and subsistence farming. Located in the Norte, the city of Manaus represents the “gateway to the Amazon” for tourists. The Nordeste boasts beautiful beaches and breathtaking national parks. It also contains the largest population of Afro-Brazilians in the country. These African roots are reflected in local food, religion, and music.
The Centro-Oeste (Central-West region) boasts exotic wildlife, abundant national parks, and a dry climate. It also plays home to the nation’s capital of Brasilia, featuring the eclectic architecture of Oscar Niemeyer. Many of Brazil’s indigenous populations are also found here.
The Sudeste (Southeast region) and the Sul (Southern region) both contain great diversity. In the Sudeste, you’ll find cultural influences from Africa, Europe, and parts of Asia, especially Japan. Don’t be surprised to find authentic Japanese restaurants and sushi in this part of Brazil. The Sul includes a large German demographic, which is evident in the local architecture, regional cuisine, and autumnal Oktoberfests. Here, you’ll also find Brazilian gauchos (similar to American cowboys). Located mostly in the Southern state of Rio de Grande do Sul, they ranch for a living and have perfected the art of barbecue.
Brazilian Festivals You Need to Know About
Although Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval gets most of the attention, Brazil hosts a wide variety of colorful events that prove rich in the nation’s vibrant heritage. In fact, Brazilian New Year celebrations rank among the “most spectacular” in the world. At Copacabana beach, crowds swell to more than two million people dressed in white. They enjoy live music and cast flowers into the sea, an offering to Iemanjá, the Queen of the Sea. At midnight, an impressive fireworks display punctuates the festivities, ringing in the new year.
Although not nearly as famous as Carnival, Bumba-Meu-Boi (a.k.a. Parintins Folklore Festival) celebrates the ancient tale of a deceased bull resurrected by a group of traditional healers and musicians. To commemorate the event, locals craft papier-mâché bulls on wireframes. Then, they parade them while dancing through the streets. One of the biggest Bumba-Meu-Boi celebrations happens in Sao Luis in June. Hundreds of groups of dancers and their bulls participate in the centuries-old event.
Besides Carnaval and Bumba-Meu-Boi, Brazil also hosts Festa Junina, a month-long celebration in June that commemorates Saint John the Baptist. During the holiday, rural life in Brazil is celebrated through food, traditional clothing, dances, and Forró music. Native to the Nordeste, Forró music proves lively and fun to dance to despite the improbable mixture of staple instruments: the accordion, the drums, and the triangle.
Exploring Culture During Family Vacations in Brazil
Due to its history, size, and cultural diversity, Brazil proves fascinating and diverse. Colonial influences remain strong as evidenced by the nation’s Catholic, Portuguese-speaking majority. But you’ll also see plenty of local folkloric customs celebrated. Besides national citizenship, regional distinctions and traditions play an important role in Brazilian identity.
Are you and your family ready for the vacation of a lifetime? Why not put family travel to Brazil at the top of your list? Join us on our Brazilian family adventure, one of two family vacations in Brazil that we offer to families who’d like to experience authentic local culture firsthand.
At Our Whole Village, we create transformational trips for curious families who want to create lasting memories while making a difference. We’re here to help you and your family experience the world, its peoples, and its cultures. Contact us today to learn more about the unforgettable experiences that we handcraft for curious families just like yours.