Deciding Where to Live When Moving to Brazil

The sun sets on a Rio beach with small two-person boats floating in the calm water.
Beach view in Rio de Janerio. Photo © Gilberto Santa Rosa, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Deciding where to live in Brazil is as complex as deciding whether you want to move to Brazil in the first place. Of course, if you’re moving because you’ve already landed a job, enrolled in a specific study program, or fallen in love with a Brazilian, the decision of where to live will already have been made for you. However, in many other cases—if you’re looking to start a business, immerse yourself in a particular culture, lead a certain type of lifestyle—you’ll have the freedom of choosing which city or region of this vast country offers the most opportunities and best corresponds to your needs and desires.

Geographically, the four Prime Living Locations chapters in Moon Living Abroad in Brazil cover four out of five of Brazil’s territorial regions. The South, Southeast, Central-West, and Northeast are all explored to various degrees, but the largely remote, undeveloped, and scantily populated North (much of which is embraced by the vast Amazonian rainforest) has been excluded.

The Southeast contains Brazil’s three wealthiest and most populous states: Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Minas Gerais, as well as its respective capitals of Rio, São Paulo, and Belo Horizonte. All of these cosmopolitan cities boast sizzling economies and cultural scenes, not to mention lots of opportunities for expats. Rio and São Paulo are so big and booming that each megacity easily merits its own chapter. In terms of size, importance, and sheer diversity, they are like city-states unto themselves.

Belo Horizonte and the surrounding state of Minas Gerais have been grouped together in the chapter that also covers the Central-West and South regions, both of which are thriving areas with high standards of living. The rapidly expanding economies of the Central-West state of Goiás and southern state of Paraná are particularly strong magnets for foreigners these days. While attention in passing is given to the regions as a whole, the main focus is upon the efficient, medium-sized cities such as the southern capitals of Curitiba, Florianópolis, and Porto Alegre where opportunities are growing and the living is easy. The Central-West’s major city is the nation’s capital, Brasília, which because of its importance, always attracts a steady stream of foreign diplomats, journalists, and professionals involved in international businesses, think tanks, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Traditionally the poorest region in Brazil, today the Northeast possesses the country’s fastest growing economy. As the first Brazilian region to be colonized, the Northeast boasts one of the nation’s most pungent histories and one of the most compelling and complex ensembles of regional and local cultures. Owing to its economic woes and relative marginalization from Brazil’s political and economic centers of power in the Southeast, the Northeast has never drawn expats en masse. However, its climate, culture, and relaxed lifestyle have always succeeded in seducing a small, but significant, share of foreign dreamers and adventurers. The chapter on the Northeast’s principal focus is the region’s main cities of Salvador, Recife, and Fortaleza, all of which are economic and cultural hubs. However, the Northeast also boasts Brazil’s longest and most beautiful coastline, which merits some attention with the possibilities it offers those seeking to start a tourism-related business in paradise—or merely drop out of civilization for a while (or forever).

Here’s an overview of the top locations covered in the four Prime Living Locations chapters of Moon Living Abroad in Brazil:

Rio de Janeiro Overview

A postcard-perfect symbol of Brazil itself, the aptly nicknamed Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvelous City) is a living legend and incontestably one of the world’s great cities. The omnipresence of lushly carpeted mountains, sugary white sand beaches, and a 500-year mash-up of architectural styles also make it one of the world’s most beautiful cities—and the most fun. Rio easily intoxicates foreigners with its beguiling mixture of extravagant nature and exuberant culture, its heady urban frenzy, and its laid-back beachy vibe, not to mention the charm and warmth (some say superficiality) of native Cariocas.

Due to the tropical climate, much of life takes place outside, from sipping beer on the beach to sambaing the night away in a corner boteco. Rio has never gone out of fashion, but like Brazil itself, after being down and out for a couple of decades, it’s finally back in business, spurred on by its upcoming hosting duties of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, as well as booming financial, commercial and cultural segments, all of which are driving the real estate market—and cost of living in general—sky high. With a pumped-up economy and beefed-up security, Rio may be safer than ever before, but it’s also more expensive, more crowded, and more exhausting as well. Without turning its back on myriad traditions, the city is undergoing vast changes—most of which are for the better. These days, Rio is a city of unbridled optimism and opportunity, which is why more expats are settling here than ever before, lured by jobs (particularly in the offshore petroleum sector), research and study opportunities, and the desire to be in one of the most happening cities on the planet.

São Paulo Overview

South America’s largest city, São Paulo is the quintessential concrete jungle with skyscrapers filling in for trees, multilane traffic-clogged avenues substituting rivers, and instead of flying insects, the buzz of the world’s largest fleet of helicopters. This isn’t to say that São Paulo isn’t a fascinating city—it is (although you really have to love big cities). Its population not only embraces migrants from all over Brazil, but the world as well. The resulting mix spills over into the city’s rich cultural and culinary scenes, not to mention the dense urban, constantly mutating fabric of the city itself. São Paulo is by far Brazil’s most international city. It’s also where all the money is. For these reasons it attracts so many expats, who are drawn less to the city itself than to the amazing career opportunities it offers in sectors as wide-ranging as financial, telecommunications, and IT to health and science (some of the hemisphere’s top universities and hospitals are here).

While professional salaries are generally high, you’ll need them to afford living in a city that is currently one of the most expensive on the planet. That said, you can generally live quite well. São Paulo concentrates Brazil’s largest middle class. Cultural, leisure, and recreational options are limitless as are services and amenities (although it might take you hours of weaving through traffic to take advantage of them; logistics are a nightmare here). Although foreigners rarely fall in love with São Paulo, this is a city of villages and pockets, of vast contrasts and unexpected surprises. Unlike other parts of Brazil, it’s not likely to seduce you, but it just may grow on you.

Overview of Minas, Central-West, and South

Relatively few foreigners visit, let alone have heard of, Brazil’s states of the Central-West and South. Even Minas Gerais, which has a much more prominent history, culture, and economy, isn’t on the tip of most North American tongues. And yet, these lesser known regions have much to offer expats—including the fact that the lack of expat communities means less competition for the increasing number of positions available for foreign professionals in the thriving medium-sized cities of Belo Horizonte, Curitiba, Porto Alegre, and Goiânia. It also means it’s much easier to assimilate and be welcomed into a less harried, more authentic style of regional Brazilian life, without all the crime, socioeconomic extremes, and sky-high prices of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Altogether, Minas, the Central-West, and the South possess Brazil’s highest standards of living. Their cities, relatively newer and boasting better urban planning, are smaller and more human in scale, making them more organized, efficient, and agreeable for expats who prize a certain quality of life. Although, with the exception of Florianópolis, none of the region’s cities are blessed with beaches, all of them lie within close proximity to magnificent natural attractions that are largely unexplored or undeveloped. In fact, the ecotourism potential of these regions is enormous.

Overview of the Northeast

Along with the North, the vast Northeast region is easily the most exotic, alluring, and “different” part of Brazil from a North American viewpoint, not to mention the most perennially hot and sunny. The region is steeped in a rich history that dates back to Brazil’s 16th-century origins and still lingers in places, particularly once you step out of the coastal capitals and head up and down the alluring shoreline and deep into the arid Interior. The various cultural manifestations of the Northeast are unique and utterly fascinating as indigenous and especially African traditions mingle with those of the Portuguese who settled the region. Despite rapidly expanding cities and quickly developing coastlines, that cultural influence is still felt in day-to-day life, which makes living in this region very special for foreigners who want to experience an alternate lifestyle in which culture still trumps consumerism and human interaction can be particularly warm.

Living in the Northeast is not always easy, but it can be both relaxing and enriching—although it probably won’t make you rich. Despite the economy of this historically backward region now growing at an unprecedented pace, formal opportunities for expats are still fairly scarce. If you want to live in the region’s capitals of Salvador, Recife, or Fortaleza or along the spectacular coast that stretches up from Bahia to Maranhão, in most cases, you’ll need to be a self-starter with a large reserve of patience and an ability to adapt. Culturally, and in terms of socioeconomics (the extremes between rich and poor are still quite pronounced), the Northeast is perhaps the Brazilian region most likely to provide North Americans with the biggest shock.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Living Abroad in Brazil.