In April 2019, I attended Caminhos Language Centre in Rio de Janeiro for three weeks and had a great experience. If you’re interested in learning Portuguese in Brazil, Caminhos is an excellent option.
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Why Learn Portuguese in Brazil?
My retirement goal is to learn a new language to fluency every two years. After studying Spanish intensively for a couple of years, Portuguese seemed like the natural next step.
Brazil has always fascinated me, and I spent a summer backpacking there in graduate school many years ago. Brazil features stunning landscapes and a unique mix of European, African, and indigenous cultures.
Brazilians are hospitable and extremely friendly. They are curious about other cultures and incredibly welcoming to foreigners.
In addition, few Brazilians speak English fluently, providing many opportunities for speaking practice. They are also generally highly appreciative and complimentary of any effort to speak Portuguese. I honestly can’t think of a more ideal country for language immersion.
Brazilian Portuguese vs. European Portuguese
While this is purely subjective, I prefer the lilting rhythms of Brazilian Portuguese to the harsher-sounding European Portuguese. Brazilians open their mouths wider than the Portuguese when speaking, making it easier to hear vowels than in Continental Portuguese.
Even Brazilians have trouble understanding their European counterparts, and Portuguese TV shows and movies are dubbed or subtitled into Brazilian Portuguese!
Theoretically, Brazilian grammar is also simpler, since you don’t have to learn the tu conjugation, and nós is largely replaced by the third-person a gente.
Choosing a Language School in Brazil
Over the years, I’ve attended six Spanish schools in Latin America and Spain. The popularity of Spanish with its resulting wealth of language courses spoiled me, and I couldn’t find the same selection of good Portuguese language schools in Brazil.
Caminhos was the only Brazilian language school I found with an impressive number of excellent reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp. At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to learn Portuguese in Rio de Janeiro, but ended up deciding to study there anyway because Caminhos seemed the best fit. It turned out to be the right decision, as I loved both the city and the school.
I chose to study Portuguese in Rio de Janeiro in the autumn months of April and May, low season for tourism. Normally, the weather is cooler, but locals told me in recent years due to climate changes April had become hotter and rainier.
Temperatures were quite high when I arrived at the beginning of April (highs of 34°C/93°F), but fortunately then cooled down somewhat.
Dramatic record-breaking rains also occurred for a few days in Rio during my stay, causing deadly mudslides and flooding in parts of the city. Luckily, the neighborhood around the school where I lived was not affected much, and Caminhos stayed open.
Safety in Rio
Unfortunately, safety needs to be considered as part of any trip to Brazil. These days, Rio de Janeiro in particular receives more than its share of bad press. However, visitors can minimize their risk by following a few basic precautions.
I always left my valuables like passport and laptop at my homestay, carrying a photocopy of my passport in my wallet instead. I was cautious about taking out my phone in public, and wore no jewelry, apart from inexpensive earrings made from natural materials.
After dark, I only walked on busy main streets or took Uber. Fortunately, Uber is cheap and ubiquitous in Brazil.
Caminhos Language Centre
During my initial correspondence with Caminhos, the staff was very responsive to emails and questions. These positive impressions continued during my time at the school; what made it special for me was the sense of community, the many activities, and the genuine friendliness and caring attitude of the teachers and staff.
More than just a school, Caminhos functions as a community and support system for foreigners doing extended stays in Brazil. Many students are returnees, and often stay for months at a time on student visas.
Several students in my class had taken that level at Caminhos months or a year earlier and were retaking it as a review after returning to Rio.
Caminhos sent me a written placement test to complete before my arrival, and on the first morning there was also an oral assessment with the head teacher. I was placed in B2, high intermediate, which turned out to be a good fit.
My fellow students were a diverse mix of nationalities from Europe, North America, Latin America, and a few from Asia. While the majority were in their 20s or early 30s, there were students of every age range, and as a 47-year-old, I was far from the oldest. Everyone was friendly and open, and I never felt out of place despite being 20 years older than the average student.
Many people study Spanish, but when someone chooses Portuguese, there is usually an interesting reason. My classmates often had fascinating stories of what motivated them to come to Brazil and learn Portuguese, everything from reconnecting with long-lost Brazilian relatives to pursuing kite-surfing, samba dancing, or Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
The teachers at Caminhos were generally highly experienced and competent. I appreciated the emphasis on conversation practice and colloquial Portuguese.
I also liked the grammar book Caminhos provides and plan to use it for further self-study at home, as it has answer keys in the back.
Cost for Learning Portuguese in Rio
Caminhos’ costs were on a par with other language schools I have attended in Latin America (Check out current prices here). The rising US dollar in 2019 was an advantage as it made Brazil much cheaper than it would have been a few years ago.
I chose the Intensive Portuguese course with 20 hours of group class a week from 9 am to 1 pm, the school’s most popular option. The grammar book and workbook were included.
The school allowed me to add extra nights to the homestay at the beginning and end of my course for a prorated fee, which was convenient since I wanted free days in Rio before and after my studies.
As is usual with language schools, Caminhos requires an advance deposit for classes and accommodation.
The remainder is due your first few days of class. Class fees can be paid with cash, credit card, PayPal, or European bank transfer (credit cards and PayPal have an additional 5% fee), but accommodation must be paid in cash.
To save on fees, I paid everything in cash. I brought dollars with me to exchange and also found a Santander ATM on Visconde de Pirajá, Ipanema’s main street, with a high withdrawal limit of 3000 BRL to get the rest. Note that ATM withdrawal limits can fluctuate depending on time of day.
I also booked an airport pickup using the school’s driver Vanessa, who was fantastic. While this was more expensive than other options, the peace of mind it provided made it worthwhile.
Note that high season at the school is from December to March during Brazilian summer and Carnival season; accommodation prices increase during this time, and it’s wise to book in advance.
Credit Cards in Brazil
Apart from the school payment, I hardly needed cash in Brazil; credit cards are universally accepted even by small cafés and beach vendors. Use a card with no foreign transaction fees, and if offered a currency choice always opt to pay in reais.
Card cloning is a risk, especially in Rio, so never let a merchant take your card out of sight. Bring at least one backup card on your trip in case your main card is compromised. I monitored my charges regularly and had no issues. Very occasionally in cities outside of Rio, my card got refused, so always have enough cash along just in case.
Caminhos is located on Rua Farme de Amoedo, the heart of Rio’s gay neighborhood, and the school provides an inclusive and welcoming environment. Ipanema is a quiet, upscale area, and I felt safe there.
While Ipanema is a relatively secure enclave, Rio is famously full of contrasts, and often you only have to go a short distance to be in a completely different world.
The city’s dramatic topography and harsh economic realities have resulted in favelas, or shantytowns, being built illegally on Rio’s steep hillsides, often side-by-side with the wealthiest districts.
For an idea of Rio’s sharp contrasts, compare the front view from my homestay high-rise condo onto Ipanema versus the back view onto Cantagalo favela:
Caminhos provides an educational social program for kids from nearby disadvantaged neighborhoods. They also offer a weekly educational favela tour of Vidigal so you can learn more about life in these communities firsthand.
For an addictive read set in Rio, try Invisibles, the engrossing tale of one man’s journey from Brighton, UK to Brazil to discover the fate of his missing father.
Much of the action takes place in Ipanema. Even the cover image is inspired by Cantagalo, the favela overlooking Ipanema. The writing features lots of Brazilian slang.
I read this book after my return from Rio. It was so fun to recognize many of the locations and cultural references!
Please note that the above link is an affiliate link, meaning that if you make a purchase I will earn a small commission at no additional cost to you.
Activities with Caminhos
One of the main reasons I chose Caminhos was its extensive activity calendar, with multiple options often offered daily, including weekends. This is ideal for solo travelers like me, since it is easy to make friends both in and out of class.
The school WhatsApp group also allows easy organization of impromptu get-togethers by students.
Most activities are free, but those involving longer distances or a paid guide have a reasonable charge. Note that in low season activities can often be canceled if they don’t reach the minimum number of signups.
My homestay was with a retired senhora in a high-rise condo building a three-minute walk from Caminhos. The room was comfortable and spacious, and it was very convenient being so close to school.
My hostess also rented out a second bedroom to Caminhos students, and I really enjoyed the chance to befriend my fellow student housemates; one became a good friend with whom I’ve kept in touch.
Other students I met stayed in hostels or found their own housing through Airbnb or Roomgo, a classified site popular in Brazil for finding inexpensive rooms and kitnets (studio apartments).
My homestay provided a simple breakfast on weekdays, and cafezinho was always available at the school.
For lunch, I would usually visit one of the many por quilo (buffet charged per kilo) restaurants in Ipanema. I loved this option as it allowed me to load up on salads and fresh fruits and choose my own portions. Prices were generally very reasonable (about US $3-5 per plate).
Just a couple of doors down from the school is the Padaria Santa Marta, a bakery that also offers por quilo buffets for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They even offer a student discount, making it the most popular lunch spot for Caminhos attendees. This is an excellent, inexpensive option for fresh, tasty food.
I also recommend the por quilo restaurants New Natural, Aipo e Aipim, and the outstanding but relatively pricey Frontera near Praça General Osório.
For dinner I often had açaí. Favorite places included Amazônia Soul on Praça General Osório (expensive but authentic açaí from the northeast) and Maria Açaí, which offers delicious dessert concoctions.
Caminhos often offers weekend excursions, or you can join activities organized by other students via the WhatsApp group. I recommend checking Caminhos’ activity calendar and using your free time to visit sights not offered as a school outing during your stay.
Recommended Rio Activities
My favorite free-time activities:
- Jardim Botânico (botanic garden) – recharge your batteries in this lush sanctuary
- Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain) – go up on a clear afternoon for incredible sunset views
- Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) at the summit of Mount Corcovado – note that Caminhos sometimes offers this activity as a group hike
- Eat Rio Food Tour – if you’re a foodie, you will love this introduction to Carioca cuisine
- Rio Street Art Tour – Fascinating street art tours of various neighborhoods by passionate urban art promoter Nina. Once you take one of her tours, you’ll never see Rio’s streets with the same eyes again.
Another iconic experience is watching Flamengo, Brazil’s most popular football team, play at the historic Maracanã stadium. It’s amazing to witness Brazilians’ passion for the game.
We had trouble buying tickets online, so walked to the team’s clubhouse on Rio’s lagoon to purchase them, a 25-minute walk from the school and an interesting excursion in itself.
The school’s strong commitment to social programs is inspiring, and there are volunteer opportunities if you stay for a couple of months or more with Mais Caminhos, their educational project for underprivileged kids from the nearby communities of Cantagalo and Pavão-Pavãozinho.
There are also monthly volunteer days doing service projects such as painting houses or doing a beach cleanup.
Caminhos also offers volunteer positions at their eco farm in the mountains of Nova Friburgo in Rio de Janeiro state.
After four weeks in Rio, I hopped on a short flight to São Paulo to spend two weeks exploring São Paulo, Curitiba, and Florianópolis. I enjoyed and recommend all three of these places.
More popular destinations from Rio include Ouro Preto, Ilha Grande, and Paraty.
Future Portuguese Study
Later in 2019 I’ll be attending Lusa Language School in Lisbon, Portugal for three weeks. I’m looking forward to the challenge of deciphering European Portuguese and getting to know the beautiful city of Lisbon.
In February 2020 I’m returning to Rio for four weeks to enjoy Carnival and take two more weeks of classes at Caminhos. My goal this time is to finish the C-level advanced course.
Rio’s Carnival (Carnaval in Portuguese) is the biggest in the world. No classes are offered during Carnival week, but Caminhos organizes lots of activities, including the opportunity to don a costume and parade with a samba school in the iconic Sambódromo!
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Have questions about studying Portuguese in Brazil at Caminhos Language Center? Please share your feedback in the comments.
Photo credit: Sailing photo by kind permission of Raffy Carvalheira