World Cup 2014 Brazil: a guide for visitors

Playing soccer on Ipanema beach.
Playing soccer on Ipanema beach. Photo: Reuters

The Socceroos may not be fancied for the 2014 World Cup but for travellers to Brazil, everyone is a winner, writes football fan Michael Visontay.

What do you get when you stage the world's most popular event in the world's sexiest country? A football fest in a G-string.

The World Cup in Brazil starts in June and looms as a month of goals and groans to a backdrop of shimmering beaches and shimmying bodies, Amazon forests, amazing architecture, waterfalls and wildlife.

Sunrise over Rio.
Sunrise over Rio. Photo: Flavio Veloso

It's easy to see why Australians have made a beeline to follow the Socceroos. In last year's main ticket ballot, the most applications came from Brazil, followed by the United States, Australia, England and Argentina. Think about it: Australia, with 23 million people, applied more than England, the home of football with 53 million, or football-mad Argentina, with 41 million people, who can drive across the border if they want to.

The results of the main ticket ballot will be known by March 11 but there's no point waiting till then to prepare for a daunting logistical challenge: getting there, finding somewhere to stay, getting around and trying to enjoy the experience amid all the tourist traps, traffic jams and potential political protests.

With World Cups, the laws of economics are simple: the more inaccessible the country, the more outrageous the prices charged by airlines, hotels and tour operators.

The old town of Salvador de Bahia.
The old town of Salvador de Bahia. Photo: Alamy

Brazil is a prime example. If you haven't bought your flights yet, pour a stiff drink before you read on.

GETTING THERE

There are basically four ways to fly to Brazil: via Santiago in Chile, Dubai, Johannesburg or Los Angeles.

Carnival time in Ipanema.
Carnival time in Ipanema. Photo: Reuters

Sao Paulo is the main hub in Brazil and flying to Rio de Janiero will generally cost more than flying to Sao Paulo or Brasilia, the capital. You need to think about trading the cost of an extra flight versus convenience.

Whether you stay two weeks or four, flights on all of the above routes may cost more than $3000, most closer to $4000.

The quickest way to Brazil is with LAN Airlines/Qantas via Santiago, Chile, and on to Rio (27 hours). If you have plenty of time and want a stopover, the cheaper route is via LA and then (via Miami) to Sao Paulo or Brasilia: this can cost $3200 if you stop at Hawaii as well as Miami, or $3600 if you fly direct from Sydney to LA.

Historic Paraty village.
Historic Paraty village. Photo: Corbis

If you want to fly to Rio, Emirates has a fare for $3900 via Dubai (30 or so hours total). My son and I have decided to fly on Qantas via Johannesburg (14 hours), stop over for a night and then fly to Sao Paulo on South African Airways (nine hours).

This costs almost $4000 a person but has one hidden advantage. You can redeem Qantas frequent flyer points as Classic points on the Jo'burg leg, something you can't do if you fly via Santiago.

GETTING AROUND

Football frenzy in Maracana Stadium.
Football frenzy in Maracana Stadium. Photo: Reuters

Brazil is massive, 10 per cent larger than Australia in area, so moving from one part to another requires planning to enjoy the experience beyond merely getting to matches.

This will be hard enough in itself, as every team plays their first-round games in different cities, most of them a long way from each other.

Australia plays in Cuiaba (1500 kilometres west of Sao Paulo), Porto Alegre (1200 kilometres south) and Curitiba (a mere 340 kilometres from Sao Paulo) - which brings us to planes, trains and automobiles.

Street football.
Street football. Photo: Ricardo Funari

Firstly, scratch trains - Brazil's military dictatorships of the 1970s ran them into the ground. If you don't want to drive, the main options are flights or buses.

The former are quick but filling up fast. Inter-city budget flights booked a few months ago sold out and prices are rising every week.

The domestic airlines in Brazil are Tam, Gol and Avianca.

Street food in Salvador de Bahia.
Street food in Salvador de Bahia. Photo: Alamy

Having checked the fares nearly every day since getting our tickets in the earlier December ballot, I have not yet seen evidence of extra flights being put on.

If you're unlucky, you might pay several hundred dollars for a one-hour round trip. For example, Cuiaba is half-way to the Amazon and flights there are already quite expensive. Getting out is another challenge altogether. Porto Alegre is easier because it's serviced by Rio flights as well as Sao Paulo.

And although Curitiba is drivable from Sao Paulo, it is hardly worth the effort to rent a car and drive, even if you have four people in your group, like we do.

Copacabana beach, Rio.
Copacabana beach, Rio. Photo: AFP

Between the three-hour plus trip, and getting out of a city of 18 million people, you're spending more than half a day on the road before you even get to your destination city, let alone park and queue with 40,000 fans.

Buses are an obvious compromise: the national network is extensive, regular and affordable, though slow (six hours for 420 kilometres from Rio to Sao Paulo). You don't have to worry about parking or being held-up. But how much time do you want to spend on the road?

WHERE TO STAY

There are two basic ways to organise your accommodation, and they will determine how you travel around the country to matches, and seeing the sights.

Either choose one city as a base, or fashion a flying "road trip" through the cities where your matches are played.

We chose the first option: a base in Rio. If you're staying for longer than two weeks, it makes the most sense.

You can find an apartment, generally cheaper than hotels and with more room, take in the colour of the Fanfest at Copacabana Beach and relax between match-day flights.

The city's modern, high-rise blocks routinely have 24-hour security. But you should ask, not assume.

On the other hand, staying in Rio or Sao Paulo means doubling up on a few more flights than if you simply fly from one match city to another, staying a few days in each.

This second option is worthwhile if you only plan to go for two weeks to follow Australia's first-round matches.

It also allows you to stay in more modestly sized cities, with populations of 1-2 million and fewer traffic issues.

But it does mean you're forever in hotels and forced to take all your luggage with you. We found a genuine two-bedroom apartment near the Botanical Gardens in Rio, about 30 minutes from the beaches.

There are countless apartments around Copacabana, Ipanema and the upmarket suburb of Leblon just behind them. However, you need to check very closely exactly what is offered. Many claim to be suitable for four people, but have only one bedroom and a sofa bed in a cramped lounge area.

If you're looking for hotels outside the two big centres, you need to move quickly to get something decent and close to the centre of town on match days. Perhaps owing to its remoteness, or its warm winter climate, Cuiaba has virtually no hotel rooms available around Australia's match. And I mean nada - except for a dorm bed for a few hundred dollars a night.

My hotel booking site had a few in the satellite cities 50-100 kilometres away, but that was it.

We have an early flight out after the Australian match and are already resigned to spending the night in the airport. It's that bad.

Other cities have more options but there is huge demand for three-star accommodation in city centres. Beyond that, you're looking at $400-$500 a night for a twin/double room.

BEYOND FOOTBALL

Despite these logistics to think about, make sure you leave enough time to sample the sights and delights beyond football.

Brazil boasts beaches and wildlife, man-made and natural beauty to rival the northern hemisphere capitals. Plus the X-factor: samba culture, thumping nightlife and the siren call of The Girl From Ipanema.

To fit in sightseeing between matches, half-way along the coast between Rio and Sao Paulo lies a beautiful colonial village called Paraty, recommended by several friends.

An hour north of Sao Paulo is Brasilia, a city built from scratch in 1956 to replace Rio as the national capital. Designed by the modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer, Brasilia has divided opinions since it was founded in 1960. Its layout and buildings set it apart from the rest of the country, although the critic Robert Hughes described it as "a ceremonial slum".

For beach culture, further north still lies the colonial splendour of Salvador, with a strong African flavour, and the beautiful beaches of Recife, Natal and Fortaleza. In the south, Porto Alegre offers a decided Argentine influence and a smattering of German and Polish culture. Further south again lie the extraordinary Iguazu Falls on the Argentine border (you should try to see the falls from both sides of the border).

Way out to the west lies the almost mythical city of Manaus, deep in the Amazon, with a dazzling array of wildlife and nature options. And this grab-bag does not even begin to scratch the surface.

GETTING MATCH TICKETS

So, you have tickets to some or all of the three Australian matches but you want more.

Depending on your luck in the draw, and your bank balance, there are several ways to get extra tickets: buy them in the official FIFA ballots; go to ticket shops which inflate the prices by anything up to 300 per cent, or swap and trade your tickets on fan sites such as Ticket4football (English phone number, Spanish address) or Big Soccer (American).

I have used Big Soccer, especially in Germany 2006 when demand was intense, as it is now. The fans I met and swapped with proved to be reliable and courteous and I had no nasty surprises. I am using Big Soccer again this year and have found willing and reliable trading partners.

SECURITY

Last June, Brazil was ignited by a series of grassroots political protests against the cost of staging the World Cup and how the money could have been better spent on much-need public infrastructure. The organisers have vowed to mount more protests as the global spotlight shines on their country.

Add to that the endemic police-gang tensions in the two major cities and Brazil's reputation as a country where everyone gets robbed, and you could be excused for thinking it's all too hard.

But they said that for South Africa too. In truth, there is never a safer time to visit an edgy country than during the World Cup or Olympics.

Governments put on huge extra police and security measures and a national pride ripples through the local population, bringing out their best behaviour.

Nevertheless, there are obvious precautions: don't wear an expensive watch or wave around your smartphone or digital camera in public.

Take a photo of your passport and leave it on your smartphone; that way you don't have to carry it around with you.

Carry a spare credit card in a safe place, and consider reducing the limit on your everyday card to something low enough for buying the odd meal or trinket, but nothing more.

In any case, you have probably paid for nearly all of your major costs before leaving Australia.

If that's all too scary, imagine this: a giant samba party at Ipanema, free cocktails all round and a giant TV screen behind the dancers showing a match where Australia thrashes Spain.

For more information, begin with fifa.com; flightcentre.com.au and visitbrasil.com.

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