I was in São Paulo, Brazil, last week. I was there only four days, having gone down for work as a last minute business trip to which I added a couple days for sightseeing. Although it was a whirlwind, and I spent more time in airplanes and airports than in country, I’m glad I took the opportunity to visit South America for the first time. São Paulo is one of the largest cities in the world, with the greater metropolitan area being home to 20 million people. In fact, it felt like its sheer enormity was its biggest distinguishing characteristic.
The biggest surprise for me was the incredible street art, both in officially sanctioned areas like Vila Madelena, and under virtually every freeway overpass.
It felt like a vibrant city, and it was reminiscent of other Latin American metropolises that I have visited — Panama City and Mexico City.
Sadly, most of the colonial architecture has been mowed over in the name of progress — that is, for blocky cement high-rise buildings to house the crushing population. Their biggest thoroughfare, the Avenida Paulista, has just a few of these grand estates that used to belong to the coffee barons.
I knew when I agree to go down there that my Portuguese was different than Brazilian Portuguese. But the differences were startling. They joked that it was easier for them to understand Spanish than my Portuguese. They are the only Portuguese-speaking country in South America, and I could see people switching back and forth between the two languages with ease.
At one point, I was watching the television news in my hotel room. They were covering the devastating fires in Portugal that have left dozens dead. As they were interviewing a woman who had fled the inferno, they used subtitle captions — even though she was speaking Portuguese!
I stayed in a relatively new neighborhood, where many multinational companies have their headquarters. So I didn’t get too much of a sense of “real” São Paulo, whatever that means. I had scheduled a full day private tour with a guide (who, by the way, gave me the entire tour in Brazilian Portuguese and I was fine understanding it all!). We were out for nearly six hours, visiting historic areas, art galleries, neighborhoods, etc. When I got back to the hotel room to see where we’d been, I realized we hadn’t gone more than five miles away from the hotel!
I hope to return to Brazil someday, to visit other cities like Rio de Janeiro.