What you'll find in this story: Brazil travel, Brazil culture, Rio de Janeiro shopping, Brazilian beaches, South America fashion
It's no secret that life in Rio de Janeiro revolves around the beach. So if you want to blend in with the Cariocas, your first step is to dress the part. Brazilian bikinis--which come in a dazzling array of colors, styles, and patterns--are most famous for their skimpy, sexy cuts. And chances are, every woman and her mother claiming a spot of sand will be wearing a teensy number, regardless of her age or body shape. If you're concerned about exposing your bone-white bottom to the searing Brazilian sun, you should be. So do something about it. After a generous waxing (a must!), apply some self-tanner before you go and load up on SPF 30. Here are the rest of the bikini basics.
Sizing yourself up
The smallest size is P (pequeno), followed by M (médio), and then G (grande). Generally, South American women are petite, so it's safe to assume that a U.S. small is about the size of a Rio M. Fit varies by brand; figure out what suits you the same way you do at home: trial and error. Tops come in bandeau, halter, and two-triangle styles, but if you're any bigger than a B cup, you're going to need a GG (our XL). The bottoms, though, are what cause American women to pray for rain. The style called tanga sports enough material to cover about half of each cheek. The asa delta ("hang glider") isn't much bigger than a thong, but it's downright prudish compared to the fio dental ("dental floss"). If you want some wiggle room to adjust the slope of the backside, ask for side-tie bottoms. In fact, be prepared to ask for everything. Shops display only a few samples of each style, often without prices. So be patient. Upscale stores usually have an English-speaking staffer, but it's smart to pick up a bit of Portuguese.
Finding the right shop
You'll dig through dozens of patterns and colors at Salinas or Bumbum in Ipanema and Kitanga in Copacabana. A slinky, well-made suit shouldn't cost more than $50, about half of what you'd pay in the States. Shy types should check out Rosa Chá or Lenny, whose suits offer slightly more coverage but still won't trumpet your tourist status. A cheaper alternative is to barrel dive for the bits of Lycra at Isla Pacifica. The bikinis rarely cost more than $6, but they're the most revealing. Beach vendors sell cool crocheted bikinis at low prices, but, as you'd imagine, the cheaper suits may not last and you'll take a risk with the fit.
Suiting up the guys
Men don't have it much easier, coverage-wise; they typically sport Speedos, or sungas ("briefs"), worn under surf-style shorts that they shed once they hit the sand. Few men look their finest while wearing a thin, white strip of cloth, so play it safe and stick with darker Speedos that cover a fair amount of bum. The best are at Osklen, or, for Polynesian-print cotton shorts and surf-inspired gear, Totem.
A must for walking to and from the beach is either a bright, sarong-style cover-up called a canga or a pair of board shorts. Shops sell both for around $10 apiece. Pick up a pair of Havaianas (ah-vaye-ah-nash) flip-flops for a couple of dollars at the Kmart of Rio, Lojas Americanas. There are more than a dozen locations in the city.
Translating the price tags
Prices are often displayed in layaway installments rather than the full amount. So be prepared to do some mental math, or bring a calculator for double-checking. Note: Salespeople often add by hand and mistakes are common (though usually unintentional).
Rio bikini shops