South America’s largest nation could keep you exploring for decades. Brazil has the Amazon, the Pantanal, and São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, just for starters. You’ll also find ethnically diverse culture, colonial architecture, remnants of mining and rubber boomtowns, and a rich artistic and musical heritage. With so much ground to cover—literally—you’ll need to plan your trip carefully and be realistic about how much you can fit into your days in Brazil.
A multifaceted, multicultural society, Brazil is fraught with contradictions. Carnaval, capoeira, beaches, fashion models and soccer stars, all-you-can-eat steakhouses, caipirinhas, and hammocks are a visitor’s dream, even as the country still contends with crime and poverty. As the legendary Bossa Nova composer Tom Jobim once put it: “Brazil is not for beginners.” For all their society’s complexities, Brazilians tend to be open and friendly towards travelers.
Rife with contrasts and contradictions, Rio de Janeiro is mesmerizing and musical, complex and sometimes chaotic, but never, ever dull. It possesses enough historical, cultural, and natural attractions to keep you occupied for months. The best way to tap into its pulse is by ignoring the clock, dispensing with schedules, and succumbing to its relaxing rhythms. Go with the Carioca—the term for a citizen of Rio—slow by not planning too much, and know that lolling on a mountain-fringed beach with an agua de coco (coconut water) and sitting in a neighborhood bar listening to samba and watching the world go by, count as Rio experiences, too. Tightly hemmed in between the South Atlantic and the foothills of the Serra do Mar, Rio provides an easy escape from the hustle of the city. The thing about Rio is that, aside from being drop-dead gorgeous, it’s suffused with a spirit of alegria (joy) that makes it quite simple, and effortlessly, fun.
São Paulo is as famous for its concrete as Rio is for its beaches. But don’t let that put you off. São Paulo may not have those incredible Rio views, that surf, that sea, but it is a beauty – if only behind closed doors. No city in Latin America can compete for the sheer variety and quality of restaurants, shops, hotels, and nightlife. This is where South America meets for business, where Brazil studies seriously, and where it produces everything from airplanes to the finest fashion south of New York. Visit Banespa or Terraço Itália (rooftop viewpoints) late in the day for sweeping panoramas of the city’s skyscraper skyline. Head to the Jardins neighborhood to browse Brazil’s best boutiques, sample the excellent collection of art at São Paulo Art Museum, and enjoy award-winning Brazilian food in the country’s two best restaurants, DOM in Jardins and Mani in Pinheiros.
Brazil’s Northeast is one of South America’s great secrets, right up there with the Peruvian Andes or the Brazilian Amazon for spectacular natural beauty. Thousands of miles of white-sand beaches are backed by swaying coconut groves, sweeping sand dune deserts or caramel-covered crumbling cliffs. Fishing villages turned low-key traveler towns – like Jericoacoara, Pipa, and Canoa Quebrada. The coral sea is pocked with little islands like Fernando de Noronha fringed with turquoise bays and pristine reefs. The Sertão of the rugged interior is as wild and empty as the Australian outback with thornbush and cactus broken by beehive-dome mountains and towering table-top mountains daubed with prehistoric cave paintings. And then there are the cities and towns, such as colonial Portuguese São Cristóvão and Olinda with sugar-cube cottages, the crumbling Afro-Brazilian São Luis, and Recife with its decaying baroque cathedrals and art museums.
Western Brazil covers a continental area, stretching from the Iguazu Falls in the far southwest to the northern reaches of the Amazon on the borders of Colombia and Venezuela. This is Brazil at its wildest, with a variety of terrain and scenery awe-inspiring in its scale. Iguazu is a waterfall as wide as a London borough, while the Pantanal is a wetland bigger than most US states. It’s the Serengeti of South America, and you shouldn’t miss it even if you have a passing interest in wildlife. Then there’s the Amazon basin itself: more than twice the size of India, with mountains over 2 miles high, sweeping savannahs and the most extensive tracts of tropical rainforest on the planet. The whole area is cut by myriad rivers, including three of the 10 biggest rivers in the world by water volume. And with such expanse comes great variety, from powdery white sand beaches of the Tapajos River and Marajo Island to the remote forests of the upper Rio Negro and Anavilhanas archipelago.