If Rio de Janeiro is the obvious starting point for anybody visiting Brazil for the first time, there are many other places that can combine with or without Rio that might suit your ideas. Other places we can recommend may depend on the amount of time you have available.
Iguazu Falls is probably one of the Top Ten Must See places in South America, and being just two hours flight away can make a perfect week-long Brazil break, visiting two very special places. Don’t make the mistake that many visitors to Brazil make of thinking that Iguazu Falls is ‘just a waterfall’ and not really worth making the effort to see. Many people say this, but all come away impressed and nobody regrets visiting Iguazu. It is one of the Big Three Waterfalls in the world, but completely different in aspect to Victoria Falls in Africa, and Niagara Falls in North America. Like those two, the river is also the border between two countries, so just as you can visit Zambia and Zimbabwe or Canada and the USA together, at Iguazu Falls you can not only cross the Rio Iguazu to Argentina but also visit Paraguay across the Rio Parana too. Three countries for the price of one. Iguazu is completely different in aspect to the other big two, more picturesque perhaps as the waters split into some 275 separate falls across the 3km width of the escarpment. You can get close to Iguazu Falls than its rivals, with helicopter rides over them, boat rides that take you right under the falling curtains of water, and the walkway that takes you to look down into Devil’s Throat. The most powerful part of Iguazu is completely mesmeric, and after seeing it from below on the boat, the water disappearing into the canyon makes for a memorable experience for anybody.
If you prefer to unwind on a Brazilian beach, then finishing your week with a few nights in Buzios, two hours’ drive from Rio, is a good alternative. Buzios is possibly Brazil’s most glamorous beach town but has still retained the charm of the old fishing village made famous when Brigitte Bardot visited with her Brazilian boyfriend in 1964. It was black and white then, but things are a little more colourful now...
Paraty is another idea for a more cultural stop to finish your week. The historical port may well be Brazil’s best preserved coastal town, and another utterly charming place within a few hours’ drive of Rio de Janeiro. As well as being set amongst some of the finest coastal scenery in Brazil, with jungle-covered mountains and tropical islands, the town plays host to FLIP – the Paraty International Literary Festival.
Both Paraty and Buzios are within easy reach of the international airport in Rio for evening flights home, and both avoid the need for domestic flights which helps keep the price down.
A full week, including two weekends, gives you the chance to include some different combinations. Rio de Janeiro, Iguazu Falls and Buzios is an easy 9/10 day option. You could also take in three of the Brazil Classics, with a trip to Manaus and the Amazon after Rio and Iguazu Falls. Combining Rio de Janeiro with a journey down the Costa Verde to Paraty and Ilha Grande makes a lovely little trio, again with no flights necessary.
Two weeks in Brazil can either keep you around Rio, with Buzios, Iguazu Falls and the Paraty/Ilha Grande combination, or you can branch out to finish in the North-East. A trip combining Rio de Janeiro, Iguazu Falls, Manaus and the Amazon, then to Bahia for Salvador and some beach time to finish either at Praia do Forte or Morro de Sao Paulo. Both are close enough to Salvador to make it possible to fly home overnight from either Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo if necessary. This tour gives you a little look at most of Brazil’s classic destinations, with a little of everything included.
For longer trips, and for those who wish to explore further afield, a little more off the beaten track, there are so many other options.
With over 8,000km of coastline, any journey up the Atlantic side of Brazil will likely take you to some interesting, beautiful, busy or remote beaches, with the backdrop of mountains, jungle, desert, dunes, mangrove swamp, reef and many many lakes and lagoons. The whole coast of Bahia has paradise stretches of sand, from Abrolhos up through Caraiva; Trancoso; Arraial d’Ajuda; Ilheus & Itacare; Barra Grande; the islands of Boipeba and Tinhare for Morro de Sao Paulo; Salvador and All Saints Bay then past Praia do Forte to Costa do Sauipe and Mangue Seco. To enjoy a beach crawl like this properly, it could take anywhere between a month and a lifetime. And this is just one state.
Every state heading north has its own special coastal qualities, and this part of Brazil boasts of 365 days of sun every year, starting with the empty sands and reefs of Maceio and Maragogi, through to Porto de Galinhas. After passing the nudist beach of Tambaba you reach the easternmost point of Brazil, Ponta do Seixas, where you would be closer to Africa than to Sao Paulo. The dunes and cliffs of Pipa, Natal and Genipabu can make a nice little trip between them. You can also use Natal as the starting point for a genuinely adventurous 4x4 journey up the coast of Brazil, all the way to Sao Luis. The journey takes you via dune, mangrove swamp, fishing village and miles and miles of empty beach, visiting quiet pockets of paradise such as Canoa Quebrada, the sunset and sunrise spectacular from the dune outside Jericoacoara, the Parnaiba Delta and along the coast to finish in one of the most amazing places of Brazil. Lencois Maranhenses is one of the most photogenic places in Brazil or anywhere else, a desert of fine white sand dunes, sculpted into shape by the tropical winds, and the only desert on the planet to have its own lakes! Not just lakes either, but beautiful or anywhere else blue freshwater lakes, the perfect place to refresh yourself after a journey of any length up the wild and wonderful coastline of North-East Brazil.
Closer to civilisation and full of scenery, activity and nightlife, Florianopolis and the beaches of Santa Catarina including Praia do Rosa and Balneario Camboriu are amongst the fastest growing destinations for foreign visitors to Brazil. They can be worth a couple of weeks on their own, and are probably the best places in Brazil to hire a car and explore alone.
Santa Catarina is also one of the recommended stops for wildlife lovers, with the best whale-watching there and around Abrolhos in Bahia, which also boasts some of the best scuba-diving of Brazil’s mainland waters. The island archipelago of Fernando de Noronha has the best marine life in Brazil, and therefore the best scuba diving too. Other good dives spots include Cabo Frio near Buzios, and most of the Bahia coast. Praia do Forte and Itaunas are just two of the spots to observe sea-turtles coming ashore to lay eggs, and the later hatching of the eggs and the journey of the turtlets to the sea. The Una Ecopark is another Bahia wildlife sanctuary for the Golden Lion Tamarind.
Acquatic life in Brazil is not restricted to the coast, with a whole Amazon River system hosting a vast array of fish, large and small, plus dolphins and manatees as well as the expected caiman alligators, monkeys and piranhas! Bonito is one idea for somewhere a little different, a place with such abundant fish life that caimans occasionally swim amongst the snorkellers without ever seeming to notice them. Cave-diving is another Bonito speciality. A quick trip to Bonito and the Pantanal around Campo Grande is one way to pass a week immersed in the wildlife of Brazil. The Pantanal, Alto da Floresta and the Amazon are all traditional bird-watching areas too, some of the best in the world.
If being in the Great Brazilian Outdoors is your idea of fun, the best interior National Parks to visit include the three Chapadas: Chapada Diamantina, close to the town of Lencois, 6 hours inland from Salvador; Chapada dos Veadeiros, close to Brasilia in the centre of the country; and Chapada dos Guimaraes which can be combined with the northern Pantanal around Cuiaba. Hiking and climbing are also highly recommended in the deepest canyons of Brazil in the Aparados da Serra near Porto Alegre in the south; Sao Joaquim and the Serra Geral on the plateau above the canyons in Santa Catarina; The parks of Serra do Cipo, Caraça and Caparao in Minas Gerais State, and Itatiaia and Serra dos Orgaos in Rio de Janeiro State contain some of the highest mountains and best hiking country in Brazil.
We haven’t really mentioned the Amazon yet. Some of the hottest, hardest and most rewarding hiking can be found in the Amazon, with Pico da Neblina and Monte Roraima being two of the highest and least accessible peaks in Brazil. Both require a two week stay at least to complete. Other nature reserves possible to visit in the enormous Amazon area include Jau and Mamiraua.
The mountains of Minas Gerais in particular are worth visiting for far more than just the hiking. The scenery alone is spectacular but the beautifully preserved towns of Ouro Preto, Tiradentes and Diamantina in particular have incredible gold-rush tales to tell, and are essential for anyone wanting to visit the historical side of Brazil. Their history make them the jewels of the colonial crown of Brazil, with gold, minerals, indigenous people, African slavery , riches, death and the first independence movement all playing leading roles in the early development of Brazil. The Old Gold Trail that once connected the gold fields of Minas Gerais with Paraty on the coast can still be visited, and these places along with Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and Olinda are perhaps the places to dig around the history of Brazil, from the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500.
If you want to go further back in Brazilian history, or to explore the indigenous side of Brazil a little more, there are places to visit as well as the Amazon. April 19 is now a designated Dia do Indio – Day of the Indian, although not a public holiday. Why not celebrate the day by visiting an indigenous community? This must be done with care though, not every community welcomes visits by ‘Brazilians’, as the non-indigenous people are generally known.
Contemporary culture in Brazil has also given us some of the most amazing festivals on earth. Carnaval in Salvador, Olinda and Ouro Preto all provide colourful craziness, while you can also take part in the Rio de Janeiro carnival parade at the Sambodromo. To see in the New Year, it is best to be on a Brazilian beach but especially Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro and maybe Jurere in Florianopolis. Boi-Bumba on the island of Parintins in the middle of the Amazon may well be the craziest Folkloric Fstival of a very crazy bunch, only just beating its cow-based cousin Bumba Meu Boi held throughout the North-East but especially in Sao Luis. Less celebratory but equally fervent religious festivals include Cirio do Nazare in Belem and Lavagem do Bonfim in Salvador and just about anywhere that holds an Easter procession. Which is just about anywhere.
These are probably the main areas of interest for visitors to Brazil, and ones that you should consider including in your first trip to Brazil, whichever may best suit your needs. There are many more though, many more fascinating and wonderful places that haven’t been mentioned. Yet. Keep your eyes on Are You Ready for Brazil? and we’ll bring you further news of some.
With so many places to choose from, the only essential thing to remember when planning your First Trip to Brazil is to make sure that it will not be your last...