Go with the flow… in Brazil
In Brazil you’ll find waterfalls wider than you could walk in an hour, and colonial towns peppered with gold-gleaming baroque churches. There’s delicious food – spicy fish stews, cuts of juicy, off-the-bone meat whisked sizzling from kitchens, prawn broths that literally tingle in the mouth and more fruits than you’ll find anywhere else on Earth. And service is not just attentive, it’s disarmingly welcoming. There’s no technical courtesy here. Brazilians seem genuinely pleased to see you.
And with an extensive, efficient flight network, it’s easy and safe to get around. Which is a good thing, because Brazil is huge. Australia fits comfortably inside, with room left over for the UK and Germany. So if you want to experience Brazil’s dense jungle, vibrant cities or dip your toes into its 7,500km of ocean-lapped coastline, you’ll need to plan your visit.
Top of the bill is the Amazon, most of which lies within Brazil – fed by myriad rivers flowing out of the Andes and spilling into a wilderness of continental scale. The Brazilian Amazon is larger than India.
Nor is the Amazon itself really a single river. It’s a river system, with tributaries of all colours – clear water, coffee brown, coal black, cobalt blue. A handful are bigger than the Mississippi and some, like the Tapajos, are lined with beaches of pristine white sand as powdery as any in the Caribbean. Cities and towns provide gateways to the region. They include Santarém (access point for the beautiful beaches of Alter do Chão), Alta Floresta (home to Cristalino Lodge – arguably the best jungle hotel in South America), and Manaus. This is the Amazon region’s biggest city, more than 4,000km inland and unconnected to anywhere but Venezuela by land. At its heart is an elegant opera house, where Caruso once sung. River cruises leave from its docks, and in its environs there are a wealth of jungle lodges.
But it’s not all jungle. There are table-top mountains pocked with caves, dry woodlands with pink flowering trees and country-sized areas of seasonally flooded igapó – a uniquely Amazonian forest populated by bizarre animals like the pacu fish – a piranha with human-like molars that grazes for nuts in the flooded forest canopy.
The Foz do Iguaçu waterfalls sit at the other end of Brazil. “Poor Niagara”, said Eleanor Roosevelt when she first saw them. Spanning 2.6km and set in a large, forested national park, they’re big enough to need two days for a visit. Stay at the Belmond Hotel das Cataratas, which sits right next to the falls – the only place you can see the falls after or before hours.
Covering around 40% of Brazil’s total area, the dense jungle and mighty waters of the Amazon rainforest are home to an astonishing range of wildlife. On a nature walk from a jungle lodge you’re likely to spot caimans, noisy toucans and noisier howler monkeys, while pink river dolphins are a common sighting when exploring tributaries in a canoe. And there’s nothing quite like the sounds of the nocturnal jungle awakening when darkness begins to fall.
The world’s largest wetland area, the Pantanal lies north of Iguaçu and south of the Amazon. Think of it as the Okavango of South America, a region of water-cut plains roamed by herds of capybara and hunted by pumas and jaguars. Your best chance of spotting these rare but magnificent big cats is around Miranda village in the southern Pantanal, or Porto Jofre in the north.
The yearly cycles of flooding and drought are what defines life in the Pantanal; aquatic species flourish during the wet season from November to March, and mammals return when the waters begin to recede in April. Intriguing inhabitants include giant anteaters, capybaras, tapirs and howler monkeys. With so much of the landscape being wide-open and lacking dense vegetation, the animals are relatively easy to spot.
Birdlife is abundant year-round in the Pantanal, with large numbers visible along the shores of the innumerable lakes, but it’s between July and October, the driest months, when the birds breed and when the most remarkable flocks can be seen. Of the more than 650 species, star attractions include jabiru storks (reaching up to 1.5m, these are South America’s tallest flying birds), toucans, kingfishers, egrets, and endangered blue-and-gold hyacinth macaws. Watching the enormous flocks return to their evening roosts at sunset is a mesmerising spectacle.
Culture & iconic cities
Some of Brazil’s natural wonders are also urban. Rio de Janeiro is home to more than 10 million, yet its landscape is so beautiful it’s Unesco world heritage protected. Mountains swathed with rainforest drop almost a kilometre into the Atlantic Ocean. Long, broad, white-sand beaches like Ipanema and Copacabana stretch between them. And the modern spires and baroque steeples of the city centre cluster behind on the edge of an enormous, beach-lined bay.
As well as the marvellous setting, the city has its own iconic sights – Christ the Redeemer high on Corcovado mountain, the twin boulders of the Sugar Loaf and Urca hill, connected by cable car, and a series of parks and protected areas. The wider state of Rio includes Brazil’s first national park, Itatiaia (170km from Rio), overflowing with waterfalls and wildlife, and Ilha Grande (270km along the gorgeous coast), a road-free, rainforest-swathed ridgeback island three times the size of Guernsey.
Brazil’s first capital, Salvador sits 1,600km to Rio’s north, on the top of a sandy cliff above another huge, shimmering bay. Handsome, brightly-painted Portuguese townhouses line the cobbled streets of its Unesco-listed old centre. The city’s church interiors are some of the most magnificent in the Americas. Palm- shaded courtyards covered with blue azulejo tiles lead to naves filigreed with brilliant gold, under ceilings painted with elaborate Biblical scenes by indigenous and African slaves.
Their descendants bring Salvador its uniquely rich, Afro-Brazilian culture – the air is scented with spicy moqueca (fish stews), in the city squares locals practice the twirling martial art dance of capoeira and percussive Bahian music that reverberates in the streets like a heartbeat.
Nor is Salvador the only repository of colonial culture. Olinda and Recife are as replete with beautiful buildings and culturally as vibrant. Beautiful and perfectly-preserved Portuguese colonial villages dot the interior states of Minas Gerais and Goiás, many of them decorated by Francisco Xavier de Brito, Aleijadinho and Mestre Athayde, three of the greatest 18th-century baroque masters in the Americas.
Resembling the shape of a Boeing airplane from above, Brasília, the country’s capital, looks like a Jetsons-Age dream of utopia – a film set of monumental modernist architecture by the Latin American Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer. There are wedges of shining concrete, vast porcelain-white concave and convex domes, avenues of marching rectangles, all set around rushing urban highways in landscaped parks by Roberto Burle Marx.
Colourful colonial houses, Olinda
No wonder Brazilians love the beach: they have some of the finest in the world – spread over nearly 7,500km of Atlantic coastline. Rio and São Paulo states drop dramatically into an emerald sea, in a series of verdant ridges. Offshore, these burst out of the emerald Atlantic in a peppering of steep forest-clad islands – Ilha Grande, Ilhabela, and the archipelago of Angra dos Reis. These islands and the mainland are fringed with broad, honey-coloured beaches backed by butterfly and hummingbird filled rainforest. Explore them from pretty colonial Paraty – whose flagstone cobbles are watched over by tiny churches and pretty blue-and-white cottages, many of them boutique hotels and upmarket restaurants.
Set on a peninsula two hours east of Rio, the once-small fishing town of Buzios is now a sophisticated resort with more than 20 golden beaches. Its beautiful coastline can be explored on boat trips, with stops to enjoy the tranquil beaches and nearby islands.
The states of Bahia and Alagoas in the tropical north-east are gentler, with the Atlantic rolling onto sugar-white sands shaded by palms and stretching for hundreds of kilometres. Manatee and dolphin-populated Patacho, the surf-pounded coves of Itacaré and trendy Trancoso still feel wild, but are home to some of the best beach hotels and surf and sand restaurants in Latin America.
Further north, the coast gets wilder and more windswept – with long, broad, turtle-nested sands you could horseback-ride along for days. Villages like Jericoacoara are squeezed between long beaches and erg-like seas of dunes, pocked with perched lakes and broken by rocky arches.
And then there’s the Amazon. It has beaches, too – on the rivers around Alter do Chao, and in the river’s mouth, which is studded with islands, the largest of which, Marajó, is as big as Denmark. Marajó beaches run for tens of kilometres broken by vast mangrove forests and river estuaries.
Ipanema beach, Rio de Janeiro
Sequined samba-parades, lavish balls, all-night dancing, with Christ on Corcovado and the Sugar Loaf as a backdrop: celebrations don’t get much more spectacular than Rio’s carnival. But it’s not the only Mardi Gras celebration in Brazil. Nor is it the biggest. Even larger and more exuberant are the Afro-Brazilian carnival in Salvador and the traditional north-eastern twin carnival at Olinda and Recife, whose Cock of the Dawn parade is said to be the largest street gathering in the world.
Less commercial and far less visited by foreigners are the Festas Juninas – June celebrations in Brazil’s north-east marking the feasts of John the Baptist and St Peter. In Parintins and São Luís there, revelry runs for days and Amazonian shamanism, Afro-Brazilian cults and Catholicism fuse in a heady mix of costumed dance, pageantry and parades of giant purpose-built floats, some as tall as a four-storey building.
Paraty village near Rio offers something more sedate. Also in June, the FLIP literary festival is a tropical Hay-on-Wye, with authors from all over the world presenting workshops and talks, interspersed with fine food, bossa nova music and Latin American film. Previous guests have included Ian McEwan, Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie.
Brazilian woman in traditional attire, Brazil
Off the beaten track
If you’re used to south-east Asia or southern Europe, nowhere in Brazil seems touristy. But in a country as large as this it’s possible to get as lost as you like.
There are beaches even Brazilians are only beginning to discover – in the whale-populated, reef-lined far south of Bahia, in Paraná state, where the forested Atlantic coast is protected by a series of huge wilderness parks like Superagüi, Cardoso and Ilha do Mel island. And there are the dunes of the Lençois Maranhenses that stretch like a wrinkled sheet 60km back from the wild Atlantic in Maranhão state in the far north-east. In the spring, between May and September, its folds are coloured green and shimmering blue with hundreds of seasonal freshwater lakes.
Behind the north-eastern beaches is a huge dry desert called the sertão, covering more than a million square kilometres. The region is as arid and empty as the Australian outback, and is similarly broken by ancient, worn domed mountains, cut by canyons covered in prehistoric rock art, and set under a sky brilliant with stars.
Squeezed between the sertão and the Amazon is the cerrado – a region of savannas and gently-perfumed woodland dotted with craggy, table-top mountains dripping with waterfalls. The cerrado is hunted by red maned wolves and puma. Metre-long indigo parrots nest in its wizened trees and ostrich-like rhea strut across its savannas.
Moon Valley, Chapada dos Veadeiros, Goias
Recommended C&K tours:
Brazil in Style 15 Days & 13 Nights
Visit Brazil’s spectacular sights while staying in some of the country’s most luxurious hotels. Witness the wondrous Iguaçu Falls, cruise the rivers of the Amazon on board a traditional river cruiser and discover the African-influenced culture of Salvador.
Brazil: Wildlife & Waterfalls 11 Days & 9 Nights
Experience the contrasting scenery and distinctive cultures of Brazil, including glamorous Rio de Janeiro, the thrilling Iguaçu Falls and the seasonally flooded Pantanal wetlands, considered one of the world’s greatest locations for wildlife viewing.
Alternatively, if you are interested in a private tour tailored to your specific requirements, please either call one of our South America experts or complete our tailor-made request form and one of the team will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.