For many people, their abiding image of Brazil is the statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooking the sprawling city and bay of Rio de Janeiro, with its surrounding lush forests and wonderful beaches. This buzzing city, with its beautiful beaches, riotous Carnaval and unique spirit is on most travellers itineraries – and rightly so.
The heart of African Brazil, Salvador throbs to the beat of drum troupes and the rhythms of capoeira. Little wonder it hosts one of the country’s most famous Carnavals. It also boasts one of Brazil’s most beautiful colonial centres in the well-preserved area of Pelhourinho.
It’s impossible to classify an area of land the size of Western Europe under a single label. Brazil’s Amazonian region includes steamy tropical jungle cut by red-brown rivers, forests and savannahs pierced by tabletop mountains, and white sandy beaches lining blue rivers. Each region boasts its own ecosystem with dazzling arrays of birdlife, insects, reptile and mammals – not to mention trees that can reach the height of skyscrapers.
The world’s largest freshwater wetland is a wildlife paradise, offering the best chance to appreciate Brazilian wildlife, from capybara (rodents the size of a large dog) to deer, anteaters, primates, cayman, anaconda and ocelots. The Patanal is also your best chance of spotting the elusive Jaguar.
And if you thought the four-legged creatures were impressive, look to the skies, the birdlife is astonishing in its variety and in the sheer weight of numbers. From parrots to raptors and waterfowl, at times they seem more like swarms than flocks.
“Poor Niagara!” was how Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly reacted on seeing this 3km long waterfall that plunges 80m into a tropical forest paradise. Iguaçu is actually a collection of almost 275 waterfalls that range from elegant cascades to brutal chocolate-coloured torrents that plunge into angry cauldrons of white water, making it one of the wonders of the natural world.
West of Rio, Brazil’s Costa Verde is one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline in the country. Here, thickly forested ridges drop into the Atlantic. In amongst the forests, charming colonial towns and fishing villages overlook powder white beaches and clusters of islands – it’s everything you’d expect from a tropical paradise.
Once the centre of Brazil’s wealthy sugar industry, Olinda is now something of an artists’ colony, with a rich cultural scene to match. The pretty colonial centre is almost 500 years old, and its charming warren of cobbled streets overlooked by colonial buildings has been declared a a Unesco World Heritage Site. It’s a great place to wander, discovering ornate churches, museums and galleries.
Delta do Parnaíba
A few hundred kilometres south of the mouth of the Amazon lies this, the largest river delta in the Western hemisphere (and you though Brazil was all about the Amazon…), where the Parnaíba river empties into the Atlantic in a wetland maze of islands, forests and dunes. It might not be as famous as it larger cousin, but the wetland wildlife and birdlife here are worth the trip.
Think of Brazil and you’ll probably imagine parades of beautiful people gyrating through the streets of Rio to the samba sounds of massed drum troupes. Carnaval is as integral to Brazilian life as winning the world cup, and Carnaval doesn’t just happen in Rio – almost every town will host some form of festivities. The most famous one happens in the three days up to and including Ash Wednesday, but with little excuse needed for a good party, you’ll find parades staged to mark all manner of local holidays.
“Football mad” barely begins to express Brazil’s obsession with the beautiful game. Games are played everywhere from beaches, to street corners to 100 000 seater stadiums. Little wonder they’ve won the World Cup more than anyone else. It’s not just football though – look out for capoeira, an acrobat martial art that is uniquely Brazilian, while beach volleyball and surfing are hugely popular too.