Trip to Brazil
When the Portuguese began colonizing Brazil in 1504 with their official arrival in Porto Seguro, their intention was to extract as many riches as possible from this vast land. The first attraction was the beautiful, red, hard wood of the Pau Brasil tree. Later eyes turned to cocoa, sugar, and eventually the grand prize: gold and jewels.
The northeast region is where the colonization first took hold and this is the main destination for most visitors to Brazil. The cities of Salvador da Bahia and Recife/Olinda became major centers of the sugar and cocoa trade and to this day, sugar plantations blanket the hillsides of the Northeast for as far as the eye can see. The region offers a three-dimensional view into the 16th and 17th centuries through its historical cities, colonial architecture, gold-laden churches, and age-old festivals. Here, you’ll also find that special blend of cultures, derived from the mixture the Portuguese colonists, African slaves, and aboriginal Indian tribes. In Bahia, the African influences are strong, from the famous Capoeira dance, to Candombl?� rituals to the Afro-Brazilian music and festivals, mixtures of African and Catholic traditions.
The only place equal to Bahia in its association with all things Brazil, is Rio de Janeiro, the cidade maravilhosa. Thrust into the forefront by the great gold rush in Minas Gerais in the 18th century, Rio became the most important channel for extracting Brazil’s great wealth. It wasn’t until the Portuguese Court spent its years of exile in the city, during Napoleon’s scouring of Europe, that Brazil began its climb to independence. Rio gained a vast amount of 19th century buildings, parks, and public squares in the process. The museums and architectural complexes in downtown Rio de Janeiro would take weeks to see completely. But competition from the city’s 20th-century influences is often a tempting distraction to visitors: the boardwalk of Copacabana, Carnaval, and the great monuments of the Cristo Redentor and P?�o de A?�??car, to name a few.
Brazil keeps going. There are national parks where you can practice mountain climbing, rappelling, white-water rafting, and waterfall cascading. There are marine reserves where you can scuba dive with tropical fish, sea turtles, sharks, lobsters, and even visit wrecked ships on the sandy bottom of the ocean. Skin divers can snorkel in offshore reefs, natural pools, and underwater corridors, looking into the marine world as if into an aquarium. In Mato Grosso do Sul, near the southern Pantanal, there is a vertical cavern that is home to hundreds of Red Breasted Macaw; and it has a pool of crystal-clear water at the bottom. You can rappel down to get a closer look. In Chapada Diamantina you can hike up to the top of the chapadas, flat mountain mesas, and look out over the vast and rugged countryside–then go for a swim in a lake of sparkling fresh water, filled with small fish nibbling at your skin.
There are coffee plantations in the south of Minas Gerais where you can stay on a functioning ranch and even participate in the harvest, rural farmlands in Paran?? that remind you of northern Europe in the early 1900s, and train rides through the dramatic mountains and valleys of the southern landscape. Brazil is quite literally inexhaustible–a vast tropical landscape that encompasses the Amazon Jungle, the desert dunes of the Len?�?�is Maranhenses, and the largest wetlands in the world, the Pantanal, not to mention over 3000 kilometers of coastline.
Planning Your Trip: Brazil’s Key Regions
Brazil is a very large country; the 5th largest in the world, in fact. That means that just about any trip to Brazil is going to be too short. It would take a couple months just to see Brazil’s principal attractions. Along with its size comes a huge diversity in its population. Its unique history has created an abundance of racial mixtures, cultural differences, language variations, customs, foods, and religions. Planning a trip to Brazil is usually an exercise in choosing your priorities and focusing in on the possibilities.
Brazil is officially divided into five official regions, but most travelers don’t use the official regions when they think of traveling there.
First, there’s Bahia, which boasts its Afro-Brazilian influences, historical cities, and monuments from Brazil’s colonization period. Of course, there’s also the unparalleled tropical coastline; a mix of quaint coastal villages, urban beaches and untouched, virgin coast. The interior of Bahia is rich in Eco-tourism and is home to many natural wonders. The center of Bahia is Salvador and you can visit the rest of Bahia from there. This can be seen in 3 to 7 days.
Brazil’s north coast requires a different travel strategy, as it consists of a string of coastal cities, each with miles of coastline around it. This area is known for its super-warm, super clear water and is a haven for divers and beachgoers alike. Most travelers hop from one major hub to the next, all the way up or down the coast from Recife to Fortaleza. It can be done in 10 to 20 days.
The Amazon and Pantanal are Brazil’s principal regions for those seeking nature and ecology. A trip to the Amazon region usually involves joining some kind of guided tour or boat excursion up the river. There are jungle lodges and different types of hotels in the cities of Manaus and Bel?�m. The Pantanal, to the south, is a similar experience, with all visitations hosted by guides and privately owned nature preserves. Most visitors enter and exit these areas in packaged (or at least self-contained) trips. You can see this region in 3 days, but 5 is a better minimum for this area.
The Southeast is the most heavily populated region, containing three of Brazil’s five largest cities: S?�o Paulo, Rio, and Belo Horizonte. Because this region is what gives Brazil its reputation for being a dangerous country, most visitors end up breezing through here in just a few days or a week. But the area is loaded with history–from the historical gold-rush towns of Ouro Preto and Tiradentes in Minas Gerais to the lavish architecture of the coffee boom era in S?�o Paulo. The region also contains several national parks and some of the prettiest coastline in the country, including the historical port town of Paraty and the fabulous islands of Ilha Grande and Ilhabela. The best approach for this part of the country is to stick to the main areas and use trustworthy transportation. You can easily spend two or three weeks here, but it can be done in 10 to 14 days.
Finally, the south of Brazil is a region quite unlike the others. Here, you’ll find high concentrations of German and Italian immigrants and, unlike the other regions, these communities remain separate and distinct. You’ll find German architecture in Joinville, Brusque and Pomerode and Argentinean along the Emerald Coast down to Florian?�polis and even Rio Grande do Sul. The area is known for its rural villages, incredible national parks, and great waterfalls, such as the unequalled Foz de Igua?�u. Most visitors zig-zag their way down the coast to see most of the beaches and inland villages. The trip takes from 10 to 20 days, depending on the angle of your zag.