Brazil: 25 Travel Highlights
As the 2014 World Cup kicks off, Lizzie Porter picks 25 of the best things to do in Brazil.
It's not all about the football. Well, OK, most of it is. But Brazil is a once-in-a-lifetime trip for many other reasons, and we've got 25 of the best.
1. Watch the World Cup
What else? There’s no denying that prices will rocket, and available accommodation will be scarce, when Brazil hosts the football World Cup from June 12 to July 13, but the excitement throughout the country will be palpable. Not for a long time again will visitors be able to say they have seen matches in the country that brought the world Pelé, Ronaldinho and Mancini. There are 12 host cities, and matches will take place at world-famous locations including the Brasilia Stadium.
2. Soak up the atmosphere on Ipanema beach, Rio de Janeiro
Its name is an indigenous word for “Bad, dangerous waters” (and should you dip in the sea, the strong undertow might have you believe this), but Ipanema beach is the place to see and be seen in Rio de Janeiro. Subcultures on the sand are demarcated by postos – life guard towers – Arpoador, for example, is the city’s most popular surfing spot, while Posto 9, Garota de Ipanema, is the place for the tanned and trendy of Brazil to hang out. It gets very crowded at weekends.
3. Party in Rio
The Rio Carnival arrives with a bang before Lent every year, and given that it sees two million people per day burst onto the city streets, it is considered the world’s largest carnival. Its origins come from the Portuguese, who brought the “celebration of carnival” to Brazil in about 1850. Black slaves became involved in celebrations, and were allowed to be free for five days during the festivities, which soon took on a uniquely Latin American feel. Expect flamboyant costumes with more diamante and glitter than a Swarovski factory, and more excitement than you can shake a Brazilian bottom at.
4. Visit the lagoon-filled dunes in Lençois Maranhenses National Park
Although this area in north-eastern Brazil, covering 1500 sq km, initially appears to be a desert like any other, the proximity to the Amazon basin means that it is actually subject to not insignificant rainfall, leading to the creation of alien-like lagoons among the white sands. Park residents work mainly as fishermen, moving to more urban areas during the dry season. Getting into the park is difficult (there are no direct access roads) but come tour operators offer trekking trips, including Bespoke Brazil (www.bespokebrazil.com).
5. Escape from the city to an artist’s retreat
An antidote to the hubbub of Brazil’s big cities, Olinda is said to be the country’s best preserved colonial city, where artisans’ workshops crouch alongside colourful old houses and years-old churches. Indeed, the historic centre was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1982. Visit the Sé de Olinda cathedral, originally a small mud chapel and now a baroque-style, haunting white, red-roofed building (open from Tues-Sun, 9am-5pm) and the Museu de Arte Sacra de Pernambuco, housed in a former Bishop’s Palace (Tues- Fri 10am- 4pm, Sat-Sun 10am-2pm).
6. Climb Sugarloaf mountain
This peak – Pão de Açúcar – soars to 1,299ft above Rio’s harbour, and is one of several granite and quartz mountains around the city. You can reach the summit by cable car, on a line originally built in 1912, in six minutes, or tackle it on foot, which will take three hours, and involve downward views best avoided by vertigo sufferers.
7. Snorkel in Bonito
Known as the eco-tourism model for Brazil, Bonito, in the south-western corner of the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, offers visitors the chance to snorkel in lakes in caves and past needle-like stalactite formations among lush rainforest. Try the Rio Sucuri, a 1,500m snorkel through glass-clear waters with subaquatic gardens, or the Abismo de Anhumas, a 72m drop bottomed by an underground lake where snorkelling and scuba diving are possible in waters with 30m visibility. www.bonitoweb.br
8. Visit Christ the Redeemer
With an armspan of 92 feet (28 metres), and a height of 98 feet (30 metres), the proportions of this statue on Mount Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro, are truly impressive. Completed in 1931, Christ the Redeemer was designed by engineer Heitor da Silva Costa, chosen on the basis of his sketches of a figure with a cross in one hand and the world in the other.
Today, more than 600,000 visitors per year visit the site, transported to the summit by a railway that is almost 100 years old. Tickets, including a round-train trip and admission to the monument are from R$ 50,00 (£13) for adults and R$ 25,00 for children. www.corcovado.com
9. Drive the Costa Verde
The world’s great road trips are dominated by names such as Big Sur and the Great Southern Route, but Brazil’s Costa Verde easily rivals them. Stop-offs on the 350-mile route between Santos and Rio de Janeiro include the pristine island of Ilha Grande, and the wilderness beyond the road cannot be ignored either.
10. Board a riverboat up the Amazon
Starting in Belém or Manaus, a 985-mile journey up the world’s largest river largest drainage system takes about five days. The most authentic way to do it is to take a traditional river boat, kitted out with nothing more than hammocks, a canteen and a bar on a few decks. Don’t expect cruise-liner excitement or entertainment; instead revel in the surrounding hum of wildlife and the overwhelming calm. You can stop at Mount Alegre to see prehistoric rock art and cave paintings, which were discovered in the Victorian era by Alfred Russel Wallace, the British naturalist. Amazon Clipper Cruises (www.amazonclipper.co.br) has a range of itineraries available.
11. Get wet at Iguazú Falls
On the border between Argentina and Brazil, the Iguazú Falls stretch for 1.7 miles (2.7km), with the highest drop at 269 ft (82m), making them taller than Niagara. An average of 553 cubic feet per second of water falls from theirheights. Last Frontiers (www.lastfrontiers.com) has a 13-day trip to Brazil that includes a three-night stop at the Falls. Optional activities include a ride in an inflatable boat that passes as closely as possible to the shafts of tumbling water themselves. Price from £2,550/€2,783, including flights.
12. See Brazil’s Big Five
Seeing Africa’s Big Five is a bucket-list topper, but South America’s lesser-known offering is just as appealing – although sightings are, of course, never guaranteed. Look out for the Brazilian tapir, giant anteater, maned wolf, giant river otter and jaguar in the Parnaíba Headwaters National Park and the 81, 000 square miles of the Pantanal wetlands.
13. Stay at an eco-lodge on the Maraú Peninsula
The beaches in of Bahia are some of Brazil’s best, and can be enjoyed from the tranquillity of one of the state’s finest eco-resorts, Butterfly House, on the Marau peninsula, 250km south of Salvador. There are eight villas fitted with sustainably sourced interiors, a honey-coloured sand beach on the doorstep, and and freshwater lakes and World-Heritage listed rainforest to be explored by the more intrepid. www.butterflyhousebahia.com
14. Fly to a nature reserve archipelago
Twenty-one islands; 220 miles (354km) off the Brazilian coast; utter return-to-nature stuff. This is what the Fernando de Noronha archipelago offers, with its dense forest, dolphins and albatrosses. Little there today makes one think that these beautiful islands were once a prison, and later a military base; the environment is more congenial now to honeymooners, and wildlife spotters hoping to see endemic birds and sea turtles. Today, visitor numbers are controlled and a daily tax is imposed on visitors for environmental protection.
15. Stay in a pousada
A pousada, a word for which there is no direct translation into English, is a small independent guesthouse or eco-lodge, where you will often find personal and personable service, characterful décor and mountainous breakfasts. Chris Moss of The Telegraph describes the Pousada Portas da Amazônia, in São Luis, as “A beautiful 29-room property spread over two tall, connecting timber-framed 1830s town houses, reinvented with decorative touches using cipó (a creeper), wicker and bamboo.” www.portasdaamazonia.com.br
16. Visit Florianopolis’s fig tree
This colonial city's main square, Praça XV, has a 100-year-old fig tree at its centre, which is said to have magical powers. Circling it three times is supposed to encourage marriage, seven times counterclockwise to cause divorce, and hanging from its branches upside down to leave the fool in question widowed.
17. Trek through the Amazon rainforest
Covering 2,100,000 sq miles (5,500,000 square kilometres) of the Amazon Basin, the eponymous rainforest is one of the world’s greatest sights from the air. But there is nothing greater than penetrating the depths of the forest itself, home to one in 10 known species on Earth, including the scarlet macaw and the giant leaf frog.
Trek through with Explore: its 14-day “Pure Brazil” itinerary allows two nights in Amazonia, with the chance to fish for Piranha, visit the local Caboclo community or, at night, go in search of caimans by torchlight. Price from £4,755/€5,882, including flights; fixed departures. www.explore.co.uk
18. Ride through the Pantanal
The wet conditions mean that navigating the Pantanal on foot is not always a practical option; far better to take to horseback to search for birdlife (these wetlands provide better sightings for ornithologists than the Amazon).
19. Listen to music in Salvador
Alongside the colourful churches and cobbled streets of the historic centre, Salvador is known for its music scene, particularly its drummers, who come out onto the streets at night with a beat and a thump that will put the mojo into the dopiest of tourists. Here you will feel the African influence on Brazilian culture.
20. Visit Brasilia’s cathedral
Designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer, this singular building was completed in April 1960. Unlike few other cathedrals in the world, its outline curves gently inwards and spikes towards the skies; inside; visitors can admire blue stained glass and three angels that hang from the ceiling, the heaviest of which weighs 300kg. The cathedral is open every day to visitors, except during Mass, and welcomes nearly one million people per year. www.aboutbrasilia.com
21. Take a trip to a modern mountain town
Belo Horizonte, the capital of the Minas Gerais state, in south-western Brazil, might be surrounded by mountains, but do not think this is the back end of nowhere: it is home to forward-thinking architecture, including the St Francis of Assisi Church, also designed by Oscar Niemeyer. Depictions on its walls are in varying shades of cornflower blue, its circular outline curving and beautiful.
22. View art in Sao Paulo
Brazil’s cultural capital has enough art galleries and museums to keep you going for days. Try first the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, with works by Goya, Picasso and El Greco; the Pinacoteca do Estado, housing works by 19th-century Brazilian artists, and the Parque da Luz, where you can stroll among tropical flowers.
23. Shop at Sao Paulo’s Art Deco Mercado Municipal
The city’s biggest produce market has tropical fruits you will recognise, such as mangos, papayas, and passionfruits, as well as some you might not, such as jabuticaba). Also try a pastei, a meat and cheese filled pastry that is a local speciality.
24. Party in Recife
The capital of Pernambuco state, Recife is the place for nightlife and frevo brass band music –so called because the players “boil” a frenetic rhythm. Expect bright lights, noise, and, once a year, a carnival that in some visitors’ eyes rivals Rio’s.
25. Visit the Teatro Amazonas, Manaus
A city in the rainforest, Manaus is home to the “Amazon Theatre”, a blowsy, Renaissance-style construction that would look more at home in Vienna or St Petersburg, but that is worth seeing, perhaps during the annual Amazonas Opera Festival, which it hosts. A fancy touch is the dome, covered with 36,000 ceramic tiles in the colours of Brazil’s national flag. England play here on June 14.