One of the world’s most dazzling destinations, Brazil is packed with steamy rainforests, tropical savannas, wetlands and exciting cities.
The ecosystems found in this giant of South America are home to the largest collection of plant and animal species found anywhere in the world. But even if nature is not top of your travel list, plenty of life can be found in the country’s musical metropolises, too. For relaxing, Brazil has sand to spare: 2095 beaches, to be precise, dotting its 7242km (4500-mile) Atlantic coastline. With such a huge country and a variety of things to do, planning an itinerary here can feel overwhelming. Here are the best places to visit in Brazil.
Ouro Preto and the colonial towns of Minas Gerais
An example of colonial opulence, Ouro Preto (meaning “black gold”) in Minas Gerais was at the heart of Brazil’s 18th-century gold rush. Nearly two dozen churches, lavishly ornamented with gold filigree, still ring out their bells across the hillsides of this rural town, which at its height was home to 110,000, a majority of whom were enslaved people. One of Ouro Preto’s most famous residents was the sculptor Aleijadinho, who studied European baroque traditions and developed his own unique style. His sculptures and reliefs – some of which he carved after losing his fingers to a disease – adorn churches across the region, including in Tiradentes, Congonhas and São João del Rei. The historical Royal Road links up most of these towns and makes for an adventurous road trip. An essential detour for art lovers is nearby Inhotim, the world’s largest open-air contemporary art museum.
Paraty and the Saco de Mamanguá
The other terminus of the Royal Road, seaside Paraty was where the precious metals extracted from Minas Gerais were shipped out in the early days of Brazil’s gold rush. The town lost some of this export trade to Rio de Janeiro in the early 1700s, yet its colonial charm was impeccably preserved – and it’s all the more spectacular for being sandwiched between steep, jungle-covered mountains and the warm, clear waters of the ocean. A backwater for centuries, Paraty has in recent decades attracted to writers and artists from all over the world. The city plays host to a number of prestigious events, including the literary festival FLIP, a jazz festival and a pinga festival (an excuse to drink lots of pinga, slang for cachaça, the Brazilian cane spirit that’s produced locally). Getting out on the water to explore some of Paraty’s 65 islands and 300 beaches is a must. Motor boats and schooners can be rented, but for a close-up connection with nature join a kayak tour in the Saco de Mamanguá – a “tropical fjord” – and paddle to deserted beaches, mangroves, waterfalls and Caiçara fishing communities.
The Amazon has a mysterious pull that has fascinated explorers for centuries. One of the wildest places on the planet, the region is almost too big to comprehend, spanning as it does about 42% of Brazil and swaths of eight neighboring countries. Each region offers something different in terms of ecology, tourism and local culture; doing your research before visiting is essential as it’s neither a cheap nor an easy-to-reach destination. The unending expanse of green can be gazed at for hours as you fly overhead into Manaus, the region’s largest city and a good jumping-off point for many of the lodges and Amazon jungle experiences. You can try canoeing through flooded forests at Anavilhanas National Park, heading farther afield to the recently formed Xixuaú Reserve or spotting river dolphins in the Mamirauá Reserve. A few hundred miles east, Santarém is another access point for seeing the majestic trees deep in the Tapajós Forest or beach hopping along the banks of the Arapiuns River, a tributary of the Tapajós River near Alter do Chão.
In a country teeming with with rainforests, pristine beaches and other natural wonders, the tropical savanna hinterlands of the Cerrado certainly hold their own. While the Cerrado has borne the brunt of Brazil’s agribusiness boom in recent decades, pockets of conservation do exist, including the relatively unexplored Jalapão State Park – 34,000 sq km (13,127 sq miles) of scrubland, grasslands, forest, caves and unusual rock formations. The best time to visit is the dry season (from May to September) when, despite the dry landscape, water is the main attraction. Splash in the glassy pools of waterfalls or kayak down rapids; you can also take a dip in the so-called fervedouros (boiling pots), natural springs where the bubbling water buoys swimmers. Sand dunes and chapadas (mountain formations) also make for some spectacular hiking. Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park (400km south) and Emas National Park (to the west) are two much larger conservation areas that are home to dozens of species of flora and fauna at risk of extinction. Lucky hikers might cross paths with giant anteaters, giant armadillos, maned wolf and rheas, South America’s largest bird.
The city of the future that’s forever stuck in the past, Brasília is a fabulous paradox. The federal capital officially opened for business in 1960, becoming the ultimate symbol of modernity for an urbanizing nation and a long-hoped-for kick start for the economic development of the country’s interior. Built in the middle of the hot, dry landscape of Brazil’s Center-West, Brasília is an open-air monument to the people who shaped and built it, including urban planner Lúcio Costa and architect Oscar Niemeyer. Thousands of tons of concrete and steel were poured into a series of Modernist architectural gems that are worth spending a day or two to explore – though not on foot, as the sprawling city was designed for cars not pedestrians. Niemeyer’s much-loved curves can be spotted everywhere, most notably in the metropolitan cathedral, with its white columns rising up to the heavens in a hyperboloid structure studded with stained glass.
The largest wetland region in the world, the Pantanal offers the best wildlife spotting in Brazil. South America’s largest mammal (tapir) and largest bird (rhea) call the Pantanal home, as do more than 230 species of fish and 650 species of bird – plus such apex predators as jaguars, caimans and anacondas. Spanning an area more than half the size of France, the Pantanal can be explored in a number of different ways. The most accessible is by road, on the Estrada Transpantaneira, though small airplanes and motorboats open the doors to more remote zones and secluded, upscale lodges. It’s easier to spot wildlife during the dry season, from May to September – but when the water levels rise from October onwards, the rivers flood their banks and inundate the surrounding plains, spurring on an abundance of flora and flocks of wading birds. The wet season also brings the arrival of river cruises: the sun deck of a 15-cabin boat cruise to the Serra do Amolar mountains near the border with Bolivia is an ideal vantage point from which to contemplate the grandeur of this region.
Rio de Janeiro
The most visited city in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro didn’t earn its title of cidade maravilhosa (“marvelous city”) for nothing. In the eyes of Cariocas, it’s the most beautiful place on earth. Visitors would be hard-pressed to disagree. Dense high-rises are stacked like sugar cubes between mountains cloaked in rainforest and studded with naked granite peaks jutting skywards. Visitors hit the famous beaches to lounge in the sun, but the locals go to get active – surfing, running, cycling or diving into the sand over a sweaty game of beach volleyball. People watching is a serious beach sport in its own right. Come evening, Rio’s own special blend of tropical rhythms draw the crowds out onto the city’s streets to meet friends at botecos (bars) or join impromptu street parties. You’ll also discover a wealth of culture and history, as the city was in the 19th century the capital of the Kingdom of Portugal, and, until 1960, the capital of Brazil.
Fernando de Noronha
An archipelago of islands some 200 miles off the northeast coast, Fernando de Noronha is high on many honeymoon wishlists. Of Noronha’s 21 islands, only the largest one is accessible to tourists – and even then, its boundaries lie safely within Brazil’s largest marine park. Dreamy beaches – including Baía do Sancho, Baía dos Porcos and Praia do Leão – all compete for the top slot on rankings of the best beaches in the country. Silky-soft sands and clear blue waters would have holidaymakers flocking here if this place were on the mainland; happily, its remote location and a cap on visitor numbers keep the crowds to a welcome minimum. Just off the shoreline, Noronha is an underwater paradise that’s home to 230 fish species, 15 varieties of coral, five types of (harmless) shark and the greatest concentration of tropical marine birds in the Atlantic. You can dive to spot corals and shipwrecks in the marine park or watch hundreds of dolphins doing water acrobatics at sunrise before snorkeling in shallow tide pools. Noronha offers Brazil’s natural beauty at its absolute best, and this place warrants going the extra mile.
Ribeira Valley and the Atlantic Forest
The Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Forest) is Brazil’s “other” tropical forest. Regrettably, it’s also one of the most endangered biomes in the world, with just 12.5% of it remaining in disparate fragments along Brazil’s southeast-facing coastline. Teeming with life, the forest has a wider variety of flora and fauna per hectare than the Amazon, with half of its species not found anywhere else in the world. In short, it’s a hidden gem within easy reach of Brazil’s largest cities. The Ribeira Valley – a 28,489 sq km (11,000 sq mile) river valley straddling the São Paulo–Paraná state border, is home to the largest continuous stretch of remaining Atlantic Forest. Here, visitors can explore some of the biggest caves in Brazil (at PETAR), stay at traditional quilombos (communities that were formed by escaped enslaved Africans), hike through the forest and raft down rivers. Private nature reserves like the whopping 310 sq km (120 sq mile) Legado das Águas offer a range of ecotourism activities. An ambitious plan to connect Atlantic Forest conservation areas (including the Ribeira Valley) with one long trail – the Caminho da Mata Atlântica – has been gathering pace in the last few years, though no one has yet attempted to hike its full 2500-mile length.
Last but by no means least is South America’s most populous city. São Paulo may not have beaches, vast swathes of forest or even clean rivers; plenty would say it has no beauty, either. Instead, it has a kinetic charm all its own. Poet Mário de Andrade called it “the hallucinated city,” which seems a fitting description for a megalopolis of 20 million residents. It’s a city whose soul is young and restless, a party-mad colossus with cutting-edge theaters, world-class chefs and a fascinating art scene, among countless other draws. With layer upon layer of immigrant influences, and centuries’ worth of boom-and-bust cycles, São Paulo attracts people from all over the world who thrive on its energy. Its delights are not served up on a plate; visitors have to seek them out. But once they get a taste, they’ll be hooked.