6 June 2014 by David Ward
With the 2014 World Cup fast approaching, the eyes of the world have turned to Brazil. Here we shine a spotlight on a small selection of our favourite destinations from this remarkable country and show you how, once the football's over, to see them for yourself.
Stretching from the Andes to the Atlantic, Brazil contains most of the Amazon, endless beaches, the largest wetland in the world, the Pantanal, and the mighty Iguaçu Falls. So impressive are these falls that "Poor Niagara" was all Eleanor Roosevelt could manage upon seeing them for the first time, tumbling with fierce voice over a horseshoe-shaped precipice.
Most journeys up the Amazon begin in Brazil, either at the mouth or at the rubber-boom port of Manaus, 1,000 miles upstream. The north-east is a world unto itself, with Recife the launchpad to colonial Olinda, the island dive spots of Fernando de Noronha and the talcum-white dunes of Lençóis de Maranhenses. Sultry Salvador, Brazil's oldest city, is the gateway to the beaches of Bahia, widely regarded as the best in Brazil, though peaceful Paraty and beguiling Búzios, 'discovered' by Bridget Bardot in the 1960s, are also both excellent for sunbathing, snorkelling and island hopping. Then of course there's Rio, home to the giant statue of Christ the Redeemer, Sugar Loaf Mountain and the famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema.
When to go
Brazil can be visited year-round but different regions vary climatically at different times of year. Manaus and the Amazon are best visited from June to November, when it's drier. Iguaçu Falls are perhaps best seen in March, April, August and September. Water levels may not be at their highest but having a few rock faces peeking through the falls makes for more dramatic photos. It also gives you a better chance of seeing clear, blue skies. The falls are fullest during the rains of December to February but trails can be closed and cloudy skies are common. December to March can see temperatures in Rio to rise to over 40°C, with showers almost every afternoon. Still, that's never stopped anyone enjoying Carnival in late February and early March.
Where to go
Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro is Brazil's beating heart, a city of samba and sunkissed beaches where highlights come thick and fast. With its iconic skyline and spectacular coastal setting, Rio is many people's first glimpse of Brazil, and, as first impressions go, it really is hard to beat.
Soaring jungle-clad peaks, vast, tumbledown favelas, the golden sands of the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, and the ever-watchful presence of the statue of Christ the Redeemer, gazing endlessly down from the summit of Corcovado Mountain, all combine to create arguably the most breathtaking setting of any city on earth.
Be sure to include a sunset cable car ride to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain in your itinerary, along with a weekend walk through the streets of bohemian Santa Teresa and, if you get the chance, a football game at the legendary Maracana Stadium. And once you've ticked off the tourist hotspots, join Rio's fun-loving locals at one of the city's lively samba clubs, a quintessential, and frankly unmissable, Rio de Janeiro experience.
Straddling the border of Brazil and Argentina, Iguaçu Falls are a three kilometre-long spectacular, comprising 275 separate falls, surrounded on all sides by lush, wildlife-rich rainforest and a series of verdant, jungle-clad islands. Stunning in both their beauty and power, the Iguaçu Falls have captivated visitors for centuries, ever since the Spaniard Alvaro Nunez Cabeza de Vaca first clapped eyes on them in 1541.
If your holiday to Brazil includes a visit to Iguaçu, and there's no reason why it shouldn't, make sure you allow enough time to see both the Brazilian and Argentine sides, which each offer very different views, and experiences. The panorama from the Brazilian side is unsurpassed, while the Argentine side affords the chance to peer over the edge of the vast chasm of the Devil's Throat, the most powerful and impressive waterfall of all.
Boat rides, the best of which depart from the Argentine side, include a three-mile jaunt through the rapids of the lower Iguaçu River to the entrance of the Devil's Throat Canyon, where you'll receive great views accompanied by a thorough soaking. Shorter trips, departing from picturesque San Martin's Island are also available and include all of the water-based frivolity but without the preamble.
The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Pantanal, located in the western states of Matto Grosso and Matto Grosso do Sul, is, at around 200,000 sq km, the world's largest tropical wetland and offers the best wildlife viewing in Brazil. While its generally assumed that the Amazon would hold this particular title, the dense foliage of the northern jungles is of more than a little hindrance to those hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the Brazil's many and varied animal species. The Pantanal on the other hand, with its wide-open marshlands, expansive floodplains and remarkable wealth of animal, bird and plant life, offers no such obstacles. Even during the wet season, when much of the Pantanal is under water, there's still plenty of scope for seeking out tapirs, anteaters, caiman, ring-tailed coatis, capybaras and a host of colourful birds, insects, amphibians and fish.
Salvador and Bahia
Founded by the Portuguese in 1549, the northern city of Salvador, located in the state of Bahia, half way up Brazil's east coast, is perhaps the country's most beautiful urban centre, blessed with pastel-coloured colonial houses, magnificent catholic churches and a vibrant Afro-Brazilian culture, which, over the centuries, has spawned samba, Carnaval, the uniquely Brazilian martial art capoeira, and some of Brazil's spiciest, tastiest cuisine. Festivals seem to happen on an almost daily basis, spilling out onto the many plazas and open spaces in and around Salvador's historic centre, while colourful Candomblé rituals, which form an intrinsic part of the Afro-Brazilian religion that stemmed from the dark days of the slave trade and combines aspects of Catholicism with traditional Yoruna, Fon and Bantu beliefs, can been seen each evening throughout the city.
Sitting neatly alongside the intoxicating allures of Salvador, the wider state of Bahia boasts some of Brazil's best beaches. Hugely popular with Brazilians and overseas tourists alike, the seemingly endless stretches of pristine, palm fringed sand that run down the country's Atlantic coast offer safe swimming, superb snorkelling and some of South America's best surf breaks. And with so many beaches and bays to choose from, you don't have to venture too far to discover you own, secluded slice of paradise.
Brazil's North East
North of Bahia, beyond the city of Recife, lies some of Brazil's most beautiful and least populated stretches of coast. Perfectly preserved colonial towns, such as UNESCO World Heritage-listed Olinda and picturesque São Luis dot a remarkable landscape of towering sand dunes, remote beaches, gin-clear lagoons, vast mangrove forests, swaying coconut palms and traditional fishing communities, backing onto the semi-arid sertão, a vast hinterland that stretches from the fertile coastal plains to the Brazilian Highlands and where the Portuguese first settled in the early 16th century.
Manaus and the Amazon
Despite the continued threat of deforestation from the logging and mining industries, the vast expanse of the Amazon rainforest remains one of the most ecologically diverse and important habitats on earth, home to a dizzying array of flora and fauna, including pink river dolphins, jaguars, howler monkeys, anacondas, a myriad of tropical birds, insects, reptiles and fish, and some of South America's oldest indigenous tribes. Yet travellers who venture to the Amazon hoping for a never ending stream of Attenborough-esque wildlife encounters are setting themselves up for inevitable disappointment. Animals are notoriously difficult to spot among the thick jungle foliage, while many of the tribes that live in the Amazon Basin are either inaccessible or extremely reclusive. However, that's not to say that a visit to the Amazon Rainforest is not without its rewards, and a river cruise, or a stay in one of the region's superb eco lodges, offers a wealth of unforgettable experiences that simply can't be found elsewhere. The more accessible communities that line the river and larger tributaries offer a fascinating insight into the daily lives of the local people, while catching a glimpse of the resident wildlife, however fleeting, will, without question, be one of the highlights of your holiday, made all the more exciting by the challenge and adventure that accompanies every sighting.