This national park has some of Brazil’s most stunning hiking trails, following valleys and mountains, traversing grasslands and passing 280m-high waterfalls with the chance to cool off in a crystal clear river afterwards. Snorkel or rappel into underground cave pools, or try mountain biking. There are colonial houses to stay in, as well as local homestays for a more cultural experience of the region.
In the effort to tick of Brazil’s big names, many delights are overlooked – including the Green Coast, just west of Rio. The name is a clue to the verdant mountains and emerald waters of this 280km coast. The mountains plunge into the ocean, tropical islands dot the waters, and fishing villages dot the winding coastal road, which offers dramatic bay views.
Brazil’s natural riches are much celebrated – but its architecture should not be dismissed. As well as the colonial centres of Paraty and Salvador and the churches of Rio, Oscar Niemeyer’s fabulous creations are well worth a visit – and an arty photo or two. His designs include Rio’s Ministry of Education and Health, several buildings in São Paulo, a district of Belo Horizonte, and the whole of Brasilia.
Possibly the most dramatically situated city on the planet, Rio offers pretty much everything you could want in one place – awesome views, white-sand bays, tropical islands, buzzing nightlife, dance and drumming classes – all to the intoxicating beat of samba and bossa nova, with the lilting melodies of Brazilian Portuguese. Aside from the famed sights, the Botanical Garden is well worth a visit.
The Pantanal is the world’s largest seasonal wetland, and Brazil’s wildlife capital. Almost 700 species of birds can be found here, along with around 95 mammals – and the lack of jungle mean they can be easily spotted. Take night treks, canoe rides and horseback hacks, and see capybaras, anacondas, monkeys and hyacinth macaws. Porto Jofre is also the best place in the world to see habituated jaguars.
This is paradise as you would paint it; an island of pristine rainforest, tropical beaches and warm, sapphire waters. Despite its accessibility, Ilha Grande has remained fairly exclusive – for a real treat you can rent an entire villa, complete with staff and your own beach. It’s worth leaving your sun lounger to discover the Ilha’s colouful history – peppered with pirates and prisoners.
Laid-back Paraty is a beachside colonial town with bohemian markets, fresh seafood restaurants and plenty of charm. If that doesn’t sound tranquil enough – its cobbled streets are closed to cars, and this popular vacation retreat has lured artists and writers from Brazil and worldwide. You can also take a boat cruise around the bay or soak up the sun on one of several nearby beaches.
This iconic, 4km-long praia may be worth heading to for a sport of people watching, but if it’s a beach vacation you want, then Rio’s bays are not your best bet. Despite being beautiful, they’re busy and built up, with plenty of ball games, vendors and beachfront hotels. Head to Bahia or Ilha Grande for empty-beach bliss.
The Amazon is famed for its biodiversity; one in ten of all the world’s species lives here. However, that doesn’t mean you’ll see them; the density of vegetation and high canopy means they remain well hidden. The Amazon is wonderful as an immersive jungle experience, learning about medicinal plants and waking to the sounds of the forest. But for wildlife, head to the open Pantanal.
It’s become one of those “do before you die” experiences – but we’re just not sold on the world’s biggest party. As well as smashing the budget (even dorm beds can go for over $100) you’ll need to do some serious advance booking. But all’s not lost – Salvador and Paraty have incredible celebrations that manage to avoid the hype (and price hikes) – as well as feeling much more local and authentic.
Huge ships don’t just sail the seas; they sail hundreds of miles up the Amazon River. Aside from the sheer madness of traveling all the way to the Amazon to spend five days in a floating, air conditioned hotel, the ships damage the environment and contribute little or nothing to local economies. Smaller, 12-berth luxury ships are a real treat – plus you can travel along the more remote tributaries.