- Head 250km west along the luscious Costa Verde to Paraty, the prettiest of all Brazil’s colonial towns. From here, you can take day excursions on schooners, exploring the nearby beaches and islands in the Bahia de Ilha Grande (Big Island Bay). Or you could spend a few nights on the Ilha Grande itself.
- East of Rio are the lagoons and beaches of the Costa do Sol (Sun Coast). Cabo Frio, about 155km from Rio, is the most popular (my in-laws had their honeymoon there) but Armaçao de Buzios (Buzios for short) some 26km further on has a quieter, more upmarket village feel – it’s Brazil’s equivalent of Noosa in Queensland.
- Petropolis, the so-called Imperial City in the hilltops about 70km north of Rio, is great for anyone who wants to escape the heat, humidity and the city crowds. It was a favoured haunt of the Brazilian royal family, who built themselves a palace there, now a museum. From Petropolis it is worth journeying on the extra 55km to Teresopolis, to see the striking mountain peaks in the Parque Nacional da Serra dos Orgaos, the most famous of which is Dedo de Deus (God’s Finger). The Brazilian football team has a permanent base in Teresoplis.
The tournament runs from June 12 to July 13, local time – that's a whole month of soccer, sing-song and celebration, along with the inevitable drowning of sorrows as teams get eliminated – and the local tourism authorities are expecting a surge of interest in all things Brazilian. Not just this year, but again in 2016, when Rio de Janeiro hosts the Olympics. Brazil is forecasting its international tourism arrivals to rise from 6 million last year to 10 million by 2020.
Australian TV viewers can expect to see more than the usual Brazilian publicity fare – the Socceroos have been drawn to play in the lesser known cities of Cuiaba in the interior, and Curitiba and Porto Alegre in the south, and have chosen Vitoria, the state capital of Esprito Santo, as their team base for the tournament. The SBS commentary team, however, will be in the better known surrounds of Rio de Janeiro.
Some of the images we'll see from this World Cup might not be pretty, though. There has been growing discontent and at times violent protests in Brazil at the huge cost of staging the World Cup – estimated by the Brazilian Ministry of Sport at 28 billion reais, or $13.6 billion, more than double any previous tournament. The protesters say much of this money would have been better spent on health and educational facilities and have vowed to disrupt the event and make their presence felt again. However, that’s largely an issue for the estimated 3 million Brazilians and the 600,000 foreigners who will be there for the soccer matches, not for tourists visiting the country further down the track, although of course the issues of poverty and inequality will never go away.
So, what does Brazil have to offer as a tourist destination? Speaking as someone who has been to eight of the 12 World Cup host cities, and 11 of its 27 states and territories (only 16 more to go!), I can heartily recommend it, for people of all ages. The best holiday I have ever had was in Brazil, and the most enjoyable day of my life as a traveller took place there too. I just can’t decide which day it was – perhaps the one spent sailing on a schooner, swimming and snorkeling off the magnificent Costa Verde (green coast) near Paraty, or whizzing along in an open-top dune buggy along on the beaches, dunes and lagoons of the coastlines near Natal and Fortaleza, an experience that makes you feel blessed and without a care in the world.
Brazil is a vast country, about 823,000 square kilometres larger than Australia. It has splendid and varied scenery, much of it unspoiled, some superb colonial architecture and a fascinating mix of peoples and cultures. But probably what makes it so appealing, what will get you hooked, is the infectious exuberance of its people. It has a strong domestic tourism sector, driven by a population of just over 200 million, so there are plenty of options to choose from in terms of entertainment, activities, guided tours and accommodation. Here, roughly in order of personal preference, are my recommendations.
Rio is the obvious starting point – there is no better introduction to the Brazilian way of life and culture than this bustling, fun-loving metropolis which Brazilians themselves have nicknamed the Marvellous City. It’s a great mish-mash of extremes – rich and poor, splendour and shabbiness – which can be disconcerting, but the surrounding mountains and the great Guanabara Bay give it a setting that no other city can match. The cable car ride up to Sugar Loaf Mountain is a must – the views are mesmerising – as is the trip up to the statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado, a mountain in the Tijuca forest and national park. The beachfronts of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon buzz night and day, as do its shopping centres. But Rio has its serious side too. Three baroque ecclesiastical masterpieces – the Sao Bento Monastery, the Igreja (church) Nossa Senhora da Gloria and Igreja Sao Francisco da Penitencia – and the massive modern Catedral Metropolitana give a glimpse into its spiritual soul, and the city boasts an interesting array of museums, from the impressive Museu Nacional de Belas Artes to a fun colourful one dedicated to singer cum Hollywood star Carmen Miranda. Then there’s the botanical gardens, the Cidade do Samba, and the ferry ride to the picturesque Ilha Fiscal, the historic Centro district … no matter how much time you have there, you’ll wish you had more. Be sure to treat yourself to something scrumptious at Rio’s most famous tearoom, the Confeitaria Colombo.
Excursions from Rio de Janeiro
Once you arrive in Rio, it is very tempting to remain put, but even if you are stretched for time do try to include at least one of these outings on your itinerary. Better still, do all three!
Carnivals and festivals
Rio’s carnival featuring spectacular floats and costumes built by the samba schools grabs all the international attention (Sao Paulo’s are as good), but it is celebrated throughout Brazil, in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday on the religious calendar, usually in February or March. The carnivals in Salvador and Recife are also highly recommended, but for different reasons. Salvador’s carnival is more like a modern rock concert/dance party on wheels (the big names of Brazilian music perform on the back of trucks), while in Recife and nearby Olinda the carnival flavour focuses on a folkloric music and dance called frevo. But if you can’t get to carnival proper, don’t despair: many cities host a "micareta" or "carnaval fora de epoca" (out of season carnival). Among the best of these are Fortal in Fortaleza in July and Carnatal in Natal in December. One of the liveliest months in Brazil is June, when the feast days of St. Anthony (on the 13th), St. John (the 24th) and St. Peter (the 29th) are celebrated. Together they are known as the Festas Juninas. In the last weekend of June, the Amazon region’s most colourful celebration, the Boi-bumba festival, takes place in Parintins.
The natural wonders: the Amazon, Pantanal and Iguacu Falls
If jungles, wild life and eco tourism are your scene, then trips to the vast Amazon rainforest and river basin or the interior wetlands of the Pantanal are for you. Indeed, Brazil chose Manaus in the former and Cuiaba in the latter as World Cup host cities, although neither boasts a football team warranting a big, brand new expensive stadium, so that it could show off its two most precious tourist assets during the World Cup. (Australia’s opening game, against Chile on June 13, takes place in Cuiaba). Manaus, situated on the confluence of the Negro and Solimoes rivers, is the main base for excursions into the Amazon, although Belem, some 1300km away near the mouth of the river, is another entry point. Both cities thrived during Brazil’s short-lived rubber boom and some relics of their heyday are still visible. If you really want to get up close to animals, though, your chances are much better in the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland. Cuiaba, the capital of Mato Grosso, and Campo Grande, capital of Mato Grosso do Sul, are the main entry points to the area. Some of the best freshwater snorkelling in the world can be found in Bonito, 260km west of Campo Grande.
The spectacular Iguacu Falls, in the south-west of the country, are shared with Argentina (where they are called Iguazu) and it would be a pity to go all the way to South America without having a peek at them. You will need at least one day to see the falls from the Brazilian side, where the overall views are better, and another from the Argentinian side, where you can get in much closer to the falls.
The north-east coast
The north-east region of Brazil, or Nordeste – which includes Bahia (see separate item below) but excludes the Amazon basin – is where you go to relax, breathe the fresh air and get back to nature inbetween bouts of fun and adventure. Think snoozing in hammocks strung between two coconut palms, or long lazy lunches at outdoor tables where the seawater tickles your feet, and sipping caipirinhas by the pool deck at sunset. Much of the north-east coastline features shallow reefs not far offshore, and in many places when the tides are right and low enough,piscinas naturais(natural swimming pools) are formed offshore. The local fishermen will take you out in their shallow craft, known asjangadas, so that you can frolic with all the fish that have been trapped in the rockpools. The Nordeste, which comprises nine states: pick any one of the coastal state capitals, give yourself at least two or three nights there to see the historic sites, sample the nightlife, maybe see a folkloric show, then spend the other days either at a top coastal resort, or doing day tours to the better beaches in the state. Recife, Fortaleza, Natal and Salvador (see below) are the Nordeste’s four World Cup host cities. Of these, Recife and Salvador are the most interesting, historically and culturally, but the esplanades of Forteleza have a buzz to match that of Copacabana beach, and Natal, "the city of the dunes", is totally seductive for those who love the lazy, hazy days of summer. Away from the World Cup venues, Maceio in Alagoas has some delightful lagoons and beaches to its south, while if you visit the region’s most northerly capital, World Heritage-listed Sao Luis in Maranhao, be sure to spend time in one of the world’s most unusual national parks, the Lencois Maranhenses, a vast area of dunes where in the rainy season, from May to August, freshwater lagoons form, creating a quiltwork patter of blue and green among the white sands (“lencois” is the Portuguese word for “sheets”).
Salvador, founded in 1549 on the Bay of All Saints, was Brazil’s first capital until 1763. Because much of its wealth was built upon the slave trade, Bahia is the state with the strongest cultural connections to Africa and it has a character unlike any other. It is Brazil’s music capital (many people regard its carnival as better than Rio de Janeiro’s) and is the birthplace of capoeira, a dance form evolving from martial arts forms that originated in Angola. If you have happened to seen a capoeira display at either a Brazilian restaurant or fair day in Australia, let me tell you they are completely lame compared to the real thing in Salvador! The city’s cobblestoned, colourful World Heritage listed historic centre, the Pelourinho, contains a wealth of treasures, including what is probably Brazil’s most splendidly decorated church, the Igreja e Convento de Sao Francisco. Bahia boasts some of Brazil’s best beaches. Porto Seguro, on the south coast near where the Portuguese first landed in 1500, is Party Central, whereas nearby Trancoso is perfect for those who yearn for peace and quiet in exotic surroundings.
The colonial gems of Minas Gerais
The interior state of Minas Gerais was the scene of a gold rush in the 18th Century, and boasts a cluster of splendidly preserved colonial towns and architectural treasures in the Brazilian Baroque style. Much of it is the work of Antonio Francisco Lisboa, otherwise known as Aleijadinho ("The Little Cripple"), who was the finest sculptor and architect of the colonial era. Together they are as far away from the stereotypical images of beaches and samba as you can get. The easiest way to explore them is to fly into the modern state capital, Belo Horizonte, hire a car and head south for about 200km, taking in the former capital Ouro Preto, Congonhas do Campo (both UNESCO World Heritage sites), Mariana, Tiradentes and Sao Joao del Rei. (Or they can be reached as a 350km-plus drive north from Rio de Janeiro.) If you have time, Diamantina, another World Heritage site 280km to the north of Belo Horizonte, is well worth the detour. Near Diamantina is the Parque Nacional Serra do Cipo, rugged high country with many rivers, waterfalls, picnic and bathing spots.
The photos of Sao Paulo’s skyline – high rises stretching as far as the eye can see – give the impression that it is a concrete jungle of nightmare proportions. And in some ways it is. Down on the ground, at street level, though, it can in parts be a surprisingly green and pleasant city to explore. Sao Paulo lacks the natural charms of Rio de Janeiro, but on the whole it’s a more sophisticated, upmarket and multi-cultural city, and you won’t really comprehend what makes Brazil tick until you have seen it. Sao Paulo should be sampled for its night life, shopping and its world-class restaurants, museums and art galleries. The Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo, or MASP (pronounced maspy) on the famous Avenida Paulista has the best collection of western art in Latin America, while the Pinacoteca do Estado on Praça da Luz offers a superb introduction to Brazilian art. When the urban sprawl gets too much, head for the lakes, woodlands, cafes and museums located in the city’s biggest green space, Parque do Ibirapuera.
The southern states of Brazil are quite different, not just because of the cooler climate but because of the strong presence of European immigrant communities. Hence Germanic Blumenau in Santa Catarina hosts what is said to be the world’s largest Ocktoberfest and Curitiba in Parana has an eyebrow-raising collection of Ukranian-style wooden churches, and Gramado and Canela in Rio Grande de Sul are likened to alpine retreats. But really it is still Brazil decked out in European clothing. The beach resorts of Santa Catarina are the hottest drawcard, much favoured by Argentinians, but the state capital Florianopolis, which straddles the mainland and the island of Santa Catarina, narrowly missed out on being a World Cup host city. Instead, Porto Alegre and Curitiba – said to be Brazil’s most liveable city – and got the honour, and the Socceroos have tough matches there; against previous beaten finalists the Netherlands in the former on June 18 and title holders Spain in the latter on June 23. The landscapes in the south vary widely, from the pampas grasslands where gaucho cowboys herd their cattle to rugged, forested plateaus where waterfalls plunge down canyons, the most famous, of course, being the Iguacu Falls.
The national capital was built from the ground up in what turned out to be a somewhat misguided Utopian vision in the late 1950s and 1960s, and has suffered much derision since, particularly from all the public servants who have been forced to reside there. But while it might not be a homely place to live in, it is great for tourists who are interested in modern architecture, particularly the works of Oscar Niemeyer, who teamed up with landscape engineer Robert Burle Marx, as they had done previously in parts of Belo Horizonte. Indeed, Brasilia’s now has UNESCO World Heritage status. When the modernity gets too much, head west to the quaint colonial towns of Pirenopolis and another World Heritage site, Cidade de Goias.