Brazil Destination Guide

As the largest country in South America and the fifth largest country in the world, there is a wide variety of things to see and do in Brazil. From surfing, diving and dancing the night away to trekking through the jungle, navigating down rivers and crossing arid terrain, from metropolises like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo to wildnerness centers like the Pantanal, Brazil offers more than you could feasibly see in a lifetime. And we have a great Brazil hotel for every kind of traveller!

Try to get to Brazil during Carnival, the world's greatest party and one you surely won't forget!

This Brazil Destination Guide page lists some of the highlights worthy of checking out on a trip to Brazil. Keep in mind that there are much too many things to list here. For more detailed information about things to see and do in specific cities or regions, check out the tour pages on our individual Brazil sites.

Things to See & Do in Brazil

Pantanal Top

Situated at an altitude of about 80 to 150 metres above sea level, the Pantanal region has the world's largest wetlands and is spread over an area of over 2300 square kilometres. Half of it lies in Brazil while the rest is shared by Bolivia and Paraguay. The Pantanal is a paradise for nature lovers and its abundant and affluent vegetation has a variety of wildlife from fish to bird. The rivers are home to more than 230 species of fish and you can easily view them in the dry season when the rivers are shallow. The dry season is also a good time to observe wildlife, birds and animals, comprising of 1040 different kinds of species. The watering holes where they gather are the ideal places to locate them. You can try your hand at fishing but hunting is prohibited here.

Only a few towns are present in this region and there is a single main road which runs right through the area, called the Transpantaneira. You can reach Pantanal by boat from Corumba, a centrally located place bordering Bolivia. Corumba has around 170 archaeological sites around it. Bonita is another lesser-known, quiet town from which you can head to Pantanal. Bonita is known for its natural attractions like caves, waterfalls and clear streams full of multi-coloured fish. The rainy season, which lasts from December to March, is not the ideal time to travel as around 1400 square kilometres of this area lies under water.

Carnival Top

Widely considered the greatest party in the world, the most popular Carnival is held in Rio de Janeiro. Salvador is another city which receives a lot of foreign visitors. Brazilians point to places such as Recife and Olinda as very distinctive celebrations, and may also be of interest for visitors.

Carnival lasts anywhere from four days, in the South, to two weeks in some northern cities. However, anywhere you go in Brazil, you will see various processions, dancing and much celebrating. Accommodation and overland travel is notoriously difficult to book during this time, and, as such, the best thing to do is book accommodation well in advance, forget about travelling anywhere and just enjoy the party!

Rio de Janeiro Top

Rio de Janeiro , known as cidade maravilhosa (the marvellous city), is located in one of the most beautiful settings in the world. Arranged around the harbour, the city is dominated by Sugar Loaf mountain and Corcovado peak, upon which the Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue stands. These peaks give Rio de Janeiro its much-photographed skyline.

But there is more to the city than just the setting, with a number of interesting museums that are well worth visiting. Brazil's best modern art collection is housed in the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro.

Another great place to check out contemporary Brazilian art is the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói, which overlooks Boa Viagem beach and was designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the famous architect.

The Museu do Índio is one of Brazil's most important Indian heritage museums, and it contains nearly 14,000 objects created by Brazilian Indians. Other interesting museums include the Museu Histórico Nacional and the Museu da República.

São Paulo Top

São Paulo, Brazil's most modern and cosmopolitan city is the world's third largest city and the largest in South America. There are over 10 million people living here. Due to its ambience and sheer size Rio, its rival city, and São Paulo are often compared to Los Angeles and New York.

São Paulo's chief attraction is its people and the vibrant culture as different from Rio, which is known for its natural beauty. The cosmopolitan nature of the city is a result of the array of minority communities living here, notably the Italian, Japanese, Arab and Lebanese Christians.

The presence of such diverse communities makes it an interesting city for gourmands. You can find Brazilian, Jewish, Chinese, Arab and Italian nuova cucina in the restaurants across the city. You must visit the Jardins district, which is the centre of the dining scene, and centre of São Paulo's social scene. The numerous rodizios and churrascarias serve Brazil's famously good beef. Here you can taste succulent, roasted cuts of meat which are circulated around the tables and cut to patrons' order. São Paulo is a food lover's paradise. Here dinner is served late as Paulistanos eat late. Most restaurants begin serving around 9 pm or 10 pm and remain open till 3 am.

Apart from food there are many other interesting aspects to the city. The Avenida Paulista's canyon of up- thrusting skyscrapers reflects the city's energy. São Paulo has the finest museums in South America. There are many lovely beaches along the coastline and the entertainment and nightlife in the city is legendary and has attracted many famous performers from across the world.

Lately São Paulo has evolved as a centre for capoeira, Brazil's own martial art form, which embodies dance like motions to be performed with music. This art has its own traditional instruments, drums and the berimbau, a stringed rod used to keep time. History states that this art form was originally developed by the slaves of Bahia and so was banned by the ruling class. To keep their art alive the slaves introduced music and turned capoeira into a dance. The berimbau was originally used to warn the dancers of the approaching master but later started to accompany the dance itself. Till the late 1920s the capoeira was outlawed and practiced only underground but today it's a spectacle worth seeing and much enjoyed and acclaimed by the people.

Salvador da Bahia Top

Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos, as the Portuguese formally called it, is the old colonial capital of Brazil. It is built on the peninsula that separates the bay (bahia) from the Atlantic Ocean.

One of the most beautiful cities in the world, the capital city of the state of Bahia is a major international destination for tourists. The city has two sections: cidade alta and cidade baixa, the upper and lower sections respectively. You could take the elevator ride in the huge Lacerda elevator to go from one level to the other and get a good view of the city.

Pelourinho is an important point for tourists in Salvador and lies in the old colonial part in the cidade alta. The neighbourhood here is a pedestrian district so walk on the cobblestone streets and see the many churches and brightly painted buildings. If you have time on your hands, explore the restaurants, bars, shops and other attractions. Even though there are a lot of police at all times of the day in Pelourinho, you should still be alert in some of the neighbouring areas after dark. This is more so if you're entering the area to the right of Terreiro de Jesus as you enter from Praça da Sé and the area to the right of Praça da Sé as you enter the praça.

Salvador has a rich history replete with the legacy left by people belonging to other continents, its colonial legacy and the strong African influences. This gives the city a different atmosphere, with friendly people having religious syncretism. Hence professionals from different fields visit this city and visitors pour in, all drawn to this place mainly by word of mouth.

Minas Gerais Top

With a wealth of gold and diamond mines, Minas Gerais was awash with both gold and baroque art. Throughout the region, hundreds of churches and civic buildings, all built in lavish baroque style, were constructed with the proceeds of these mines.

Almost all are accessible from the regional capital, Belo Horizonte. Aleijadinho's interpretation of ‘The Passion' at the Basilica de Bom Jesus de Matosinhos is a highlight, featuring 12 statues carved out of soapstone.

The state of Minas Gerais is vastly different from the rest of Brazil. The state was formed by the influx of people who came in search of gold and diamonds. Both the past and present coexist harmoniously in its cities today. The past is evident in the  baroque churches, richly adorned with sacred art. Master Aleijadinho was the most important artist of this time and his art has enriched the artistic legacy of the state.

The Espinhaço Sierra cuts through the state of Minas Gerais. It is a biosphere reserve and it separates three regions of great biodiversity - the Cerrado, the Mata Atlântica and the Caatinga. One of the richest ecosystems of the world thrives in these three million hectares. Caves, mountains, rich flora and fauna, and numerous waterfalls combine to form this beautiful region, affording a natural boost to ecotourism.

A visit to Minas Gerais leaves one with a variety of experiences. A visit to the capital city, Belo Horizonte, gives a visitor an experience of the active cultural life and  a glimpse of the great architect Oscar Niemeyer's collection of both modern and neoclassical marvels.

Well known towns around Belo Horizonte are Congonhas, Mariana and Ouro Preto, all around 100 km away; São João Del Rei and Tiradentes are about 200 km away while Diamantina is almost 300 km away. These towns were built around the Estrada Real, the route used to transport diamonds and other precious stones and minerals in olden times. More than 1400 km of the route cuts through Minas Gerais  before reaching the coast of  Rio de Janeiro.

Come, visit Minas Gerais, enjoy the rich history and culture and enjoy the Mineiro hospitality!

Amazon Rainforest Top

The Amazon region is rich in natural vegetation. The Mamirauá Project, the largest Sustainable Development Reserve in the world with over 1,124,000 ha of preserved forest, which plays an important role in maintaining regional and global climate and carbon cycles.

The Amazon River Basin is home to the most varied life forms - almost one-third of the world's species and about one-quarter of the earth's fresh water is found here. Many more undiscovered flora and fauna still lie within its folds. This basin also supports indigenous human populations with different life styles who have almost negligible contact with the outside world. This incredible place covers 40 percent of the national territory of Brazil.

Surfing & Diving Top

Brazil offers some of the world's best surfing destinations, as well as some great dive sites. Joaquina Beach, Saquarema, Búzios and Itacoatiara are all excellent surfing locations. Rio de Janeiro also has numerous beaches, including the infamous Copacabana and Ipanema.

Beach culture is ingrained in coastal regions, and offers an insight into different Brazilian ways of life and fashion trends. Good dive sites are located at Fernando de Noronha, Angra dos Reis, Bonito and Recife. There are a plethora of dive shops located all along the coast. Ask around for prices and to find some of the more reputable places.

Football Top

Brazil as a nation is immensely successful in football, which is also their prominent sport. This sport is extremely popular and the National Team is well renowned not only in the country but in other football playing nations as well. Brazil has been the champion of the FIFA World Cup tournament five times, which was in the years 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002 and is the only team that has never missed taking part in the World Cup. Incidentally, after the third win, Brazil permanently kept the World Cup trophy. Brazil was also the favourite to win the 2006 football but was placed fifth.

The world knows about the legendary player Pele who led the Brazilian side to victory three times and remains the all-time top scorer in the sport. Talented players like Romário, Rivaldo and Ronaldo rule the present national team and some of them are super stars having achieved celebrity status nationally and internationally through advertisement and endorsement contracts and signing sports contracts all to the tune of millions of dollars. Currently the title of the best football player in the world, as rated by FIFA, goes to Ronaldinho who consecutively won the FIFA World Player of the Year prize in 2004 and 2005.

This football crazy nation also has a famous National league, which holds nation wide competitions and many other regional competitions.

Football culture

Brazilians are passionate about the sport, football, and Brazil has more than 10,000 professional players domestically as well as internationally. This kind of fervour for a sport leads to Brazil being termed the football country or "o país do futebol"

The love for this sport has a great influence on Brazilian culture. Football is the favourite hobby for most youngsters and playing on the streets is quite common. One of the greatest social phenomenons in the country is the World Cup tournament and it's normal to skip work and watch the national team play. It is also seen that many workplace also set-up the necessary apparatus so that the employees can watch the matches together.

Interestingly, the General Elections in this country coincide with the year of the World Cup and they are often criticized, because they mix politics with football and take advantage of the major surge of nationalism, created due to the World Cup. Many former players are seen to occupy legislative positions in the country.

Belém Top

Belém is the capital city as well as the biggest city of the state of Pará and is popularly referred to as Belém do Pará ("Belém of Pará") to distinguish it from Belém (Bethlehem) in the West Bank. Belém is also known as the City of Mangoes (Cidade das mangueiras) due to the presence of a large number of mango trees.

This city lies in the northern part of Brazil and has an urban population of about 2.08 million. You can fly to Belém from other parts of Brazil as well as other cities of South America. You would land at Val de Cães International Airport (BEL). Besides Manaus, Belém is an important gateway to the Amazon region and can lead you to more adventures and sightseeing in the Amazon region. The city is developed around a few islands crisscrossed by rivers and channels of water. The river Para forms a part of the Amazon River system. The port here is the busiest and is situated about 60 miles upriver from the Atlantic Ocean.

The equatorial climate at Belém ensures that it experiences almost the same weather throughout the year. The city faces a hot, rainy climate with the wettest months being from January to May.

The city of Belém has two distinct regions, in one you can see modern skyscrapers and the other is the quaint part filled with colonial architecture, churches, blue tiles and charming tree-filled squares.

Brasilia Top

Setting up Brasilia as the capital city in the heart of Brazil was always a dream of the Brazilian government, which finally came true in the 1950's under the regime of the Brazilian president Kubitchek. He wanted to build an impressive capital, which Brazil could later boast of in the event it turned into a superpower. Brasilia was inspired by Washington DC in America, Canberra in Australia and St. Petersburg of erstwhile Russia.

The architect, Lúcio Costa's original idea was to arrange the city in the shape of a cross signifying possession. The city was divided into sectors by planning it around large avenues. In the pilot plan of the urban project designed by Lúcio Costa, it resembled the shape of an airplane. But most people believe it looks like a bird with its wings wide open.

Civilization existed in Brazil for centuries but was restricted to the coastline. Population grew, townships developed and trade happened near the coast. The decision of the government to make Brasilia the capital was with the intention to gain control of the vast interior of the country.

Curitiba Top

Situated on a plateau 932 metres (3107 ft) above sea level, Curitiba is the capital city of the Brazilian state of Paraná. The city is at 25°25'47' S, 49°16'19' W and 105 kilometres (65 miles) west of the seaport of Paranaguá.

It is the cultural, political, and economic centre in southern Brazil and is one of the most important cities. It is also one of the largest cities in the south and boasts of an innovative public transit system which provides a model to the world on how to merge sustainable transport considerations with business development, local community development and road infrastructure development. The Afonso Pena International Airport is a modern terminal in Brazil and is the second most important airport in Southern Brazil.

The city had a population of approximately 1,757,904 people in 2005 with the metropolis having a total population of over 3.2 million in its 26 municipalities (2006 IBGE estimate).

The population here is mostly descendants of Russian, German, Italian, Ukrainian and Polish immigrants. This place experienced growth due to cattle trade as it lies in between the markets to the north and the cattle breeding country to the south. Curitiba officially became a town in 1842 but European immigrants, Germans, Italians, Poles and Ukrainians arrived here after 1850.

The name Curitiba is said to be derived from the Tupi words "kurí tyba" meaning ‘much pine' as this place earlier had a large number of Brazilian Pines (Araucaria angustifolia). It is also said that the original name of this place was "Vila da Nossa Senhora da Luz dos Pinhais" (Our Lady of the Light in the Pine Forest) given by a Portuguese who founded a village in 1963. The name Curitiba was formed in 1721 and so the people here are known as Curitibanos.

The Federal University of Paraná (Universidade Federal do Paraná), the first of its kind in Brazil, was established here in 1913, the same year in which electric cars were rolled out.

Fortaleza Top

Fortaleza, the state capital of Ceará, is the second most economically important city after Salvador in Bahia. With a population of over 2.4 million it is the fourth most populated city in Brazil. It is an important fishing port and is evolving as a major tourist destination in the northeast of Brazil.

To its east lie the Atlantic Ocean and the county of Aquiraz, to the west is the city of Caucaia., to the south are the cities of Pacatuba, Eusébio, Maracanaú and Itaitinga, and to the north is the Atlantic Ocean. In the centre of the city you will find some interesting old structures, which includes the Fortress of Nossa Senhora da Assunção, the origin of the city and from where Fortaleza derived its name. "Fortaleza" is fortress in Portuguese. Here the important sights are the Cathedral and the Mercado Central. However the nightlife and entertainment of Fortaleza lies in its many beaches.

The eastern part of the town has the best beaches. Two well known ones are Praia do Futuro and Praia de Iracema. Swimmers and surfers frequent the first one, while intellectual bohemians and night partiers generally frequent Praia de Iracema. You can also visit Meireles and Mucuripe, which are along the Avenida Beira Mar. These are popular with joggers and walkers as they have wide walkways and several restaurants and kiosks providing refreshments.

Manaus Top

Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, shot to fame due to its rubber plants and the latex trade that existed here. Over the years this trade stopped due to synthetic alternatives so did this city's growth.

As per the country's official regional division, this city lies in the north of Brazil but actually it is located in the northwest of Brazil. Manaus lies on the banks of the Rio Negro River and just 10 kilometres upstream this river merges with the Solimoes to form the Amazon. The northern branch of the Rio Negro River has a peaty brown colour, like the colour of strong tea, with high acidity leading to few mosquitoes. You must see the sight of black and yellow coloured water mingling to form the Amazon.

The Amazon here rises and falls to about twenty metres. In May and June the river is full and overflowing with water spreading out into the trees, while in November and December the waters are relatively low revealing sandbanks.

Manaus has a booming river harbour and is also the furthest point upstream where the huge ocean liners can reach as the water is fairly deep, around 2500 kilometres from the Atlantic. You can see interesting river vessels of all shapes and sizes plying on these waters to and from other townships situated on the banks of this river.

With a population of over one and a half million people, Manaus is right in the middle of the Amazon rain forest and is a major travel hub as well as a distribution centre for areas in the upper Amazon. It also serves as an important destination on the highway from the south.

Recife Top

Recife means ‘reef' in Portuguese. It is the capital of the state of Pernambuco in Brazil and is one of the largest cities here. The ninth most populated city with a population of over 1,500,000, it is one of the oldest settlements dating back to almost 1535.

When the Dutch troops occupied Pernambuco, followed by most of northeast Brazil in 1630, Recife was just a fishing village to which they shifted their capital from nearby Olinda. The Dutch named the place after the prince of Orange who was governor-general of the Dutch territories in Brazil and called it Mauritsstad, or Maurice Town. They developed the place by building bridges and palaces.

The oldest synagogue in the New World dating back to the Dutch period can be found here in the older parts of Recife Antigo. The Portuguese got back Pernambuco in 1654.

Recife is a major port and is where the Capibaribe River meets the Beberibe River to flow into the Atlantic Ocean. There is a barrier reef very near the shore where shark attacks are common since the 1990s. It is illegal to swim or surf in the exposed beaches and beyond the reef line.

There are a lot of beaches in this area with warm water all the year round. You can find some urban beaches in Boa Viagem. The sandy stretches with warm, green waters and lots of good hotels, restaurants, services and a nice nightlife are very tempting.

Santarem Top

A city in the state of Pará in Brazil is an important tourist destination. Santarem lies in between the cities of Manaus and Belém and is also the original name given by the Portuguese to this Brazilian city.

History states that this place once belonged to a tribe of Native Americans, Tapajós Indians, who had large agricultural chiefdoms with leaders. The river was named after them.

The Tapajós and Amazon rivers border this city and it is here that they meet, another ‘Encontro das Aguas'. The locals call this spectacle ‘The meeting of the waters'. The sight is interesting to behold as these rivers flow for a couple of kilometres without meeting and when they finally do you will observe the milky coloured waters of the Amazon, carrying sediments from the Andes in the east, mixing with the warmer, deep bluish waters of the Tapajós.

You can also visit the village of Alter do Chão, on the banks of the Tapajós River, about 30 kilometres from Santarem by car or boat. The car ride would be for about half an hour and the boat ride for one or more hours depending on the type of boat.

Santarém is an important regional market centre in Lower Amazonia and has an economy based on mining, agriculture and cattle rearing. This place has experienced several cycles of development dominated by a few economic activities. These include coffee production, rubber tapping and gold mining. The recent developments occurring in this region is due to soy plantations.

The state of Pará is huge and many ‘Mocorongos' seek for a new state by dividing Pará into eastern and western parts. The western part would be named Tapajós with Santarém as its capital.

Natural Attractions Top

Brazil boasts of unparalleled natural treasures. Central Brazil is covered with gallery forest habitat and Cerrado, the grasslands. Pantanal, the world's largest wetlands lie on the west. The caatinga desert with patches of coastal, tropical, moist forest lies on the north-eastern side. The 20-million-years-old Atlantic rain forests, lesser known than the Amazon forests, are present in south-eastern Brazil.

The great Serra do Mar mountain range also lies on the south-eastern coast and runs inland north of Rio de Janeiro. Higher ranges of this mountain range are home to the Brazilian alpine and many endemic species are found on the secluded mountaintops. There are temperate grasslands, Araucaria pine forests and wetlands in the southern part of the country, besides this half of Brazil is covered with dense tropical rainforests of the Amazon. As a tourist you have the opportunity to see different ecosystems all within a single country.

There are many unique species of plant and animal found here and its plentiful natural resources have a global impact. Given the fact that the geographical area of Brazil is 3.3 million square miles, larger even than the "lower 48" of United States, Brazil occupies an important place in the environmental health of the world.

Atlantic Rainforest Top

The Atlantic forest of Brazil has around 20,000 species of plants, which is 8 percent of the total number of plants present on Earth. In the 1990's, researchers from the New York Botanical Garden found 458 tree species in 2.5 acres, which is more than double the number of trees on the entire eastern coast of the United States. New species continue to be discovered.

The forest has a wide variety of ferns, mosses and epiphytes. Epiphytes are known as air plants that attach themselves to other plants, some of them include lianas, orchids and bromeliads. The forest structure has multiple canopies and supports extremely rich and diverse vegetation.

Earlier the Atlantic forest stretched from Bahia to Paraná and covered 30 percent of the country but presently only 7 percent of this native forest remains untouched, mostly in the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Parana. To get a feel of this forest you could visit national parks like Parque Nacional do Itatiaia lying between the states of Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, Parque Nacional do Iguaçu bordering the state of Paraná and Argentina, and Parque Nacional da Tijuca in Rio de Janeiro.

Caatinga Top

Caatinga is a rich natural resource unique to Brazil. It is a semi-arid scrub forest in the north-eastern part of the country and also happens to be one of the most populated regions in the world. The presence of humans in this region can be traced back to pre-historic times.

Very little is known about the biodiversity of this region as compared to the rain forests but over the years only a few ecologically important examples of natural habitat exist.

Caatinga occupies an area of 300,000 square miles in the subequatorial zone and covers 11 percent of the Brazilian region but only 1percent of its habitat is protected. The extreme use of natural resources and the basic agricultural techniques followed in this region has led to degradation of the land. The only international conservation organization working here is The Conservancy.

Cerrado Top

Home to more than 10,000 species of plants (some of them special to this region), is the world's most biologically rich savannah, the Cerrado. It is an ecosystem which is transient between the Pantanal, Amazon and Atlantic rain forests. This place embodies the characteristics of all three and provides a wonderful environment.

The Cerrado feeds three important river basins in South America, the Amazon, Paraguay and São Francisco Rivers. It stretches across nearly 500 million acres of Brazil which is almost three times the size of Texas.

Fernando de Noronha Top

Fernando de Noronha is a national park in an archipelago of 21 islands, covering an area of only 26 square kilometres (10 square miles). It has a permanent population of about 1500 people all living on the largest island Vila dos Remédios. Here you will find amazing marine life of the park and wonderful beaches.

As a tourist you will need to secure permission to enter the park and can stay inside for a maximum of 7 days. This jewel of Brazil is an effort to permit tourism along with environmental sustainability.

Indigenous Peoples Top

Using traditional indigenous knowledge and high-tech science, nature conservancy scientists create ‘ethno maps' for the Amazon region. The maps are created by providing community members with coloured pencils to highlight landscape features on satellite images of a one million acre region. The features include animal and plant populations and environmental stress points. Thus the conservationists get an idea where the communities generally hunted, where erstwhile villages existed and where they noticed a decline in animal population.

These maps jointly used by the Conservancy and indigenous leaders help to develop management plans to demarcate areas for protection and sustainable resource extraction.

One such ethno map has been completed for the 1.2 million acre Uaca Indigenous Territory, north of the state of Amapa, on the border between Brazil and French Guiana besides this more project sites have been identified.

Related projects pertaining to community conservation among indigenous groups like Ashaninka in the Peruvian Amazon and the Pemón people of Venezuela are afoot in other parts of the Amazon.