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Brazil
Costa Rica
03.06.14

There’s more to Brazil than just Carnival and Rio. Radiating with culture, history and beauty, this país maravilhosa (marvelous country) overflows with stellar coastline, desert dunes, rainforests and rich savannah. We’ve canvassed the country to unearth eight local wonders that are sure to make your trip even more fun.

São Paulo’s Artistic Enclave

Sao Paulo

The southwest suburb of Embu offers an enticing escape from the hubbub of São Paulo. Known as an artist’s retreat (hence its nickname Embu das Artes—Embu of the Arts), this small colonial town has a laid-back ambience. The historical center contains vibrantly painted architecture, cobbled streets, small museums and unique treasures for furniture lovers, making it a fine place to amble. Many stores feature leather, antiques, rustic furniture and local crafts (artists are often on hand to talk about their work). Stop in for lunch at one of the delicious eateries like Gramado Grill Churrascaria, a gaucho barbecue. You can also browse the food stalls that offer local fare at Praça de Alimentação for a variety of appetizing options.

On weekends, the center of town hosts the open-air Feira de Arte e Artesanato (arts and crafts fair), a tradition since its hippie origins in the 1960s. It features nearly 1,000 vendors and artisans selling crafts, sculptures, plants, furniture, home décor and food, accompanied by musicians and performing artists. Since many Paulistas (São Paulo residents) come here, it can get crowded—you may find more elbow room on Saturdays.

Rio’s Seaside Secret

Arpoador

While tourists flock to Ipanema and Copacabana, there’s a small area in between the two famous beaches populated only by surfers and Cariocas (Rio locals). The rocky peninsula of Arpoador —which translates as “harpoon thrower”—once served as the whale-hunting grounds for Portuguese settlers. Now it is a tiny but affluent neighborhood. You can walk up a paved path to Garota de Ipanaema Park, where you’ll find a skateboarding bowl and lookout point. Check out the grand views of the city and mountains, then hike down to Arpoador Beach, which is floodlit at night for night surfing and swimming.

When you get hungry, snag a beachside table at nearby Azul Marinho, the only restaurant in Ipanema actually on the beach. Order the octopus salad, fresh seafood or the specialty moqueca (a rich seafood stew cooked in coconut milk). Then sit back and admire the beach by day, and the twinkling lights of Ipanema and Leblon by night. In mid-summer (December/January), Cariocas flock to Arpoador to take a seat among the rocks and watch the splendid sunsets.

The Architect of Brazil

Brasilia

Oscar Niemeyer (1907–2012) revolutionized modern architecture by designing Brazil’s futuristic capital. In 1956, he was selected as the architect for the new capital, located in the center of the country. Under Niemeyer’s direction, 30,000 people were employed on a 24-hour basis, which allowed Brasilia to rise in just 41 months (1957–1960). Moving away from Brazil’s neoclassical colonial architecture, Niemeyer designed bold, stark concrete structures to mark a city of the future and a new dawn for the country. He also created natural forms with sweeping curves that were said to mimic the curvaceous women of Brazil.

In addition to the amazing Praça dos Três Poderes (Three Powers Square)—encompassing the National Congress, Pálacio do Planalto (office of the President), Pálacio do Itamaraty (Palace of the Arches) and more—you can visit the Brasilia Cathedral and drive past Pálacio da Alvorada [http://www.aboutbrasilia.com/travel/alvorada-palace.php] (the president’s official residence). In Rio de Janeiro, visit the Niterói Contemporary Art Museum—a modernist marvel Niemeyer described as a flower emerging from a rock.

The vibrant Niemeyer lived and worked until the age of 104. Doctors said he was still discussing future projects and ideas during his last weeks of life in 2012. Following his death, his body lay in state in both Brasilia and Rio, drawing thousands to pay their respects. Niemeyer is buried in the intriguing São João Batista Cemetery in his hometown of Rio.

Charming Fishing Village

Halfway between São Paulo and Rio (approx. 3 1/2 hours from each), you’ll find a quiet coastal piece of Brazil. Populated by Caiçaras—traditional inhabitants of Brazil’s southeast coast—the tiny village of Picinguaba (“fish shelter”) occupies part of the Serra do Mar State Park, an environmental preserve that protects what’s left of the Atlantic rainforest. Lacking any kind of tourist infrastructure, it’s a place where a simple way of life prevails. Birdsong and gentle waves provide the soundtrack, along with waterfalls, rivers and the rainforest.

To fully enjoy this charming village, rent a house or check into the rustic Pousada Picinguaba. A 10-minute walk away, the sparkling Praia de Fazenda (Fazenda Beach) stretches along steep forested mountains that cascade into the sea. The unspoiled sand calls to mind what Brazil must have looked like to the first colonists. Walk to your heart’s content or just sit on the sands. You’ll need to bring your own drinks, snacks, chairs and umbrellas to this oceanfront paradise—but it’s a small price to pay.

Step Back in Time

Troncoso

For a slice of enchanting Brazilian culture, fly north from Rio to Porto Seguro and head to Troncoso. In easy distance of the beach, it’s a town best explored on foot, horseback or bicycle. The main attraction is the grassy quadrado (town square), left almost untouched since the Jesuits founded Troncoso in 1586. Brightly colored houses and centennial trees flank this cultural gem, where locals socialize, trade goods, and play soccer and volleyball. The 16th-century church in the middle boasts ocean views. At night, the square becomes a gathering place for artists and musicians, who turn it into a forró (a Northeastern Brazilian dance and music genre) dance floor. Settle in at one of many outdoor dining venues and watch the festivities. By day, eight of the surrounding beaches backed by cliffs and mangroves offer plenty of waterside activities. Golfers can play atop fantastic ocean cliffs at the Terravista Golf Course, a sublime spot of verdant greens north of town.

For a Troncoso treat, stay at UXUA, a masterpiece of traditional building methods. Created by designer Wilbert Das in collaboration with local artisans, this guesthouse is a small goldmine of reclaimed and organic materials. Choose from 10 distinct casas arranged around a lush garden—from an authentically restored fisherman’s house that looks out onto the town’s quadrado, to a sleek and opulent eco treehouse.

Blue Lagoons in Desert Dunes

Lençois Maranhenses National Park in the far northeast of Brazil is a breathtaking natural wonder. Rippling white sand dunes mark the landscape—what sets them uniquely apart from any other dunes are the stunning blue and green lagoons created from the abundant rainfall that occurs between December and July. Although migratory birds, small fish and turtles visit these crystal-clear lakes, the area remains mostly silent and still. Sunsets that cast shadows over the dunes and lagoons in the area create a riveting sight.

This fantastic “Brazilian Sahara” is still largely unvisited—with not even an entry fee—making it an enticing option on the road less traveled. The best time to visit is between May and September, before the lagoons dry up. Since there are no real roads in the park and private vehicle access is not permitted, 4x4 tours from the gateway city of Barreirinhas provide the best access. You can also check into a chalet at Pousada Sossego do Cantinho and hop into a kayak to explore the Rio Preguiças (Preguiças River). Then go on a day trip with a guide through the park’s dunes and lagoons. Adventure companies also offer more rigorous multiday treks and stays with locals. To see the park from above, take a panoramic flight from Barreirinhas Airport. This incredible place should be seen from all angles.

A Subterranean World of Wonder

Tucked away in the hinterlands of the Central Brazilian Plateau, the mostly unknown Parque Estadual da Terra Ronca (Terra Ronca State Park) beckons adventure travelers and spelunkers to delve into an underground area that boasts five of the 10 largest caves in Brazil. Four miles long, the Terra Ronca cave is named for the sound of rumbling earth; its huge limestone funnel consists of holes and chambers that amplify and distort noise. The Altar of Bom Jesus da Lapa Terra Ronca stands at the cave entrance and attracts thousands of pilgrims to eat, drink and be merry in palm-covered huts at the beginning of August. Beyond the cave’s immense mouth, visitors will find a world of skylights, sand dunes, underground rivers and waterfalls, galleries of stalactites and stalagmites (some resembling pearls) and a rock ceiling that looks like a clock. This hidden world is populated by parrots, bats, blind albino catfish and the occasional alligator carried in by the current. Visitors can also explore Angelica Cavern—at eight miles, it’s the longest in the country.

May and June are the best months to visit since that’s when Terra Ronca is both the greenest and the driest. The rainy season runs from October to April and makes the caves dangerous as river levels rise. The most challenging part of Terra Ronca is getting there—navigating the long, dirt roads can be difficult. The lack of infrastructure also calls for an adventurous spirit. An organized tour that includes Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park is one option. Adventure travelers can stay at one of the simple pousadas in town and get a guide, or camp opposite the Terra Ronca cave at Pousada do Ramiro. Ramiro is a legendary guide in the region and a respected cave specialist.

Mystical Ruins in the South

Sao Paulo das Missoes

São Miguel das Missões reveals unique pieces of mission history amidst vivid natural beauty. Explore the remains of the elegant church, which was designed by an Italian friar. Roam through the tranquil ruins and imagine what life was like for the Jesuits and native Guarani Indians who lived here together peacefully in the 17th and 18th centuries.

This harmonious society—based on faith, education and self-sufficiency—produced architecture, urban planning and a way of life that is historically unique. With the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1768, the missions came to an end, but the archaeological remains harbor stellar examples of South American art.

The small museum features over 100 religious art pieces made by the residents. In the evenings (9:30 p.m.), a sound and light show depicts the story of the Jesuits and Guarani Indians, as well as and the region’s colonial history.

Ready to Go?

Don’t forget to consult our free packing guides and destination guides before you pack your bags.

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