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
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
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
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 (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
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, 4×4 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
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.
Travel Tips: Brazil
A country the size of Brazil offers a lot to explore. Read these tips to find out what’s in store for spring (autumn in the southern Hemisphere) when the World Cup and the country’s biggest culinary festival occur. Find out where to stay, how to fly, where to eat and what you need to plug in and connect.
The fervor Brazilians have for futebol (aka soccer) approaches a national religion. In 2014, the sport’s biggest event—the World Cup—comes Brazil. Staged every four years, it rivals the Olympics and is a very big deal for five-time champion Brazil. From June 14 to July 13, when the final championship match is played in Rio, teams from around the world compete in cities throughout Brazil. FIFA (the International Football Association) releases tickets in official sales phases. You can also get tickets from outside vendors, hawkers and online sellers. If you plan to visit Brazil at this time, expect higher prices and packed hotels, flights, regional transport, restaurants, tourist venues and beaches.
Translating as “a place to stay” or “a place to land,” a pousada in Brazil is similar to a B&B or an inn, but quite different than a Portuguese pousada. Pousadas in Brazil appeal to travelers looking for an authentic local experience. They come in all shapes, sizes and styles, from simple and rustic to colonial, chic and modern, but they’re all small (fewer than 40 rooms) and independently owned. You can find pousadas everywhere in the country—in the middle of the city and in the rural back country.
The greatest thing about pousadas is the cost; they can often be had for less than $100 U.S. per night. This depends on the location and how much luxury you want. The colonial Guesthouse Bianca in Rio, for example, costs approx. $125 U.S. per night.
Brazil Air Pass
It’s easy to misjudge the size of Brazil on a map—the country is almost as big as the entire United States. If you plan to visit numerous places around the country, consider the Brazil Air Pass. Offered by TAM Brazilian Airlines and GOL Airlines, the pass includes travel throughout Brazil for one flat price. The catch is that you must buy the pass outside the country (with your itinerary booked) in tandem with an air ticket to Brazil. Keep in mind that there are a limited amount of seats set aside on each flight for Air Pass holders, so you’ll need to be flexible when booking. TAM sells the pass starting at $532 U.S., plus taxes and fees. The pass is not valid during the World Cup (June 14 to July 13, 2014).
In addition to their mercado municipal (municipal market), many Brazilian cities host Sunday street fairs. These are great places to wander, people-watch and shop among booths where vendors sell an amazing variety of arts and crafts, clothing, jewelry, furniture, food and more. Sunday’s Feira Hippie (hippie fair) in Ipanema (Rio) is a crafts market that makes a fun stop before or after a visit to the beach. Food lovers should hit the Mercado Municipal in São Paulo (known locally as Mercadão). Housed in a grand 1933 structure, it features a vast array of gourmet food, meat, fruit and spice sellers, plus a great collection of restaurants. It’s best known for its huge mortadella bread rolls and bacalhau (cod) cakes.
Where to Eat
The variety of places to eat in Brazil is phenomenal. Among the many dining options you’ll find:
- Botequins/boteco: Small neighborhood pubs
- Cachaçarias: Bars specializing in cachaça (the Brazilian sugarcane rum used in the national cocktail, the caipirinha); some offer hundreds of brands
- Churrascarias: All-you-can-eat steakhouse/barbecue joints where waiters slice pieces of meat off giant skewers onto your plate
- Comida por peso: Buffet restaurant where food is weighed, then paid
- Lanchonete: Café or bar that offers small quick meals, various types of sandwiches, fruit juice, soft drinks and beer
- Salgaderias: Casual eateries that specialize in salgados (salty snacks) and other salgadinhos (finger foods); typically very inexpensive and most crowded between meals (mid-morning and mid-afternoon)
Although larger hotel chains may have North American-type outlets (check before your trip), you’ll need a plug adapter to use your electrical devices—hair dryer, curling iron, laptop, battery chargers—in standard Brazilian two-round prong plugs. Brazil’s electric current also varies widely, even within the same city, neighborhood or building. You can verify which current is used at your hotel before you go, but it’s best to bring a voltage adapter to cover your bases, or make sure your device is dual voltage. In most cases:
- 110 volts is used in Aracaju, Belem, Belo Horizante, Campinas, Curitiba, Manaus, Porto Alegre, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and São Paulo
- 220 volts is used in Blumenau, Brasilia, Florianopolis, Fortaleza, João Pessoa, Joinville, Maceio, Natal and Recife
Regional Culinary Delights
If you want to sample the marvelous diversity of food in Brazil, consider visiting in May for Brasil Sabor. The largest culinary festival in the country promotes regional cooking traditions at over 2,000 restaurants in 300 cities. Participating restaurants, which you can find on the Brasil Sabor website, each offer a special dish that represents local cuisine. Although the website is in Portuguese, it’s easy to navigate:
- Choose a state (Estado) from the first drop-down menu
- Choose a city (Cidade) from the second drop-down menu
- Click on Exibir (“Show”) for a list of participating restaurants accompanied by a photo with the featured specialty
- Click on photo for more information about the dish, the restaurant and the price
What to Wear
Straddling the equator, Brazil has a largely tropical climate, but it can vary greatly from north to south. Along with high humidity, temperatures in the summer (December to March) typically range from 85°F to 95°F. In autumn (March to June), expect 70s and even cooler temps (60s) in southern Brazil.
In general, Brazilian women are quite feminine and not shy about dressing provocatively. Form-fitting clothing for both men and women is the norm in big cities. On the beaches, you’ll see plenty of thongs and string bikinis.
Here are some tips to help you pack:
- Pack light cotton T-shirts, sleeveless tops, shorts, capris, skirts and sandals to wear outdoors
- Bring a pair of pants, a light jacket and a sweater for air-conditioned venues and the cooler climate in the far south
- Be prepared for the beach with a swimsuit, hat and flip-flops
- Convertible pants are a great option for Iguazu Falls and wilderness treks
- A chic, simple dress is perfect for dining out
- Wear conservative clothing when visiting churches and government buildings