Brazil - The Ultimate Travel Guide
Adventures. Incredible scenery. Beach parties. Samba. History. Brazil is a firework display of a country that celebrates life from one day to the next.
Where to go
Founded by the Portuguese in 1565 as a captaincy, Rio is a fascinating mix of history, culture, beaches and celebrations. It was a rich town, founded partially to export sugar cane and gold to the Old World. Many religious orders also settled Rio and founded churches.
The centre of Rio is a mix of colonial architecture and modern skyscrapers with many old buildings and churches still beautifully preserved and in use today.
The Lapa district is famous for historical sights, including a large aqueduct built to bring water to the city, beautiful tiled steps and steep winding alleys to explore. Nearby is the picturesque Santa Teresa district with many magnificent old mansions and art studios – take the scenic historic tram route (bonde) for a wonderful view.
You can also explore one of Rio’s many harbours via a boat trip along the city coastline.
The beaches and body culture of Rio are world-famous and a major attraction – everyone wants to be seen! The best known are Copacabana and Ipanema. Contrary to popular view it is actually illegal to go topless, but very tiny swimwear is acceptable!
A must-do experience is the cable car trip to Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) 394m above sea level, from which you can see the whole panorama of Rio from mountains to coast.
The huge statue of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) reaching out to embrace the city from his high mountain is an overwhelming sight. Taking 10 years to build, the statue stands 30m high and weighs some 700 tonnes.
Brazil is one of the largest exporters of gemstones in the world and in the main shopping areas of Rio there are many certified dealers from which to buy rubies and other precious stones. It is also famous for its beachwear, shoes and summer clothes in natural fibres.
The Amazon is the world’s most varied ecosystem and provides a habitat for millions of plant species and hundreds of animal species, many still unknown. The Amazon is a watery land, with hundreds of inlets and rivers feeding into the main waterway. Many species of monkeys can be spotted in the dense vegetation of the banks, or you might see the unique pink freshwater dolphin, native to this area. Huge water lilies with large, white flowers grow further upstream. Take a boat or guided kayak trip upstream to where the black waters of the Rio Negro run side by side with the sandy-coloured river of the Rio Solimoes without ever mixing – a fascinating natural phenomenon.
The Pantanal is a watery lowlands, the largest wildlife park in South America. Its name means ‘swamp’ and it is a natural marshland area unspoiled by development or tourism; a sea of trees, shrubs, flowers and aquatic plants teeming with hundreds of species of animals, birds and reptiles.
Horseback and canoes are the most practical form of transport and you can spend your day watching the animal and bird life that abound in this wild paradise. There are many wooden pathways off the main track from which you can observe all manner of bird life, or climb the observation watchtowers to see monkeys eating, playing and relaxing in the trees. There are colourful indigenous birds, birds of prey, waterfowl and many migratory species. Caymans lurk along the banks of the river, while fish otters swim, play and eat. A special attraction are the capybara (water pigs), a plant-eating rodent related to the guinea pig but much larger.
In early times the coastal towns were protected by forts and cannons; Paraty, between steep mountains and a bay dotted with little islands, was one of those cities. Located south of Rio and founded in 1660, Paraty owed its prosperity to the gold and diamonds that were brought here on mule train from the interior to be shipped to Portugal. It is now a sleepy waterside town with many little boats moored at the quays. In the past it was thought by the locals to have a healing climate, and many invalids settled here, hoping to recover. There are many exquisite buildings which have been beautifully preserved, such as the neoclassical church Igreja NS do Rosario e Sao Benedito dos Homens Pretos, which dates back to 1873. Visit the picturesque Guyanas dos Indios region, where the locals sold timber and spices to the first European traders.
The waterfalls are one of the most impressive wonders of South America as well as providing a natural border between Argentina and Brazil. There are national parks on both sides. The Rio Iguazu has a 1300km journey and is fed by 30 tributaries along the way until it thunders down the rock walls into the depths below. The falls are an amazing sight; reddish brown water is transformed into white mist that sparkles with all the colours of the rainbow in the sunlight. There are guides to lead you through the sights of the national park and onto wooden observation platforms leading out over the roaring curtains of water.
Iguazu Falls are one of South America's most impressive natural sights.
When to go
Brazil’s rainy season is November to May, and the rainfall can be extremely high and continuous in some parts of the country. Being such a large country it also has different sub-climates ranging from equatorial, tropical, semi-arid, highland tropical and subtropical, so it’s best to do some research on the weather before you go. One of the best times to go is peak season – December until Carnaval in February, however this will also be the most expensive.
If you plan to visit the Pantanal, the dry season from June to October is the best time to see wildlife as animals and birds congregate around the water areas, and this is also the best time to see nesting birds. In the wet season, though the floods are spectacular, mosquitoes abound and many animals move up to the less-flooded highlands.
Despite its reputation, Brazil does cater for families as well as singles and couples. If in doubt, plan your itinerary ahead and include activities for children such as the beach, the famous Beach Park waterpark, or a jungle trek or horseback ride. There is so much to see and do in Brazil – beaches, wildlife, adventure, partying, shopping, ecotourism – that you are sure to find something to your taste. Brazil also reportedly has a high degree of tolerance and acceptance for gay travellers.
How to get there
By air – the major airports for entry into Brazil are:
- Presidente Juscelino Kubitschek International Airport (BSB), 11km south of Brasilia.
- Rio de Janeiro International Airport (GIG) (Galeao), 20km north of the city.
- Sao Paulo (GRU) (Guarulhos), 26km northeast of the city.
By boat – many of the major cruise lines stop in Brazil, Rio and other major cities.
By river – from Peru or Venezuela, although border security is often tight and you may not be allowed to stay in Brazil for more than 30 days if entering this way.
By bus – from Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay and French Guyana.
5 Travel Risks
Petty and violent crime does occur here so it is wise to take precautions. Don’t carry too much cash, or display jewellery or expensive cameras. Most sources advise leaving your credit card in a safe spot in your hotel and just carrying enough cash with you for the day; perhaps an extra stash in case you are robbed. Carry a copy of your passport rather than the original, and beware of official-looking people impersonating policemen.
In Rio it is best not to venture into the Favelas unless you have a reputable guide (even then, a high degree of caution is recommended) – drug-related battles are common and there is a high level of crime. It’s also best not to visit the office districts in the large cities after working hours, as it will be very quiet and therefore unsafe. Also avoid walking alone on the city beaches for the same reason.
Check the Smart Traveller website for up-to-date information on safety risks in Brazil.
The sun is even hotter than at home, so take care with the usual sun precautions and avoid dehydration by frequently sipping bottled water. Sunscreen is readily available from pharmacies – however make sure it is 30+ as it is sometimes lower strength and sold as a cosmetic – it is called protetor solar in Portuguese.
Disruptions and delays
Brazil is a huge country and travel between locations is not always simple. Air travel is usually the most common form of transport between cities, due to the lack of trains. During peak times, travel delays are common, so it is best to be prepared for long waits especially if you are travelling towards the end of the day. Travellers also recommend if possible avoiding connections through Sao Paulo which can be very crowded and busy. In recent years three airline carriers have collapsed, plus there are sometimes strikes by air traffic controllers. All this means it’s a very good idea to have travel insurance before you go, so that you are covered for unexpected delays and cancellations that may affect your trip.
If you become ill or have an accident, you will be looked after by the public health system, however private care if you prefer it is very expensive, so it’s wise to have comprehensive travel insurance to cover you on your adventures.
Tropical diseases such as yellow fever and malaria occur throughout the country, and you are advised not to drink the water, as it is unlikely to be safe.
Check with your GP about vaccinations and preventative care, as well as treatment of any illnesses or injuries while you are there. Visit the Travel Doctor website for more information on health risks.
Find out more about health and other risks in our article ‘Brazil - 5 Risks and 5 Rewards’.