With the World Cup and all, you might feel “overdosed” on information about the country. Truth is, when it comes to travel, there is much more to Brazil than Rio and the Amazon – Brazilians have kept the best parts to themselves.
If there is one word to describe Brazil, it is diversity. Whatever you seek, you are sure to find it. It takes an insider’s look to learn some of the hidden gems and figure out why it is practically impossible not to have a soft spot for the country. Pandeia did just that.
Brazil is huge, and is home to six different biomes. As you travel from north to south, you’ll see everything, from jungle to deserts to snowy mountains.
In Maranhão, thin white sand reaches as far as the eye can see: it’s Brazil’s own little desert. The dunes are interspersed with ponds of clear water. Above, only the intense blue sky. Reaching its eastern border is the Atlantic. Still, no two visits are the same – the winds change the landscape at every moment.
This is one of the most exquisite views one can have, especially between May and August, when the 15000 hectares of sand dunes form a mosaic with pools of rainwater. The national park can be reached by road, boat small planes from the state capital São Luís. Don’t forget light clothes and sunscreen.
The Caatinga covers large swathes in the eastern part of the country (in the states of Ceará, Piauí, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Sergipe, Bahia and also a piece of northern Minas Gerais). Continuous droughts that turned the language into a ghostly, whitish mirage. Hence the origin of the name in the Tupi language: white forest. The highest part is the Chapada Diamantina, in Bahia. There you find waterfalls and the scenery that inspired the Up! animated movie.
The rough climate forged a lifestyle that is not for the faint-hearted. However, it also inspired some of Brazil’s best literature and cultural references. If you don’t mind roughing it, you will be greeted with species that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. Trekking is the best option. To avoid getting lost, stick to the safety of hiring guides. We recommend checking Chapada da Diamantina. The Semi-arid region is also beautiful, but has a underdeveloped structure for tourism – so you need a native friend to help you around.
The state of São Paulo might be famous for it’s metropolis – including the homonymous capital -, but the countryside is a must. The Alto Ribeiro State Park houses 350 caves, twelve of which have underground rivers and pools that can be visited. Check the official website to check opening hours, since guides are also needed.
Brazil is famous for it’s beaches, and Europeans tend to love Búzios, Florianópolis and Recife, while Brazilians dream of the island of Fernando de Noronha. However, it’s the national oil and gas industry that has to be thanked for one of the most beautiful conservationist projects, Tamar. Visit the project’s website to find a centre near coastal cities you might be visiting to get acquainted with the species of sea turtles, hatcheries and even accompany teams on the release of hundreds of them into the wild. It’s a cute and unforgettable experience.
Believe it or not, it snows in Brazil for a couple of weeks a year. In the winter months of July and August, people from all over the country swarm to the highlands of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina in the hope of seeing some flakes. Taking part in the local craze is fun, especially because the traditional way of getting warm involves a lot of delicious food. Germans and Italians will feel at home with the cuisine. The cities of São Joaquim, São José dos Ausentes, Gramado and Canela are the ones to look out for. Plenty of comfort, so no need to worry.
Along the last 500 years, Brazil takes in immigrants and it’s easy to identify faces and references from European, African and Asian descent. Shake things up the national way, by checking out some colony hotspots.
Throughout Brazil, the month of June is taken by celebrations of the days of different saints. If you’re thinking these are dull, you’ll be surprised: the concept here is larger-than-life parties full of colour, music and, of course, more food. In the South, mulled wine is the main attraction. In the North-east, competition between the quadrilhas (folk dance groups) are a must. Saint John, patron of celebration, is honoured through bonfires and fireworks. Legend has it that he goes to sleep early this night, otherwise he couldn’t help himself and would join the party. Saint Anthony, patron of marriage (the equivalent of Saint Valentine) is also popular – and is symbolically blackmailed by singles who hope to get hitched during the next year. Biggest ones are in Campina Grande, Caruarú, São Luís, Mossoró and Salvador.
Bahia “of all saints” is home to the largest black population outside Africa. This means spicy food, traditional clothing, the best Carnival in the country and a beautiful example of religious synchronism between traditional African and Catholic faiths. When in Salvador, ask around for the current events in religious calendars and learn how to honour each orixá (orisha) through sacred music, dance and food.
You can keep track of what’s going on through the website.
East meets West
Brazil also harbours the biggest Japanese community outside Japan. In São Paulo, Liberdade is the neighbourhood in this sense, and you can probably speak the language in the streets and be understood. Other parts of the world can also be felt here: Paraná state has the biggest amount of mosques (Curitiba has the most beautiful one!), and Rio Grande do Sul holds the largest Buddhist temple in Latin America. All of these are must-sees.
Known as one of the most important companies in the world, Moscow’s Bolshoi keeps a school in the town of Joinville. It’s the only one outside Russia and, like it’s parent, provides gorgeous spectacles In July and August, the town holds a major World Dance Festival. Totally worth following.
When it comes to food, the city of São Paulo is the place in terms of variety of food. All tastes and budgets have their place. Kekanto is a reliable online guide to find spots and dishes admired by locals. If it’s typical Brazilian you are looking for, Minas Gerais is the state to eat in.
Brazil has also very good wineries. You can visit several of them in Bento Gonçalves. The best way to visit several of them is a day trip in the special route by steam train.
If you like high-end shopping, the street Oscar Freire, also in São Paulo, has everything from Luis Vuitton to Lamborghini. If you’re on the other side of the divide, check out 25 de março street, the largest commercial centre in Latin America – with very low prices.
Don’t expect everybody in Brazil to speak English and even understand it ‒ so learning some Portuguese is a good idea. While the language itself is not that easy, learning some basic words and phrases that will take you through shopping, getting directions and buying tickets is easy ‒ especially if you already speak French, Spanish or Italian. Just don’t try speaking Spanish to Brazilians ‒ many won’t understand it.
What are you waiting for? Brush up on your Portuguese and start packing!
By Scheila Silveira