Brazil is arguably the most alluring country in the world. It’s a quality hard to define, and has something to do with geography, culture, myth and history. It’s a vast and uniquely beautiful nation, encompassing all kinds of people and places. It possesses verities that verge on the eternal: the endless sandy coastline, the bottle-green jungly interior, the great tree of rivers that spreads its branches in all directions.
It has produced music and art, fashion and food, and dance and carnival celebrations that couldn’t have been made anywhere else. This is down largely to its human diversity. People from all over the world call Brazil home, and where other countries have melting-pot cities, all of Brazil is a crucible of cultural melding and creativity.
For all that, Brazil has a special relationship with Portugal – which moved its monarchy here in 1807. If you missed the Independence Day festivities of 2022, don’t worry; there’s always a reason to celebrate something and Salvador, the fiesta-loving old capital, is included in this itinerary. Of course, a continent-sized country can seem overawing when you are thinking about a holiday. Where to go to sample all these delights in just a couple of weeks?
You can’t really do Brazil without seeing something of its flora and fauna. For all the illegal fires and deforestation (now in reverse with the return of Lula to the presidency), it remains a biodiversity superpower. With more than 1,800 bird species, 600 mammals, almost 400 reptiles and 70,000 insects – and an estimated 25,000 endemic species – the country is a wonderland for wielders of binoculars, butterfly nets and both telephoto and macro lenses. A tenth of the world’s forests are contained in its borders.
My ultimate itinerary has opted for the Pantanal as the ideal place to win over even well-travelled and demanding wilderness-seekers; unlike rainforest environments, wetlands are wide open to the sky, making observation easier and, frankly, far more enjoyable. There’s every chance even those on a two- or three-day visit will spot jaguar, anteater, giant otter, tapir and perhaps the shy maned wolf – Brazil’s Big Five, if you like. But the magic of this lush, liminal habitat is the ensemble, the big picture: flocks of waders suddenly rising from a shimmering lagoon, hundreds of caiman basking on mudbanks, birds of every colour flickering in the canopy, and, amid all this raw nature, ranchers on horseback rounding up their cattle.
Brazil has a dizzying choice of cities and towns, but it’s actually quite easy to choose the one must-see. Rio de Janeiro might not be the capital anymore, and it can’t rival indefatigable São Paulo when it comes to commerce, cuisine or cultural heft, but it remains the most visually stunning city in the Americas. Its topography is more remarkable than photographs suggest, with towering granite hills called morros arrayed around the edges, jungle cascading from all sides, neighbourhoods and favelas tucked into every liveable corner, and a string of world-famous beaches along the Atlantic coast. It also boasts excellent art galleries and museums, great restaurants, tireless nightlife and a relaxed, friendly bar scene for straight and gay tourists alike.
The other essential ingredient in Brazil is the beach – any beach, as many beaches as you like, all of them. Fact is, the beach is a backdrop to culture as well as hedonism in Brazil. It is a people’s playground, breathing space, meeting point and sports arena. This trip includes at least half a dozen opportunities to take a walk on the sandy side.
A gorgeous city explored, a wildlife nirvana experienced, beaches in the bag, you might think whatever else you do in Brazil will be mere garnish. But this itinerary goes on to take in two more metropolises – one famous for modernist landmarks; the other for African culture – as well as a romantic old town, a pristine archipelago and lots of museums and galleries. Throughout, we make use of Brazil’s excellent domestic air network to minimise flying time and maximise leisure and pleasure.
Oh, what an arrival it is! Even the transfer from the airport is exciting as the Sugar Loaf heaves into view and your driver turns on to the coast road. Check into the Copacabana Palace and spend the day walking on the front, enjoying a cold beer at one of the kiosks.
Get to know your beaches. Long, curvaceous Copacabana is on your doorstep, with Ipanema to the south and west, followed by compact, upmarket Leblon. Smaller Arpoador and Leme beaches punctuate the main ones. On all these are joggers, footballers, surfers, stretching pensioners and bodybuilders, working out and having fun, as well as lots of basking idlers. Botafogo is often overlooked, but it’s good for sunsets and a beer at the bay-side Bar Urca.
Tick off one big sight today. Choose either the little train up to the Christ the Redeemer statue at the top of Corcovado Mountain, or the cable-car to the top of Sugar Loaf. But keep your first evening easy, with a caipirinha and light dinner at the hotel’s superb South American-focused Pérgula restaurant.
Tram rides and coffee stops
The next day, spend an hour at the wonderful Museu de Arte do Rio, have coffee at the opulent Confeitaria Colombo and explore the bay area, revamped for the 2016 Olympics. The Museum of The Tomorrow, built by Santiago Calatrava, contains exhibitions on sustainability and the environment.
Have a wander around bohemian Santa Teresa – a cobbled, hillside neighbourhood that evokes old Rio; if it’s hot, you can ride on the tram and then walk down. Grab a lunch of Minas-style cuisine at the atmospheric Bar do Mineiro. In the afternoon, see the sight you didn’t see on day one and enjoy a fine-dining twist on Brazilian food at either Lasai or Oteque, the two Top 50 Rio Restaurants, both of which are conveniently located in Humaitá, inland from Copacabana. If you’ve the energy and dancing shoes, burn the midnight oil at nightclub and live music space Scenarium.
The world’s largest wetlands
Take a direct flight from Rio to Cuiabá (2h 50) and transfer (2.5-3 hours) to the Pantanal – the largest wetlands on Earth. The drive into the wilderness along the Transpantaneira Highway is always full of reasons to stop and pull over: large flocks of wood storks, lagoons filled with caiman, colourful flycatchers flitting across the forests.
At the mouth of the Tres Irmãos River, you’ll check into a Jaguar Suite on the Southwild Flotel, a floating lodge all geared up for wildlife watching. You have three nights, plenty to see all the key species. Spend your first evening looking out for jaguars as they prowl in search of caiman and capybara.
Boat rides, big cats and birds
Today involves more exploring and photo-hunting on the channels and lagoons of the Pantanal, using motor-launch, kayak and punt. As well as the jaguars, there’s a good chance of seeing giant otters, howler monkeys, caimans, capybaras and lots of birds – signature species include jabiru stork, wood stork, flamingo, all the egrets, wattled jacana, southern screamer, Chaco chachalacas and several kinds of macaw. On one of your evenings, take a night tour to see more birds, as well as tree frogs, snakes and baby caiman sheltering along the riverbanks.
Fly in the morning from Cuiabá to Brasilia (1h 40). A stopover in the Brazilian capital is actually the most practical way of flying on, but it’s also a brilliant way to do a fast-track immersion course in utopian Modernism and get a strangely retro-futuristic fix of how people used to think we’d live now. Stay at the Brasilia Palace, built in 1956 as part of the original city plan.
Spend a day exploring the city centre, conceived by Lúcio Costa and designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer. Key buildings include the Itamaraty Palace (foreign ministry), Palace of Justice and Metropolitan Cathedral. Between the white and grey edifices carved from concrete lie expansive parks and garden-city lawns landscaped by Roberto Burle Marx. To get an overview, and decide if it really is shaped like a native bow and arrow, or a bird, or a butterfly, or a jet plane, take the lift to the top of the TV Tower.
Though only founded in 1960, Brasilia already has a proper big-city feel; as the political seat of the nation and home to all the major embassies, it has many cosmopolitan restaurants. The steakhouses are renowned. Toro Parrilla Sul celebrates the BBQ fare of the gaúchos of the south and of Argentina and Uruguay. Taypa does great Peruvian food.
World Heritage and festivals
Take a mid-morning flight to Salvador (1h 55), another former capital. Check in at the stylish Fasano, just 10 minutes’ walk from the Pelourinho neighbourhood – the historic centre (the name means “pillory” as slaves were whipped and beaten here in colonial times), which is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Salvador is regarded as a focal point for the Afro-Brazilian community, and is the setting for lots of festivals, a famous carnival and syncretistic Candomblé religious ceremonies. Ask your concierge to arrange a half-day tour to see the key sights, including the Museu Afro-Brasileiro, Mercado Modelo, Lacerda Elevator (which carries pedestrians from the lower to the upper city), and the main churches and old houses.
Bahian cuisine, a fusion of African and New World techniques and ingredients, is renowned in Brazil. Dubbed “oil food” because it’s based on the liberal use of dende (palm) oil, it features peppers, cashew nuts, coconut oil and peanuts. Dishes include moqueca baiana (made using fish or shrimp, peppers and cilantro leaves), caruru (made with okra, fish, shrimp and chicken) and vatapa (shrimp, fish or chicken with a flour base, seasoned with coconut milk and palm oil).
Cuco Bistró in the old town does good moquecas.
A day on the beach
Spend a day on one of Salvador’s most celebrated neighbourhood beaches. Hop in a taxi to the Praia Porto da Barra. In the 1960s, Barra was where members of the Tropicalia theatre, poetry and music movement hung out. It’s a pleasant 10-minute walk south to Farol da Barra – where the city’s lighthouse stands and surfers make use of a good break. There are plenty of cheap and cheerful places on the front for a seafood stew lunch.
Recife in brief
Fly to Recife (1h 20m) and spend a morning. This large city is the capital of Pernambuco, a state famous for the Brazilwood timber tree that gave the country its name and which saw all of the booms and busts of the sugar industry for three centuries. It was also the capital of the short-lived Dutch colony of New Holland during the 17th century. Have a brief tour of Recife Antigo (Old Recife), before driving on to Olinda. Just a few miles north of Recife, this Unesco-listed city was founded in the 16th century by the Portuguese on the back of profits generated by the sugar-cane industry. Rebuilt after being looted by the Dutch, its architecture dates from the 18th century. Check in to the Pousada 7 Colinas for two nights.
The Unesco-listed city
More walkable and far more charming than any modern Brazilian city, Olinda is full of baroque churches, convents, flower-filled gardens and lots of small passos (chapels). It’s where Recife’s artists and musicians have their studios and others come for lunch and dinner on elegant terraces. A dinner at Oficina do Sabor, overlooking Olinda, is always memorable. Try codfish cakes, shrimp and mango, or lobster; the delicious seafood broths and soups are served in gourds.
Fly from Recife to Fernando de Noronha (1h 40) to cap off your ultimate holiday with three days’ rest and relaxation, diving and dining, romance and recreation on this pristine archipelago, 220 miles off Brazil’s northeast coast. The local population (all 3,100 of them) live on the “big island”. Check in to Pousada Maravilha, a villa resort above the Paraia do Sueste – two minutes from the airport.
Seventy per cent of Fernando de Noronha is a National Marine Park and a Unesco site. Only around 4-500 people fly in on any one day, so numbers are quite restricted. Nonetheless, the clientele is well-heeled and there are plenty of gorgeous bars and restaurants (it’s a honeymoon favourite); the cuisine ranges from simply prepared fish to tasty dishes from the mainland nordeste region to Japanese restaurants and sushi bars for the demanding urbanite.
All 16 beaches on the main island are beautiful, but one, Baia do Sancho, routinely tops the world rankings – as decided by travellers, guide writers, specialist bloggers and, most importantly, Brazilians. It’s a crescent of fine golden sand framed by cliffs adorned with tropical vegetation. From the clifftop – and even from the stairway, if you dare look up – there’s a good chance of seeing dolphins frolicking in the calm blue-emerald water. Close to the shore the seabed is a whirl of colourful fish. Swim out to the nearby corals and you might catch a sea turtle. The island is a feeding and breeding ground for these and for tuna, whales, porpoises and sharks. There is an internationally important population of spinner dolphins and the island offers protection for the endangered hawksbill sea turtle.
Fly home via Recife and Lisbon – the quickest route back to the UK.
When to go
Salvador is subtropical, Brasilia always sultry and Rio warm enough year-round to swim and surf; winter is actually drier than summer, and the mean temperature only five degrees cooler.
In the Pantanal, the dry season (May to November) is best for birding but June to August is when you can get access to the flooded channels by canoe.
Rio, Salvador and Olinda are renowned for their carnival celebrations, so if you happen to be visiting around that time you’ll have to book well in advance.
For Fernando de Noronha, three degrees south of the equator, August through January is hot and dry. February to July is the rainy season.
What to book
Blow the budget
Humboldt Travel (01603 340680, humboldttravel.co.uk) has a two-week holiday to Brazil, beginning with three nights in Rio de Janeiro at the Copacabana Palace, with tours of the city, before flying over to the Pantanal to the Caiman Lodge for three nights of jaguar spotting. Spend a night in Brasilia before heading to Salvador da Bahia, with two nights at the Fasano. Head further north to Porto de Galinhas for a few days on the beach at Nannai Resort & Spa before finishing your trip on the island of Fernando de Noronha at the Pousada Maravilha and explore the best beach in the world at Baia do Sancho. From £6,120 per person, exclusive of international flights. Budget £2,000 per person for flights.
Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315, journeylatinamerica.com) offers a 15-day holiday to Brazil on a similar route to ours visiting Rio, the Pantanal, Salvador, Recife, Olinda and Fernando de Noronha, staying in good-quality mid-range B&B accommodation, except when in the Pantanal. From £4,923 per person, including flights from the UK, transfers and excursions.
- If you’re really in need of a lazy beach holiday, don’t make Rio your only seaside stop. The surf here is often roiling and not suited to bathing at all.
- Brazil’s coast roads, from the Costa Verde south of Rio all the way up to Recife, are great for a driving holiday. The Salvador-Maceió-Recife leg, along the “Coconut Highway” in particular, is recommended.
- Want to slow down and see more of Brazil? Then explore the interior. The Chapada Diamantina National Park is a half-day’s drive from Salvador, and the Catimbau National Park is the same sort of distance from Recife. Brasilia has a national park inside the city limits, and claims it’s the “largest urban park in the world”.