Exploring Brazil – Part 3 – Heading inland

Caiman1
Caiman, Pantanal

Brazil is not all about the beaches or even the cities. If you want to get off the beaten rack, just head into the interior. In the north you’ll find arid and dramatic scrubland, while in the centre west lies the wild area of Mato Grosso, home to a huge area of wetlands called the Pantanal. A boat trip down the Amazon is an unforgettable experience, but you won’t see many animals as the river is just too wide and the jungle too dense. But the Pantanal has huge open spaces and spotting wildlife is very easy, especially when it’s flooded. The dry season from May to September is the best time to visit though.

The Pantanal
The Pantanal
Tuiuiú, Pantanal
Tuiuiú, Pantanal

Cuiabá in the north and Campo Grande in the south are both good centres from where to start a trip, but I found it easier in Cuiabá and the trip was of a better quality too. The usual package will take you off into the heartland of the swamp, staying at lodges, taking boat trips at dawn and dusk, as well as trekking and horseback riding. The light is beautiful for photography, the sounds of the birds fill the air at sunset and the ochre-red dusty roads provide a stunning contrast with the greenery all around. And then there are the animals: caiman, whose eyes glow red on the riverbanks at night; capybara, the largest rodent in the world; the cute coati and impressive anteaters. The Pantanal is also home to an enormous stork called the tuiuiú, or jaburu.

Snorkelling down the Rio da Prata, Bonito
Snorkelling down the Rio da Prata, Bonito
Fish, Bonito
Fish, Bonito

Further to the south heading towards Paraguay lies Bonito, a small town that has established itself at the forefront of ecotourism in Brazil. There are caves, waterfalls and rivers with astonishingly clear water The highlight is to don a wetsuit and snorkel and allow yourself to be carried by the current downstream observing the extraordinarily coloured fish as you float by. A fun highlight if you don’t mind snakes is to visit the Projeto Jibóia where you can conquer your fears and have a python wrapped round your neck.

Trying to smile ...
Trying to smile …

Brasilia, the capital of Brazil since 1960, is one of my least favourite places and in my opinion doesn’t really have the feel of the rest of the country. It was designed by Oscar Niemeyer and built very quickly in an attempt to bring jobs and industry to the impoverished interior. The government buildings are intriguing, but it is not a city for walkers and embodies all the faults of modern planned cities. They feel artificial and lack soul.

Praça dos Tres Poderes, Brasilia
Praça dos Tres Poderes, Brasilia

However, the city does give you access to the Parque Chapada dos Veadeiros which is a natural landscape of waterfalls, canyons and dramatic hills. You can stay in the funky little laidback town of São Jorge, just 2 kilometers from the park entrance. There are some great trails and one of the best is to the Vale da Lua (or Valley of the Moon) where the rivers have sculpted the rocks into bizarre lunar-like shapes.

Vale da Lua, Chapada dos Veadeiros
Vale da Lua, Chapada dos Veadeiros
Trilha dos Canions, Chapada dos Veadeiros
Trilha dos Canions, Chapada dos Veadeiros

Minas Gerais is the state which lies just north of São Paulo. It was populated by colonists in search of gold and was named after the mines found here. There are some fabulous old colonial towns here that grew up with the wealth found in the mines like Ouro Prêto and Diamantina. But there are also some spectacular parks and the countryside provides a welcome retreat for many people from all over the south.

Road outside São Thome das Letras
Road outside São Thome das Letras

The quirky little town of São Thome das Letras, which can be reached from Caxambu, has a reputation as a mystical place where UFOs are rumoured to pass by. The town itself is an amusing hippy hangout, but the surrounding areas are also home to waterfalls and trails.

São Thome das Letras town centre
São Thome das Letras town centre

Brazil has so much variety, but it is a huge country and distances are vast, so it’s best to concentrate on just one area. The south is a good place to start as it has so much to offer, from Rio de Janeiro to Iguassu Falls to the Pantanal.

Walking in São Thome das Letras
Walking in São Thome das Letras
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Exploring Brazil – Part 2 – Iguassu Falls and Salvador

Iguassu Falls
Iguassu Falls

Brazil is a vast country and there is an astonishing range of landscapes, cities and cultures. There are no real mountains to speak of, but there is the mighty Amazon, arid savannas in the interior, beaches backed by red stone cliffs and – in the far south, bordering Argentina – the fabulous Iguassu Falls.

Iguassu Falls
Iguassu Falls

The town of Foz serves as a good gateway and you can easily cross the border to visit the Argentine side for a day. In fact the two sides offer different perspectives: the Brazilian side offers long views good for photography, while on the Argentine side there are many walkways which pass very close to the falls themselves, allowing you to get up close and personal with the cascading water. There is also a very good bird park, various boat trips to be made where you will probably get wet and a breathtaking helicopter ride over the falls.

Art shop in Pelourinho, Salvador
Art shop in Pelourinho, Salvador

The Northeast is one of my favourite parts of Brazil. It’s much more laidback than the big cities of the south like São Paulo and Rio and it’s almost like a different country. It’s also a lot hotter and drier during the summer season, while in the south the summer often brings torrential rain at the end of the day. There are thousands of kilometers of coast here and you can find built-up resorts as well as deserted stretches where it’s possible to walk for hours.

Pelourinho, Salvador
Pelourinho, Salvador

The most interesting city here is Salvador which has its own unique flavour and vibe and a setting on the Bahia de Todos os Santos (All Saints Bay) which rivals that of Rio. Founded in 1549 in the state of Bahia, it’s one of the oldest cities in the Americas and was the first capital of Brazil until 1763. As a major centre of the slave trade, it’s ancestry heritage remains today predominantly African. Its music and cuisine are influenced very much by this, and the old centre (Pelourhino) has some superb examples of colonial architecture.

Carnival in Salvador
Carnival in Salvador

It’s also home to the biggest carnival in the world and totally different to that of Rio where samba and costumes predominate. In Salvador huge trucks with enormous speakers (trios elétricos) take to the streets on set circuits playing axé music to a wild crowd. It’s an incredible experience of five days of solid partying and best savoured with a few caipirinhas. Don’t take valuables with you! I once made the mistake of going out with my fairly expensive camera as things were quiet, but then it got very busy. However, a local woman came to my rescue, called over the polícia militar, and I was given an escort safely back to my hotel. I don’t think that’s a service you can rely on, though.

Carnival in Pelourinho
Carnival in Pelourinho

Apart from Salvador, the best things in the Northeast are the beaches. The ocean stretches for miles right from the city centre, but it’s not always good for swimming. Just north of Salvador, though, lies the small town of Praia do Forte which is quite chic, but has some good beaches. In the far south of Bahia state is another upmarket little place called Trancoso. The beaches here are stunning, particularly Praia do Espelho, one of the best in Brazil.

Praia do Forte
Praia do Forte

Brazil is often overlooked by visitors to South America in favour of the Andean countries, but I think this is a mistake. There is so much to do and so much variety. But make the effort to see more than Rio de Janeiro. Once you do, you’ll find far fewer tourists and you’ll get to know the real Brazil. You’ll probably need to learn a few words of Portuguese, since English is surprisingly not widely spoken.

Praia do Espelho
Praia do Espelho