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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.