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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.