Welcome to the Brazil decade! With the FIFA World Cup coming up in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016, Brazil is attracting even more attention than it was already attracting with its samba music, soccer stars and supermodels. Brazil’s biggest problem in promoting itself as a destination is that there is really too much there to sum up in a concise presentation.
Brazil is huge. It occupies the heart of South America, taking up nearly half of the land mass all by itself. It shares borders with every South American country except Chile and Ecuador. It is the fifth-largest country in the world, after Russia, Canada, China and the U.S., though Brazil is larger than the continental U.S. (The U.S. only exceeds Brazil in area if you count Alaska and Hawaii.) Both the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn pass through Brazil.
Although 90 percent of Brazil is in the tropical region, 60 percent of its population lives in highlands or seaside areas, where the temperature is moderated -- in Sao Paolo and Brasilia, by the altitude, and in Rio de Janeiro, Recife and Salvador, by the trade winds.
In an attempt to simplify a very large and complex picture, here’s a look at 10 must-see sights in Brazil.
Christ the Redeemer: This statue, which towers over Rio, made the list of the Seven New Wonders of the World in 2007. It stands 120 feet tall and is perched on the top of Corcovado Mountain, overlooking Rio de Janeiro. It was designed by the Brazilian Heitor da Silva Costa and created by the French sculptor Paul Landowski. The statue took five years to construct and was inaugurated on Oct. 12, 1931. It has become a symbol of Rio and of the warmth of the Brazilian people, who receive visitors with open arms.
Rio de Janeiro’s beaches and mountains: Rio de Janeiro is lined with glorious tropical beaches with names that resonate with the stuff of legend, such as Ipanema and Copacabana. In fact, saying “Rio” and “beaches” in the same sentence is redundant. Rio is all about its beaches, which hug the city along its meandering coastline. The song “The Girl From Ipanema” evokes the sultry tropical pleasure of Rio’s unsurpassed beaches. Some of Rio’s best hotels are located along the beachfront, such as the legendary, opulent Copacabana Palace. A few doors down is the more reasonably priced Windsor Excelsior Hotel. You can walk out the front door of your hotel, cross Avenida Atlantica onto Copacabana beach and enjoy.
Rio’s mountains are also legendary. Sugar Loaf is a landmark that instantly identifies any picture of the harbor as Rio. The monolithic peak of granite and quartz pokes straight up over the harbor at the mouth of Guanabara Bay. It was named by Portuguese sailors who thought it looked like the lumps of sugar that were common at the time.
You can take a cable car to the top of Sugar Loaf, starting from Urca Beach (where Carmen Miranda was discovered performing in a beachfront casino) to Urca Hill, a little brother to Sugar Loaf. Then a second cable car takes you all the way to the peak of Sugar Loaf, where you can spend as much time as you want at the observation deck. Tables and chairs are provided at a concession area where you can buy drinks and food and enjoy them while looking over one of the most exhilarating panoramas in the world.
Corcovado, where Christ the Redeemer perches, is also commemorated in song by Tom Jobim, and it is a sight of grandeur from nearly anywhere in the city. From its summit, the whole spectacular harbor of Rio is spread out at your feet. You can travel by car or by an historic rack-and-pinion train that travels through Tijuca National Park to the top of the mountain. There you can ride one of three panoramic elevators or two escalators to the observation deck on the upper platform. On the same trip, you can visit the Tijuca Forest and the Museum of Native Art. For those who are particularly ambitious for adventure and feeling flush, Corcovado can also be seen from a helicopter.
Iguazu Falls: The mighty waterfalls of Iguazu are an unforgettable sight, a vivid portrayal of the gigantic forces of nature. They can be viewed from both the Brazil side and the Argentina side, each with its own perspective. From the Brazil side, you can see the immensity of the falls, how they spread along a cleft of the earth 1.67 miles wide, the widest in the world. At its highest point, Iguazu is 269 feet high, nearly as high as New York’s Flatiron Building. At its annual peak, 1.72 million gallons of water gush over the falls every second. On the Argentina side, you can walk along boardwalks to within a few feet of the Devil’s Throat, the most intense part of the falls. There, 65 percent of its water plunges down a U-shaped opening, crashing down on the waters below and splashing back up in streams of water several stories high.
Manaus, gateway to the Amazon: Manaus is a colonial city in the heart of the Amazon jungle on the Rio Negro a few miles before it joins the Rio Solimões to form the Amazon River. It was founded in 1669 as a fort by the Portuguese to stop Spanish incursions into Brazil. When rubber was discovered as a resource, it became a base for trade, and by the late 19th century, Manaus was a boomtown. When synthetic rubber was invented, the price of rubber plunged, and in the 1920s, Manaus sunk into poverty. The city has a charming colonial history represented in such old buildings as the Opera House, which was built in 1896 during the city’s heyday. Today it is having a resurgence as the gateway to the Amazon River Basin and Amazon rain forest. A few hours’ boat ride takes you deep into the heart of the jungle. Ponta Negra Beach, in the city center, is good for beach activities.
Salvador da Bahia: Salvador was the first colony the Portuguese developed in the early 1500s when they were leaving Rio to the natives and the French traders. Salvador was Portuguese Brazil’s first capital, in 1549, and remained the capital until 1763, when it was superceded by Rio. It quickly became the main port of Brazil and the center of the sugar and slave trades, growing to be one of the largest cities in the New World, larger than any North American city by the time of the American Revolution. The city is rich in colonial history and architecture, the center of Afro-Brazilian culture and home to the second-best Carnival, after that in Rio. (Some would say it’s the best.)
Sao Paulo: Sao Paulo is Brazil’s largest and richest city, the country’s business center and the seventh-largest metropolitan area in the world. Landmarks include the Museu Paulista do Ipiranga, the gothic Metropolitan Sé Cathedral, the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP), the Bandeirantes monument and Ibirapuera Park. Ibirapuera is a cultural complex with a museum, planetarium, auditorium and more than 2 million square meters of green space featuring lagoons, flowerbeds and a Japanese garden.
The Pantanal: The Pantanal is a tropical wetlands, the largest of any kind in the world. It’s mostly within the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul but extends into Bolivia and Paraguay, with a total area estimated to be between 54,000 and 75,000 square miles. It’s one of the richest and most varied ecosystems in the world, supporting a huge variety of plant and animal species. You can experience the Pantanal through boat tours, horseback riding, hiking and fishing. Safaris will take you in an open vehicle up close to alligators, deer, anaconda, wolves and anteaters.
The Baroque hill towns of Minas Gerais: One of the 26 states of Brazil, Minas Gerais is the second richest and most populated. It’s also the largest producer of milk and coffee, but it is known primarily for its colonial art and architecture in such historical cities as Ouro Preto, Tiradentes, Serro and Diamantina. The settlements grew as part of the search for gold, which was discovered there in 1693. The area also produced diamonds and other precious stones. The gold mines were exhausted during the 19th century, but gold left its mark on the culture of the region. Minas Gerais’ wealth, combined with its isolation from Europe, led to the development of its own style of art, which became known as Barocco Mineiro. The style is richly represented in the architecture of churches as well and paintings and sculpture.
Fernando de Noronha: This is an archipelago of 21 islands, the remains of volcanic mountains, in the Atlantic Ocean. The main island measures 7.1 square miles in area and has a population of 3,108. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is often cited as a model of environmental protection. Only 420 visitors are allowed at a time. It has been held by the Portuguese, the English, the Dutch and the French. It was used as a prison and was also visited and written about by Charles Darwin in his “Voyage of the Beagle.” Today its economy is based on tourism. It’s a favorite of divers, who enjoy its rich undersea flora and fauna and also the wreck of the Brazilian warship Nael Ipiranga, which sank in 1987 and lies about 190 feet from the surface.
Florianopolis: Florianopolis, the capital of the state of Santa Catarina in southern Brazil, is made up of a main island, also called Santa Catarina, plus a continental side and a number of smaller islands. The metropolitan area has a population of more than 800,000, and Newsweek ranked it as one of the 10 most dynamic cities in the world. The economy is supported by information technology, tourism and services. Its main attractions are its 42 beaches, which are popular with surfers. Among the other top attractions are fishing boats, folklore, lace-makers, colonial architecture, cuisine, and such traditional villages as Santo Antonio de Lisboa and Ribeirão da Ilha, which embody cultures of the past.--David Cogswell