It’s easy to get caught up in the Brazil of tropical dreams the world over, settling in on the sun-toasted sands of Ipanema Beach with a freshly shaken caipirinha and calling it a week. But there is much more to South America’s largest country than sun and sand.
Brazil is home to a wealth of diverse landscapes, from pristine colonial towns in the mountains to aquarium-clear river wonderlands and the world’s largest freshwater swamp. Along the way, all sorts of memorable travel experiences await that have nothing to do with beach balls and bikinis.
Click through our slideshow to explore 10 off-the-beaten-track experiences and discover a different side of Brazil.
Drive the Transpantaneira Highway
While the Amazon is on many travelers’ bucket lists, it is actually the biodiverse Pantanal, the world’s largest freshwater swamp, that is the best place in Brazil to encounter all sorts of wildlife you thought only existed in cartoons and on cereal boxes.
The 90-mile Transpantaneira Highway (the name is a bit ambitious — it’s actually a dirt road) offers a cornucopia of exotic flora and fauna before dead-ending in jaguar country. As you cross some 125 wooden bridges along the route, you’ll watch toucans and macaws swoop overhead, see more caiman and capybara than you ever cared to encounter, and spot enough rare birds to keep avid birdwatchers in a permanent state of shock and awe. Buckle up!
It’s easy enough to rent a car and drive yourself, but if you’d rather leave the navigating to someone else, tour companies such as Pantanal Nature offer wildlife safaris in the area with overnights at local lodges.
Get Cookin’ in Rio de Janeiro
Although Brazil has one of the richest gastronomic pedigrees in Latin America, the idea of a cooking class for tourists — rather than culinary students — is still a rather novel idea here. Enter Cook in Rio. These four-hour cooking classes for foreigners serve up the how-to on some of Brazil’s most authentic dishes, including the Afro-Brazilian masterpiece known as moqueca (Bahian seafood stew) and Brazil’s national dish, feijoada (pork and bean stew), along with side dishes and caipirinhas.
The best part? You get to eat your work, of course!
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
In Love with the Marvelous City (Rio) by Ivana K.
“Street food, such as little barbecue skewers and tapioca, acai in the bowl and chicken wings are usually very tasty. Brazilian beer is very light, according to what foreigners say. It suits the climate, hot and humid. The famous ‘caipirinha’ drink made with lime, sugar and a sugar cane distilled spirit called ‘cachaca’ is a must try.” Read more!
Swim with the Fishes in Bonito
True to its name, Bonito (“beautiful” in Portuguese) is one of Brazil’s most stunning destinations and a world-class ecotourism model for the country. Bonito’s claim to fame is 100 percent natural: Its river waters spring from subterranean sources with a limestone base nearly entirely void of clay; this calcium carbonate is released into the water, which calcifies all impurities and creates a crystal-clear aquarium effect. Water activities here — snorkeling, diving, flotation — are astonishing and unique, as if you filled your swimming pool with thousands of exotic fish and jumped in.
Bonito has many local tour agencies, but they all sell the same excursions for the same price (rates are set by the municipality), so it doesn’t matter which you choose. Ask your hotel for assistance with finding the nearest agency and arranging transportation.
Visit Jesuit Missions
Built on the Catholic orders of New World colonists Spain and Portugal, the Jesuits established a series of missions across Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina in the early 1700s to convert local Guarani Indians to the way of the Vatican. Today this mission route, known as the Rota Missoes, is home to 30 surviving missions in various states of ruin, seven of which are in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul.
The highlight of the route, the UNESCO-protected mission at Sao Miguel das Missoes, gives us one of Brazil’s most stunning images: on a blue-sky day, the elegant but crumbling rust-brick Spanish colonial facade stands as an almighty testament to color and light.
Go Wine Tasting in Vale dos Vinhedos
Few folks — including Brazilians themselves — realize that southern Brazil is home to a small wine region that’s not only gorgeous but garnering accolades for its wine as well. Wine Enthusiast magazine named Rio Grande do Sul’s Vale dos Vinhedos one of 2013’s 10 Best Wine Travel Destinations.
Here, where generations of Italian-descended winemakers have been producing juice since 1875, postcard-perfect vines crawl about rolling hills reminiscent of Tuscany without a beach or jungle in sight. Dozens of wineries, rural inns and restaurants pepper the Via Trento, a scenic, mostly cobblestone stretch of New World wine wonder begging to be explored. See ValedosVinhedos.com.br for a list of wineries and recommended routes. Chin chin!
Watch the Opening of a Sea Turtle’s Nest
From January to June in Brazil’s island eden, the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha, Projeto Tamar-ICMBio monitors and protects the nests of threatened green sea turtles — and, beginning as early as March, allows the public to witness supervised nest openings about once a week. Scores of poker chip-sized babies are dug up and released. They must battle the wind and waves to stay on course as they instinctively make a break for the ocean, some 30 yards off. Win or lose, this parade of will is one of the coolest natural phenomena you will ever witness with the naked eye.
Local ecotourism agencies tip off clients to nest-opening times; our favorite is Your Way (YourWay.com.br), which works extensively with foreigners.
Hit the Trails in Chapada Diamantina
Of Brazil’s nearly 70 national parks (over 15 percent of the country falls under environmental protection), few astound visitors more than Chapada Diamantina, an expansive 580-square-mile area in Brazil’s interior near the Bahian town of Lencois. Here hikers and nature enthusiasts are wowed by a network of cascading waterfalls over the Sincora Range’s mountains and plateaus, which fall into rivers and streams that snake their way through grassy valleys and pristine swimming holes.
Popular attractions inside the park include the 1,378-foot Cachoeira da Fumaca waterfall (Brazil’s highest) and table mountain views from a trek through the spectacular Vale do Pati.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Chapada Diamantina, Brasil by Daniel R.
“Chapada Diamantina enables the choice of walking among caves, many waterfalls, natural chutes, mountains with stunning views, valleys and ravines. The major part of the trails [is] a heritage of the time when the prospectors of the region opened up the Chapada in search of precious stones.” Read more!
Eat Your Heart Out in Tiradentes
Tiny Tiradentes, a gorgeously preserved colonial village in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, holds a secret within its cobblestone streets and whitewashed walls. While the region was originally famous for artisan furniture, it’s found its inner foodie over the years and now boasts the most starred restaurants per capita in Brazil — six for a sleepy population of just 7,000 — according to to “Guia4Rodas,” Brazil’s most respected culinary bible and a soulmate to France’s Michelin guides.
Hearty regional comida mineira is the star of the show. Pork features heavily in these parts, often served with fixin’s like kale, tutu (pureed black beans with pork sausage) and feijao tropeiro (beans mixed with egg and manioc flour). It’s not for the diet-conscious, but a visit here is a genuine gastronomic trip.
Ride the Serra Verde Express
The 68-mile Serra Verde Express train departs Curitiba every morning and cruises through the lush Serra do Mar, one of Brazil’s largest preserved areas of Atlantic rain forest, before plunging through nearly 1,000 yards of mountainous terrain to the historic coastal town of Morretes. The most spectacular views are on the left side of the train (right side on return trip), but the democratic ticketing system prevents requests for one side or the other.
Once in Morretes, enjoy the prized dish of the region, barreado (a meat stew cooked in a clay pot), in a lovely riverside restaurant along the Rio Nhundiaquara.
Take a Capoeira Class
Everything from the food to the rhythm of historic Salvador de Bahia owes a heavy debt to Africa, from which thousands of slaves were brought over in the mid-1500s. Along with their food and traditions, the Brazilian martial art-dance known as capoeira, developed more than 400 years ago by Afro-Brazilian slaves as a means of self-defense, remains one of Brazil’s most culturally endearing treasures.
Part martial art technique, part acrobatics, part synchronized dancing, a capoeira class is a must for anyone interested in diving further into this vein of Brazil’s bloodline. Viator offers a three-hour private capoeira class as well as a four-hour workshop that includes both capoeira and samba lessons. Or ask your hotel concierge to recommend a local class.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Brazilian Adventure by Sarah K.
“From Santos, we went to Salvador, Bahia, a UNESCO Heritage Site. The city had two levels. The upper level is the old city and the lower is the new city. There is an elevator that will take you to the upper level for about 15 cents. There are 365 churches, one for every day of the year, they say. There is a mixture of African and European culture which makes for an easy-going nature of the locals.” Read more!
Best Time to Go to Brazil
For the Amazon, in northern Brazil, high season for tourists is July through September, when there’s less rain and fewer mosquitoes, but March through June is a cooler period. December through May is likely to be quite rainy. High season in Rio de Janeiro is the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, December through March, and brings crowds and high hotel prices. Carnival, usually in February, will be very crowded, loud and festive. May through October is a good option for lower prices, but there may be some days that aren’t particularly beach-friendly. It’s warm enough for the beach nearly every day in the northern coastal region, but rainy April through May, so there are fewer crowds then.
Brazil on a Budget
The Brazilian real is fairly strong against the U.S. dollar, and Brazil’s biggest cities are just as expensive as any city in the U.S. To reach Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo, the lowest-priced flights often originate from Miami. Once in Brazil, buses get you around cheaply. If you don’t mind bunk beds and bedlam, try the hostels or albeurges in Rio, some only minutes from the beach. Consider a pousada, a family-style bed and breakfast, for budget lodging ranging from quaint to rather rustic. Street vendors offer a bargain alternative to restaurants. In Salvador da Bahia, try the acaraje, or bean patties, or sip an acai smoothie in Rio.
–written by Kevin Raub