With the eyes of the world on Rio de Janeiro during the Olympic Games this month, this breathtaking city and its numerous icons - think Christ the Redeemer, the Maracanã Stadium and the Copacabana beach - are set to emanate from television sets across the globe, stirring within millions the desire to see these magical sights for themselves. And quite rightly too, Rio de Janeiro ranks as one of the greatest cities on earth and, as the view from the top of Sugarloaf Mountain will confirm, surely enjoys the most beautiful natural setting of any.
What's more, beyond Rio de Janeiro there are deserted tropical coasts, fashionable beachside villages, carefully preserved colonial era towns and much more waiting to be discovered. Brazil is a vast country - the largest in Latin America - but its developed transport network helps to shorten distances and, along with the expertise of a specialist Latin America tour operator, this makes it possible to combine these gems for an unforgettable introduction to the country.
We offer here a selection of six of our favourite escapes from the hustle and bustle of Rio, giving you the starting blocks for your own tailor-made Brazilian adventure.
For unspoilt coastline - Paraty & the Green Coast
South of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's Green Coast is characterised by idyllic hidden bays fringed by steep, jungle-covered mountains and deserted golden beaches, lapped by gentle Atlantic waves. One of the best places to access the area is Paraty; a former pirate bay, refuge for escaped slaves and boom town during the Brazilian Gold Rush. Today its cobbled streets, whitewashed Colonial façades, horse-drawn carriages and picturesque waterfront make it the perfect complement to such beautiful surroundings and something of a time capsule of 18th century Brazil.
From here visitors can set out on foot, bicycle or boat to explore the nearby mountains, forests and islands, all of which are bursting with biodiversity, whilst the numerous bays of the area provide wonderful opportunities for swimming, diving and snorkelling.
For upmarket Brazilian beach culture - Búzios
Photo Credit - Filipe Fortes
Ever since 1964, this glamorous town has been a magnet for the rich and famous, attracted by its cobbled streets, stylish boutiques and glistening harbours. Over 20 beaches, resplendent with crystal-clear waters and pristine white sand, dot the verdant ocean peninsula.
It is now over fifty years since the town was made famous, almost overnight, by French 1960's movie icon Brigitte Bardot, who escaped to Búzios from the paparazzi frenzy that followed her in Rio de Janeiro. She fell in love with what, at the time, was a little known and rather sleepy fishing village and over the years many more celebrities have followed in her footsteps. This continued exposure and influx of money have prompted the building of stylish hotels, shops and restaurants, but despite the fairly rapid expansion, Búzios has managed to retain the same laid-back charm that captured the imagination of Bardot and her Brazilian boyfriend.
You don't have to be either rich or famous to fit in here however. The town attracts a range of visitors each year, who wander the pretty backstreets, idle away afternoons at seafront cafes and partake in a range of watersports, from surfing to snorkelling and swimming. After sunset Búzios transitions into something of a party town, with lively bars and sophisticated restaurants serving as preludes to its late night (and early morning) dance scene.
For a perfectly preserved colonial town - Ouro Preto
Photo Credit - Pedro de Carvalho Ponchio
The jewel in the crown of Minas Gerais, Ouro Preto was the epicentre of the 18th century Brazilian gold rush and today remains one of the very best preserved examples of the richly decorated colonial settlements that sprung up over the period. The town serves as a glimpse back to a time of sudden prosperity and a golden age of artistic expression.
The architecture of Ouro Preto represents perhaps the pinnacle of the Baroque period in Brazil, as seen in the numerous beautiful ornate churches that permeate the city, standing tall above the red-tiled rooftops which tumble down the narrow cobbled streets and steep hills. Amongst these, the churches of Corma and São Francisco of Assisi are the finest and showcase for the work of O Aleijandinho - the most celebrated sculptor of the time and to whom UNESCO were principally referring when they described the city as "a treasure of human genius". There is a museum dedicated to his works in the city centre, as well as tours that take you into the gold mines themselves, via lifts operated by a nearly 200 year old British manufactured steam engine.
Beyond Ouro Preto there are a treasure trove of colonial hillside towns, making it well worth lingering in the area.
For a natural wonder - Iguassu Falls
"Poor Niagara" - this oft-repeated idle utterance of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, upon first seeing the Iguassu Falls, unwittingly summed up the immensity of this place in two words far better than anyone has ever been able to do in hundreds. The two words take everything we think we know about Niagara, the awesome power and jaw-dropping beauty and multiply it infinitely. It was no surprise that the Iguassu Falls were named one of the new seven wonders of the world in a 2011 survey of over 100 million voters.
The falls are set amid dense subtropical rainforest on the border of Brazil and Argentina, where the river bends in a horse-shoe form, and can be accessed from both countries. The Brazilian side affords panoramic views across to Argentina, where most of the falls reside, and a face-on view of the awesome Devil's Throat. To get closer to the action it is worth crossing the border for a half-day trip.
For Afro-Portuguese culture - Salvador de Bahia
Like Rio de Janeiro, Salvador has its fair share of symbols. It is known variously for the colourful Renaissance architecture of its UNESCO protected old town, the throbbing February street carnival and its vibrant Afro-Brazilian culture, influenced many years ago by a significant slave population. Today, this is best evidenced in Salvador's aromatic cuisine, rhythmic music, lively religious ceremonies and the acrobatic capoeira dance performances which spring up across the city at a moment's notice. Such vibrancy contrasts with the generally laid-back and unhurried nature of its inhabitants and the gentle warm sea breeze that rolls in off the Atlantic coast and across the golden sands of the city's many beaches.
270 miles inland from Salvador is the Chapada Diamantina National Park, spread over nearly 600 square miles. Setting foot in this astonishing natural wonder is like venturing into another world; perfectly chiseled table mountains overlooking a verdant plain for as far as the eye can see, whilst down below are secret magical caves bathed in soft hues of greens and blues, with water so clear that you cannot help but take a dip. It is also home to Cachoeira da Fumaça - the highest waterfall in Brazil; so high in fact that the water evaporates mid-air before it has chance to reach the ground.
For magical landscapes - Maranhão
It's 2,000 miles up the coast to the very north of the country from Rio de Janeiro. Fortunately, you can fly to São Luís in just three and a half hours and you'll realise that it's a journey worth every second when you arrive to the UNESCO World Heritage city centre. The historic state capital is home to important colonial Portuguese heritage, with its magnificent architecture having been painstakingly restored to its former glory. The state of Maranhão is one of the least developed and most traditional parts of Brazil, where agriculture, fishing and cattle rearing continue to play an important role in feeding the local economy.
The coastal Lençóis Maranhenses National Park is the star attraction here and one that has a few tricks up its sleeve. The park is home to nearly 1,000 square miles of brilliant white sand dunes weaving their way into the distance, interspersed by shimmering green and blue freshwater lagoons inviting you in for a dip.
During the dry season, powerful winds whip the sand back and forth, causing the dunes to continually morph and bringing the landscape to life - making for a particularly surreal experience. The aforementioned lagoons are also formed thanks to a peculiar phenomenon; a layer of impassable rock traps the rainwater and over the course of the rainy season a collection of lagoons take shape. At their peak some become interlinked and join with rivers, providing a temporary vacation home for a variety of fish, who have to then move out before they evaporate over the coming months.
Better with experts
Travelling in Latin America can sometimes be a challenging and unpredictable undertaking for even the most well-versed globetrotters. With our vast experience and expertise, Veloso Tours will carefully create the perfect itinerary for you, handling all the tricky logistics, negotiating the best prices, liaising with local suppliers and ensuring everything flows perfectly during your time in Brazil. All you have to do is decide where to go! Our collection of expert local guides will help bring these wonderful places to life. They'll give you their insider knowledge and offer an authentic and personal perspective that will leave you informed and inspired.
We have a range of carefully-crafted tours to get you started on your Brazilian adventure. Our expert staff would be delighted to work with you to craft an unforgettable journey, full of memories that last a lifetime. Get in touch today and start planning your dream trip with Veloso Tours.