Reading the news, I noticed a headline urging you to not read yet another top 10 list, but to write your own. The article was really about creating your own list of top songs for the year, but why stop there?
So, here’s my list of top 10 places to visit in Brazil. Just in time for the next decade. With having lived just over half the current one in Brazil, I’m not in the worst position to share my experience.
In case it needs to be said, I’m only including places I’ve actually visited.
Brazil has an ambiguous connection to its colonial past. Late in abolishing slavery, but unilaterally declaring independence early on, on December 7, 1822, Rio, at that time, had already been the capital of Portugal for some 15 years, after the royal family fled from Portugal to Brazil, with Napoleon invading the home country.
Lots of valuable resources had been flowing out of Brazil for centuries, major wealth produced by gold, coffee, sugar cane and rubber, much of it produced through the exploitation of slaves, Rio also being the largest slave port in the Americas.
Gold was mined in the interior, mostly in what is now the state of Minas Gerais, and then transported to the coast, predominantly to Paraty. After the veins of gold dried up, Paraty lost its importance and development stalled. Hence, while Paraty benefited significantly from the wealth flowing through it, it also almost has been caught in a time warp, becoming what is now a lovely, reasonably well maintained, colonial town.
There are plenty alternatives to Paraty around Brazil, In Minas Gerais, Ouro Preto is one example. In the north, Olinda just north of Recife is awash in (Dutch) colonial history, but there are many more, including, of course, Rio de Janeiro.
Not quite unlike Carnaval, Sao Paulo’s Gay Pride is the largest in the world, clocking in between 3 and 5 million in attendance, coming from humble beginnings, when in 1997 a mere 2000 attended.
It’s probably the biggest single street party you could ever attend.
What’s a sugarloaf, really? Well, it was a cone of refined sugar, and the typical form in which sugar was sold until the late 19th century, where individual sections were cut off, using a particular type of scissors.
The mountain in Rio, rising up just under 400 meter from the water level, obviously resembles a sugarloaf.
The Dutch and British colonial powers prevented their colonies from locally refining sugar, making the unfinished product part of the triangular slave trade while enforcing dependency of the colonies on the home countries, though Brazil and Portugal, less so managing their own slave trade, were not as restrictive.
In Rio, Sugerloaf mountain is really two mountains; a smaller first one and a larger second one. Both provide stunning views of the city and Guanabara Bay, the bay which was first encountered by Portuguese explorers on January 1, 1502. The general consensus is that these guys mistook the bay for a river, hence calling it Rio de Janeiro (‘rio’ being the Portuguese for ‘river’), but, some historians argue that the bay was actually first called ‘Ria de Janeiro’, translating to “January’s lagoon”, with the confusion setting in later.
The first of the two mountains can be reached by a footpath, though that’s regularly sealed off, due to the danger of muggings. The second, main, mountain, can only be reached by cable car.
Brazil has moved capitals a number of times, eventually settling on Brasilia, built in the empty interior of the country from 1956 onwards, and becoming the capital in 1960, robbing Rio just short of its 200th anniversary as the nation’s capital.
The name most associated with the design of the city is Oscar Niemeyer, easily the most important Brazilian architect to have lived (and for a long time, the man died in 2012, just short of his 105th birthday), and a key figure in the development of modern architecture.
Niemeyer’s signature style was the use of curved concrete structures, which he pioneered the use of, constructing futuristic, or retro-futuristic, objects that still fascinate today.
Niemeyer’s architecture can be found around the country. Sao Paulo has the Memorial de America Latina, to name but one, but Brasilia is like a huge open air museum, built in a grid-plan to resemble a bird or a plane.
But, Niemeyer, Burle Marx, Lucio Costa, and Joaquim Cardozo didn’t get everything right; the city was built when cars were replacing other forms of transport, and the city was not designed for walking and is inconvenient to navigate with public transport.
Shared between Brazil and Argentina, and within a (long) stone’s throw from Paraguay, these falls are stunning. It’s a bit of a trek to get to the tri-border area, but you should visit both sides.
Until 1860, the area was disputed between Brazil and Paraguay. But, when Paraguay lost the Paraguayan War, in which that country, according to some estimates, lost the majority of its population(!) the area came under Brazilian control. It took another few decades, notably until the Brazilian pioneering pilot Santos-Dumont visited in 1916, after which the Iguaçu national park, home of the falls, was created.
Somewhat strangely, the area is also associated with muslim fundamentalism and religion in general, the town of Foz de Iguacu being home to a wide range of religious dominations.
You can not visit Brazil and not visit Rio. The city has just too much to offer. Sugarloaf perhaps provides stunning views, the platform around the Christ tops that.
The statue took nine years to build, from 1922 to 1931, at what seems to be a reasonable 250.000USD, or about 3.5 million in today’s money. At the opening, the statue’s floodlights were to be lit remotely, from, of all places, Rome, by shortwave radio. But, bad weather prevented this from happening and someone in Rio just ended up flipping the switch.
The typical route to get yourself to the top is by funicular, tram, but you can also drive up and save yourself some money, even if that means paying unreasonable amounts for parking.
This little town on the outskirts of Sao Paulo is where the Brits set up their headquarters for the railway lines they managed in and around Sao Paulo. The city was built like a panopticon, with the lead-engineer’s house, in the center of the town and raised on a hill, in the line of sight of all other houses in the settlement, allowing the lead-engineer to see everyone, and everyone never knowing if, at any time, the lead-engineer was keeping an eye on them.
To make the British engineers feel more at home, the train station sports a scaled model of London’s Big Ben and the town might have been the place where, for the very first time, soccer was played on Brazilian soil, though on a pitch slightly smaller than official rules required.
The town’s name is Tupi, an indigenous Indian language, for “The place from where you can see the sea”. The town is at the foot of a mountain range. If you climb the mountain range, you can indeed see the sea.
Hiking in the area, alone, is generally not advised, sadly. You can get a guide to follow you around, though.
A tourist train runs between the center of Sao Paulo and Paranapiacaba on weekends. You can also just take an urban railway line and then a bus. The town is trying hard to put itself on the tourist map, with, amongst many other things, a yearly witches and magicians festival.
In the middle of the Amazon, Henry Ford pictured the kind of utopian society he couldn’t quite establish back home in the US, even though there, too, he tried very hard. But, never having visited and never visiting, his ideals and plans didn’t quite gel with the local climate and culture, let alone the crashing prices of rubber, on which the creation of this company town was based.
Nearby (on a Brazilian scale), the Amazonian capital of Manaus was already suffering the consequences of the end of the rubber boom, and though there was a bit of an uptick during the Second World War, when rubber from East Asia was inaccessible to the allied forces, the discovery of artificial rubber around the same time, saw the price of rubber crash, and the fate of Fordlandia sealed.
More a sign of the times, Ford’s utopian vision was typical for many company towns established around the turn of the previous century, as well as the prevailing idea that society can be shaped in our image. The Amazon, even today, has plenty of company towns, mostly home to companies robbing the Amazon of its resources and completely sealed off to outsiders, but, all over Brazil, remnants of century-old idealism remains.
Just close to Sao Paulo, you can visit a settlement of immigrants from the American South, arriving after the civil war, a Dutch settlement and a former Finnish utopia.
The size and scope of the Amazon river, region and basin defies comprehension. It’s possible to start your Amazonian journey all the way in Peru, though that will mean a rocky journey until Manaus, from where passenger services run multiple times each week, all the way to the coast at Belem. You can break the journey in Santarem, from where you can visit beaches resembling those in the Caribbean, in the town of Alter do Chao, as well as the dilapidated utopia that’s Fordlandia.
Taking the boat, you could book one of the few cabins, but the best experience is getting yourself a hammock, hanging it up on one of the decks, like everyone else, and just watching the world go by, for days.
Brazil is synonymous with carnival. You can celebrate anywhere in Brazil (as well as in many places outside of Brazil), and have a superb time. But… Rio does take the cake. Get yourself to one of the many blocos, street parties, in the run up to carnival, the kick off typically being the new year, and then get yourself a ticket for the official carnival parade in the Sambadromo, essentially a street, built like a stadium, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, specifically to observe the samba schools competing to provide the year’s best carnival parade.
For just under a full week, starting every day in the early evening and continuing until the morning light, samba schools take turns to show off their elaborate parades, convincing judges and the public that their narrative, music, costumes and floats are deserving of the year’s top spot.
When getting tickets, seats on the stands, from where you have a great view of the parades, are popular, but the better tickets are below, on the edge of the parade, where you’re so close to the participants that you can literally touch them.
What!? That’s it?! No beaches!?
Yeah, I’m not enough of a beach-lover to include beaches in this top ten, but there are some great beaches in Brazil. There’s a fantastic beach in Boa Vista, in the Amazon, as well as in Alter de Chao, the latter often positively compared to the white beaches of the Caribbean.
There are more lovely beaches on Brazil’s coast than you can shake a stick at. Close to Salvador, there’s Morro de Sao Paulo, there’s all the city beaches of Rio de Janeiro, the beaches off the Sao Paulo coast at Santos, Itanhaem and Peruibe, and many more.