Brazil: Travel, History, Culture and almost Everything Else

I love Brazil. Living there for over four years has taught me that the country is a place full of contractions. On one hand you have a tropical paradise, beautiful beaches and some of the most warm, diverse and hospitable people on earth. At the same time, you also have a place that is rampant with corruption, violence and massive poverty that results in one of the most unequal societies in the world. Despite these extremes, Brazil is fascinating place that everyone should visit at least once. I hope that the following helps to spark some of your interest in this South American giant.

History of Brazil

How did Brazil get its name?
Indigenous peoples before the arrival of the Portuguese
Slavery in Brazil
The Bandeirantes and the opening up of Brazil’s interior
Brief History of São Paulo

Top Things to See and Do

Rio de Janeiro

Praia de Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Praia de Ipanema, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro is a place unlike any other and not sound biased, my favorite place in the whole country. It’s probably one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s often called the heart and soul of Brazil and an urban paradise surrounded by sandy white beaches, tropical rain forests and mountains and stunning monuments and architecture. It’s a place that has to be visited to be believed.

Amazon Rainforest

The Amazon Rainforest is home to many different types of animals such as this particular species of leopard.
The Amazon Rainforest is home to many different types of animals such as this particular species of leopard.

Want to see a glimpse of what the world was like before humans came onto the scene? That’s what you’ll feel like if you’re fortunate enough to visit the vast Amazon Rainforest. It’s here that you can see the greatest biodiversity of animals, birds, insects, towering trees and plants, many which were only recently discovered in the last few decades. Many of those who visited have felt that they entered another world upon arrival.
The entrance point for most people into the Amazon River basin is from the city of Manaus, once a great center of the global rubber industry. From here you can take one of a number of different cruises along the river, from 7-star liners to more budget options. If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you can get a local guide and travel around in a canoe much like the indigenous peoples did and still do.

The Amazon has more species of birds than any place on Earth.
The Amazon has more species of birds than any place on Earth.

Be warned: a journey into the amazon is not an adventure for the faint of heart. There are insects galore and many dangers for those who do not take proper precautions. Still, it’s a place that those who have ventured into never, ever forget.


The old colonial heritage of Salvador, Brazil
The old colonial heritage of Salvador, Brazil

Along with Rio de Janeiro, the city of Salvador is one of Brazil’s main cultural hubs. It was made the first capital of Brazil in 1549 and was the center of colonial and administrative life during colonial times. Salvador is also the center of Afro-Brazilian culture and like Rio de Janeiro, home to one of the largest and most festive (read crazy) Carnaval celebrations in the country. If this isn’t enough for you, the beaches that surround Salvador will have you sold on the city.


Victoria Regia Water Lily and Lily Pads in the Pantanal region of Brazil. Source of photo unknown
Victoria Regia Water Lily and Lily Pads in the Pantanal region of Brazil. Source of photo unknown

Most people focus on the Amazon River basin when it comes to wildlife adventures. While this is no doubt one of the Brazil’s natural wonders (see above), an almost equally exciting experience can be obtained by visiting the country’s Pantanal region. Located in the state of Mato Grosso, the Pantanal is the world’s largest wetland area and is home to countless species of birds, insects, amphibians, reptiles and mammals including jaguars. If you can’t make it to the Amazon rainforest, the Pantanal is a great second option.

Ouro Preto

The colonial city of Ouro Preto
The colonial city of Ouro Preto
As New World colonial cities go, few can really beat Ouro Preto in the state of Minas Gerais. This city and the surrounding region was once one of the wealthiest areas in all of colonial Latin America. Today it’s a historical, university and party town, especially during Carnaval. It’s also one of the more traditionally Catholic cities of Brazil with beautiful 18th century churches and some of the largest and more colorful Holy Week processions in the country. 1

São Paulo

São Paulo at night

I added São Paulo because I didn’t want insult my friends and the roughly 15 – 20 million people who live within a 100 kilometer radius of the city. Living in São Paulo for several years, I know the city well and also barely at all. That’s because São Paulo, or sampa as locals affectionately call it, is one huge metropolis of concrete, industry and nightlife (supposedly there are 30,000 restaurants/bars/clubs here). 2 Rio de Janeiro it’s not but it is still great city to explore if you want to get a feel for what urban Brazil is like. It also has some of the best street art in the world!


Once just a sleepy little fishing town, Buzios has become one of Brazil’s best beach enclaves. Located just 100 miles east of Rio, Buzios is home to no less than 23 beaches. Whether a surfer, wake boarder or sunbather, there’s a beach in Buzios for everyone. Along with the activities mentioned above, one can also go scuba diving, snorkeling, biking and even hiking in the surrounding vicinity. If not interested in the outdoors, you can dine at one of the many seafood restaurants in town.

Jericoacoara (a.k.a. “Jeri”)

Jericoacoara Beach; photographer unknown

Jericoacoara, or “Jeri” as its affectionately called, was named by the Washington Post as one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world. It’s probably also one of the hardest places to get to. Perhaps that’s why it has been able to keep its beautiful blue lagoons and impeccably white sandy beaches in near pristine state that they’re in. In fact, there’s not even a real road that goes there; you have to go off road for about 45 minutes over towering sand dunes to get there. It’s worth it though as once you arrive, you’re literally in paradise. The scenery is nothing short of stunning, the beach and water immaculately clean and the nearby restaurants and villages fun to explore.

The best time to go? During sunset or whenever there’s a full moon out.

Ilha Grande

Ilha Grande; photo courtesy of Getty Images

Ilha Grande is an idyllic island paradise that’s just over 100km from Rio de Janeiro. This might seem strange given the island’s history; it was once a leper colony and later the grounds for a maximum security prison. This may be the reason why the beaches and rainforests here are unspoiled by human traffic and commercial enterprises. In fact, cars and other motorized vehicles are essentially prohibited on any part of the Ilha Grande. The island is a cool place to explore and has a much more peaceful feel to it than Rio.


Photo source unknown

Situated about 200 miles from Rio de Janeiro on the way to São Paulo, Paraty is one of Brazil’s most colorful and beautiful colonial beach towns. It’s similar to Ilha Grande (see above) in that it also is a pristine beach area where motor vehicles aren’t allowed. Paraty though is not as isolated. Along with natural beauty, the older part of the town has some of Brazil’s best colonial architecture. One of the more popular things to do here horseback riding through the nearby rainforests and relaxing along Paraty’s epic coastline.

Sources and Further Reading:

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