This itinerary involves lots of air travel (the most efficient but not always the cheapest way to get around the country).
After landing in Rio de Janeiro, go straight to your hotel, lather up with sunscreen, and recover from the long flight with a refreshing coconut water and a nap on Copacabana or Ipanema beach. Take refuge from the noonday sun at one of the healthy per-kilo restaurants in Ipanema or Leblon, and maybe do some boutique browsing.
In the late afternoon, take a taxi to Cosme Velho. Check out the Museu Internacional de Arte Naïf do Brasil and then ride up to Corcovado for a view of Guanabara Bay (Baía de Guanabara) as the city lights come on. After dinner, go bar- or club-hopping in the Zona Sul.
Head to the Centro to visit a museum or two as well as historic sights in the area. Highlights include Cinelândia, the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Igreja da Ordem Terceira de São Francisco da Penitência, Confeitaria Colombo, Paço Imperial, and Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil.
Have a late lunch in Centro at the Bistrô do Paço, and then take the bonde (trolley) up to Santa Teresa to wander the cobblestoned streets and check out the Museu Chácara do Céu. Linger in a traditional botequim (neighborhood bar) or relax at your hotel before heading to Lapa to experience its famous bohemian nightlife.
Hop an early morning bus or flight from Rio to São João del Rei in Minas Gerais. Spend the rest of the day exploring the historic center’s baroque treasures, including the splendid rococo Igreja de São Francisco de Assis. In the evening, take a bus (or a cab) to neighboring Tiradentes, which is full of fine Mineiro restaurants and charming pousadas.
Spend the day soaking up Tiradentes’s charms, wandering its cobblestoned streets, and exploring baroque jewels such as the Igreja Matriz de Santo Antônio. In the afternoon, return to São João del Rei in time to catch a bus bound for the most resplendent of Minas Gerais’s historic gold-mining cities, Ouro Preto. After checking into a centuries-old pousada, such as the Pouso do Chico Rey, dine on Mineiro fare at the Casa dos Contos Restaurante and then sample the town’s lively nightlife, on and around Rua Direita.
After a lavish Mineiro breakfast at your hotel, put on serious hiking shoes and take to Ouro Preto’s steep cobblestoned streets. Be prepared to overdose on sumptuous baroque churches slathered in gold leaf. Not to be missed are the Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Pilar and the Igreja de São Francisco de Assis, the masterpiece of baroque sculptor extraordinaire Aleijadinho. If you can see only one museum, make it the Museu do Oratório. In the evening, sample artisanal cachaças at local student bars, such as Bar do Beco.
Take an early morning bus to Belo Horizonte and hop a flight to Foz de Iguaçu. If you have some bucks to burn, check into Hotel das Cataratas, located within the Parque Nacional do Iguaçu itself. Spend what’s left of the day and the day after visiting both the Brazilian and Argentinean sides of the magnificent Iguaçu Falls. If you can, sample river fish at local eateries such as Clube Maringá.
Fly to Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso and a gateway for discovering the Pantanal wetlands, which are chock-full of exotic flora and fauna. Travel to a fazenda lodge along the Transpantaneira highway and spend the next three days horseback riding, canoeing, and hiking through unspoiled landscapes in search of giant otters, elusive jaguars, and brilliant-colored macaws.
Return from your fazenda lodge to Cuiabá and hop a bus to Chapada dos Guimarães. After checking in to the cozy Hotel Turismo, explore the charming town and plan a trip the following day to the Parque Nacional da Chapada dos Guimarães, where you can hike through native Cerrado vegetation, stopping for refreshing dips in waterfalls. Don’t leave town without trying local fish such as pacu and pintado and the pequi popsicles at Mazinho.
Return to Cuiabá and fly to Brasília. Spend the afternoon marveling at Oscar Niemeyer’s space-age architecture. After watching the sunset from the Torre de Televisão, welcome yourself back to civilization by splurging for dinner at one of the capital’s sophisticated restaurants, such as the unusual Patú Anu. Alternatively, take in a film or concert or head to a local bar, such as the classic Bar Beirute, before turning in.
After a last look around Brasília, fly to Salvador in Bahia and check into a hotel in the beach neighborhood of Barra or the colonial districts of Pelourinho or Santo Antônio. Stroll around these neighborhoods and then have drinks at a bar overlooking the sea before dinner. The Solar do Unhão, a former sugar plantation that houses the Museu de Arte Moderna, is a good choice.
Return to Salvador and fly to Manaus, capital of Amazonas. Take a tour of the extravagantly ornate Teatro Amazonas or take in a concert or dance performance there and visit the riverside market and a museum or two. If you have time, inspect the Meeting of the Waters, in which the milky brown Rio Solimões merges with the dark Rio Negro from the Rio Amazonas. Feast on local river fish, ice cream in exotic flavors, and caboclinho sandwiches (a vegetarian offering made with a baguette and slices of a yellow Amazonian fruit known as tucumã).
Depending on what time you arrive, you might stay overnight in Manaus or head right into the rainforest to a jungle lodge. If you stick around, spend the evening keeping cool at a bar in Ponta Negra overlooking the Rio Negro, such as the perpetually lively Laranjinha.
Spend the morning wandering through the steep cobblestoned streets of the Pelourinho, or “Pelô.” Among this historic neighborhood’s most exceptional treasures are the resplendent baroque Igreja e Convento de São Francisco and the interesting Museu Afro-Brasileiro, which offers a good overview of Bahia’s Candomblé religion. After a languorous Bahian lunch in the Pelô, head to Porto da Barra to check out the beach scene.
In the evening, check with the municipal tourist office to see if there are any Candomblé festas being held at traditional terreiros. Otherwise, head to Rio Vermelho to feast on acarajés (crunchy bean fritters) and discover the city’s bohemian bairro (neighborhood).
Treat yourself to a couple of days of relaxation on a beautiful Bahian beach. Although there are hundreds of beaches to choose from, select a destination within 2–3 hours of Salvador. The easiest getaway is to hop a bus north along the Linha Verde and shack up in Praia do Forte (somewhat chic and touristy), Imbassaí (tranquil with a cosmopolitan edge), or Diogo (utterly primitive).
Alternatively, you can hop a fast launch to Morro de São Paulo (party central), or a bus and boat to Boipeba (secluded) or Barra Grande (a bit of both), all of which lie south of Salvador.
Return to Salvador early in the morning, in time for your afternoon flight back to Rio and your connecting flight home.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.