When most people hear the word Brazil, they immediately envision themselves lying on a white-sand beach lapped by warm turquoise waters, while sipping a lime caipirinha. Indeed, Brazil’s 7,400 kilometers (4,600 miles) of stunningly varied coastline are sheer bliss for surfers and divers, not to mention dog paddlers and sun worshippers. Yet, Brazil is also home to the desert-like Sertão, lush coastal mountainscapes, the dense Amazon rainforest , and the Pantanal , a wetland ecosystem teeming with exotic flora and fauna.
Just as varied as the country’s geography are Brazilians themselves. While the rest of South America was conquered by Spain, Brazil was colonized by Portugal, which explains the adoption of Portuguese as the national language as well as a predilection for grandiose baroque architecture and bolinhos de bacalhau (crunchy codfish balls).
However, in northern Brazil, more than 20 percent of the Amazon is controlled by the region’s indigenous peoples. And in Bahia ’s picturesque capital of Salvador , 85 percent of the population is of African descent, and numerous festivals are linked to the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion. Meanwhile, in São Paulo , large Italian, Japanese, and Lebanese immigrant communities mean that pizza, sushi, and kibes are as commonplace as feijoada, the succulent national stew of beans flavored with salted beef and pork.
In Brazil the past and the future are constantly colliding. The gleaming modernist capital of Brasília  coexists with the spectacular 12,000-year-old cave paintings in the hills surrounding the Amazonian river town of Monte Alegre . And there’s no escaping the glaring discrepancies between rich and poor. Just climb to the lush summits of Corcovado  and gaze down at the luxury condos squeezed between beautiful beaches and Rio ’s sprawling slums.
Despite difficult economic and social circumstances, Brazilians are champions at the art of enjoying themselves. The Carnaval festival  is merely one example. Festas  (festivals) abound in Brazil and are almost always accompanied by the pulsating beat of samba, forró, chorinho, and maracatu.
Rivaling Brazil’s musical richness is the contagious alegria (joyfulness) of its inhabitants. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a people that exhibit the good humor and warmth of Brazilians. Life flows to a different rhythm here and the alegria you’ll find will leave you wanting more.