Three weeks is the bare minimum required to get a quick sampling of some of Brazil’s noteworthy attractions, landscapes, and culture. Considering the country’s sheer size and diversity, and the distances and travel time involved, this itinerary is very selective (and depends upon lots of air travel). Don’t have three weeks at your disposal? Then choose, mix, or match from each of these weeklong itineraries built around a certain region.
Land in Rio de Janeiro (most flights from North America arrive in the morning) and go straight to your hotel. Lather up with sunscreen and recover from the long flight with some 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 do some boutique browsing. In the late afternoon, take a taxi to Pão de Açúcar and ride the cable car to the top for a view of 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 museums and historic sights. The Museu Histórico Nacional condenses 500 fascinating years of Brazilian history and culture into a couple of engaging hours punctuated with bright indigenous headdresses and gold imperial thrones.
Other architectural highlights include the 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, then take quick cab ride up to Santa Teresa to wander the cobblestoned streets and check out the Museu Chácara do Céu. Linger in a traditional botequim (neighborhood bar) for happy hour and dine at one of the romantic eateries. Head to nearby Lapa to experience its famous bohemian nightlife against an aural backdrop of live samba.
Spend the morning exploring Rio’s natural attributes. Languorous souls can amble around the imperial palm-shaded lanes of the Jardim Botânico and then head to nearby Parque Lage for lunch. Those seeking a greater physical challenge should schedule in advance to hang glide off Pedra Bonita, scale the scenic sides of Pão de Açúcar, or go hiking through the rain forest of Parque Nacional da Tijuca.
In the afternoon, check out of your hotel and head to the airport to catch a flight to Belo Horizonte. Spend your evening in “BH,” savoring petiscos, artisanal beer, and cachaças at one of the city’s countless botecos in bohemian neighborhoods such as Santo Antônio and São Pedro.
Catch the 8:15am bus for the fantastic Instituto de Arte Contemporânea Inhotim (open Tues.-Sun.) and spend the day exploring Brazil’s largest collection of contemporary art amidst the country’s largest botanical garden. At 4:30pm (5pm weekends), break the spell by taking the bus back to Belo Horizonte.
In the morning, catch a bus to the most resplendent of Minas Gerais’s historic gold-mining cities: Ouro Preto. Check into a centuries-old pousada, fortify yourself with traditional Mineiro fare at the lavish buffet served at Chafariz, then tackle the town’s steep cobblestoned hills and baroque churches.
You’ll overdose on cherubs and gold leaf long before you see all 27 of Ouro Preto’s churches. Not to be missed are the Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Pilar and the Igreja de São Francisco de Assis. If you can, make it the Museu do Oratório. In the evenings, sample artisanal cachaças at lively bars.
Wake up early for the morning bus to Belo Horizonte. If going home, fly back to Rio. Or add another week by hopping a plane to Foz do Iguaçu via São Paulo.
If you have some bucks to burn in Foz, check into the landmark Hotel das Cataratas, located within the Parque Nacional do Iguaçu. Spend the next two days visiting the Brazilian and Argentinean sides of the magnificent Iguaçu Falls; you’ll need one day for each to fit in adventures such as boat trips beneath the falls, whitewater rafting down the Rio Iguaçu, and hikes through the lush rain forest.
Fly into Cuiabá via São Paulo. The capital of Mato Grosso, this Wild West city is a gateway for discovering the Pantanal wetlands, which are full of exotic flora and fauna. After dining at a local peixaria, where you can sample the typical dishes made from the region’s river fish, turn in early.
Rise at dawn and join your guided, all-inclusive ecotour into the Pantanal, whose only link to civilization is the Transpantaneira Highway (1.5 hours south of Cuiabá). Spend the next three days horseback riding, canoeing, and hiking through unspoiled landscapes in search of giant otters, elusive jaguars, and brilliant-colored macaws. Spend your nights at traditional cattle ranches, known as fazenda lodges.
Return from your fazenda lodge to Cuiabá. If you’re going home, take a flight back to Rio; otherwise hop a plane to Salvador, the historic coastal capital of Bahia, via Brasília.
In Salvador, check into a hotel in the beach neighborhood of Barra or the colonial districts of Pelourinho or Santo Antônio. Spend the day wandering through the steep cobblestoned streets of the Pelourinho, or “Pelô.” Among this historic neighborhood’s exceptional treasures are the baroque Igreja e Convento de São Francisco and the Museu Afro-Brasileiro, which offers a good overview of Bahia’s Candomblé religion.
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 picturesque Santo Antônio. Some of the historic houses are occupied by terraced bars overlooking the Baía de Todos os Santos. Indulge in icy beers and an escondidinho while watching the sun set.
Spend the morning visiting sights in the Cidade Baixa (Lower City) such as the hilltop Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, the chaotic and colorful Feira de São Joaquim, and the Museu de Arte Moderna, located in a colonial sugar cane estate overlooking the sea. From here, it’s a close bus or cab ride to Porto da Barra, a beach in the Barra neighborhood. After sunset, take a bus, car, or taxi along the coast to Rio Vermelho to feast on acarajés and discover the city’s bohemian bairro (neighborhood).
Treat yourself to several days of relaxation on a beautiful Bahian beach and make the most of your time by selecting one relatively close. The easiest getaway is north along the Linha Verde. Shack up in Praia do Forte (somewhat chic and touristy) or Imbassaí (tranquil with a cosmopolitan edge).
Alternatively, you can hop a fast launch from the Cidade Baixa to Morro de São Paulo (party central) or to Ilha de Boipeba (gorgeously secluded, but getting here is a little trickier and can take longer); both lie south of Salvador.
On the morning of your last day, drive back to Salvador in time for your afternoon flight to Rio and your connecting flight home.
Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Brazil.