1 Ride an Amazon River Steamer
If Mark Twain were still around he’d feel right at home on an all-wood triple-decker Amazon riverboat. For everyone else, it’s a sight to behold. Livestock and freight, loggers, ranchers, tourists, and Indians: Since the forest is too dense to walk or drive through, riverboats carry everyone. As on the ole Miss, voyagers pass the time talking, eating, drinking, singing, and gambling; in dull moments you can watch the world’s last great wilderness drift past. For accommodation there’s your own personal hammock, bought on the dock before departure and strung from a post or beam on the passenger deck. Journeys between Belem at the mouth of the river and Manaus in the heart of the forest take somewhere between four and seven days, depending on where and how often you pull in, and whether you’re heading upstream or down. Punctuality’s not a riverboat’s strong suit. Neither, it must be said, is luxury. An Amazon riverboat is pure frontier transportation; bring a hammock, water, some extra food for snacking and, and most important of all, some toilet paper.
2 Swim Bonito’s Natural Aquarium
The countryside around Campo Grande is the kind of prosperous, slightly dull agricultural landscape that puts one in mind of Kansas. But just 150 miles to the south near the town of Bonito is a place that more properly belongs in Oz. Water from the Formosa, Securi, and Bama Bonita rivers filters and trickles through a region of calcium-laden bedrock to emerge in pools and natural springs of stunning clarity. Normally, pools of such crystalline clarity offer little in the way of aquatic life, but for reasons unknown, Bonito’s pools teem with fish.
The largest of the pools—the Aquario Natural—abounds in dourado, piripitanga, corimba, and hundreds of other colorful tropical fish. Visitors don mask, snorkel, fins, and wetsuit (yes, the water’s chilly, but it’s that very chill that also keeps out the piranhas) and swim in what is justly called the Natural Aquarium. Equally clear and colorful is a drift along the nearby Rio Sucuri (reached by a one-hour hike) where it’s hard to decide whether to look down through the blue-green waters or up at the lush pink and purple stands of orchids lining the riverbank.
3 Bike Chapada Diamantina
In the hinterland of Salvador, just outside of the town of Lengois, lies the Chapada Diamantina. Valleys of lush green dotted with bright tropical flowers surround a mountain range of twisted red rock formations reminiscent of the American Southwest. Prowling this lush little wilderness are capybaras, jaguars (to eat the capybaras), and flocks of gorgeous multicolored birds.
Named by the miners who once came in search of diamonds, the Chapada Diamantina is now sought out by adventure travelers who come to hike the trails, explore the caverns, and swim in the mountain-fed waterfalls. Backpackers here often eschew a tent, since campsites are mostly located conveniently next to a comfy grotto. For those in the mood for some two-wheeled exploration, there’s an excellent 47-mile track that starts in Lengois, leads down along the edge of the wetlands in the Vale do Capco, then switchbacks up to the highest point in the Chapada, the 4,000-foot Morro Volta da Serra, before gliding back down into the town of Andarai.
4 Hike Northern Brazilian Dunes
If paradise consists of crystal-clear freshwater lagoons lined by palm trees and surrounded by towering dunes of the whitest sand imaginable, then Eden is actually in the north of Brazil, in the Parque Nacional dos Lençois Maranheses. This 600,000-acre preserve is one of the world’s truly unique ecosystems. Located on the coast, Lençois is a desert of massive sand dunes (most more than 100 feet high) that is blessed from December through July with abundant rainfall. The rains trickle into the troughs between dunes, creating spectacular lagoons of blue and green, which then fill up with fish and turtles and flocks of migratory waterfowl. Come summer, the rains cease, the lagoons shrink, and the sand dunes begin to shift, often by as much as 75 feet a year.
Tourism to the park is in its infancy; if you get there, you’re likely on your own. Within the park there are no facilities, but entry is absolutely free, and there are no rules about where thou shalt or shalt not put thy tent.
5 Go Caving in a National Park
Located in the far northeast corner of the Brazilian state of Goias, Terra Ronca boasts over 200 caverns—some tens of miles deep—many of which remain unexplored. The largest formations attract spelunkers, adventure travelers, and, once a year, the religious. Every August 6th, residents of the area celebrate the Festa do Bom Jesus da Lapa. Women dressed all in white form a procession to a large underground lake, into which they toss offerings of flowers and votive candles.
Perhaps the best-explored cavern is the Gruta Terra Ronca, which extends for over three miles underground. Exploring the length of the cave is possible, though you have to work for your fun; close to the entrance of the cavern is an underground river with a considerable current. The rewards on the far side include numerous galleries holding magnificent stalagmites and stalactites, as well some delicate and beautiful calcium flowers. In one gallery, about two-thirds of the way along, there’s an opening in the ceiling that allows enough sunlight to filter in for a few small palms to grow.
6 Raft the Jalapao
Travel northwards from Brasilia through the dry-as-dust scrubland and eventually—long after the asphalt has given way to gravel and the potholes have swallowed two of the three spare tires from your 4×4—you’ll see the Jalapco highlands rising the up like a mirage. Isolated in the eastern regions of the sparsely populated state of Tocantins, this extensive plateau gives rise to no less than five rivers, all of them pristine enough to drink from.
The main river, the Rio Novo, is best explored by raft. (Bring your own or book with an outfitter in the gateway town of Ponte Alta do Tocantins.) Expeditions begin on the placid waters below the Ponte do Rio Novo. Drifting quietly past the caimans through a gallery of overhanging trees, you’ll see wolves and deer coming down to drink, monkeys crashing through the canopy, and macaws and toucans cawing noisily at the disturbance. Near the edge of the plateau the river picks up speed, churning and surging through numerous rapids, pausing once in a while for a lazy flat section before once again cascading downwards. Four days later you wind up at the Cachoeira da Velha, a beautiful horseshoe-shaped waterfall that looks like a scale model of Niagara, except that at the bottom of it, you can swim.
7 Rappel Waterfall-Filled Caverns
Brazil lacks much in the way of mountains, and because it’s so hard to head up, Brazilians go down, rappelling down canyons either next to or completely immersed in cascading waterfalls. Called canyoning, this is one of the hottest new sports in a country newly obsessed with the outdoors. One of the spots locals favor is the Parque Nacional Chapada dos Veadeiros, located in the northern highlands of the state of Goias. Source of both the Tocantins and Parana rivers, Chapada dos Veadeiros is known for its pristine water courses and its waterfalls. Also present are armadillos, giant anteaters, and wolves.
But the chief attractions for rapellers are the waterfalls. Located in the eastern part of the park, the Cachoeira da Agua Fria is particularly popular. From the top, the views are stunning in all directions. Set your anchors, toss over the rope, and go for it. As you glide, jerk, or slowly creep your way down, you’ll have only the rush of water and the sparkle of countless quartz crystals for company.
8 Scuba Dive in Ubatuba
Although snobby residents of Rio will sneer at beaches in the state of Sao Paulo, the area around Ubatuba is a scuba diver’s dream come true. (It’s also not bad for tree and beach lovers; 70 percent of the area is protected Atlantic rainforest, while the jagged coastline means the many small, sandy, difficult-to-get-to beaches remain blissfully free of people.) Diving takes place around the many small islands that dot the coast, with each island offering its own particular attraction. Ilha das Couves is known for its coral, and for the dolphins that often keep you company near the surface. Ilha de Palmas and the surrounding waters hold hundreds of intriguing rock formations, many containing sizeable caverns—the place for cave divers to practice their esoteric and dangerous craft.
And for those who missed out on their tacky tourist fix, at Ilha Anchieta there’s an underwater statue of Jacques Cousteau, sunk in 1997 in memory of the French researcher and filmmaker.
9 Multi-Sport on the Ilha Bela
Located on the rich green coast north of Sao Paolo, the steep-sided island of Ilha Bela had its closest brush with civilization in the 19th century, when coffee barons chopped plantations out of the island’s western slopes and made tracks through the forest. When coffee crashed, the island was largely abandoned, its cover of Atlantic rainforest intact save for a network of rough mountain trails, with a near-limitless number of almost inaccessible beaches on its outer Atlantic shore.
Just recently, one local operator has come up with a way to harness Ilha Bela’s unique attributes. Take the Ilha Bela adventure and you’ll travel by 4×4 to a 3,600-foot-high ridge and ride mountain bikes on a descent past waterfalls and through rainforest to a far-off beach on the Atlantic shore. And that’s just day one. On day two it’s into kayaks for a paddle from lonely beach to completely isolated beach. On day three the journey continues, with stops here and there for hikes up to an occasional lonely waterfall. After three or four days, the expedition arrives back at a beach close to town.
10 Hike Itaimbezinho Canyon
The biggest canyon in Brazil lurks near the border of the southern states of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul, inside the Parque Nacional dos Aparados da Serra. Nearly six miles long and a mile deep, the Itaimbezinho can be either spectacularly beautiful or treacherously deadly. Or both.
Most days, you walk along the lush banks of the Rio do Boi, marvelling at the countless waterfalls that plunge down from on high. Occasionally, however, an unexpected rain turns the gurgling Rio do Boi into a snarling torrent that chews its way through the canyon bottom, spitting out the corpse of anyone unlucky enough to have been caught in the chasm. Avoiding these days is a matter of timing. Hiking in the dry season (July-October) is generally safe, though it’s wise to keep an ear to the latest forecast. Even during the wet season the trip’s still possible, though the prudent may want to stick to the Cotovelo Trail, which follows along the canyon’s edge. It, too, is beautiful and spectacular, with the only real danger being a trip too close to the edge.