1 Hike Rio’s Hunchback
Rio’s most famous landmark is without a doubt the statue of Christ the Redeemer, standing with arms outstretched looking down from the Corcovado at the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. The statue dates only from 1931 (which is curiously enough about the time that Rio natives began taking to the beaches in ever-greater numbers, in ever-skimpier clothing). A visit to Christ’s feet is deservedly a part of every Rio itinerary, if only for the view alone. And while it’s certainly possible to take the 20-minute tram ride, a much better option is to hoof it. The trail—not well maintained, but clearly visible—wends its way over 2,300 vertical feet through the lush forest of the Parque Nacional de Tijuca. Along the way you can admire the wildflowers, look for monkeys, birds, and butterflies, and gawk at the ever-more-stunning views. Waiting at the top is a refreshment stand, a panoramic view of Rio, and of course, a chance to meet your maker.
2 Bike Iguazu Falls
Anyone who’s seen The Mission will instantly recognize the falls of Iguazu. The Iguazu River—which here forms the border between Brazil and Argentina—roars over a sheer precipice three miles wide and 270 feet high, vaporizing enough of the river to create a thick warm mist and permanently glowing rainbow.
It’s the mists that create the great hidden secret of the Iguazu area—mostly missed by tourists eager to click the perfect shot and move on—a pocket microclimate of near-rainforest lushness. Mountain bikes are the best way to explore this tiny Eden, particularly on the Argentinean side where there are numerous trails leading from small riverside swimming pools all the way back up to the top of the gorge. The forest is home to monkeys and peccaries and tapirs and over 400 species of tropical birds. Many of these creatures can be hard to spot, of course, but the same can’t be said of the abundant population of glorious tropical butterflies. Count yourself unlucky if—at some point during the day—you don’t find yourself pedaling through a colorful cloud of insects, many of them shaded iridescent blue.
3 Explore the Amazon
The last great wilderness on earth, and larger than all of Western Europe combined, the Amazon is truly a place of marvels: more biodiversity and more free-flowing freshwater than anywhere else on earth. And on what a scale: The river itself stretches for 4,000 miles from Brazil far into Peru, and the Amazon Basin covers 2.3 million square miles.
Visitors to the Amazon rainforest can expect to see trees in a mind-numbing variety of shapes, sizes, colors and configurations, vines weaving themselves amongst the trees, creepers hanging from the vines, and orchids and bromeliads by the bushel basket. For wildlife, there are monkeys crashing over the treetops, snakes and tortoise on the forest floor, and sloths, toucans, and bright red macaws in amongst the tree trunks.
You’ll find all these things and more, but given the Amazon’s vastness, it can take a little time. Jungle lodges—not far from Manaus—are one option. Excursions take you bird watching, piranha fishing, caiman spotting, or to an Amazonian village. Another option: Live aboard a boat. Some cruise lines, like Royal Olympic, make an excursion into the basin. Other companies, like Abercrombie & Kent, can take you on a first-class, multi-day trip from Manaus to Iquitos, Peru, with excursions on tiny Zodiacs. For the truly adventurous, a number of Manaus operators offer two-week (or longer) expeditions, first by plane and speedboat up the narrowing Rio Negro, then by kayak or canoe through far-off tributaries north to the peaks of Pico de Neblina, or south to the villages and territory of seldom-met tribes of the Yanomani Indians.
Go in the dry season, when you’ll be able to walk around, or the wet, when the forest floods and lifts boaters some 20 feet closer to the canopy.
4 Hike the Royal Road
It’s one of the last stands of Atlantic rainforest—a nature reserve boasting jaguars, wolves, and stunning coastal views. And this 25-mile trek through the Parque Nacional Serra dos Orgaos, which usually takes three days to complete, is also a way to take in the royal cities of Petropolis and Teresopolis (which once served the Emperor Pedro and Empress Teresa as summer capitals).
Starting from the park headquarters just outside of Teresopolis, the trail winds through the Mata Atlantica, giving you a glimpse of what the hills and the coast looked like before the axe-wielding Portuguese arrived. As the trail rises, the forest gradually makes way for alpine meadows, which continue until you reach the Pedra do Sino (7,419 feet). From its peak, you can see all the way to the coast and Rio de Janeiro. The trail then continues along the ridgeline, past sheer dropoffs, to a high point at the Pedra do Agu (7,331 feet) before winding back down into Petropolis.
5 Ride a Rio Airwave
If ever a place was made for hang gliding, it is surely Rio. The weather’s warm year-round, the sun and ocean make for constant rising thermals, and thanks to the extreme geography, there are launch sites throughout the city. Solo flying’s fine, if you’ve brought your kite; if not, there are tandem flights for hire. Perhaps the most scenic flight is the one that starts from the peak of the Pedra Bonita in Gavea. Launching from a site 1,705 feet above sea level, you soar above Rio’s Floresta da Tijuca—the largest urban forest in the world—observing for as long as wind and loft allow. When the time finally comes to set down, head for the beach at Sco Conrado (two beaches east of Ipanema). After touchdown, mosey up to a beachside bar—likely full of other fliers—sit back with a cold Brazilian beer, and boast about your accomplishments.
6 Scuba Dive a Brazilian Island
It’s isolation, of course, that makes an island special, and Fernando de Noronha has solitude in spades. To reach this 21-island archipelago, you travel to the far northern city of Recife, then turn right and fly for an hour and a half straight out into the Atlantic. Adding to the solitude are the strict rules imposed by the Brazilian environment ministry: 70 percent of the archipelago is national park, and the number of visitors may never exceed 420 at any given time. Most times, the island’s full; around Christmas and New Year’s, would-be islanders have been known to wait for days for a spot to open up.
So what’s luring people out there to all that splendid isolation? A fully intact ecosystem in all its tropical glory. Verdant green mountainsides roll down to sheer rocky cliffs which fall onto wide sandy beaches that have known neither condo nor cabana. And beneath the waves floats a paradise of coral, fish, manta rays, and lemon sharks. Each new dive site offers new possibilities. Laje dos dois Irmcos is known for its coral. Ilha do Frade is the place to see rock formations and manta rays. Early in the morning, if you’re looking for something scenic above the surface, wander over to the Baia dos Golfinhos just after dawn to watch 2,000 spinner dolphins gather in pods to feed and frolic in the morning sunsine.
7 Boogie the Rio Grande Beaches
Make sure your sun hat has a string: The Brazilian dune buggy makes for a ferociously fast and furious ride. Motorsports are an obsession here, and in the far northern state of Rio Grande do Norte, this love of things with four wheels and an engine has been melded with the Nordeste love of the beach. The result: the boogie, as it’s called in Portuguese. The best beaches for boogieing, located just to the north of the city of Natal, boast monstrous dunes of shifting sands, some of them hundreds of feet high.
Though it is occasionally possible to do it yourself, it’s more exciting to hire a driver. Among the stunts the drivers will treat you to are the Wall of Death, the Roller Coaster, and the Vertical Descent. True, none of this is exactly ecologically correct (though there is an informal arrangement whereby bugeiros use only the beaches closest to Natal; farther north the coast remains dune-bug free). On the other hand, it is outrageously fun.
8 See Wildlife in the Pantanal
It’s a secret that until very recently was known only to film crews: the best place in South America to see wildlife is not the Amazon but the Pantanal. Now the word’s out, and this France-sized wetland on the far western edge of Brazil is fast becoming a must-see. And with good reason: The Pantanal is bursting with animals—capybaras, caimans, jaguars, anacondas, giant otters, scarlet macaws, and flocks of storks and herons. Unlike in the Amazon, where the dense green foliage makes the creatures harder to see, the Pantanal is tailor-made for eco-touring. In the wet season, the Pantanal becomes one vast lake, so most mammals congregate on the few remaining dry bits. In the dry season, everything draws in to the few remaining waterholes. The only problem is getting around.
Few roads exist in the Pantanal; the best way to explore the area is make like the locals and head out on horseback. Brazilian cattle ranchers have grazed their livestock here for decades. Nowadays, many of these fazendas offer places to sleep and horses to rent: Tag along after the ranch hands on their daily rides to pick up cattle, or set out on your own to explore.
9 Bask on Brigitte Bardot’s Beaches
Want a little beach? Located on the Atlantic Coast north of Rio, the little town of Buzios was “discovered” by Brigite Bardot and—despite the influx of Brazilian beautiful people—has managed in the years since to retain the laid-back atmosphere of its fishing-village past. A good deal of its charm is due to the sheer beauty of the surroundings: The town sits on the tip of a long peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic. Just offshore there are many tiny islands, the perfect place to sail for one day or several, diving and snorkelling along the way. In the countryside nearby, waterfalls spill down forested hillsides in warm freshwater cascades.
Closer to town, experience all the wonderful combinations and permutations of Brazilian beach culture. Geriba Beach is the place for surfing. Quiet and calm and very deep, Ferruda Beach is perfect for a lazy afternoon snorkel. Far from town are more isolated spots to steal a quiet moment with a special beach friend, while right in town on Ossos beach you can sip a caipirinha at a beachside cafe and pretend for a moment you’re young and rich and beautiful. Everyone else is.
10 Hike 18th Century Cities
It’s an outdoor walk through some of Brazil’s most brilliant past: The inland state of Minas Gerais struck it rich on gold just about the time the Baroque was reaching its elaborate architectural heights. The newly wealthy citizens needed something to blow their money on, and having exhausted the joys of women and booze, they turned to architecture. The result is six small cities that rival St. Petersburg or Prague, boasting cobblestone streets, soaring palaces, and elaborate churches.
Largest of the six is the hilltop town of Ouro Preto; its cobblestone streets wander up and down hills crowned with more than a dozen ornately carved and elaborately decorated Baroque churches. Each corner turns on new surprises: mansions, fountains, ruins, beautiful terraced gardens, and towers glowing with colored tiles. Close by, the smaller cities of Mariana and Congonhas and Sabara offer similar delights though on a smaller scale, exquisite desserts to Ouro Preto’s rich architectural feast. All four cities lie within a 12-mile radius, but it’s still best to use transit to move between cities and save your shoe leather for in town.