The 21-Day Best of Brazil
Three weeks is probably the minimum amount of time required to get a quick sampling of some of Brazil’s most noteworthy attractions, landscapes, and cultures. Considering the country’s sheer size and diversity, and the distances and travel time involved, this itinerary is very selective. After all, the goal is to enjoy your time, not to exhaust yourself, and many of Brazil’s destinations involve some sort of relaxation.
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, dump your bags, 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, 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 Bardobeco.
Take an early morning bus to Belo Horizonte and hop a flight to either Campo Grande in Mato Grosso do Sul or Cuiabá in Mato Grosso. Both of these cities are prime gateways for discovering the Pantanal wetlands, teeming with exotic flora and fauna. From either city, travel to a fazenda lodge within the wetlands. Spend the next three days horseback riding, canoeing, and hiking through unspoiled landscapes in search of capybaras, giant otters, elusive jaguars, and brilliant-colored macaws.
Return from your fazenda lodge to Campo Grande or Cuiabá and fly to Brasília. Spend the day 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. Take in a film or concert or head to a local bar, such as the classic Bar Beirute, before turning in.
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.
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).
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.
To experience the pristine Amazon of your dreams, you’ll have to head out of Manaus and up the Rio Negro or Rio Solimões. A minimum of two nights at a jungle lodge in the heart of the forest, such as the Pousada Uacari in the midst of the Reserva Mamirauá, including all meals, guided excursions, and activities (such as piranha fishing and swimming with river dolphins), should satiate your eco-urges.
Return from the jungle to the “civilization” of Manaus. Get on a plane to Rio de Janeiro, where you can treat yourself to a night on the town with dinner at a contemporary Zona Sul eatery, such as Carlota, followed by bar-hopping in Lapa.
If you’ve fallen in love with Rio, stick around for the final days of your stay. Otherwise, hop a bus to Paraty. Check into one of the charming pousadas in the colonial center. After a seafood lunch at Banana da Terra spend the afternoon wandering around the town and poking into the quartet of colonial churches. Relax at your hotel, and then have a gourmet dinner at the elegant Merlin o Mago, followed by a nightcap at a breezy outside bar, such as the Margarida Café.
After a quick stroll around town, take a bus to Trindade and spend your last full day in Brazil sprawled in the sand, munching on giant shrimp. If you’re feeling active, you can take a hike through the Atlantic rainforest past the beaches of Praia Cachadaço, Praia do Sono, and Praia do Antigo. At the end of the day, return to Paraty.
Return to Rio. If you leave early in the morning, you’ll probably have time for a farewell lunch in the Centro before heading to the airport.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition