Sprawling over nearly half of South America, Brazil is a country of contradictions, of bustling cities and lush natural landscapes, of glittering skyscrapers and centuries-old relics, of opulence and stark poverty. In this vast land the Amazon River coils through the great Amazon rainforest, and the Pantanal teems with wildlife. Miles of beaches stretch across the southeastern coast, and the rhythm of the samba and the Carnival hold sway.
Early Portuguese explorers brought back a red wood dye, pau-brasil, from which Brazil got its name. By virtue of the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, Brazil was claimed for the Portuguese crown and remained a royal colony from the mid-16th century until 1822, when Pedro I declared Brazil’s independence. Even before independence, bandeirantes—explorers—began trekking inward from the coast, extending Brazil’s western boundaries into Spanish terrain.
During the discovery of gold in Minas Gerais late in the 17th century and the northeastern sugar boom in the 18th century, Brazil flourished into a major economic force in South America. In the Southeastern Region, coffee plantations thrived despite the abolition of slavery due to immigrant labourers pouring into the country. The movement of Brazil’s capital cities—first Salvador in the Northeast, then Rio de Janeiro in the Southeast, and now Brasília in the 1960s in a bid to develop the Central-West—reflected the government’s economic priority in each period.
With the current boom in cultural sightseeing and ecological tourism, Brazil is leaning toward the preservation of its rich history in colonial architecture and art, and environmental conservation. For the staunch urbanite with a vacationer’s heart, metropolitan Brazil’s patches of green, slices of history, and nearby beaches beckon. The possibilities abound.
Brazil is divided into five regions. Comprising almost half of the national territory is the North Region. Here the Amazon rainforest makes its home, covering most of the region’s seven states. The Amazon River snakes through the lush jungles of Para and Amazonas.
Though the export of timber, rubber, nuts, and minerals has been the lifeblood of the region’s economy for decades, recent years have seen a tourism boom in the North. Hundreds of eco-tourists, nature enthusiasts, and ornithologists flock to the rainforest each year, eager for a rare brush with the Amazon’s vibrant biodiversity.
The Northeast Region is renowned for the splendid beaches along its coastal cities and the well-preserved 18th and 19th-century buildings that rose during its heyday in the sugar trade.
The region’s culture owes much to its role in the colonial sugarcane era. Salvador in Bahia, the first capital of Brazil until the colonial seat of government was moved to Rio de Janeiro, received large numbers of African slaves during this time. African art, religion, and music (notably the Angolan capoeira) have since fused with the European and ethnic culture of Salvador.
A lot of the important events in Brazil’s history happened in the Central-West Region. The state of Mato Grosso was an important destination for expeditions into Brazil in the 17th century. Ecologically, the environmental reserve Pantanal in Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul is the region’s best-known feature. It is the largest floodable lowland in the world. A mud road, the Transpantaneira, cuts through the tropical forests, savannahs, and fields. Parks like the Chapada do Guimarães in Mato Grosso, Chapada dos Veadeiros and the National Park of Emas in Goiás, with their scenic plateaus, canyons, and waterfalls, appeal to eco-tourists.
The South Region is the smallest of Brazil’s five administrative regions. It is highly urbanized, with a fairly high standard of living, and second only to the Southeast Region in per capita income. The cultivation, processing, and export of tobacco, rice, corn, beans, wheat, and soy, along with cattle breeding, are its main economic bases. European immigrants to the region in the 18th and 19th centuries greatly influenced its culture, architecture, and way of life.
The Southeast Region is the country at its best. It is the home of the samba, the world-famous Carnival, magnificent forests and stunning beaches, and of Brazil’s greatest cities.
São Paolo is an empire of enterprises, Brazil’s melting pot of cultures from colonial times. Immigrants into the young country settled in São Paolo and brought in their traditions, cuisine, folklore, and dogged work ethic, transforming the state into South America’s largest metropolis.
Catapulted to legendary status by movies and pop songs, Rio de Janeiro’s nightlife and year-round festivities pack the state each year with tourists from all over the world. Home to Brazil’s top samba schools and the iconic Cristo Redentor, Rio encompasses wide swaths of beaches in Búzios, Cabo Frio, and Angra dos Reis, and the mountains of the Imperial City, Petrópolis.
Espírito Santo is famous for its scrumptious seafood, the monazite sands of Guarapari, and colonial architecture in Anchieta and Vila Velha. However, Brazil’s historic past is best preserved in Minas Gerais, in the quaint old towns of Ouro Preto, Diamantina, Mariana, Tiradentes, Congonhas do Campo, Sabará, and São João Del Rey. Baroque sculptor Aleijadinho’s works are found here, as well as remarkable houses dating from the 16th and 17th centuries.