How to get off the beaten path in Brazil

7 December 2017

Because there's so much more to South America's biggest country than Rio de Janiero and the Iguaçu Falls, Sophie Smith introduces some of the lesser known highlights of spectacular Brazil.

For lots of Kiwis, travelling in South America can seem a little daunting. But for those who venture across the Pacific Ocean, the rewards are more than worth it  – and nowhere is that more true than in Brazil. I lived there for over a year, and had the chance to visit a few excellent places that might not appear in your average guidebook. So put them on your list if you want to experience Brazil beyond the usual tourist trail.

Porto Alegre

The Mercado Publico (public market), Porto Alegre. Photo: Sophie Smith

Porto Alegre is the capital city of the southernmost state of Brazil, Rio Grande do Sul, and my absolute favourite city in the country. If you want to experience some of the most unique aspects of Brazilian culture, then head south. The atmosphere here is totally different to the rest of Brazil (they even had a civil war to secede, though they did lose), and it’s a treasure trove of fascinating cultural traditions that are much more similar to the cultures in northern Argentina and Uruguay. Porto Alegre has been called the cultural capital of Brazil, and is a thriving centre of contemporary art. So if you’re interested in wonderful museums, live music, super-quirky bars, and amazing food from the Central Market, then Porto Alegre is the best place to visit.

Bonito

Piranha fishing (with caymans!) in the Pantanal, near Bonito. Photo: Sophie Smith

This wee town is smack in the middle of the southern wetland region, the Pantanal. It’s a gorgeous little place, but the main reason to go is what’s on offer just outside town. If you are at all into the great outdoors, then Bonito is actually the best area in Brazil (better than the Amazon to be quite honest!). You can go snorkelling in a river with water so clear you aren’t even allowed to wear sunscreen due to potential contamination  – so make sure you request a full length wetsuit if you burn easily like me. Do a boat tour with a guide who takes you rafting and swimming for a whole day up and down the terraced waterfalls. You can see a huge range of wildlife here, including adorable capybaras, and go piranha fishing and cayman spotting. If you’re at all into being outside, then do yourself a favour and head to Bonito!

Jericoacoara

The beach at Jericoacoara, northeastern Brazil. Photo: Sophie Smith

If you’re going up to the northeast of Brazil – the best place for the beautiful beaches and wild street parties that you imagine when you think of Brazil – then you must visit Jericoacoara (jeh-ree-quah-QUAH-rah). This little beach town is only accessible via a harrowing but thrilling four-wheel-drive ride across the sand dunes, and is a town with no roads, only sand to pave the streets. Jericoacoara is full of the nicest people, excellent food, and amazing beach culture. If you’re into watersports, this town is where it’s at, with some of the best windsurfers in the world coming to train here. Or, if you just want to 'lax out on a beach with a caipirinha (the national cocktail of Brazil, made with the sugar-cane liquor, cachaça), then this is truly the perfect spot.

Olinda

A tapioca pancake vendor, Olinda. Photo: Sophie Smith

This northeastern colonial town is as pretty as a postcard. Olinda is one of the best preserved colonial settlements in the country, and strolling through the cobblestone streets will have you feeling like you’ve stepped back in time. There are a lot of people in Brazil, and many places can feel really crowded, but Olinda still has a lovely 'small town' feel: relaxed pace, friendly locals, and not overrun with tourists. If you are lucky enough to be in Brazil during Carnaval, Olinda is one place with a thriving Carnaval tradition where you don’t have to pay for admission – the party is outside in the streets, and the locals are more than happy to include visitors in the festivities. And don’t forget to try a delicious tapioca pancake from a street vendor!

Pai Mateus National Park

Pai Mateus National Park. Photo: Sophie Smith

I visited this protected geological area by chance, and I can’t tell you how struck I was by its bare beauty and ethereal atmosphere. The area is so silent and peaceful; it’s an amazing stretch of land to behold. The guides who manage the park are extremely knowledgeable about its geography, but also about the region in general (you will learn oodles about life in northeastern Brazil). I wouldn’t often recommend visiting a place where just sitting and being is such an integral part of the experience, but there’s something so unique and beautiful about this place, that I think just taking everything in is special enough.

Lençóis Maranhenses National Park

Lençóis Maranhenses National Park. Photo: Sophie Smith

This is another amazing landscape to see in the northeast. If you can imagine 1500 square kilometres of beautiful, untouched, bright white sand dunes, then you have something close to this stunning stretch of land. This park is not a desert though: it sees plenty of rain, the rainwater pooling into beautiful oasis-like lakes between the dunes. There is even enough of an ecosystem for little fish to live in the pools. Trekking along the dunes and dipping into the lakes for the occasional swim is a great way to spend a day.

Parnaíba River Delta

The Parnaíba River Delta. Photo: Sophie Smith

It's worth paying for a boat tour to explore this stunning river delta in the north of the country. The Parnaíba River has a completely unique ecosystem, so you'll see fish and bird species here that exist nowhere else on the planet, darting between the mangroves, and swimming in the crystal clear lagoons. Be prepared for a little difficulty in getting here, but once you do, you can sleep in hammocks underneath the stars with the river rushing past. A truly unforgettable experience.

São Luís

Sunset over the waterfront at São Luís. Photo: Sophie Smith

This beautiful colonial city is the capital of the state of Maranhão in the north of Brazil. It’s actually located on an island off the coast, and perhaps because of its relative isolation it retains the largest and best preserved range of colonial Portuguese architecture of all Latin America. The city is incredibly vibrant, the people are lovely, and it’s a stunning coastal capital to add to your list. Sipping a cocktail on the waterfront as the sun sets here is about as good as it gets.

The Amazon River

Hammocks on an Amazon River boat. Photo: Sophie Smith

One of the most memorable things that I did whilst I was living in Brazil was to hitch a ride on an Amazon river boat and spend six days chugging up the Amazon River to the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean.

A few warnings. First, this form of transport is not for tourists. Boats like these are how the majority of Brazilians get up the river, so you’re not likely to encounter many other travellers. On the plus side, if you’re at all interested in learning Portuguese, you’ll never find friendlier people more willing to help you learn than on one of these trips! Second, you will sleep in a hammock. On the outdoor deck. With around 250 other people swinging right next to you. There is almost no indoor space on these boats at all. And third, you will really, truly see what life is like for people who live in the Amazon. It can be confronting, but ultimately so worth it.

This mode of transport is not for the faint of heart, but if you’re willing to forego a few mod cons, it's an experience that will make an impression that will last a lifetime. I did this trip about five years ago, and I still remember each day on the riverboat vividly. It was an incredible journey!

And one last piece of advice: a great way to get friendly with the locals is to ask them how they’re going. A quick “tudo bem?” and you’ll be set!

Sophie Smith

New Zealander Sophie Smith lives in Florence, Italy, where she works in hospitality and studies Italian.