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Guide To Brazil


Introduction

If your preferred travel destinations take you further afield and more off the beaten track of many British tourists, Brazil holds a great deal in store:

  • a huge country and one of considerable contrasts in terms of scenery, landscapes and climates;
  • some of the destinations may be huge internationally famous icons – the Amazon, Rio de Janeiro and the Iguazu Falls, to name just three – but a country this big has countless other attractions;
  • travel not only provides an opportunity for sightseeing, however, but also the chance to meet different people – and the distinctive culture and sub-cultures of Brazil make it different to any other country in Latin America;
  • probably the most immediate and fundamental of these differences is in the language itself, Portuguese – this sets the peoples of Brazil quite apart from all the other, Spanish-speaking, countries of the continent;
  • Brazilians are for the most part very friendly, easy to get to know, easy going yet positive, hard-working but with a fun side that really knows how to relax;
  • that relaxation might take the form of carnival, music, or samba dancing, or even just lying in a shady hammock on the beach;
  • in many parts of this country of contrasts there are plenty of places to stay – from the chic and swanky 5-star hotels of the major cities and resorts to more humble and basic pousadas;
  • in the same way, food ranges from the finest of international cuisine to the tasty basic staples of the majority of the population;
  • the exchange rate of local currency, the Brazilian Real, for sterling is currently the most favourable it has been for more than ten years - so every pound you spend goes that little bit further;
  • there are daily flights from London to a number of the principal cities; and
  • travelling time – by non-stop flights from London – is only 11 hours or so.

If you go there, of course, you are likely to compile an even longer list of the features and attractions you loved the best – and perhaps even some of the less favourable aspects.


The basics

Location

Brazil is the largest country in South America, the third largest in the Americas and the fifth largest in the world. It is the only country in the world, however, which has the equator running through it, yet also extends to land beyond the tropics.

It’s position on the map is readily identified by the mirror image it projects opposite the central coastline of Africa, still illustrating very clearly how the two continents split from each other some 130 million years ago. Coordinates for the location of Brazil today are latitudes 6°N and 34°S, and longitudes 28° and 74°W.

From this, you can also see that the country has a very long coastline – which stretches for more than four and a half thousand miles – and has land borders with every country in South America, with the exception of Ecuador and Chile.

It has borders, therefore, with Colombia in the northwest, Peru and Bolivia in the west, Venezuela, Guyana, French Guiana and Suriname in the north, Uruguay to the south and Paraguay and Argentina in the southwest.

History

Although the country which was to become Brazil already had a population of many different indigenous peoples and tribes, its contemporary history all began as part of what can only be described as a happy mistake. The man who ended up discovering had in fact set out to sail to India!

The man was Pedro Alvares Cabral, a Portuguese who set sail in the year 1500 with a total crew of no less than 1,200 men.

The land, climate and fertility of much of the region attracted its fair share of settlers, who very soon began the cultivation of sugarcane and so launched a cross-Atlantic trade in sugar and slaves that was to last well over 300 years.

The pool of labour was at first found from amongst the two to six million indigenous people already living in the country, with the first human traffickers (so-called bandeirantes – generally men of mixed indigenous and Portuguese blood, who came from the city of Sao Paulo).

The demand for more and more human resources in the 16th and 17th centuries escalated the trade in slaves from West Arica, with an additional spinoff of mixed Afro-Portuguese offspring. The fusion of Portuguese colonialism and African slavery is evident in the culture and peoples of Brazil today.

Although the trade in sugarcane began to decline towards the end of the 17th century, the discovery gold led to a gold rush attracting new waves of settlers mainly from Portugal and its colonies in Angola and Mozambique, but also from many other parts of the world.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Portugal was under such threat from Spain and Napoleonic France, that the Portuguese Royal court was moved lock stock and barrel to Brazil – much to the chagrin of many other European monarchs who found it difficult to stomach the thought of royalty as long-established as the Portuguese should be living in effective exile in one of its colonies.

A short-lived attempt by the monarchy to stave off such criticism was made in 1815, when the Portuguese Crown announced the creation of a United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves.

Such a sleight of hand fooled no one, however, and the royal court was more or less forced to return to Lisbon in 1821.

In the meantime, moreover, things had changed in Brazil, where the prospect of a return to colonial status was no longer acceptable. The force for independence from Portugal grew and one of its principal leaders was none other than a member of the Portuguese royal family, Prince Pedro de Alcântara.

Pedro declared Brazil’s independence from Portugal in 1822 and became Dom Pedro I of the Empire of Brazil. The independence was eventually recognised by Portugal in 1825.

Although Pedro I was succeeded by his son, Pedro II, in 1841 and who went on to rein for the next 58 years, it was a time of rebellion and revolt principally from those who wanted a Brazilian republic and from the military right.

With a certain inevitability, therefore, the monarchy was overthrown by the military in 15 November 1889. Some have argued that for the next half century or more the republic was really nothing more than a series of military dictatorships.

With some notable exceptions and brief intervals between them – principally that of President Juscelino Kubitschek, from 1956 until 1961, and the father of the new capital in Brasilia – dictatorship continued to be the order of the day until 1985.

This ushered in the present era of democratic and political stability, currently headed by President Dilma Rousseff – who in fact cut her teeth within the radical opposition to the previous military dictatorship.

Climate

The popular perception of many people in Britain might be that the whole of Brazil is a land of more or less perpetual sunshine, relieved only by the still steamier tropical rainforest of the Amazon.

Within a country to large as Brazil, however, it is possible to encounter many different ranges of climate and not all of them bathed in perpetual sunshine or drenched in tropical rainstorms.

The north and northwest of the country may live up to these broad stereotypes – hot dry, gloriously sunny beaches, and the steaminess of the might Amazon, of course.

But travel south down the coast and things slowly begin to change as you near more temperate climes. Indeed, travel far enough south and there are states where winter invariably brings frost, ice and a dusting of snow. Brazil and snow – they hardly seem to go together, do they?

Geography

It really cannot be said often enough just how big a country it is – it is likely to take you the best part of five hours, for instance to fly from the 2,000 miles or so from the state of Maranhão in the north to Rio Grande do Sul in the south.

In fact, if you are able to break up the journey and take smaller regional or local flights, this might be a good way of taking in the very varied geography of the country.

Naturally, this includes the mile after mile of rainforest in the Amazon, but also includes arid and scrubby dry lands, craggy peaks and mountains, might rivers (the Amazon itself of course is not the only one), savannah, and of course the long, long stretches of sandy beaches.

There are 27 states – of different sizes – in Brazil and each one itself offers a very varied geography.


Where to go

As already suggested, Brazil is incredibly rich in the diversity of geography, history and culture. One illustration of this is UNESCO’s designation of no fewer than 17 places in the country as either Cultural or Natural World Heritage sites – some of the better known of which include:

  • the historic town of Olinda, a short distance from Recife, capital of the north-eastern state of Pernambuco. Invaded by the Dutch several times during the 17th century, Olinda’s early wealth came from its exports of sugar and the timber for which the country is famous, Brazil Wood;
  • Ouro Preto (literally Black Gold) is a town in the large, centrally located state of Minas Gerais. It is probably one of the most frequently photographed locations in the whole of the country, evoking an immensely wealthy period of architecture, art and, of course, gold;
  • Guarani Jesuit Missions – the missions in the most southern state of Rio Grande do Sul remain a testament to the less than commendable enthusiasm and vigour with which Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century sought the wholescale conversion of the indigenous Guarani to Christianity; and
  • Brasilia, the capital of Brazil that was planned from the ground up as recently as 1960 when the federal capital of the country was moved from Rio de Janeiro.

That mention of Rio, of course, prompts a word about the city. In Brazil it is known as the cidade maravilhosa – the marvellous city. It is a city that lives up to its name in every way and is as scenically attractive as all the photographs seem to suggest.

An icon in its own right, it is probably true to say that no visit to Brazil is likely to be complete without at least a few days stay in Rio de Janeiro.

Another of the cities well worth a visit is Sao Paulo. This huge sprawling city of more than 12 million inhabitants might not be the first place the conventional tourist may choose, but it has its own attractions and is very much at the heart of all that is progressive, outward looking and energetic in Brazil.

An article in the Guardian newspaper (May 2015) illustrates very neatly the characteristics of this economic powerhouse not only of Brazil but the whole of Latin America - contrast, contradiction and chaos as the correspondent describes it.

An up and coming area for eco-tourism are the extensive wetlands of the Pantanal in the mid-west of the country, where it is possible to join wildlife tracking parties in pursuit of the iconic – but extremely elusive – South American panther.

Another natural wonder in the standard tourist route are the waterfalls at Iguazu on the border of Brazil and Argentina in the south west of the country. In terms of the sheer volume of water cascading over this scenic marvel, Iguazu out ranks even Niagara.

But visiting a foreign country is about more than just its historic and modern sights and monuments – it is about those small corners, beaches, bars, restaurants and people that make any journey worthwhile. And Brazil has all these in abundance.

Of course, a lot of visitors flock to the pristine sands of the many, many glorious beaches and warm seas – just as all the locals do – but it is also possible to find your own favourite haunts in the interior of this vast country.

For the past several hundred years there has been a steady migration of people from the land to the coast, and in particular to the major coastal cities – and that is where you are likely to find the majority of tourists, too. It is a focus which even the declared principles of the Rough Guide series seems to keep to the fore.

In land – in the interior as the Brazilians themselves describe it – there is another world, seemingly cut off from the 21st century and following a mainly rural tradition that is centuries old. The small communities of the interior show a quite different face of this country of some 200 million souls.


Events

Carnival

If there is one word that sums up the energy, colour, vibrancy and exhilaration of Brazil, it is probably Carnival.

The word comes from the Italian, carne vale (literally goodbye to meat) at the start of the season of fasting and abstinence that is lent. But Brazilians seem to have given the whole notion of carnival a whole new meaning.

Launched in the month of February, carnival is the single biggest public holiday in the whole of the country. In the largest of the carnivals – in Rio, Sao Paulo and Salvador – for instance, the participating “schools” take the entire year to build their massive floats and prepare the processions of samba dancing entrants. As one carnival ends, so the next one starts.

Some visitors may be disappointed to discover that the processions in both Rio and Sao Paulo take place in purpose-built “samba-dromes” – a straight strip of paved road along which the processions file. If you are after the more traditional notion of street parades and parties, it is necessary to look to the much smaller towns and cities – especially those in the interior.

Other events

Carnival may knock the socks off just about any other wild celebration – in Brazil or anywhere else in the world for that matter – but the country also hosts a huge range of other events that keep the entire year’s calendar of attractions full to overflowing.

They are too numerous to mention in this brief guide, but include the entire range of cultural, artistic and religious festivals generally held on more or less the same date each year, depending on the particular part of the country you are visiting.

Centre of the international stage, of course, was Brazil as hosts for the football World Cup in 2014 and for the upcoming Olympic Games in 2016.


Act like a local

Probably the single most apparent downside to visiting Brazil is the incidence of street crime, theft and assault.

The major cities already have more than their fair share of concern about the incidence of violence and some especially random and gratuitous stabbings in the tourist showcase Rio de Janeiro recently have alarmed tourism officials – not to mention travellers themselves of course.

According to research conducted in Brazil itself – and reported by the Guardian newspaper (May 2015) – you may be 25 times more likely to be murdered in Brazil than you are in the UK. The marginal upside to this dubious distinction is that the majority of murders continue to be committed in poorer, more deprived areas (the shanty towns and slums known as favelas).

So, just how do you avoid drawing attention to yourself as an easy and vulnerable target, how do you blend in with the crowd, how do you act like a local?

The bad news is that it is probably a lot more difficult than you might expect. Not only American, but also European visitors seem to stand out a mile. It is not just their Portuguese language accent – or complete lack of any knowledge of the language whatsoever – but the very clothes they wear, the way they walk, the way they carry themselves.

In its travel advice on personal security in Brazil, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) makes no bones about it – “crime levels are high”. The threat of violent crime may come anywhere and from any quarter and may involve the use of guns, knives or other weapons.

The advice, therefore, may appear to be largely a matter of common sense – but is nonetheless potentially life-saving to keep in mind:

  • expensive, clothes, watches and jewellery are an obvious giveaway – so avoid wearing them;
  • for the same reasons avoid carrying or displaying the fact that you might be carrying a large sum of cash;
  • portable devices – such as cameras and mobile phones – should be kept out of sight;
  • keep your passport out of sight, too, and preferably in a safe back at your hotel room rather than on your person – although it remains important to carry some form of photographic identification (like your driving licence, for instance); and
  • if you are threatened, do not put up a fight but simply hand over any valuables demanded.

Useful links

Brazil may have been a well-kept secret as far as many visitors from Europe are concerned. But it is very much an up and coming destination – even though, or perhaps because – you may find that few locals speak English.

Nevertheless, there are a number of guides and links already written in English and which you might want to look up as you prepare for your Brazilian adventures:

http://www.visitbrasil.com/visitbrasil/opencms/portalembratur/en/download-internacional.html - the principal website of Visit Brazil, run by the Government of Brazil’s Ministry of Tourism and a very useful and comprehensive guide;

http://www.braziltravelinformation.com/brazil_history.htm;

http://www.roughguides.com/destinations/south-america/brazil/explore/

http://www.happyzebra.com/distance-calculator/Porto%20Alegre-to-Sao%20Luis.php – useful for calculating and comparing distances between cities in Brazil;

https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/brazil/safety-and-security

http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/holiday-weather/americas/brazil