Cristiano Mascaro (courtesy of Monumenta) Olinda, Pernambuco
Brazil is customarily divided into five regions.
Brazil is customarily divided into five regions. The country’s near-continental expanse has led to regional cultural variations that rival those of Russia. Idealized “gaúcho” cowboys reign in the agricultural south just as in neighboring Argentina. Bustling, cosmopolitan urban centers like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro dominate the industrialized southeast. Ranchers and cowhands coexist with subsistence fishermen in the wide-open central plains, home of the Pantanal. The northeast features archaic traditions like “repente” – a verbal “dueling banjos” in verse that dates to the troubadours of the Iberian peninsula; it also offers Bahia, arguably the strongest center of African culture outside the old continent. With its culinary flair and relaxed lifestyle, native culture seems to permeate the humid air of the Amazonian north. All these folks speak Portuguese, but accents and local slang can vary as much as English can between Maine and Louisiana. The five regions “have been likened to islands in a huge archipelago, spread across a sea of geographic diversity,” wrote Robert M. Levine and John J. Crocitti in their introduction to “The Brazil Reader.”
The world’s largest rainforest holds a special place in everyone’s imagination. Partly as a result, some head there for the wrong reasons, in search of something they’ll never find. Inevitably these folks come away disappointed.
There are good jungle lodges and tours that offer quality “nature” experiences. However, if people want to spot wildlife, they should pass on the Amazon and head directly for the Pantanal. In the Amazon, only the fairly remote Mamirauá reserve can match the Pantanal on this score.
But for those who insist on the Amazon, I can recommend several lodges beyond Mamirauá – from the bare-bones Pedras Negras near the Bolivian border to the luxurious Ariaú Amazon Towers, where Mick Jagger hangs out.
The region’s two urban centers and gateways, Belém and Manaus, deserve special attention. So do the beaches, surfing, buffaloes, and natural beauty of the world’s largest riverine island, Marajó. The region’s distinct culinary offerings, based on indigenous traditions and best sampled in Belem, also deserve honorable mention.
It has been said that seasonal variations in the Amazon range from “when it rains everyday to when it rains all day.” While not too much of an exaggeration, it isn’t as bad as all that.
The highlight of this region is the Pantanal - Brazil’s best untold story, at least abroad. Domestic tourism is way up. Foreigners can’t be far behind.
Known as the "Serengeti of South America," the Pantanal is a patchwork of low-lying forests and marshes and dry, upland savannas. It is home to jaguars, giant anteaters, marsh deer and giant otters. In the rainy season rivers and streams overflow their banks and flood 80 percent of the Pantanal, covering an area more than ten times the size of the Florida Everglades. Lagoons swell with water lilies, while cattail sprout from marshes and palm trees grow along rivers. A variety of grasses feed wildlife and cattle, which have been raised in the region for more than 200 years. Some North American migratory birds including the Upland Sandpiper, American Golden Plover and Black-necked Stilt also rely on the Pantanal for seasonal respite.
Next door in Goiás, the state government has been investing to expand and improve airports that serve important tourist destinations. Attractions include: Caldas Novas, one of the world's most important hot springs; Chapada dos Veadeiros, with its natural beauty and abundance of quartz (thus its attraction for adepts of esotericism from the world over); and historical cities like Perenopolis and Goiás.
Surrounded by Goiás state is the federal district, the capital city of Brasília. Built literally in the middle of nowhere, the city is a monument to megalomania and misdirected social engineering. “One’s overall feeling – confirmed by every Brazilian I met – is of immense empty spaces in which the individual feels lost, as alone as a man on the moon,” wrote social critic Marshall Berman. Yet architecture buffs will surely want to see the icons of modernism that mark its landscape.
The northeast is probably my favorite part of Brazil. Compared to the United States, think of the South – particularly the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans, the Bayou, and Highway 61. Poor to the point of destitute, dominated by local strongmen called “colonels,” the region nonetheless has managed to develop a roots culture – especially a musical one – that rivals the birthplace of jazz and blues. Seminal musicians like Luiz Gonzaga, Jackson do Pandeiro, João Gilberto and Dorival Caymmi all hail from this region. Today Lenine and Zeca Baleiro carry their torches. Repente, the verbal dueling banjos in verse accompanied by acoustic guitar, is from the northeast.
The region has its Faulkners and Rauschenbergs, too. Ariano Suassuna ranks as perhaps Brazil’s best storyteller. The recently departed novelist Jorge Amado and poet João Cabral both hailed from this region. The etchings of Gilvan Samico use advanced techniques but appropriate the style and themes of cordel – collections of popular verse sold as pamphlets, their covers adorned with woodblock prints. The son of craftspeople in the northeast, Efrain Almeida has built upon his parents’ expertise to earn a spot among Brazil’s leading contemporary artists.
As southerners in the US emigrated to Chicago and elsewhere, Brazilian northeasterners flow into São Paulo and other cities, fueling creativity in the metropolis.
Not surprising, the northeast holds some of the country’s best folk festivals. The street Carnivals of Salvador and Olinda are legendary, as are the São João commemorations in Campina Grande and Caruaru. The Bumba-meu-boi festival in São Luiz, Maranhão, is unsurpassed.
Bahia deserves special attention: colonial capital Salvador and its concentration of Afro-Brazilian culture; the Chapada de Dinamantina, an oasis surrounded by scrubland; Canudos, the site of a 19th century messianic rebellion that defeated successive waves army troops before finally succumbing; Abrolhos, home of whale watching and spectacular coral formations; Itacaré, an old cocoa growing region with dense primary rainforest that is now betting on ecotourism.
I could go on and on about places in Pernambuco (including Fernando de Noronha Island), Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, Ceará, and elsewhere. But I’ll end with one highlight: Lençóis National Park. Thousands of rain-formed lakes, crystal clear but multi-colored, dot hundreds of kilometers of sandy dunes. They call it the Brazilian Sahara, but rainfall is 300 times more than in northern Africa. The Amazon begins just to the south, and what they call a “pre-Amazonian” forest abuts the expansive dunes. The region can be explored by boat, traveling along a river that cuts through it, or the energetic can trek through.
The south is the place for cowboy culture, rural tourism, horseback riding, immigrant culture, surfing, whale watching, wine tours, Jesuit Missions, urban rationality, crisp mountain air, and the “can’t miss” Iguaçu Falls.
If you’re a meat-eater who needs to put on weight, Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul, is the place to go. This is the home of the perfect barbecue, served in traditional all-you-can-eat “rodízio” style. Successive waves of waiters bring different cuts to your table. Staying in the gastronomic vein, Italian immigrants made Bento Gonçalves the nation’s top wine producing region.
Across the border in Santa Catarina state, Blumenau offers the most extravagant Oktoberfest outside of Bavaria. Surfers worldwide swear by the waves of southern Santa Catarina, where whales are known to appear just behind them. The area around capital city Florianópolis is permeated by the culture of immigrants from Portugal’s Azores Islands.
Besides the impressive Iguaçu Falls and the nearby Itaipú Dam, Paraná state is best known for the urban planning success of its capital, Curitiba.
Here’s Rio de Janeiro. Also São Paulo, the country’s business capital and, in many ways, its de facto political center. Both the current president and his predecessor call São Paulo home, as does the runner-up in the 2002 election. Minas Gerais state ranks right up there with its neighbors, both economically and politically.
Given flight options, most visitors end up in either Rio or São Paulo whether they like it or not. Though the numbers are taking a hit, Rio remains by far the most popular destination for foreign tourists. Meanwhile, over half of international visitors touch down in São Paulo. Business people on extended stays in São Paulo are keen to identify leisure activities in and around the city.
Northern Minas Gerais is the setting for classic novel “The Devil to Pay in the Backlands” by João Guimarães Rosa. Nearby is Maquiné, a fantastic cavern. A bit further north, in a two-street town called Alto Belo, homeboy composer Teo Azevedo holds an excellent roots music festival. Side trips can be made to Salinas, home of the $100-a-bottle cachaça, and the paddlewheel steamboat that once ran the Mississippi.