Rio is the Cidade Maravilhosa (Marvellous City). Jammed into the world's most beautiful setting - between ocean and escarpment - are seven million Cariocas, as Rio's inhabitants are called. The Cariocas pursue pleasure like no other people: beaches and the body beautiful; samba and beer; football and the local firewater, cachaÃ§a (rum).
Rio has its share of problems: a third of the people live in the favelas (shanty towns) that blanket many of the hillsides; the poor have no schools, no doctors and no jobs; drug abuse and violence are endemic; and police corruption and brutality are commonplace. Rio's reputation as a violent city caused a sharp reduction in tourism in the 1990s, but travelers will find themselves no more at risk than in most large cities in the world.
Rio is divided into a zona norte (northern zone) and a zona sul (southern zone) by the Serra da Carioca, steep mountains that are part of the Parque Nacional da Tijuca. The view from the top of Corcovado, the 750m (2460ft) mountain peak with the statue of Christ the Redeemer at its summit, offers the best way to become geographically familiar with the city. Favelas crowd against the hillsides on both sides of town.
The beach, a ritual and a way of life for the Cariocas, is Rio's common denominator. Copacabana is probably the world's most famous beach, and runs for 4.5km (3mi) in front of one of the most densely populated residential areas on the planet. From the scalloped beach you can see the granite slabs that surround the entrance to the bay. Ipanema is Rio's richest and most chic beach. Other beaches within and near the city include Pepino, Barra da Tijuca, Flamengo (though the water is a bit suspect here) and Arpoador.
PÃ£o de AÃ§Ãºcar (Sugar Loaf) is God's gift to the picture-postcard industry. Two cable cars climb 396m (1300ft) above Rio and the BaÃa de Guanabara and, from the top, Rio looks the most beautiful city in the world. The 120 sq km (47 sq mi) Parque Nacional de Tijuca, 15 minutes from the concrete jungle of Copacobana, is all that's left of the tropical jungle that once surrounded Rio. The forest is an exuberant green, with beautiful trees and waterfalls.
Rio's famous glitzy Carnaval is a fantastic spectacle, but there are more authentic celebrations held elsewhere in Brazil. In many ways, Carnaval can be the worst time to be in Rio. Everyone gets a bit unglued at this time of year: taxi fares quadruple, accommodation triples and masses of visitors descend on the city to get drunk, get high and exchange exotic diseases.
The best areas for budget hotels are GlÃ³ria, Catete and Flamengo. Botafogo is the heart of gay Rio; CinelÃ¢ndia and Lapa have a lot of samba; and Leblon and Ipanema have upmarket, trendy clubs with excellent jazz.
BrasÃlia BrasÃlia, Brazil's capital since 21 April 1960, may be a World Heritage Site, but unless you're an architecture student prepared to sweat your way around the city's hot, treeless expanses it's not going to be of much interest. Though it probably looked good on paper and still looks good in photos, in the flesh it's another story. Designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer, urban planner Lucio Costa and landscape architect Burle Marx, the city was built in an incredible three years (1957-60) by millions of dirt-poor peasants working around the clock.
Unfortunately, the world's most ambitious planned city was designed for automobiles and air conditioners, not people. Although bureaucrats and politicians are lured to BrasÃlia by 100% salary hikes and big apartments, as soon as the weekend comes they jet to Rio or SÃ£o Paulo - anywhere less sterile. The poor, who work in the construction and service industries, pass their nights in favelas up to 30km (19mi) outside the city, called 'anti-BrasÃlias'. If you find yourself in BrasÃlia's stark environs, the popular Parque Nacional de BrasÃlia ecological reserve on the north side of town has natural swimming pools and is a good place to escape from the blazing sun.
SÃ£o Paulo The biggest city in South America is a city of immigrants and ethnic neighborhoods. An estimated 17 million people, many of them descendants of Italian and Japanese migrants, live in this plateau megalopolis. Strong industrial development and cultural diversity have provided SÃ£o Paulo with the largest, most cultured and educated middle class in Brazil. These Paulistas are lively and well-informed and, though they complain about the traffic, street violence and pollution, wouldn't dream of living anywhere else.
SÃ£o Paulo can be an intimidating place but, if you know someone to show you around or you like big cities, it offers the excitement and nightlife of one of the world's most dynamic places. Attractions include the baroque Teatro Municipal, Niemeyer's EdifÃcio Copan, the Museu de Arte de SÃ£o Paulo (MASP) and the 16th-century PatÃo do ColÃ©gio. The city is southwest of Rio and you can fly from there in less than an hour or take a six-hour bus ride.
The Amazon The Amazon is a gigantic system of rivers and forests, covering almost half of Brazil and extending into neighboring countries. The wide stretch of river known as Rio Amazonas runs between the cities of Manaus and BelÃ©m, though the various rivers that join to form it provide a navigable route for ocean-going vessels to the other side of the South American continent.
The forest still keeps many of its secrets: to this day, major tributaries of the Amazon are unexplored. Of the estimated 15,000 species of Amazon creatures, thousands of birds and fish and hundreds of mammals have not been classified. A cursory sampling of known animal species found in the forest - some common, some rare, some virtually extinct - includes jaguar, tapir, peccary, spider monkey, sloth, armadillo, caiman, alligator, river dolphin, boa constrictor and anaconda. Forest birds include toucans, parrots, macaws, hummingbirds and gaviÃ o (birds of prey), and insect life is well represented with over 1800 species of butterflies and more than 200 species of mosquitoes. Fish such as piranha, tucunarÃ©, piraracu, anuanÃ£, piraÃba and poraquÃª (electric eel) abound in such an amazing diversity of species that biologists are unable to identify much of the catch found in BelÃ©m's markets.
The most common, although perhaps not the best, jumping-off point for excursions into the Amazon is Manaus, which lies beside the Rio Negro, 10km (6mi) upstream from the confluence of the SolimÃµes and Negro rivers, which join to form the Rio Amazonas. Although Manaus continues to be vaunted in countless glossy travel brochures as an Amazon wonderland, the city itself has few attractions and is increasingly crime-ridden. The city's most potent symbol is the Teatro Amazonas, the famous opera house designed by Domenico de Angelis in Italian Renaissance style at the height of the rubber boom, in 1896.
While Manaus day trips and boat tours offer a chance to experience jungle flora and bird life, they are more interesting as a way of seeing the way of life of the caboclos (inhabitants of the Amazonian river towns). Don't expect to meet remote Indian tribes or dozens of free-ranging beasts though, because in both cases contact has been synonymous with destruction, and both have sensibly fled from accessible areas. To experience these, you will need to venture a long way from Manaus.
The Pantanal The Amazon may have all the fame and glory, but the Pantanal is a far better place to see wildlife. This vast area of wetlands, about half the size of France, lies in the far west of Brazil and extends into the border regions of Bolivia and Paraguay.
Birds are the most frequently seen wildlife, but the Pantanal is also a sanctuary for giant river otters, anacondas, iguanas, jaguars, cougars, crocodiles, deer and anteaters. The area has few people and no towns, and access is often by plane into CuaibÃ¡, Campo Grande or CorumbÃ¡, then overland to the gateway towns of CÃ£ceres, BarÃ£o de MalgaÃ§a, PoconÃ© or Aquidauana; or by road via the Transpantaneira, which ends at the one-hotel hamlet of Porto Jofre. Boat trips are available along the Rio Paraguai from the Bolivian border.
Salvador da Bahia Bahia is Brazil's most Africanized state. Its capital, Salvador da Bahia (often abbreviated to Salvador), is a fascinating and vibrant city loaded with historic buildings, and is one of Brazil's cultural highlights. Founded in 1549, Salvador was Brazil's most important city for 300 years, and the Portuguese Empire's second city, after Lisbon. As the center of the sugar trade, it was famous for gold-filled churches, beautiful mansions and the slave trade. Now it is known for its many wild festivals and general sensuality and decadence; Carnaval in Salvador is justly famous and attracts hordes of tourists.
Salvador's other highlights include 34 colonial churches; the Museu Afro-Brasileira, which is dedicated to Black culture; and the Elevador Lacerda, an Art Deco structure with clanking electric elevators which truck up and down a set of 85m (279ft) cement shafts in less than 15 seconds and carry over 50,000 passengers daily between the port and the hilly historic section of the city. And, if beaches are what you want, the only difficulty is making a choice.
Foz do IguaÃ§u (IguaÃ§u Falls) The Rio IguaÃ§u arises in the coastal mountains of ParanÃ¡ and Santa Catarina and snakes west for 600km (372mi) before it widens majestically and sweeps around a magnificent jungle stage, plunging and crashing in tiered falls at the border with Argentina and Paraguay. The falls are over 3km (2mi) wide and 80m (262ft) high and their beauty is unsurpassed. The best time of year to visit is August-November, when there is least risk of flood waters hindering the approach to the catwalks.
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