It’s the fifth largest country in the world—90 times the size of little Portugal that colonized it back in the early 16th century. But when I listen to travelers talk about their latest conquests, I hear places like Croatia and Myanmar way more often.
Now, suddenly, Brazil buzz is everywhere, as it’s getting ready to make it’s biggest splash in a long time when Rio hosts the 2016 Summer Olympics. We’ll be watching the games from the comfort of our sectional sofa in front of the big screen. But before and after, we’re making 2016 the Year of Brazil, giving it the full Classic Journeys treatment. The fact is, traveling to Brazil can just feel too big to tackle. But we’ve researched and field-tested a trip that does a great job of bringing it down to size.
We start with Rio de Janeiro, a city that sits in a location where you wouldn’t necessarily choose to put a major city. Mountains wrap almost completely around it. There’s a major rainforest inside the city limits. The favelas (shantytowns) built up the steep slopes defy logic to prove just how much people want and need to live in Rio. Beautiful Brazilians flock to the white beaches. There’s a lazy sway to life that makes you understand why the bossa nova is the official national tempo. On top of all of that, preparations for the Olympics (and the World Cup games of 2014) have led to some major downtown overhauls that really bring the history and culture to life. Our Classic Journeys trip sets aside four good days to explore with our expert local guides. We get into neighborhoods, including the favelas. We cook with a local chef. We see the major sights, of course, from Sugarloaf Mountain and the high-up Christ the Redeemer statue to the music clubs and beaches. It’s a much more immersive look at the unique South American/Portuguese-flavored culture than regular tourists get.
The real conundrum in a Brazilian visit is how to experience the vastness of the country and the rich eco-travel opportunities it has to offer. Look at a map of Brazil, and you see that Rio is a mere flyspeck on the southeast coast. The 3.3 million square miles that stretch to the north and west are in many ways impenetrable. The mouth of the Amazon, for example, is nearly 2,000 miles away. We are super excited about our solution: an expedition to The Pantanal, the 75,000-square-mile wetland region that is 30 times the size of the modern Everglades.
The Pantanal is a 2.5-hour flight to the northwest from Rio, and the change in environment couldn’t be more startling and fascinating. Where Rio teems with urban life, this wide-open terrain is heavily populated with winged, finned and four-footed citizens. The Pantanal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. It’s home to 700 bird species, 80 types of mammals, and much more. While mountains ring Rio, out here the view to the horizon is just about limitless. The beautiful cloudscapes and stargazing in a night sky free of light pollution are indescribable. We’re based at one of the world’s great eco-lodges, a ranch-style property set in its own 7,000-acre private reserve. And you don’t need to be a rugged outdoors person to enjoy the nature. We board all-terrain vehicles for a photo safari, climb observation towers to observe the sunsets, and canoe on calm flat waters where giant river otters live. Ranching is an old tradition in these parts, and we also saddle up on the small local horses for a ride. At night, the campfires are hard to resist. There’s a swimming pool, verandas with hammocks and comfortable air-conditioned rooms. Of all of the great eco-experiences we’ve had in the Galápagos, Costa Rica and other famous destinations, this is one of the most unique and memorable.
Our expectation is that by this time next year, traveling to Brazil will be higher than ever on travelers’ wish lists. It sure deserves to be there. For its irresistible culture and its natural splendors, Brazil is truly a gold medal destination – and you’ll have solid bragging rights for having gotten there before so many other travelers.