Of all the places in South America I was willing to fly to, Brazil was definitely on the top of the list. I had always been attracted to its original vibe and very keen to learn more about its strong identity and diversity. The idea of hopping on a plane to reach a nation which size is almost 15 times bigger than my home-country sounded extremely exciting to me. So, when I graduated from college at the end of 2013, I prepared my first solo backpacking trip ever (!) and booked my flight. I had one month to explore and discover as much as possible of what the Brazilian land had to offer.
But before I give you a detailed itinerary for Brazil, some remarks:
It is extremely easy to travel throughout Brazil as there is an extensive bus network connecting most cities. You don’t need to book in advance and various classes and prices are offered. I would recommend buses for short distances and flights for long distances, as the country is huge and many low-cost airlines fly to the main cities.
As for housing, the Che Lagarto Hostels are definitely a must in South America and you’ll find one of them in most Brazilian touristy destinations. Another typical experience you might want to try is staying in a pousada – a small independent guesthouse.
Brazil is sometimes pictured as unsafe because of its favelas. In my opinion, it is not more dangerous than any other country. I never got in trouble while I was there, even being a woman traveling alone. You just need to be a bit more cautious in big cities such as Rio or Sao Paulo, and try to act as “simple” as possible. Don’t show off your expensive camera/tablet/phone everywhere or feel like you have to wear all your expensive jewelry when you go out and you should be fine.
Now, on to the fun part – here is my two cents on how to spend a month in Brazil and get the most out of it.
Touch down in Sao Paulo (4 Days)
I landed in the largest city of Brazil. With more than ten million inhabitants, Sao Paulo is everything you expect such a huge metropolis to be: bewildering, crowded and sometimes quite chaotic, especially when rush hour strikes. However, staying in Sao Paulo for a few days is a great way to start your month in Brazil. If you manage to not get lost there, you will be fine anywhere else. The best way to discover the city is to join one of the free walking tours departing three times a week from Praca da Republica. Rafa, an English-speaking (and incredibly funny) guide will walk with you around the historical center, showing you the city’s important sights and telling you more about the history of his country. The tour is based on tips, which makes the experience even more affordable for everyone. If you liked the Historical Center tour, another free walking tour takes place in Paulista Avenue, the city’s biggest cultural center, full of art galleries, bookshops, cafes and cinemas.
While in Sao Paulo, make sure to visit Liberdade, the city’s Asian neighborhood. You will be amazed by the quick change of scenery. There, most of the shop signs are written in Japanese or Chinese characters, the walls are covered with manga-like graffiti and you’ll find a sushi or noodle restaurant at every street corner. If the weather is sunny, I advise you to rent a bike and go spend a day in Iberapuera, the city’s equivalent to New-York’s Central Park. Close to Iberapuera; stop by Igreja Nossa Senhora Do Brazil, one of the city’s most famous and beautiful churches. You should spend at least one evening in Villa Madalena, one of Sao Paulo’s trendiest neighborhoods and the place to be when it comes to food. And please, do not leave the city without paying a visit to its Mercado Municipal, where stall holders will make you try amazingly tasty fruits if you just give them a smile!
Feel the nature in Foz do Iguacu (2 Days)
After those busy days in Sao Paulo, I decided to take a night bus and head south, towards the town of Foz do Iguacu, located at the Argentinian border. The area’s main point of interest is the Iguazu Falls, described by the UNESCO as one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the world. Spend the first day exploring the Brazilian side of the Natural Park, to enjoy a panoramic view of the falls while playing with dozens of Coatis, these raccoons who made the neighboring subtropical rainforest their home and who will come to check if you have any food to offer them. The next day, definitely go explore the Argentinian side of the falls. It will give you a closer perspective, and you will spend hours walking around unlimited waterfalls and in the jungle, spotting hundreds of rainbows if the weather is sunny. The Iguazu Falls are indescribable and definitely one of my best traveling memories.
Get a taste of paradise in Jericoacoara (5 Days)
After a weekend at the southern border of the country, I flew to Brazil’s northernmost region, one I always wanted to see. I landed in Fortaleza but just stayed for the night as my ultimate goal was to reach what had been described to me as “Paradise on Earth”, a village called Jericoacoara. The next day, I endured a 7 hours bus ride to the deserted town of Jijoca, before being told that I had to switch vehicles and hop onto a Jardineira (a truck with no roof and wooden boards as seats) if I ever wanted to reach Jericoacoara. I understood why we had to leave our comfortable bus for this vehicle when it started heading towards the desert dunes. A bumpy one hour ride later, we finally had reached our final destination. And let me tell you: this endless journey was so worth it!
Jericoacoara is a small village, organized around 3 sandy streets, lost between the desert and the sea. In “Jeri”, as the locals call it, nobody seems to worry. There prevails a carefree and peaceful atmosphere we no longer see in many places. People mostly spend their time relaxing on the beach, windsurfing when the weather allows, playing music at night, savoring grilled barbecued shrimps at any hour of the day and initiating themselves to the national Brazilian sport: the Capoeira (a martial art that combines elements of dance, acrobatics and music). But there is one ritual that brings all the Jericoacoara lovers together: every evening, we climb the big dune located on the beach to watch the most amazing sunset take place. This moment is simply priceless. And that will most likely become the best symbol of your Jericoacoara experience.
A few things to keep in mind: 1. There is no ATM in the village – bring enough cash! 2. Day trips from Jericoacoara include the lagoons in the eastern (Lagoa Azul, Lagoa Paraiso) or the mangrove forests in the western part of the region. 3. Even further west, but worth the trek is Lencois Maranhenses National Park, where they can enjoy swimming in crystalline freshwater lakes that formed between massive white sand dunes, not too far from the Amazon.
The Beach Life: Pipa and Porto de Galinhas (5 Days)
After a few days in Jericoacoara, I decided that I had to do justice to other beaches in Brazil and decided to travel to Pipa. Lost in the Brazilian country-side, along the Atlantic coast, this is a town became famous after it was discovered in the 80’s by some surfers. Pipa’s main point of interest is Baia dos Golfinhos a stunning beach nestled between giant cliffs and tropical vegetation, frequently visited by dolphins that will most likely swim around you in the beautiful and calm waters.
Head a little bit further south along the coast and you will arrive in Porto de Galinhas, where you can spend a few days as well. It has been voted “Best Brazilian Beach” for the eighth time in a row by the readers of Voyage & Tourism Brazilian magazine and there’s no wonder why. While you are there, enjoy the beauty of the natural pools and ecological trails and make sure to go snorkeling or scuba-diving to discover the area’s amazing reefs. And if you’re more of a surfer than a diver, nearby Maracaipe, with its great waves, will definitely fulfill your expectations.
A colonial vibe from Olinda to Salvador de Bahia (5 Days)
It was time for me get a feel for the colonial vibe of the country. Departing from Porto de Galinhas, I first headed to the neighboring town of Olinda, a charming place with colourful houses and cobbled streets. The inhabitants were preparing for the upcoming Carnival (one of the most important in Brazil, reuniting millions of people), and I could see them build paper-mache dolls and hear the musicians practice their tunes. I took it all in, while sitting on a bench munching delicious tapioca, a Brazilian flatbread similar to a pancake.
It was when I arrived in Salvador de Bahia a few days later that I became completely aware of how different this region of Brazil was. The most typical and famous neighborhood of the city is Pelourinho, and the differences, from the food to the way that people speak, are most striking there. I spent hours watching women in towering turbans and colorful clothes peeling cassava at the porch of their house. I ate the tastiest fish plate ever while sipping a juice of Cupuacu (the fruit of a tree belonging to the cocoa family). I admired the thousands of colored ribbons tied to the fencing surrounding the famous Igreja de Bonfim. Each one of them representing a wish made by one of the church’s visitor: a 200-year-old tradition that blends Catholicism and African-Brazilian devotions. At night, after watching the sunset on the city’s main port, I spent some time in Rio Vermelho. Try one of the area’s most traditional dishes here, the Acaraje – a savoury cake made out of beans puree, shrimps and some raw vegetables.
Luckily the beach is never far, and you can simply hop onto a boat and escape to the sandy beaches of Morro de Sao Paulo for an additional day or two.
A good compromise: Rio de Janeiro (4 Days)
Rio was the last stop on my trip before getting back to Sao Paulo and certainly the Brazilian city I enjoyed most throughout the month. There are several points to enjoy the unreal landscape of this city – the famous Corcovado, the often crowded Pao do Acucar overlooking the sea and the city’s botanical gardens, Jardim Botanico, where you can have a rare quiet and peaceful moment in Rio.
Nature lovers will also enjoy having brunch at Parque Lage on Sundays, a ritual particularly appreciated by the Cariocas (locals). Talking about food, you shouldn’t leave Rio without trying Frontera, my favorite per kilo restaurant, which is a concept widely spread in the country. As for the best cafe in the city, try Cafeina, located close to Ipanema beach. Their Cafe da manha (breakfasts) are simply to die for! During your month touring the nation, make sure to try Acai and to drink a Suco de abacaxi com hortela (the best juice on the planet when rightly prepared) at least once, as your Brazilian experience would definitely not be complete otherwise!
If you’re a beach enthusiast, you will love Ipanema and Copa Cabana, where you can sit for hours in the sun, sipping big fresh coconuts, while watching the surfers trying to tame the waves. If you are more of an art lover, head towards the neighborhood of Santa Tereza. There, take a walk to the top of the world-famous Escadaria Selaron, where all the steps are covered with colorful mosaics as a dedication to the Brazilian people. Close-by, you’ll find Lapa, the perfect place to finish your trip, where you can really enjoy the Brazilian nightlife and dance your heart out until the end of the night.
Saying that leaving Rio was hard would be a wild understatement. Going back to Sao Paulo to return home was definitely not pleasant. These past weeks, I had crossed 7 of Brazil’s 26 states and I enjoyed the country’s diversity to its fullest. In Brazil, people often use the word “Saudade”, a Portuguese saying which has no direct translation in English. It describes a feeling of nostalgia that brings sad and happy feelings all together: sadness for missing and happiness for having experienced the feeling. And no words could better depict the month I had just spent in this country I had deeply fallen in love with.
Are you dreaming of Brazil as well?
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All photos by Elisa Fourt.