BRAZIL IS THAT MOST WILD of contradictions: City of God goes to the beach. And in Brazil the beach is everythingtwo-thirds of the country's 186 million people live along the shore. Once, on the Costa Verde, east of São Paulo, my Brazilian wife and I were lounging on a short shock of white sand, hungry for brunch. Along came a man in a waiter's coat, who took our order for lobster. I watched as he slipped off his sandals, walked into the water, and grabbed a couple of bugs so fresh they pinched your tongue.
Two nights before, we had been club-hopping in Rio de Janeiro. Written on the famously sweaty wall of a dance palace called Estudantina was the slogan WHERE THERE IS DANCING THERE IS HOPE. In Brazil, no matter what else happens, there is always dancing.
The private house where we'd been staying near the city of Ubatuba was more of an estate, with counters of blue granite, floors of ocher travertine, and recycled hardwood beams. Everyone walked around barefoot with caipirinha cocktails made of good cachaça, a sugarcane spirit, and wandered off into the forest under the fat moon. But come Sunday night, all the guests left in fast cars for the city. Our host's caretaker came to see us. We were the only ones left in the joint, and the caretaker's house was at the other end of the property. "Nothing to worry about," said the man, and he handed me a loaded pistol. The pistol was more for the occasional wandering criminal than the hungry jaguar, I guessed.
Some say Brazil is not for beginners, a quote attributed to Tom Jobim, the famous musician who co-wrote "The Girl from Ipanema," a classic song from 1962 that has present-day meaning for me. It was 1984 at a Rio club called Jazzmania that I met a woman with bossa nova legsmy future wife, Inés Salgado. She'd grown up three blocks from the Ipanema bar where the song was inspired. The rest ishas becomethree children and a good dozen wild rambles through the rainforests and down the rivers of a country that could swallow the continental United States and almost half of Alaska. Brazil stretches 4,000 miles from the humid Amazon, over the coolish Planalto Central, across seas of waving soybeans in the midsection, to a well-drained swamp called the Pantanal, one of the planet's largest bird sanctuaries, a swatch bigger than Florida, and past iconic yet sketchy Rio to São Paulo, a metro sprawl of 18 million and growing fast, before leaping out of the industrial suburbs to the spectacular Costa Verde, which is like Big Sur with string bikinis, and on down to straitlaced old Argentina, which is always trying to out-European the Europeans. Brazil, on the other hand, is confident in itself as a repository of sensual living and tapirs. Why else would the Europeans (and, increasingly, the Americans) keep coming?
Brazil's natural treasures are endlessly complex: Chapada Diamantina, Fernando de Noronha, Serra da Bocainawhole areas as beautiful as the Grand Canyon, parts of the Hawaiian Islands, or the Great Smoky Mountainsnot to mention Iguaçu Falls, which has more falling water than Niagara: All have been set aside as national parks, and yet few Brazilians use them.
In my experience, Brazilians don't like to camp. They're all at the beach, which runs, pretty much uninterrupted, for almost 5,000 miles. Brazil's many beaches vary from tranquil Trancoso, in the north, where you may ride horses on the deserted sand, to the array of thousands of fashionable Cariocas (slang for anyone who lives in Rio) on a cloudless Sunday in February on Ipanema Beach. Farther south, there's the Carnival parade at Florianópolis's alabaster-sand tourist paradise. For Americans, therefore, a hiking-kayaking-climbing tour of interior Brazil can be an uncrowded ramble in paradise, punctuated by the occasional European in lederhosen and little else, perhaps.
I've hang-glided São Conrado over the tops of the skyscrapers at the southern end of Rio, surfed Ubatuba, and scuba-dived off the coast of Arraial do Cabo, on Cabo Frio, in search of black sea horses. I've also baited wire-shanked hooks for tasty piranha while cruising down the Rio Cuiabá in a small riverboat as black howler monkeys called from the Pantanal's flowering trees, bony-nosed gators (jacarés) thrashed about in the wake, and those giant rodents called capybaras periodically jumped up to watch us paddle by.
Wild animals, cactuses, pineapples, rich people, poor people, soccer, and the world's tenth-largest economythat's Brazil. The country is also a leader in the export of high-tech jets, steel, and architectural design. And it's full of smart, computer-savvy people. The gulf between rich and poor is even wider than in the United States, but the socialist regime of President Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva (affectionately known as Lula, a family name that also means "Squid") is trying to make things better for the most disenfranchised.
Environmentally, Brazil really is changing. Not so long ago, the Amazon was often considered by those urban coastal dwellers a Green Hell, to be chopped, pulped, trampled by zebu cows, and fought against with every herbicide known to Dow. Much has changed since Chico Mendes was gunned down. Brazil has pretty much outlawed cattle grazing in the rainforests, tried to rein in destructive cyanide-leach gold mining, and started protecting those few indigenous peoples the Portuguese didn't massacre 300 years ago. Now the country gets deservedly high marks as an eco-experimenter, a leader in innovative mass transit, refuse recycling, sustainable agriculture, and other pastimes, the most fascinating (and contradictory) being biofuels. Brazil no longer needs to import any oil, since 90 percent of all new vehicles run on sugarcane ethanol mixed with Brazil's own major deposits of offshore crude tapped by high-tech drilling. Ironically, the greatest new threat to the Amazon is soywhich is increasingly being converted to biofuel. The current price of oil has made it hugely profitable to mow down the Amazon once again, this time to plant soybeans to run cars.
Some come to Brazil to research biofuels, and many hope to see a capybara, sure, but what most recently upped the temperature of the country's already quente zeitgeist was the arrival of the Brazilian model. Brazil exports healthy six-footers (men and women) the way China exports Christmas-tree ornaments. It didn't hurt that Gisele Bündchen (Leonardo DiCaprio's ex) was declared the most beautiful girl in the world by Rolling Stone in 2000, or that Daniela Cicarelli (ex of Ronaldodid I mention the country's pretty good at soccer, too?) did a languid stand-up "samba" in the surf with her banker boyfriend that was rumored to have nearly crashed the Internet in Brazil, so popular was the pirated paparazzi tape. But what's truly Brazilian about this whole thing is that Cicarelli is a triathlete, not some London cocaine waif, just as Bündchen dreamed of a professional volleyball career before the runway beckoned. In Brazil, spiking is as important as strutting.
DON'T BLAME IT ON RIO
Trust usand our São Paulo-based Go Outside editorsthere's a lot more to see in this massive country than the thonged beauties of Ipanema. So sip a caipirinha at the iconic Copacabana Palace Hotel, then head out of Rio for a tour of the six best spots in Brazil.
GETTING THERE: Many airlines fly from major U.S. cities to Rio's Galeão International Airport and São Paulo's Guarulhos International Airport for around $1,000. Red tape: Tourist visas are mandatory (brasilemb.org), cost $100, and are good for up to 90 days.
GETTING AROUND: Brazil is huge (almost 3.3 million square miles), and domestic airfare can be expensive; travelers should considerflying TAM Airlines from the U.S. so they can purchase a Brazil Air Pass, which allows four stops in-country (from $479; tamairlines.com).
SANTA CATARINA ISLAND
A quick stroll down any of the 42 beaches on Santa Catarina leads to one conclusion: Beauty may not yet be bottled, but "Floripa" has the formula. Talent scouts from five modeling agencies prowl the 202-square-mile island, along with professional surfers and affluent Brazilians seeking refuge from the grind of Rio and São Paulo. Join the crowd; just don't drool. WHAT TO DO: Take a surfing lesson at Barra Beach, then head over to Mole Beach, where the locals catch their waves. Or hike three hours from Pântano do Sul to the secluded southern sands of Lagoinha do Leste (guide and transportation from $50; biosferabrasil.com). Ostradamus, a few miles from Lagoinha do Leste, prepares fresh oysters 30 different ways. After midnight, head to Floripa's hottest nightclub, Confraria das Artes, in Lagoa da Conceição, and play "spot the supermodel." TIP: Marta Chiesa, of Brazil Ecojourneys (brazilecojourneys.com), speaks fluent English and can book anything from rental cars to hotels. WHERE TO STAY: Reserve one of the two suites at the Pousada da Vigia, just 100 feet from Lagoinha Beach on the north end of the island, and soak in a private outdoor Jacuzzi (doubles from $116; pousadadavigia.com.br). WHEN TO GO: The best waves hit May through November. To find a scantily clad mass of humanity, try January or February. GETTING THERE: TAM flights to Florianópolis leave daily from most major cities in Brazil.
Amid the 9,000-foot Serra da Mantiqueira range sits Itamonte, an emerging adventure capital. The sleepy town of 13,577 people and no traffic lights is the kind of place where days meld into weeks, thanks to the area's world-class climbing. WHAT TO DO: Locals claim there's enough 5.9-to-5.11 climbing around Itamonte to last three lifetimes, but if you don't have that much time, head to the 400-foot granite-and-quartzite Pedra do Picu, overlooking town. An hour and a half's drive south from Itamonte stands the 2,034-foot wall Pico do Papagaio, Brazil's answer to El Capitan (Picus guides from $100 per day. WHERE TO STAY: With a wine cellar, piano bar, and master fireplace suites, the Hotel São Gotardo, 30 minutes north from Itamonte, brings a flash of finery to an otherwise rugged landscape (doubles from $165, including breakfast and dinner; hotelsaogotardo.com.br). After a buffet breakfast, hike the region's tallest peak, 9,140-foot Agulhas Negras, in nearby Itatiaia National Park. WHEN TO GO: April through August. GETTING THERE: Itamonte is less than three hours by car from Rio and three and a half from São Paulo (avis.com).
The 18th-century prospectors who moved through Paraty in search of gold would still recognize the town of 40,000 people today; cars are not allowed in the historic city center, the streets are centuries-old cobblestone, and one of its biggest draws is the classic colonial architecture. But with dense Atlantic rainforest on one side and a turquoise ocean on the other, buildings aren't the only thing of beauty in Paraty. WHAT TO DO: Paraty Tours stops at the Santa Rita Church, built in 1722, and the town's cachaça distillery, where they make Brazil's trademark sugarcane alcohol. The town of Trindade, 20 miles south of Paraty, has several stunning beaches. Or get the lay of the land from the deck of the 120-foot, hand-built Tocorimé. A three-day sail includes dropping anchor on an isolated beach in Mamanguá fjord (that's right, fjord), barbecuing, and drinkingit is a pirate ship, after allfollowed by an overnight sail to Ilha Grande and a five-hour hike up 3,221-foot Pico do Papagaio (three-day sail, $850 per person, minimum five people; tocorime.net). WHERE TO STAY: Set in an 18th-century school in the historic town center, the 26-room Pousada do Ouro (doubles from $85, including breakfast; pousadaouro.com.br) has hosted guests like Mick Jagger and Linda Evangelista. Thirty minutes away by boat from Paraty is the quiet enclave of Paraty-Mirim and Body & Soul Adventures, a 12-person fitness lodge where guests spend a week hiking and kayaking. Thick jungle surrounds the resort, which overlooks a white-sand beach; four of the rooms sit seaside with balconies that stretch over the water (from $2,250 per person per week, all-inclusive; bodyandsouladventures.com).WHEN TO GO: March to November is the dry season. Paraty is a popular weekend getaway for big-city Brazilians, so visit during the week, when it's less crowded. GETTING THERE: Paraty is about three and a half hours by car from both Rio and São Paulo.
FERNANDO DE NORONHA
Life is so good on this ten-square-mile island, the centerpiece of a 21-island archipelago 215 miles off the coast of Brazil, that the government restricts access: No more than four daily commercial flights land on the island, allowing only about 500 tourists nightly, and Brazilians need a special permit to move here. That's because it's home to a national marine park and UNESCO World Heritage site that's considered one of the top ten dive sites in the world, thanks to 165-foot visibility. WHAT TO DO: Rising from a depth of more than 13,000 feet, the volcanic island serves as a drive-through for tuna, billfish, turtles, and sharks as they migrate to Africa. Noronha Divers drops clients in the middle of the action. Dives vary, from shallow 15-foot coral-and-fish swim-abouts to 90-minute, 330-foot-deep wall dives (two dives, including gear rental, from $123; noronhadivers.com.br). TIP: Adriana Schmidt, owner of travel agency Your Way (yourway.com.br), speaks fluent English and can help organize any island activity. WHERE TO STAY: Set in a 65,000-square-foot garden above the white sands of Sueste beach, the five-bungalow Maravilha matches the beauty of its natural setting. The spacious, minimalist rooms have private decks furnished with futons (doubles from $630; pousadamaravilha.com.br). WHEN TO GO: The diving is best September to October and January to February. GETTING THERE: Flights to Fernando de Noronha leave daily from Recife and Natal.
CHAPADA DIAMANTINA NATIONAL PARK
Where do you go to find solitude in a country of 186 million beach-loving libertines? Inland, of course. Two hundred and sixty-seven miles east of Salvador stands the mountainous Chapada Diamantina National Park, which had roughly 100,000 visitors in 2006. (Ipanema beach, meanwhile, saw a crowd of 1.2 million people last New Year's Eve.) Translated as "Diamond Highlands," the 588-square-mile park was the center of a diamond rush in the mid-19th century, with rivers so full of the precious stones that the first prospectors could pull handfuls from the riverbed. When the gems disappeared, so did the crowds, but a more permanent beauty remained: green mesas, swimming holes, and waterfalls in a region many compare to the Grand Canyon. WHAT TO DO: Hiking is the best way to explore Chapada Diamantina. Roy Funch, an American expat who helped the area achieve national-park status in 1985, offers day tours. His favorite trek is the three-hour hike to Sossego Waterfall, a 100-foot series of cascades ending in a soccer-field-size swimming hole ($90; fcd.org.br). WHERE TO STAY: Enjoy the sound of the rushing Lençóis River from a hammock on the private balcony of one of Canto das Águas' 44 rooms. Set just outside Chapada Diamantina, the upscale hotel can help organize anything from a 22-mile mountain-bike ride on an old miners' trail to bungee jumping from the mouth of a huge cave (doubles from $105; www.lencois.com.br). WHEN TO GO: To ensure cooler temperatures and higher water, avoid the dry season, September to October. GETTING THERE: A six-hour transit from the Salvador bus station will run you about $20.
ALTER DO CHÃO
Alter do Chão (pop. 5,000), on the clear-running, 1,238-mile Tapajós River, in the middle of the world's largest rainforest, has a mile-long white-powder beach that folks call the Caribbean of the Amazon. The Tapajós National Forest, just upstream, is home to pumas, anacondas, more than 340 species of birds, and 600-year-old piquiá trees. WHAT TO DO: Amazon Planet Adventures can organize five-day trips around the region that include searching for river dolphins, fishing for piranha, and hiking through the 2,000-square-mile Tapajós National Forest (five-day tours from $750 per person; amazonplanetadventur.com.br). The fourth annual Jungle Marathon (October 514, $3,000; junglemarathon.com) is a 200-kilometer multi-day adventure race that weaves through the jungle to the finish line at Alter do Chão. Competitors avoid jaguars and sleep in designated campsites surrounded by armed guards. WHERE TO STAY: The Beloalter Hotel overlooks Green Lake, near Alter do Chão (doubles from $80; beloalter.com.br). WHEN TO GO: Avoid the rainy season, January to June. GETTING THERE: TAM flights to nearby Santarém arrive daily.