1 Rio de Janeiro
Known to the locals as the City of Marvels, no city on earth has a setting to compare. Rainforest-covered mountains rise sheer from a bottle-green ocean and a vast wine-glass bay. The beaches and music are wonderful, and the carnival is one of the world’s greatest spectacles.
2 São Paulo
This is the party capital with Brazil’s best music and nightlife. Its interminable labyrinths of concrete are unprepossessing at first, but those who find their way into the maze, preferably with a local guide, discover the finest nightlife, restaurants, high-end shopping and popular culture in South America.
3 Iguaçu Falls
When President Theodore Roosevelt’s wife saw this magnificent cascade straddling the border with Argentina and Paraguay she reputedly said, “poor Niagara”. Allow at least two days to explore the waterfalls and the temperate rainforests of the surrounding national park.
Cariocas flock to the southern beaches for their holidays. The most popular destination is the state of Bahia, offering a string of palm-shaded silvery strands lining its coast and islands. Also here is the largest colonial city in the Americas, Salvador, whose street carnival is one of Brazil’s best.
5 Carnival in Pernambuco
It’s not just Rio that hosts a raucous Mardi Gras carnival – the whole of Brazil celebrates. Come to Pernambuco state for the most traditional Carnaval which focuses on Recife and its twin city Olinda. Streets reverberate with maracatu and frevo rhythms and erupt in a riot of colour and dance.
Originally discovered by São Paulo hippies in the 1970s, over the decades this fishing community in Ceará state has turned into a laid-back boho surf town, with beachside restaurants, a starlit nightlife, sweeping dunes, kilometres of empty sands and possibly the best kite-surfing in the world.
A tiny beach town in the Lençóis Maranhenses National Park with sandy streets in an astonishing landscape: on one side, a 100-km-deep desert of shifting sand dunes pocked with aquamarine lakes, on the other, endless beaches washed by shallow lagoons and dotted with blood-red scarlet ibis and snowy-white egrets.
8 Ilha de Marajó
The world’s largest river island covers an area as large as Denmark and sits in the mouth of the Amazon. There is nowhere quite like it on earth, with long, sweeping river beaches and coconut-shaded coves, ranches and dusty towns patrolled by police on buffalo-back and skies filled with brilliantly coloured tropical birds.
9 Alter do Chão
A tiny village in the Amazon set on Caribbean white-sand beaches fringing a river nearly as wide as the English Channel. Watch bubble-gum pink dolphins play at sunset and trek into the Amazon rainforest to see monkeys, sloths and metre-long macaws.
10 Chapada dos Veadeiros
These table-top mountains of rust-coloured granite and bone-white quartz are cut by countless mountain streams which drop in myriad waterfalls into long, broad valleys swathed with swaying grasslands and dotted stands of stately buriti palm. Come for some of central Brazil’s best trekking, rappelling and canyoning.
11 The Pantanal
The world’s largest wetlands are the best place to see wildlife in the Americas. Caiman, capybara and hundreds of species of bird congregate here in astonishing numbers, and nowhere offers a greater chance of seeing jaguar. In the wet season rivers spread into huge lakes, evaporating into grasslands in the dry season.
12 Cristalino Rainforest Reserve
Set in a private Amazon reserve, this ecotourism lodge is perhaps one of the best places in the world to see lowland Amazon wildlife. All the big mammals – including tapir, jaguar, puma – live here in healthy numbers, and harpy eagles nest nearby. Wildlife-spotting facilities and guiding are second to none.