With a land mass larger than the whole of Western Europe, Brazil's (or Brasil, as it is spelt in Portuguese) sheer size is daunting and it is vital to bear this in mind when planning an itinerary. Stretching from the Andes to the Atlantic and containing most of the Amazon Jungle, the mighty Iguazu falls and the Pantanal (the largest wetland in the world), Brazil possesses a natural majesty that few nations on Earth can equal. It has many things to offer both and caters for many types of visitors, stretching from the sun seeking beach bums and party animals to the more assiduous mountain scaling backpackers.
The region of Amazônia contains the largest and densest rainforest in the world and boasts more diverse plant and animal species than any other jungle, thereby creating a paradise for would-be explorers, naturalists and wildlife enthusiasts alike. Whilst growing economic activity in the region has resulted in much environmental damage, particularly the indiscriminate use of mercury by gold prospectors, oil extraction and large scale deforestation to make way for cattle ranching, there is a growing awareness among many Brazilians that the Amazon is a unique resource in need of protection.
Average temperatures increase from south to north, and humidity can be high especially near the coast. In the Amazon the wettest months are March to May, and in the south December to March. In the south it can get surprisingly cold in July and August depending on the prevailing wind, so for year-round fine weather head for the north-east. It is possible to visit parts of Brasil all year round although some places further South can actually get quite cold in winter.
The climate of the Amazon Basin is equatorial. Rainfall can exceed 2000 mm in some places and there is no real dry season. Tropical temperatures (27 - 32 °C) are typical. Frost is unknown, but in the south of the region, occasional cold spells (friagem) cause night temperatures to fall below 10 °C. Daytime temperatures of 38 °C are rare, but the high humidity and monotony of the temperatures can make conditions very unpleasant.
Located south of the Amazon Basin and at a moderate altitudeThe, the Brazilian Plateau has a very distinct wet season at the time of high sun, with almost all the rainfall (about 1500 mm) falling between October and April. The dry northeast of the region has a much lower average rainfall (in some places less than 750 mm), but it is also very irregular from year to year, causing prolonged droughts. The tropical east coast (including Rio de Janeiro) has a typically hot tropical climate, although there are significant differences in the season of greatest rainfall from north to south.
Near the Amazon mouth all months are wet, but the greatest rainfalls occur from December to May (in excess of 300 mm per month). Further south (eg Recife) the wettest months are May to August, although amounts tend to be lower. Further south still (Rio) the wettest period is November to April. Nowhere on this coast do maximum temperatures rise so high as to be uncomfortable, but the combination of warmth and high humidity can be unpleasant. Daytime heat is often tempered by sea breezes, but temperatures never drop very low. Frost is unknown on the coast, but frost can be found in the hills.
The southern states have a warm temperate climate, although on the coast a distinct cooler season can produce frosts. Winter has a real significance in this region, and the difference between the seasons is determined by temperature rather than rainfall. The area is often affected by invasions of cold air from the Antarctic, but during summer, temperatures can rise to levels similar to the tropical regions. The region has a healthy and pleasant climate with an average of 8-9 hours of sunshine a day in summer. On the higher land, frosts are common, but snow is very rare. Inland the wettest months are during the summer in contrast to the coast.
Brasil has an extensive network of hostals (pousadas) which stretches over the vast majority of the country. Most places are very cheap and offer either single or shared accomodation with shower facilities and breakfeast.
I spent two months backpacking round Brasil on my own and it was fantastic. I travelled by coach and totalled up over 100 hours of travel time during my round trip. Having set off from Asuncion in Paraguay, I first headed for the Pantanal, then followed a northely route up to Salvador de Bahia, passing through Brasilia and the Chapada Diamantina on the way. From Salvador, I loosely followed the coast back down to Rio do Janeiro with a couple of Dutch friends whom I met on the way. We visited the state of Minas Gergais on the way down, and rounded up the tour with a stop off at the Iguazu falls.
The Pantanal, a huge seasonal wetland, covering an area the size of France, attracts 300 species of birds (including hyacinth macaws, jabiru storks, ibis, guans, parakeets and parrots), and a wide range of animal life, making it a paradise for naturalists. There are two distinct seasons: in the rainy season (December to March, wettest in February) the region floods and access becomes restricted. The beginning of the dry season (May to August) is the best time to see birds, thousands of which nest in the trees, filling the air with their mating calls, and the white sand river beaches are exposed for caimans to bask in the sun. Capybaras (giant guinea pig) are everywhere, and with luck one can see marsh deer, giant river otters, and even the elusive tapir and jaguar.
The route of my journey in Brasil
Salvador, overlooking the vast Todos os Santos Bay, is split into two levels connected by lifts and a network of steep back streets which lead up to some of the best preserved colonial architecture in the Americas, the Pelourinho. 5 hours drive or a short flight inland is the Chapada Diamantina, a beautiful area of caves, streams and mesas with excellent trekking and comfortable pousadas.
Rio de Janeiro has one of the most beautiful settings in the world. The Corcovado and Sugar Loaf mountains overshadow the city and the beaches include fashionable Copacabana and Ipanema. Rio has a justified reputation for crime because of the high levels of poverty. Tourists flock here in February for the annual Carnival, probably the most spectacular in the world.
Iguazu falls: The river Iguaçu emerges from forested banks to plunge over a series of cliffs and create a breathtaking spectacle, higher than Niagara and wider than the Victoria Falls. There are two hotels next to the Falls themselves: the colonial Hotel das Cataratas on the Brazilian side, with panoramic views; and the modern Sheraton Internacional on the Argentine side, with a good network of walkways that allow all the falls to be examined at close range. The bird and insect life is particularly interesting and there is a Bird Park where over 100 species can be easily observed at close range in enormous cages.