A beginner's guide to Brazil

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What do you get if you combine cinematic landscapes, kaleidoscopic culture, head-spinning biodiversity and a constant rhythm of carefree joie de vivre? Welcome to Brazil! The world's fifth-largest country commandeers the lion's share of South America, all the way from the Amazon Basin – the world's largest tropical rainforest – to the pampas of southernmost Rio Grande do Sul, delivering 7500kms of sun-toasted sands in between.

It is these postcard-perfect shores for which Brazil is arguably most famous, but this Latin giant boasts far more than beaches. Lush jungle? Check. Colonial villages? Check. Unparalleled wildlife? Check. Delectable restaurants and pulse-pumping nightlife? Check. Stunning waterfalls, canyons, mountains and dunescapes? Pronto, pronto, pronto and pronto!

Carnival by Prefeitura de Olinda. CC BY 2.0.

Carnival by Prefeitura de Olinda. CC BY 2.0.

Brazil owes its language and much of its cultural potpourri to Portugal - both unique compared to its Spanish-settled South American neighbours - whose explorers arrived in the 1500s and settled what was then a land of largely indigenous inhabitants numbering between two and four million people. Waves of immigration from Africa, Europe and the Middle East have shaped and enriched the country throughout history. Today, with a population of nearly 200 million, Brazil is one of the world's most diverse nations.

A tropical wonderland

A visit to Brazil usually begins in Rio de Janeiro, one of the world's most vibrant urban landscapes, where dramatic, rainforest-crowned mountaintops surround a city nestled picturesquely between jungle and sea. The Amazon region – and its namesake river – are home to the planet's greatest collection of plants and animals, and this enigmatic landscape has long intrigued explorers, naturalists, novelists and travellers alike. Brazil's other hotspot for biodiversity, the Pantanal, is the world's largest wetland, where every moment throws up another photo opportunity full of colourful birds and wildlife.

Hyacinth macaws by Geoff Gallice. CC BY 2.0.

Hyacinth macaws by Geoff Gallice. CC BY 2.0.

The roar of Iguaçu Falls will redefine your idea of the power of Mother Nature; this torrent thundering over the edges of cliffs is a spectacle without rival. And in a country with no shortage of world-class beaches, the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha serves up three of the best, and then adds the distinction of being Brazil's top spot for diving and surfing, and one of the best places on Earth to mingle with endangered sea turtles and Spinner dolphins.

Iguacu Falls by Mike Vondran. CC BY 2.0.

Iguacu Falls by Mike VondranCC BY 2.0.

But wait, there's more! Pristinely preserved colonial villages (Ouro Prêto, Tiradentes, Paraty, Olinda), scenic national parks (Lençóis-Maranhenses, Chapada Diamantina, Chapada dos Veadeiros (whc.unesco.org/en/list/1035), Chapada dos Guimarães), idyllic tropical islands (Ilha Grande, Ilhabela, Ilha de Santa Catarina, Morro de São Paulo, Boipeba, Ilha do Mel) and an even longer list of diverse regional cuisine and culture, from the African-fuelled state of Bahía to the heavily German and Italian-influenced states of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul, all unite in a seductive marriage that ticks off a traveller's wishlist.

Football fever

Though Argentines might beg to differ, few would argue that Brazilians play the Beautiful Game… well, most beautifully. And the Seleção Brasileira (the Brazilian team) has five FIFA World Cups in its trophy cabinet to prove the point (Brazil is also the only country to qualify for every World Cup since the competition's inauguration in 1930).

When the frenzy that is the next World Cup (www.fifa.com/worldcup) kicks off in São Paulo on 12 June 2014, it marks a return to the game's symbolic motherland (according to Brazilians, anyway), and also the country's first chance to avenge a heartbreaking World Cup loss in 1950 to Uruguay at the Maracanã, a stadium purpose-built for the hosts to lift the trophy on their own soil (something no Brazilian walking and talking in 1950 has forgotten to this day).

The country's readiness to host the tournament has been under fire amid a laundry list of construction delays and woes, bloated budgets, protests and infrastructure worries. But while Brazil might be pounding in that last nail on the eve of the opening ceremony, she will not screw up the world's biggest football party.

England vs Brazil, Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, by Mark Hillary. CC BY 2.0.

England vs Brazil, Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, by Mark HillaryCC BY 2.0.

Costs

There's no sugarcoating it: Brazil is expensive. An overvalued real, high profit margins, extreme protectionism and the Custo Brasil – a combination of high taxes, stifling bureaucracy and poor national infrastructure that combine to increase the cost of doing business – means the country is no bargain. Brazil currently sits in fifth place on The Economist's light-hearted Big Mac index (www.economist.com/content/big-mac-index), which ranks the world's most expensive countries based on the price of a Big Mac. Tack on World Cup price hikes and costs quickly approach infuriating.

Language

Brazil's official language is Portuguese. English is still underspoken by most Brazilians, even by folks working in hospitality in major tourist destinations.

Transport

Brazil is home to extensive air and bus networks. The country's major domestic airlines include Tam (www.tam.com.br), Gol (www.voegol.com.br), Azul (www.voeazul.com.br) and Avianca (www.avianca.com). Most visitors arrive at Antônio Carlos Jobim International Airport (Galeão; www.aeroportogaleao.net/en) in Rio de Janeiro or Aeroporto Internacional de Guarulhos (GRU Airport; www.aeroportoguarulhos.net/en) in São Paulo, but there are also international arrivals in Brasília, Fortaleza, Natal, Recife, Salvador, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre, among others. Flights are expensive, though competition-spawned megasales are common and, if you are covering a lot of ground, a Brazil Airpass is your new best friend. Miami-based BR Online Travel (BROL; www.brol.com) specialises in passes, which are available only to foreign visitors.

Itapemirim (www.itapemirim.com.br) and Cometa (www.viacaocometa.com.br) are two of the biggest and best bus companies. For a national database of bus routes, try Busca Ônibus (www.buscaonibus.com.br). Fares begin around R$8 to R$10 per hour for the cheapest services and rise from there in price and comfort level.

Health

In addition to the usual traveller precautions, malaria is a concern in certain areas of the Amazon and northwest Brazil. Travellers should weigh the risks of an appropriate preventative (chloroquine is not effective here), and cover up as much as possible to prevent mosquito bites. Brazil has become the epicentre of mosquito-borne dengue fever in Latin America, especially in and around Rio and in Bahía. Tap water is safe in most urban areas but doesn't win any taste competitions. Bottled water is preferred by most Brazilians.

Safety

Brazil receives a lot of bad press about its violence and high crime rate but the country is generally safe for tourists. That said, extra precaution should be taken in major urban areas, Rio de Janeiro, Recife and São Paulo in particular.

Besides all of the standard-issue traveller safety provisions, heed some added warnings: never take anything of value to the beach, use ATMs only inside banks or shopping malls, and do not walk along empty streets, deserted parks or urban beaches at night.