The Natural World
Home to the world’s largest rainforest, as well as some of the greatest wetlands, Brazil boasts some of the most astounding plant and animal life on earth. More known species of plants, freshwater fish, amphibians and mammals are found in Brazil than in any other country in the world. Unfortunately, Brazil is also renowned for the destruction of its natural environment. Conservation remains a hot topic, and protecting Brazil’s natural wonders is increasingly seen as pivotal for Brazil’s future.
Brazil is the world’s fifth-largest country (after Russia, China, Canada and the USA). Its 8.5 million sq km occupy almost half of South America. Brazil has five principal biomes (major regional plant and animal groupings): Amazonia, Atlantic rainforest, caatinga (semiarid land), cerrado (the central savanna) and the wetlands of the Pantanal.
Covering over 4 million sq km (almost half the country), Brazilian Amazonia incorporates 30% of the world’s tropical forest. It’s home to around 45,000 plant species (some 20% of the world total), 311 mammal species (about 10% of the world total), 1000 bird species (15%), 1800 types of butterfly and around 2000 species of fish (in contrast, Europe has about 200). The forest still keeps many of its secrets: to this day, major tributaries of the Amazon River remain unexplored, thousands of species have not yet been classified and dozens of human communities have eluded contact with the outside world.
Including a further 2 million sq km in neighboring countries, the entire Amazon Basin holds 20% of the world’s freshwater and produces 20% of the world’s oxygen.
Seasonal rainfall patterns mean that the water levels of the Amazon River and its tributaries rise and fall at different times of the year. This produces dramatic alterations in the region’s geography. Water levels routinely vary by 10m to 15m between low and high marks; during high-water periods, areas totaling at least 150,000 sq km (about the size of England and Wales together) are flooded.
The rainforest is stratified into layers of plant and animal life. Most of the animal activity takes place in the canopy layer, 20m to 30m above ground, where trees compete for sunshine, and butterflies, sloths and the majority of birds and monkeys live. Here hummingbirds hover for pollen, and macaws and parrots seek out nuts and tender shoots. A few tall trees reaching up to 40m, even 50m, poke above the canopy and dominate the forest skyline. These ‘emergent trees’ are inhabited by birds such as the harpy eagle and toucan and, unlike most other rainforest plants, disperse their seeds by wind.
The dense foliage of the canopy layer blots out sunlight at lower levels. Below the canopy is the understory. Epiphytes (air plants) hang at midlevels, and below them are bushes, saplings and shrubs growing up to 5m in height. Last is a ground cover of ferns, seedlings and herbs – plants adapted to very little light. Down here live ants and termites, the so-called social insects. The saubas (leaf-cutter ants) use leaves to build underground nests for raising fungus gardens, while army ants swarm through the jungle in huge masses, eating everything in their path. Insects, fungi and roots fight for access to nutrients, keeping the forest floor quite tidy.
The forest’s soils are typically shallow. Many trees have buttress roots that spread over wide patches of ground to gather more nutrients.
Atlantic Rain Forest
Brazil’s ‘other’ tropical rainforest, the Mata Atlântica (Atlantic rain forest), is actually older than the Amazon forest and evolved independently. It once extended along the country’s southeast-facing coast, from Rio Grande do Norte to Rio Grande do Sul. Today three-quarters of Brazil’s population and all its main industrial cities are located in what used to be the Mata Atlântica, and only 7% of the original forest remains.
Along the coast, there are still long stretches of this luxuriant forest. Some areas boast what may be the highest biodiversity levels on earth. The Atlantic rain forest also contains many unique species. You'll find 26 primate species (21 of which are found only here), 2000 butterfly species (including 900 found nowhere else) and some 600-plus bird species – with many endemics among them. Unsurprisingly, many of these species are endangered, including the four types of lion tamarin and the two woolly spider monkeys (the largest primates in the Americas).
Caatinga is semiarid land, with hardy vegetation composed mainly of cacti and thorny shrubs adapted to a shortage of water and extreme heat – the natural environment of much of the interior of the Northeast region, the sertão. Rainfall (300mm to 800mm a year) is irregular, and often torrential when it comes (in the first half of the year). Most rivers rising here are dry for half the year. Despite this, the caatinga harbors surprising biodiversity. When it does rain, the trees break into leaf and the ground turns green. ‘Islands’ of humidity and fertile soils around the mountain ranges are known as brejos. Caatinga is a habitat unique to Brazil, although less than one-tenth of it is in its natural state.
Cerrado covers the central high plains of Brazil – 2 million sq km in a rough triangle from southern Minas Gerais to Mato Grosso to southern Maranhão, nearly a quarter of the country in all. Typical cerrado is open savanna grassland dotted with trees, though it can edge into scrub, palm stands or even fairly thick forest. Over 800 bird species are known to live here and plant diversity is great – 10,000 species, of which 45% are found nowhere else in the world. Many plants are used to produce cork, fibers, oils, handicrafts, medicines and food. Medicinal plants native to cerrado include arnica and golden trumpet.
The Pantanal is a vast swampy wetland in the center of South America, about half the size of France – some 210,000 sq km spread across Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. It’s the largest inland wetland on earth, and 140,000 sq km of it lies in Brazil, in the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul.
During the wet season, from October to March, the waters from the higher surrounding lands run into the Pantanal, inundating as much as two-thirds of it for half the year. The Pantanal, though 2000km upstream from the Atlantic Ocean, is only 100m to 200m above sea level and drains very slowly.
This seasonal flooding has made systematic farming impossible, severely limiting human impact on the area, and it creates an enormously rich feeding ground for wildlife. It is the best area to head for in all Brazil if you want to see wildlife, boasting greater visible numbers of animals and at least as much variety of creatures as Amazonia, with which it shares many species. The Pantanal supports numerous species, including iconic creatures like the giant anaconda, the jaguar, the puma, the giant anteater, the hyacinth macaw, the giant otter, and the black howler and brown capuchin monkeys – and millions of caimans. The most visible mammal is the capybara, the world’s largest rodent, which is often seen in family groups or even large herds.
Other Environmental Zones
The mountainous regions of southern Brazil were once covered by coniferous forests that were dominated by the prehistoric-looking, 30m- to 40m-high araucária (Paraná pine) tree. The araucária forests have been decimated by timber cutters and now survive only in scattered areas such as the Aparados da Serra national park, generally at altitudes above 500m.
Apart from the cerrado, grasslands occur chiefly in Brazil’s far north (northern Roraima) and far south (Rio Grande do Sul). Unlike the cerrado, which has a consistent scattering of medium to tall trees, the Roraima grasslands have only low trees and bushes, while the campos do sul (southern fields), on the rolling southern pampas, generally have no trees except where interspersed with patches of woodland.
Brazil’s teeming flora and fauna make it one of the planet’s best destinations for nature lovers.
Anteaters, Armadillos & Sloths
The giant anteater (up to 2m long) lives off termites and ants. Its meat is prized in some areas of Brazil, and it’s a threatened species. The collared or lesser anteater, up to 1.4m long, is yellow and black, mainly nocturnal, and often climbs trees.
Sloths have strong arms and legs, and spend most of their time hidden (and sleeping) in trees. You have a good chance of seeing some if you get a bit off the beaten track in Amazonia: from a moderate distance they look like clumps of vegetation high in trees. The species you’re most likely to see is the brown-throated three-toed sloth.
Coatis & Raccoons
The widespread coati is one of the carnivorous animals that you’re most likely to come across – possibly as a pet, for it’s easily tamed. Its distant relative, the crab-eating raccoon, with a ringed tail and black eye mask like the North American raccoon, is found in Amazonia, the Pantanal and in between, always near water, where it seeks out its diet of crabs, fish, mollusks and small amphibians.
Deer, Peccaries & Tapirs
In the Pantanal, most people see at least a few deer. The biggest, which is active by day, is the marsh deer, whose antlers can grow to 60cm long. Other species – some found as far north as Amazonia – include the pampas deer, which lives more out in the open than most other deer, and the small (60cm to 70cm long) gray brocket deerand red brocket deer.
Peccaries, which look like small wild boars, are fairly widely distributed in forests. They live in groups, are active by day and feed on fruit, roots, carrion and small animals. The collared peccary, around 1m long and weighing 20kg, is named for the light-colored semicircle below its neck and is found in groups of 10 to 50. The slightly bigger white-lipped peccary travels in groups of 50 or more, chewing and trampling everything in its path.
The large Brazilian tapir (up to 300kg) is found in forests across the country and rarely strays far from mud, which it uses to keep cool and control parasites.
Dogs, Foxes & Wolves
The maned wolf is commonly hunted and is a threatened species. It is russet-colored, fox-faced and long-legged, grows to about 1m long (plus tail) and has a mane of darker hair on the back of the neck. It inhabits cerrado and the Pantanal. Other Brazilian members of the dog family include the crab-eating fox and the bush dog, both also present in cerrado and the Pantanal. They are pretty rare and you’ll be lucky if you see any of these three.
Dolphins, Manatees & Whales
On many rivers in the Amazon Basin you should catch glimpses of the pink dolphin. It’s most often seen where tributaries meet larger rivers, and is most active in the early morning and late afternoon. Sightings are tantalizing – and getting good photos virtually impossible – as the dolphin surfaces unpredictably, for just a second or so at a time, to breathe. Often it won’t even lift its head above the surface. The pink dolphin has a lumpy forehead, a long beak and no dorsal fin (just a ridge). Adults are 1.8m to 2.5m long, weighing 85kg to 160kg.
Amazonian rivers are also home to the gray dolphin, a bit smaller than the pink and often found together with it. Unlike the pink dolphin, the gray also inhabits the sea, in coastal waters from Florianópolis to Panama. When it surfaces it usually lifts its head and part of its body out of the water.
Larger than the dolphin is the Amazon manatee, a slow-moving vegetarian that is illegally hunted for its meat and in danger of extinction. Prospects are even poorer for the marine West Indian manatee, of which there are just 500 left in coastal waters from the state of Alagoas northward.
Seven whale species occur off Brazil’s coasts, with good sightings off Praia do Rosa between June and October. The rare humpback whale breeds in the same months in the Parque Nacional Marinho de Abrolhos, off the coast of southern Bahia.
Many visitors dream of sighting a wild jaguar, but few have the luck of seeing one in the wild. The elusive and splendid jaguar is widely but thinly distributed in Brazil, occurring in Amazonia and the Pantanal among other regions. Jaguars hunt at night, covering large distances. They prey on a wide variety of animals, in trees, in water and on the ground, including sloths, monkeys, fish, deer, tapirs, capybaras and agoutis – but rarely people.
The puma, almost as big as the jaguar and similarly elusive, is the same beast as North America’s cougar or mountain lion. As well as preying on deer, it sometimes attacks herds of domestic animals, such as sheep or goats.
Marmosets & Tamarins
Around 20 species of marmoset and tamarin, which are small – often very small – primates, are found in Brazil. Some are fairly common, but the four species of lion tamarin, inhabitants of the Atlantic rain forests and with a resemblance to miniature lions, are all endangered.
About 80 of the world’s approximately 300 primate species (which also include marmosets and tamarins) are found in Brazil, many of them unique to the country. Southeast Brazil’s two species of woolly spider monkey, the southern muriqui and northern muriqui, with their thick brown fur, are the largest primates in the Americas and both are endangered, the northern species critically so and down to a population of under 300.
Howler monkeys are known for their distinctive roar. They live in groups of up to 20 that are led by a single male. In Amazonia you’re most likely to encounter the red howler monkey. Further south, including in the Pantanal, the black howler monkey is the local species. The brown howler monkey inhabits the small remaining areas of the Mata Atlântica.
The two types of uakari monkey, the black-headed and the bald, inhabit Amazonian flooded forest. The bald uakari has a red or pink bald head and thick, shaggy body fur ranging from chestnut-red to white (giving rise to the popular names red uakari and white uakari).
In addition to the world’s largest rodent, the widespread capybara, you might also encounter smaller rodents – but still up to 60cm or 70cm long – including the paca and various species of agouti.
Relatives of the alligator, caimans survived a devastating bout of poaching for their skins in the 1980s. The most common type is the yacare caiman or Paraguayan caiman. Amazonia has four species, the most common being the spectacledcaiman – the one you may get to handle on nighttime expeditions. Caimans lay eggs in nests of leaves and stalks, and these are vulnerable to predators such as coatis and lizards; the hatched young are prey for herons and storks.
In addition to the well-known anaconda, other constrictor snakes include the boa constrictor, which is 3m to 5m long, generally brown patterned and lives off small animals in varied and widespread habitats; and the handsome green-and-white emerald tree boa. A number of other snakes live in trees, but most are harmless.
Although it is rare to encounter a venomous snake in the wild, Brazil still has quite a few species of them, including rattlesnakes, vipers and coral snakes. The most dangerous in the Pantanal is Wied’s lancehead, a gray-black-and-white-patterned viper up to 70cm long that sometimes hides in houses; its bite can be fatal if not treated quickly. Also to be steered clear of is the highly poisonous Brazilian coral snake, with its rings of red, black and white. It lurks under rocks or logs and only bites when it feels threatened. The various false coral snakes are, lucky for them, nearly impossible to distinguish from the real thing.
Endangered sea turtles are making a comeback on the turtle-nesting beaches from Santa Catarina state to Ceará. The Tamar Project, founded in 1980, does an impressive job of protecting them. Brazil is also home to several species of river turtle, spread throughout the country and mostly not endangered.
Amazonia is home to at least 2000 freshwater fish species, and the Pantanal to around 300 species. The biggest Amazonian fish is the enormous pirarucu, or arapaima, which can weigh well over 100kg. The pirarucu is a voracious hunter of other fish and a rich food source for humans. To try to preserve the shrinking population, catching it is banned if it’s less than 1.5m in length or during the October-to-March spawning season.
The most important food fish of central Amazonia is the little jaraqui, which swims in shoals of thousands. Another food fish, the tambaqui, is of the same family as piranhas. The rotund tambaqui can reach 1m in length and weigh up to 25kg. Normally it lives on nuts (which it can crack with its jaws) and seeds, but when the waters recede it can turn carnivorous.
Amazonia harbors at least 100 species of catfish, named for the long bristles that help them search for food on river bottoms. One aggressive catfish, the piraíba, grows up to 3m long and weighs as much as 200kg. It will even attack water birds. The dourado, up to 1m long with pale-gold sides, is common in the Pantanal as well as Amazonia, and is a popular dish in restaurants throughout the country.
Man Bites Piranha
Why are people scared of piranhas? Humans eat piranhas a billion times more often than piranhas eat people. They’re reasonably tasty, if a bit small and bony. A standard activity on an Amazon jungle trip is catching your own piranha lunch.
A piranha is not just a piranha, of course. It could be any of about 40 species of the Serrasalmo genus. Piranhas are found in the basins of the Amazon, Orinoco, Paraguay and São Francisco Rivers and in the rivers of the Guianas. Some live on seeds and fruits, some on other fish, and only a handful of species are potentially a risk to larger creatures. These types are most dangerous when stuck in tributaries, meanders or lakes that get cut off from main rivers in the dry season. When they have eaten all the other fish, the piranhas will attack more or less anything, including wounded mammals entering their waters. The scent of blood or bodily fluids in the water can whip a shoal into a feeding frenzy. Confirmed accounts of human fatalities caused by piranhas are extremely few, but plenty of Amazonian river folks have scars or missing fingers to testify just how sharp and vicious those little triangular teeth can be.
With its diverse habitats and extraordinary number of species, Brazil is a major hot spot for bird-watchers.
Birds of Prey
Much like great cats, birds of prey command respect and are always an object of fascination. Brazil has around 40 species of eagle, hawk, falcon, kite, caracara and kestrel, some quite common, and they’re not very easy to tell apart.
The largest bird of prey in the Americas is the ferocious harpy eagle, with claws bigger than human hands. It eats sizable mammals (including monkeys) and nests at least 25m above the ground in large jungle trees. Although a few harpies still inhabit Mata Atlântica, the bird is found chiefly in Amazonia.
In Brazil there are dozens of species of these often striking jewel-like little birds, known as beija-flores (flower-kissers). They occupy an important role in Brazilian art and folklore, often mentioned in music and poetry; even one of Rio’s best-known samba schools is called Beija-Flor.
These are the kinds of bird that have come to symbolize tropical rainforests, and people travel from all over the world to see some of Brazil’s dozens of species.
The name scarlet macaw is given to two large, gloriously colored species: Ara chloroptera, also called the red-and-green macaw, which grows up to 95cm long, with blue-and-green wings and a red-striped face; and Ara macao, which is a bit smaller with blue-and-yellow wings. The latter bird is restricted to Amazonia, but the red-and-green macaw also inhabits the Pantanal, cerrado and even caatinga.
The blue-and-yellow macaw, about 85cm long, is also widely distributed. The yellow covers its underside, the blue its upper parts.
Among the most colorful groups of Latin American birds are toucans, which despite their large beaks are able to fly with a surprising agility. Toucans live at forest treetop level and are often best seen from boats. Brazil’s biggest is the toco toucan, whose habitat ranges from Amazonia to the cerrado to the Pantanal. Around 55cm long, including its bright-orange beak, the toucan's plumage is black except for a white neck area. In Amazonia you may see the white-throated toucan or the yellow-ridged toucan. Both are fairly large birds, with black beaks.
Highly visible birds in the Pantanal and Amazonia include herons, egrets, storks, ibises, spoonbills and their relatives. The tiger heron, with its brown and black stripes, is particularly distinctive. The sight of hundreds of snowy egrets gathering in a waterside rookery looks like a sudden blooming of white flowers in the treetops.
Of the storks, one of the most striking is the tall black-headed and scarlet-necked jabiru found in the Pantanal and Amazonia. In the Pantanal, also look for the similarly sized maguari stork, which is mainly white with a pinkish face, and the smaller wood stork, with its black head and beak with a curved end. The beautiful pink roseate spoonbill is another Pantanal resident. The spectacular scarlet ibis lives in flocks along the Northeast coast.
The last ice age did not reach Brazil and the rainforests have never suffered long droughts, so the area has had an unusually long period of time to develop plant species that are found nowhere else in the world.
Though estimates run at around 45,000, it would be impossible to determine an exact number of plant species in the Amazon, let alone in the whole of Brazil, as new plants are being discovered all the time and, unfortunately, others are disappearing with frightening frequency. The great majority of the plants in Brazil’s rainforests are trees – estimated at some 70% of the total vegetation. Many rainforest trees look similar even though they are of different species, but a trained eye can distinguish more than 400 species of tree per hectare in some areas.
National Parks & Protected Areas
Much of Brazil is, officially at least, under environmental protection. Over 1000 areas, covering some 1.3 million sq km (around 15% of the whole country), are protected. Some of these are run by the federal government, some by state governments and some by private individuals or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
Terras Indígena (Indigenous Lands) occupy about 12% of Brazilian territory, nearly all in the Amazon. Though they are not explicitly dedicated to nature conservation, their inhabitants tend to use them with minimal environmental impact.
Where to Go
Brazil is a huge country and its flora and fauna are scattered across vast regions. Plan ahead to take in areas that meet your interests in nature.
Many national parks in this region cover mountainous terrain, with some of Brazil’s highest peaks, and make for spectacular hiking and climbing. Vegetation ranges from lush Mata Atlântica to araucária forest and cerrado.
Abundant wildlife is a big attraction of the Superagüi and Iguaçu national parks – and also of the Argentine Parque Nacional del Iguazú on the other side of the Iguaçu Falls. The Aparados da Serra and Serra Geral national parks contain stunning canyons and rock formations.
If you’re keen to see animals in the wild, don’t miss the Pantanal, which has the greatest concentration of fauna in the New World – visible to the most casual observer in the Pantanal’s open spaces. The Chapada dos Veadeiros and Chapada dos Guimarães national parks have gorgeous scenery with spectacular waterfalls, canyons and deep valleys. Parque Nacional das Emas is Brazil’s best-preserved tract of cerrado, with abundant visible wildlife, including the emas (rheas) for which it’s named.
The Northeast’s natural highlights range from the escarpments, peaks, waterfalls and rivers of the Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina (a great hiking area) to the vast dune fields of the Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses. Marine attractions rank high here too, with two national marine parks, Fernando de Noronha and Abrolhos. The Fernando de Noronha archipelago, 350km out into the Atlantic, abounds in dolphins, sea turtles and bird life and has some of the world’s best diving, snorkeling and beaches.
The government-backed Tamar Project, protecting Brazil’s five sea-turtle species, has 21 stations along Brazil’s coasts, mainly in the Northeast. The headquarters, which you can visit, is at Praia do Forte, Bahia.
The Amazon region, with its dense jungles and countless rivers, is easily Brazil’s richest for wildlife and plant diversity, but getting to see the best of it is a challenge. The further you get from sprawling, urban Manaus, the more wildlife you’re likely to see. On a trip of less than five days from Manaus you will probably see pink and gray river dolphins, caimans, piranhas, a fair variety of birds and a few monkeys, but it won’t be the teeming jungles you might have imagined. Further afield – and harder to reach and more expensive to visit – the Mamirauá Reserve, Parque Nacional do Jaú, Reserva Xixuaú-Xipariná, Ilha do Bananal, the Rio Javari and the Cristalino area offer much greater variety and abundance of visible wildlife.
Brazil’s Top Protected & Natural Areas
state park & private reserve on southern edge of Amazon rainforest
viewing birds, butterflies, monkeys; swimming, kayaking, abseiling
Best time to visit
Ecoparque de Una
private Mata Atlântica reserve with rare golden-headed lion tamarin
hiking, wildlife, endangered species
Best time to visit
Estação Biológica de Caratinga
Mata Atlântica, half the world's population of endangered muriqui (largest American primate)
Best time to visit
Fernando de Noronha archipelago
fabulous marine park on islands 350km from Natal
diving, snorkeling, hiking, surfing; dolphin- and turtle-watching
Best time to visit
Floresta Nacional do Tapajós
lush Amazonian rainforest preserve
boat trips, wildlife, rare plants
Best time to visit
Ilha de Marajó
island in the mouth of the Amazon
wetlands, hiking, wildlife
Best time to visit
Ilha do Bananal
huge river island in Tocantins
bird- and animal-watching, boat trips, fishing
Best time to visit
tract of virgin Mata Atlântica, just off coast of Rio state
swimming, hiking, diving, flora & fauna
Best time to visit
beautifully diverse area of eastern Tocantins
wildlife, hiking, camping
Best time to visit
Mamirauá Reserve (Reserva de Desenvolvimento Sustentável Mamirauá)
Amazonian floodplain reserve with excellent ecotourism program
viewing wildlife & plants, boat trips, hiking
Best time to visit
vast wetlands that are the best place to see wildlife in Brazil
wildlife, hiking, safaris, horseback riding, boating
Best time to visit
Parque Estadual da Pedra Azul
dramatic 1822m blue-tinged rock-formation with natural pools and surrounding forest
hiking, horseback riding, swimming
Best time to visit
Parque Estadual de Itaúnas
sand dunes, beaches, Tamar Project turtle preserve
wildlife, swimming, hiking, turtle-watching
Best time to visit
Sep-Mar to see turtles hatching
Parque Nacional & Floresta da Tijuca
Mata Atlântica & mountains right in Rio
hiking, great views
Best time to visit
Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina
large mountainous park in Bahia with gorgeous landscape, waterfalls, rivers
hiking, trekking, climbing
Best time to visit
Parque Nacional da Chapada dos Guimarães
waterfalls, canyons, bizarre rock formations
Best time to visit
Parque Nacional da Chapada dos Veadeiros
high-altitude cerrado with sublime landscapes, near Brasília
hiking, swimming, canyoning, rappelling, Jeep tours
Best time to visit
Parque Nacional da Serra da Capivara
park in southern Piauí with thousands of prehistoric paintings & amazing rock formations
Best time to visit
any, cooler Nov-Mar
Parque Nacional da Serra do Cipó
mountains, waterfalls & cerrado, near Belo Horizonte
hiking, camping, climbing
Best time to visit
Parque Nacional da Serra dos Órgãos
mountains & cliffs, 86km from Rio
Best time to visit
May-Oct for hiking
Parque Nacional da Serra Geral
spectacular canyons, adjoining Aparados da Serra national park
Best time to visit
Parque Nacional das Emas
fantastic cerrado preserve with rheas
Best time to visit
Parque Nacional das Nascentes do Rio Parnaíba
recently (2002) created park of cerrado savanna and red-rock escarpments
viewing rare wildlife, hyacinth macaws
Best time to visit
Parque Nacional de Aparados da Serra
stunning canyons, araucária forests, in Rio Grande do Sul
Best time to visit
Parque Nacional de Caparaó
highest mountains in southern Brazil
hiking, climbing, camping
Best time to visit
Parque Nacional de Itatiaia
ruggedly beautiful mountainous park, 150km from Rio
hiking, climbing, wildlife
Best time to visit
Parque Nacional de Sete Cidades
unique rock formations in Piauí
hiking, cycling, swimming, archaeology
Best time to visit
Parque Nacional de Ubajara
small Ceará park with large caves, lush vegetation, dramatic escarpments
Best time to visit
Parque Nacional do Iguaçu
Brazilian side of the international waterfalls park
Best time to visit
Parque Nacional do Jaú
one of the world’s largest tracts of protected tropical rainforest; no infrastructure
rare flora & fauna, boat trips
Best time to visit
Parque Nacional do Superagüi
large area of coastal Mata Atlântica
abundant wildlife, rare flora, hiking, beaches
Best time to visit
Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses
enormous expanse of sand dunes & clear rain pools, near coast
hiking, swimming, wildlife
Best time to visit
Parque Nacional Marinho de Abrolhos
marine park 80km off the Bahia coast, coral reefs
whale watching, marine & bird life
Best time to visit
Parque Natural do Caraça
variety of terrain, from Mata Atlântica to wild mountain vegetation
Best time to visit
Praia do Forte
ecological beach resort, headquarters of Tamar Project
hiking, cycling, turtle-watching
Best time to visit
Praia do Rosa
beach town in Santa Catarina, whale sanctuary
whale watching, surfing
Best time to visit
remote ecotourism project, 1½-day boat trip from Manaus
rare flora & fauna, boat trips
Best time to visit
area near Peruvian border with some pristine rainforest
wildlife, jungle, boat trips, hiking
Best time to visit
Brazil’s Top Reserves & National Parks
- Fernando de Noronha archipelago Fabulous marine park of islands, 350km from Natal.
- Floresta Nacional do Tapajós Lush Amazonian rainforest preserve.
- Ilha de Marajó Huge river island in the mouth of the Amazon.
- Ilha Grande Hilly island covered by virgin Atlantic rainforest, a few hours from Rio.
- Mamirauá Reserve Amazonian floodplain reserve teeming with wildlife; excellent ecotourism program.
- Pantanal Vast wetlands that are one of Brazil's best places to see wildlife.
- Parque Estadual da Pedra Azul Dramatic 1822m blue-tinged rock formation with natural pools and forest.
- Parque Estadual de Itaúnas Sand dunes, beaches and a sea-turtle preserve.
- Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina Large mountainous park in Bahia with stunning scenery, waterfalls and rivers.
- Parque Nacional da Chapada dos Guimarães Waterfalls, canyons and bizarre rock formations.
- Parque Nacional da Chapada dos Veadeiros High-altitude cerrado (savanna) with picturesque landscapes near Brasília.
- Parque Nacional da Serra da Capivara Park in southern Piauí with thousands of prehistoric paintings and unique rock formations.
- Parque Nacional do Itatiaia Ruggedly beautiful mountainous park, 150km from Rio.
- Parque Nacional do Iguaçu Brazilian side of the spectacular waterfalls.
- Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses Enormous expanse of sand dunes and clear rain pools.
- Praia do Rosa Beach town in Santa Catarina that's a famed whale sanctuary.
You can find reputable companies offering organized tours and adventure-based activities by browsing the listings of Abeta (www.abeta.tur.br), a collective of adventure and ecotourism operators, who maintain certain guidelines for safety and promote sustainable initiatives.
Sustainable Tour Operators
Half the tourism businesses anywhere in Brazil promoting natural attractions seem to have those three letters ‘eco’ in their names. And the rest have them in their propaganda. Especially in Manaus and the Pantanal, hosts of rival ‘eco’ operators are eager to snap you up for ‘ecotours’ of the jungles, rivers, lakes or wetlands. Some of these are reputable and dependable, some are just out for a quick buck, and a few will scam you.
As you attempt to pick one, weighing up costs, quality, reliability, comfort and all the other factors, it’s worth remembering the definition of ecotourism as provided by the International Ecotourism Society: ‘Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.’ A guiding principle of genuine ecotourism is that it benefits resident human communities too and also encourages them to look after the local environment. If possible, give your business to an ecotourism venture run by the community itself.
Sadly, while Brazil is renowned for its forests, it is also notorious for destroying them. At last count more than one-fifth of the Brazilian Amazon rainforest had been completely destroyed. Cutting down forests for cattle ranches and for growing crops (namely soybeans) and for illegal logging are among the chief threats to the Amazon. The rate of deforestation has had ups and downs in recent years, falling year-on-year from 2005 to 2015. It surged again in the last few years, with the rate of deforestation rising by 22% from mid-2017 to mid-2018.
Big development projects are also affecting the Amazon. The government has some 30 large hydroelectric dams in the works for the Amazon region. The biggest is the massive Belo Monte dam on the Rio Xingu in Pará, which flooded nearly 500 sq km of rainforest, and displaced at least 20,000 people, including thousands of indigenous people who have resided along the river for centuries. At the time of writing, half of its 24 turbines were operational. It's expected to be fully operational by 2020.
The Pantanal wetlands also face serious threats, including the rapid spread of intensive soy, cotton and sugarcane farming on Brazil’s central plains, which are the source of most of the Pantanal’s water. The sugarcane is the raw material of ethanol motor fuel, the international growth of which has led to the creation of dozens of new ethanol distilleries in Mato Grosso do Sul. Herbicides, fertilizers and other chemicals from the plantations drizzle their way into Pantanal waters, and forest clearance on the plains leads to erosion and consequent silting of Pantanal rivers. The growing cities around the Pantanal (many of which lack adequate waste-treatment plants) and ongoing industrial development also pose serious risks to this region.
On Brazil’s coasts, growth of cities and burgeoning tourism developments threaten many delicate coastal marine ecosystems, despite the creation of protected areas on extensive tracts of land and sea.
It Pays Not to Cut It Down
Deforestation is a major contributor to global warming, accounting for 17% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions (more than the world’s planes, cars, trucks and ships combined) and 70% of the emissions in Brazil. How to keep the forests from being felled is the big challenge – and one that can play a pivotal role in climate change. Deforestation adds CO2 to the atmosphere through fires and machinery used to cut down trees, and it also destroys the living plants that absorb carbon emissions from cars and factories around the planet.
One simple but dramatic new strategy under way is to pay landowners to preserve the forests on their property. Controversial though it may be, a growing number of scientists, environmentalists and politicians say that cash payments are the most effective way to stop the felling of tropical forest and if successful could play a major role in limiting global warming.
More technologically innovative solutions – biofuels, wind and solar energy – tend to garner all the attention in regard to climate change, but keeping a forest intact yields a remarkably simple environmental payback: a property owner reduces the emissions on his land to zero.
Encouraging people not to hack down forests and plant lucrative crops such as soy or corn or raise cattle is a daunting task in Brazil, particularly in the Amazon and in Mato Grosso, where previous government policy encouraged development of the land – clearing the forests and creating farmland. This Brazilian policy encouraged settlement through cheap land and housing subsidies, some of which are still in existence today. Indeed, in the 1970s, to be eligible for loans to buy seed and tractors, farmers had to clear 80% of their land.
Globalization has created huge opportunities for growers from Brazil – who alongside Indonesia lead the world in the felling of their rainforests each year. Trees are chopped down to help feed the growing population across the globe and its increasing appetite for beef. Today Mato Grosso is Brazil’s leading producer of soy, beef and corn, all of which are exported across the globe by multinational companies.
To incentivize the preservation of forests (cleared farm land in Mato Grosso yields over US$1200 an acre, after all), policy makers advocate a wide range of strategies, including direct payments to landowners to keep forests standing, along with indirect subsidies, like higher prices for soy and beef produced without clear-cutting the land.
In recent years, Brazil with a grant from Norway created the Amazon fund (www.amazonfund.gov.br), which provides financial incentives for the preservation of rainforest. Partnered with SOS Amazônia (www.sosamazonia.org.br) it aims to establish more reserves of some 206,000 sq km where the local natives are co-owners and work to preserve the land in exchange for preservation of their local culture and education, economic and health benefits for their families.
New laws are also playing a role in preserving the forest. National laws stipulate that 80% of every tract in the upper Amazon, and 50% in more developed regions, must remain forested. Enforcement for such enormous territory, however, is difficult.
Of course, the importance of rainforests goes far beyond just their ‘carbon sequestering’ abilities. Blessed with astounding biodiversity, tropical forests have a far greater concentration of different plant and animal species than most other ecosystems. Of the 250,000 species of higher plants known to science, 45,000 can be found in the Amazon rain forest. This reservoir of genetic diversity is an incredibly vital source of food and medicine; a quarter of the medicines used in the developed world contain elements extracted from tropical forests. The Amazon rain forest has already given us rubber, manioc (cassava) and cocoa, as well as antimalarial drugs, cancer drugs and hundreds of other medicinal plants. A cure for AIDS, breast cancer or the common cold might be lurking somewhere in its flora or fauna. The destruction of such a storehouse would be an incalculable loss.
Community ecotourism projects that empower the local populace are growing in popularity. Extractive reserves also play a key role in the forest; these are protected areas used by those who depend on subsistence agriculture and traditional extractive activities, such as rubber tapping, fruit or nut collecting, or fishing.
Hopes for less destructive logging practices have been raised by international certification schemes, such as those implemented by the Forest Stewardship Council. Such schemes seek to certify timber that has been produced by sustainable methods, something that is increasingly demanded by domestic and international consumers of Brazilian timber. This type of consumer demand encourages reduced-impact logging, whereby forestry areas are divided into blocks to be exploited on a rotating basis and given time to regenerate. At the same time, the largest specimens of valuable tree species are left standing in order to reseed the block, and care is taken to minimize damage to trees that are not being felled. Some major Brazilian home-supply stores and a number of international stores carry certified lumber. However, it’s also true that most illegal timber from the Amazon stays in Brazil, a large proportion of it being used in the construction industry in the south of the country.
At least one pump at almost every Brazilian gasoline station bears the name of a fuel as yet uncommon elsewhere in the world. Beside the pumps for various grades of gasoline and diesel, there are pumps labeled Álcool Comum, and they’re usually among the busiest on the forecourt. This fuel alcohol, known in English as ethanol, is widely considered Brazil’s big lucky break in the field of energy. Since 2003, when new ‘flex-fuel’ cars – able to run on any combination of gasoline and ethanol – were developed in Brazil, they have sold like hot cakes. In 2018 flexible-fuel cars represented more than 90% of new car sales each year, and ethanol currently accounts for over 40% of transport fuel.
Álcool, made from sugarcane, gives fewer kilometers per liter than gasoline but is cheaper, so overall it works out more economical for drivers. It’s also considered better for the environment. It still yields carbon-dioxide emissions such as gasoline – but a comparable amount of carbon dioxide is absorbed from the atmosphere by the growth of the plants from which the fuel is processed, greatly reducing the fuel’s contribution to greenhouse gases.
Brazil has been producing ethanol for more than 30 years, with record growth in recent years. As of 2018, the nation was producing some 30 billion liters of ethanol annually, representing around 28% of the world’s total. It has suddenly found itself one of the world leaders in a commodity that looks set to boom worldwide. As countries across the world attempt to reduce their dependence on expensive, polluting fossil fuels, biofuels (made from living organisms or their waste) such as ethanol stand to play a key role in the future.
Unfortunately, ethanol is not the win-win solution to the world’s fuel needs that its fans claim. The carbon absorbed by the growing plant may cancel the carbon emitted by the fuel, but the fuel’s production also consumes large amounts of fossil fuel through fertilizer and fungicide use, the distillation process and transport. On this score, Brazil has a big advantage over the US, where ethanol is made chiefly from corn (maize) and burns up about seven times as much fossil fuel in its production than Brazilian sugarcane ethanol. By some estimates US-produced corn ethanol may not even reduce overall carbon dioxide emissions at all.
Environmentalists also fear that Brazilian rainforest will be felled to make way for sugar plantations, and that chemical runoffs from the plantations – chiefly in Brazil’s central highlands – will damage the Pantanal and Amazon ecosystems. Currently, some 14% of Brazil's arable land is used to grow sugarcane, more than half of which is then used to make ethanol.
There are many organizations working to protect Brazil’s environment. Strategies range from campaigns to save a single animal species to lobbying in Brasília and pressuring institutions to stop financing destructive ‘megaprojects’ – building long-distance roads through rainforest, flooding large areas for hydroelectricity, planting vast areas of bush with chemically fertilized soybeans.
Some groups concentrate primarily on research, while others can arrange volunteer work.
Other international organizations working on sustainable initiatives in Brazil include the Rainforst Alliance (www.rainforest-alliance.org), Conservation International (www.conservation.org) and World Wildlife Fund (www.worldwildlife.org).
- Amazon: Land of the Flooded Forest, National Geographic
- Amazon – River of the Future, Jacques Cousteau
- Amazon – Journey to a Thousand Rivers, Jacques Cousteau
- The Burning Season: The Chico Mendes Story, John Frankenheimer
Sidebar: Reading About the Amazon
- Tree of Rivers, John Hemming
- The Smithsonian Atlas of the Amazon, Michael Goulding
- The Last Forest, Mark London and Brian Kelly
- One River, Wade Davis
- The Lost Amazon, Isabel Kuhl
Sidebar: Field Guides
- Birds of Brazil, Ber van Perlo
- Medicinal and Useful Plants of the Upper Amazon, James L Castner
- Neotropical Rainforest Mammals, Louise Emmons
- A Neotropical Companion, John Kricher
- Brazil: Amazon and Pantanal, David L Pearson and Les Beletsky
The Nature Conservancy (www.nature.org) includes portraits of Brazil’s major ecosystems and information on the country’s endangered species.
The Amazon Basin averages between 130 and 250 rainy days a year, depending on exactly where you are.
One hectare (10,000 sq meters) of well-conserved caatinga can be home to 200 different ant species.
For 15 years Mark Plotkin devotedly tracked down Amazonian shamans to understand some of their encyclopedic knowledge of medicinal plants. His Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice (1993) is both a travelogue and adventure story.
The giant ground sloth, which grew to the size of an elephant, once inhabited much of Brazil. It was easy prey for prehistoric hunters and was presumably hunted to extinction 10,000 years ago.
Amazonian myth has it that the pink dolphin can turn itself into a handsome man able to seduce young women.
The Brazilian version of the yeti is the Mapinguari, a legendary animal of the Amazon that grows to 2m, is covered in red hair and can rip apart palm trees.
The bald uakari’s red complexion and lack of head hair have earned it the nickname macaco-inglês (English monkey).
The pirarucu has gills, but they are basically useless. It breathes with lungs instead and has to surface for air about every 10 minutes or it will drown.
Hummingbirds beat their wings up to 80 times a second, allowing them to hover while extracting pollen from flowers and making a light humming noise as they do so.
The greatest number of different tree species ever found in 1 hectare (10,000 sq meters) was 476, recorded in an area of Atlantic rainforest in the hills of Espírito Santo state.
A Brazil nut tree takes 10 years to reach maturity and can produce more than 450kg of nuts per year.
Iguaçu Falls, along with other scenic Brazilian locations, featured in the James Bond movie Moonraker (1979) and the Oscar-winning The Mission (1986) with Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons.
The Conservation International (www.conservation.org) website covers various aspects of ecotourism and the global conservation movement, including CI’s extensive work in Brazil.
For sustainable forestry and sustainable tourism initiatives in Brazil, check the Rainforest Alliance (www.rainforest-alliance.org) website.
The International Ecotourism Society (www.ecotourism.org) is a great source of ideas, news, facts and recommendations on sustainable travel the world over, Brazil included.
The Brazilian research institute Imazon (http://imazon.org.br) reports on various aspects of Amazon ecology.
Literature & Cinema
Brazil has a flourishing film industry, though many productions don’t see screen time beyond the country’s borders. Key periods in Brazilian cinema include the avant-garde Cinema Novo movement of the 1960s and the hard-hitting socially conscious films of the last decade, with a new crop of talented directors emerging on the scene. In the realm of literature, Brazil has produced a handful of great writers, including the Bahian legend Jorge Amado, globally renowned Paolo Coelho and the brilliant modernist Clarice Lispector.
Brazil’s most famous writer is Jorge Amado, who died in August 2001. Born near Ilhéus in 1912, and a longtime resident of Salvador, Amado wrote colorful romances about Bahia’s people and places. His early work was strongly influenced by communism. His later books are lighter in subject, but more picturesque and intimate in style. The two most acclaimed are Gabriela, Cravo e Canela (Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon), which is set in Ilhéus, and Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands), set in Salvador. Tent of Miracles explores race relations in Brazil, and Pen, Sword and Camisole laughs its way through the petty worlds of military and academic politics. The Violent Land is an early Amado classic.
Clarice Lispector (1920–77), one of Latin America’s great 20th-century novelists, is surprisingly little known outside the country. Her existentialism-influenced writings focus on human isolation, alienation and moral doubt, and convey a deep understanding of women’s feelings. The short-story collections Family Ties and Soulstorm are among her best works.
One of the world's top-selling authors hails from Brazil. Paulo Coelho (b 1947) earned a global following for his classic New Age fables like The Pilgrimage and The Alchemist. The latter focuses on the adventures of an Andalusian shepherd and touches on the topics of fate and destiny. The novel, one of more than 30 books written by Coelho, has sold more than 65 million copies and has been translated into 80 different languages.
In the 1960s the Cinema Novo movement emerged in Brazil, focusing on the country's bleak social problems. Young filmmakers, influenced by Italian neorealism and the French new wave, set about making a series of experimental films embracing the avant-garde filming techniques of the time. One of the great films made during this epoch was Anselmo Duarte's 1962 O Pagador de Promessas (The Payer of Vows), a poetic story about a man who keeps his promise to carry a cross after the healing of his donkey. It won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival. Another great pioneer of Cinema Novo is the director Glauber Rocha. In Deus é o Diabo na Terra do Sol (Black God, White Devil; 1963), Rocha explored the struggle, fanaticism and poverty of Northeastern Brazil. It’s one of the great films of the period.
The 1964 military coup stymied much creative expression in the country, and Cinema Novo died out just as its filmmakers were entering their prime. The first significant film to be made after the 1960s was Carlos Diegues’ Bye Bye Brasil (1980). It chronicles the adventures of a theater troupe as it tours the country, witnessing the profound changes in Brazilian society in the second half of the 20th century.
In the 1980s, Hector Babenco emerged as one of Brazil's rising stars. In Pixote (1981), Babenco brought to life the yawning chasm between haves and have-nots in a story about a homeless child who gets swept from innocent waif to criminal by the currents of the underworld. Two decades later, his film Carandiru (2003) offered an inside look at São Paulo’s hellish state penitentiary of the same name.
Fernando Meirelles earned his credibility with Cidade de Deus, the 2002 film based on a true story by Paolo Lins. The film, which showed brutality and hope coexisting in a Rio favela (slum), earned four Oscar nominations. More importantly, it brought much attention to the urban poor in Brazil.
Set in 1970 during the height of the military dictatorship, O Ano em Que Meus Pais Saíram de Férias (The Year My Parents Went on Vacation; 2006), directed by Cao Hamburger, is a poignant coming-of-age story. Brazil’s official Oscar entry for best foreign film in 2007 tackles complex issues with sensitivity in the story of one young boy left adrift in a working-class neighborhood of São Paulo. Political repression, the World Cup of 1970 and Jewish culture all form the backdrop of Hamburger’s remarkably well-made film.
One of the most talked-about films of recent years is the 2007 Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad), which depicts police brutality in the favelas; it also makes a very clear link between middle-class college kids who buy drugs and the deaths of young children in the favelas, who are recruited by drug lords to help meet the demand for cocaine and other substances. It was made by José Padilha, the acclaimed director of the disturbing documentary Bus 174 (2002), which depicts a high-profile bus hijacking that took place in Rio de Janeiro in 2000.
Walter Salles is Brazil’s best-known director, whose Oscar award–winning Central do Brasil (Central Station; 1998) should be in every serious Brazilianist’s film library. The central character is an elderly woman who works in the main train station in Rio, writing letters for illiterates with families far away. A chance encounter with a young homeless boy leads her to accompany him into the real, unglamorized Brazil on a search for his father. Salles’ film Diarios de Motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries; 2004) chronicles the historic journey of Che Guevara and Alberto Granada across South America, while On the Road (2012) is a colorful adaptation of the Jack Kerouac classic. Some of Salles’ best works came earlier. His first feature film, Terra Estrangeiro (Foreign Land; 1995), holds an important place in the renaissance of Brazilian cinema.
In the last decade, the Brazilian industry has continued to produce thought-provoking films and documentaries. Felipe Barbosa's Casa Grande (2014) is a coming-of-age story set in Rio about a privileged high-school student who is suddenly thrust into a life of poverty when his father's business collapses. Laerte-Se (2017) is a documentary about the triumphs and struggles of one of Brazil's top cartoonists, Laerte Coutinho, who after living as a man for over 50 years decides to reintroduce herself to the world as a woman.
- O Som ao Redor (Neighboring Sounds; 2012), by Kleber Mendonça Filho
- Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad; 2007), by José Padilha
- Casa de Areia (House of Sand; 2005), by Andrucha Waddington
- Carandiru (2003), by Hector Babenco
- Cidade de Deus (City of God; 2002), by Fernando Meirelles
- Madame Satã (2002), by Karim Aïnouz
- Central do Brasil (Central Station; 1998), by Walter Salles
- Pixote (1981), by Hector Babenco
- O Que é Isso Companheiro (Four Days in September; 1998), by Bruno Barreto
- Bye Bye Brasil (1980), by Carlos Diegues
- O Pagador de Promessas (The Payer of Vows; 1962), by Glauber Rocha
- Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus; 1959), by Marcel Camus
- Casa Grande (2014), by Felipe Barbosa
- Laerte-Se (2017), by Lygia Barbosa da Silva
Journalist, author and former dancer Alma Guillermoprieto vividly captures life in Rio’s Mangueira favela (slum) and preparation for the big Carnaval parade in her well-written book Samba (1990).
Rio de Jano (2003) is a colorful documentary about French cartoonist Jean le Guay, aka Jano, who came to Rio and made marvelous work of the Cariocas. Look for the book in Rio’s bookstores.
Turistas (2006), a film about evil Brazilians stealing organs from well-toned foreign kids, upset many Brazilians, who complained about egregious misrepresentations. Urban violence, Brazil has. Organ harvesters, not the last time we checked.
Brazilian Cinema, edited by Randal Johnson and Robert Stam, provides a fascinating overview of the great movements that have shaped the industry, exploring Cinema Novo, tropicalism and other important influences.
Tristes Tropiques (1955), by Claude Lévi-Strauss, is both a well-written travelogue and one of the most important anthropological studies of some of Brazil’s indigenous peoples.
An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Poetry (1972) is a fine introduction to Brazilian poets. It’s edited by American poet Elizabeth Bishop, who planned a short trip to Santos and ended up staying 15 years.
The Beautiful Game
Brazilians, quite simply, are football mad. No one goes to work on big international game days, with everyone packing into neighborhood bars or on the sidewalks out front to watch the game. After a big win, the whole country erupts with a rowdy night of partying. And should the team lose, the sadness in the air is palpable. Everyone cheers for the national team, but for most of the year, the local club team is the one that matters most.
The Game, the Fans
Most of the world generally acknowledges that Brazilians play the world’s most creative, artistic and thrilling style of football. They are also generally known as lousy defenders, but no one seems to mind since they make the attack so exciting. The fans, too, are no less fun to watch. Skillful moves and adroit dribbling past an opponent receive a Spanish bullfight-style ‘olé!’ while fans do their best to rev up the action by pounding drums (or the backs of the chairs), waving huge flags, setting off fireworks and smoke bombs or sometimes launching nefarious liquids over the grandstands of opposing fans.
Legends of the Sport
Brazil has raised many world-famous players through its ranks, from the Afro-Brazilian player Leonidas da Silva – who helped break down racial barriers (and scored the only bicycle kick goal ever in World Cup history in 1938) – to Romario, a powerful striker who scored more than 900 goals during his career. The greatest of all though is Pelé, sometimes referred to simply as 'O Rei' (the king). Throughout a 22-year career, the teams he played on won 53 titles, including three World Cups (the first in Sweden in 1958, when was just 17 years old). By the time he retired in the 1970s, he had played in 1366 games and scored more than 1200 goals, making him one fo the world's greatest all-time goal scorers.
Brazil has a staggering number of league teams – more than 400 according to the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) – with 20 top-level pro teams (part of the so-called Campeonato Brasileiro Série A). Apart from a couple of short breaks for the Christmas–New Year holiday and Carnaval, professional club competitions go on all year. There are a bewildering number of competitions with hotly contested state championships, particularly in Rio (the Campeonata Carioca) and São Paulo (the Campeonata Paulista). Expect intense and bitter matches, especially when historic hometown rivals face off, such as Flamengo versus Fluminense in Rio; Palmeiras versus Corinthians in São Paulo; Atlético Mineiro versus Cruzeiro in Belo Horizonte; and Grêmio (Gisele Bündchen's favorite team) versus Internacional in Porto Alegre.
The most successful among Rio’s big four, Flamengo have an enormous fan base both in Rio and around the world – an estimated 36 million followers, which makes them the most popular football club in Brazil. Flamengo certainly does not lack for cash flow, with annual revenue of over R$650 million. Famous players who have donned the iconic red-and-black jerseys include Zico, often hailed as the best player never to win a World Cup; Leonidas, leading scorer at the 1938 World Cup; Bebeto, Mario Zagallo and Romario.
Founded by sons of the elite in Rio back in 1902, Fluminense has contributed a number of top players to the national team. They have also been hailed as the ‘champion of the century’, for winning the largest number of Campeonato Carioca titles in the 20th century (28 in all). Current stars include Fred (aka Frederico Chaves Guedes), who scored the fastest goal in Brazilian history (finding the net 3.17 seconds after the game’s start). Like Flamengo, Fluminense play their home games at Maracanã stadium.
This port city 80km southeast of São Paulo has a legendary footballing reputation. Santos has won eight national championships and has nurtured the talents of some of Brazil's all-time greats, including Pelé, who played on the team from 1957 to 1974. On the World Cup teams of 1962 and 1970, eight of the 11 starting players came from Santos. The club's most recent star was Neymar, whose youth (he scored his 100th goal as a professional in 2012 at age 20) and skill earned him comparisons to Lionel Messi and Pelé. In both 2011 and 2012, Neymar won the South American Footballer of the Year award. Unable to resist bigger fame (and income) abroad, Neymar signed a five-year contract with FC Barcelona in 2013, then he moved to Paris St-Germain in 2017.
The most popular of São Paulo's three big teams, Corinthians are also Brazil's most valuable club team with an estimated worth of over US$460 million. The team vaulted to fame in 2012, winning both the Copa Libertadores and the FIFA Club World Cup (defeating English superpower Chelsea 1–0 in the final). Their archrivals are Palmeiras, a team they face (and often defeat) in the legendary Derby Paulista. Fans are noted for their die-hard loyalty. Over 30,000 supporters made the trip to Japan for the 2012 Club World Cup final.
If you get a chance, see a game live; there’s no experience quite like it. Many stadiums went through upgrades in preparation for the World Cup. Here's a short list of top teams to catch.
Fonte Nova (57,000)
Rio de Janeiro
João Havelange (47,000)
black & white stripes
Arena Corinthians (68,000)
white; black collar
Rio de Janeiro
red; black hoops
Rio de Janeiro
red, green & white stripes
Arena do Grêmio (61,000)
blue, black & white stripes
Arena Pernambuco (46,000)
red & white stripes
Arena Palestra Itália (60,000)
Vila Belmiro (26,000)
white; red & black hoops
Vasco da Gama
Rio de Janeiro
São Januário (35,000)
white; black slash
The World Cup
Brazil, the most successful football nation in the history of the games (with five World Cup victories), became the fifth country to host the World Cup twice. Aside from Rio, where the final took place, 11 other cities across the country staged games. Brazil spent around R$26 billion in preparation for the 2014 event, including stadium construction, upgrades to airports, roads and other infrastructure. Unfortunately, dreams for a grand victory celebration were crushed when Brazil suffered an embarrassing 7–1 loss to a far superior Germany team in the semifinals. The game was held in Estádio Mineirão in Belo Horizonte, and the scandalous defeat (in the first half Germany scored four goals in six minutes) was later dubbed Mineiraço (the Mineirão stadium debacle). Many Brazilians were so disappointed that they even booed their own players as they left the field. The 2018 World Cup started off promisinglu for Brazil, but the Seleção (the team's nickname, meaning 'the Squad') was knocked out of the competition by Belgium in the quarter finals.
For insight into what’s happening in the Brazilian football scene – from player news to upcoming matches – visit www.sambafoot.com.
Futebol by Alex Bellos (2002), is a fascinating and humorous look at the culture behind Brazil’s nationwide obsession, with stories of the legendary players and the way that football has shaped Brazilian society.
The first time Brazil hosted the World Cup, in 1950, the national team lost in a dramatic final against Uruguay before some 200,000 fans in Rio’s Maracanã Stadium. The unforgettable day of infamy was later called ‘Maracanaço’ (the Maracanã stadium debacle) and is still in common parlance.
Shaped by the mixing of varied influences from three continents, Brazilian popular music has always been characterized by great diversity. The samba canção (samba song), for example, is a mixture of Spanish bolero with the cadences and rhythms of African music. Bossa nova was influenced by samba and North American music, particularly jazz. Tropicália mixed influences ranging from bossa nova and Italian ballads to blues and North American rock. Brazil is still creating new and original musical forms today.
Samba & Choro
The birth of modern Brazilian music essentially began with the birth of samba, first heard in the early 20th century in a Rio neighborhood near present-day Praça Onze. Here Bahian immigrants formed a tightly knit community in which traditional African customs – music, dance and the Candomblé religion – thrived. Such an atmosphere nurtured the likes of Pixinguinha, one of samba’s founding fathers, as well as Donga, one of the composers of ‘Pelo Telefone,’ the first recorded samba song (in 1917) and an enormous success at the then-fledgling Carnaval.
Samba continued to evolve in the homes and botequims (bars with table service) around Rio. The 1930s are known as the golden age of samba. Sophisticated lyricists such as Dorival Caymmi, Ary Barroso and Noel Rosa popularized samba canção, melody-driven samba laid over African percussion. Songs in this style featured sentimental lyrics and an emphasis on melody (rather than rhythm), foreshadowing the later advent of cool bossa nova.
The 1930s were also the golden age of samba songwriting for Carnaval. Escolas de samba (samba schools or clubs), which first emerged in 1928, soon became a vehicle for samba songwriting, and by the 1930s samba and Carnaval would be forever linked.
Great sambistas (samba singers) continued to emerge in Brazil over the next few decades, although other emerging musical styles diluted their popularity. Artists such as Cartola, Nelson Cavaquinho and Clementina de Jesus made substantial contributions to both samba and styles of music that followed from samba.
Traditional samba went through a rebirth a little over a decade ago with the opening of old-style gafieiras (dance halls) in Lapa. Today Rio is once again awash with great sambistas. Classic sambistas such as Alcione and Beth Carvalho still perform, while stars such as Teresa Christina and Grupo Semente are intimately linked to Lapa’s rebirth. Other talents include Diogo Nogueira, the deep-voiced samba son of legendary singer João Nogueira, and Mart’nália, daughter of samba icon Martinho da Vila.
Another popular artist still active in Rio is Maria Rita, the talented singer and songwriter whose voice is remarkably similar to that of her late mother, Elis Regina – one of Brazil’s all-time greats. Rita’s album Samba Meu Samba Meu is still one of her best.
Choro is a relative of samba. Characterized by its jazzy sound, melodic leaps and sometimes rapid-fire tempo, choro is mostly instrumental music and highly improvisational. It’s played on the cavaquinho or guitar alongside a recorder or flute. The flutist Pixinguinha (1898–1973) is one of the great legends of choro.
In the 1950s came bossa nova (literally new wave), sparking a new era of Brazilian music. Bossa nova’s founders – songwriter and composer Antônio Carlos (Tom) Jobim and guitarist João Gilberto, in association with the lyricist-poet Vinícius de Moraes – slowed down and altered the basic samba rhythm to create a more intimate, harmonic style. This initiated a new style of playing instruments and of singing.
Bossa nova’s seductive melodies were very much linked to Rio’s Zona Sul, where most bossa musicians lived. Songs such as Jobim’s ‘Corcovado’ and Roberto Menescal’s ‘Rio’ evoked an almost nostalgic portrait of the city with their quiet lyricism. Bossa nova was also associated with the new class of university-educated Brazilians, and its lyrics reflected the optimistic mood of the middle class in the 1950s.
By the 1960s bossa nova had become a huge international success. Bossa nova classics were adopted, adapted and recorded by such musical luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Stan Getz, among others.
In addition to the founding members, other great Brazilian bossa nova musicians include Marcos Valle, Luiz Bonfá and Baden Powell. Bands from the 1960s such as Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66 were also quite influenced by bossa nova, as were other artists who fled the repressive military dictatorship to live and play abroad. More recent interpreters of the seductive bossa sound include the Bahian-born Rosa Passos and carioca (resident of Rio de Janeiro) Paula Morelenbaum.
One of Brazil’s unique artistic movements, emerging in the late 1960s, tropicália was a direct response to the dictatorship that held power from 1964 to 1984. Leading the movement were Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, making waves with songs of protest against the national regime. In addition to penning defiant lyrics, tropicalistas introduced the public to electric instruments, fragmentary melodies and wildly divergent musical styles.
Important figures linked to tropicália include Gal Costa, Jorge Ben Jor, Maria Bethânia, Os Mutantes and Tom Zé. Although tropicália wasn’t initially embraced by the public, who objected to the electric and rock elements (in fact, Veloso was booed off the stage on several occasions), by the 1970s its radical ideas had been absorbed and accepted, and lyrics of protest were ubiquitous in songwriting of the time.
While ‘pure’ tropicália bands aren’t around any more, the influence can still be heard in the music of groups such as AfroReggae, one of Rio’s leading funk bands.
Música Popular Brasileira (MpB)
Música Popular Brasileira (MPB) is a catchphrase to describe all popular Brazilian music after bossa nova. It includes tropicália, pagode and Brazilian pop and rock. All Brazilian music has roots in samba; even in Brazilian rock, heavy metal, disco or pop, the samba sound is often present.
MPB first emerged in the 1970s along with talented musicians such as Edu Lobo, Milton Nascimento, Elis Regina, Djavan and dozens of others, many of whom wrote protest songs not unlike the tropicalistas. Chico Buarque is one of the first big names from this epoch, and is one of Brazil’s best songwriters. His music career began in 1968 and spanned a time during which many of his songs were banned by the military dictatorship – in fact, his music became a symbol of protest during that era.
Jorge Ben Jor is another singer whose career, which began in the 1960s, has survived up to the present day. Highly addictive rhythms are omnipresent in Ben Jor’s songs, as he incorporates African beats and elements of funk, samba and blues in his eclectic repertoire. The celebratory album África Brasil and his debut album, Samba Esquema Novo (with recognizable hits such as ‘Mas, Que Nada!’), are among his best.
Carlinhos Brown continues to make immeasurable contributions to Brazilian music, particularly in the realm of Afro-Brazilian rhythms. Born in Bahia, Brown has influences that range from merengue (fast-paced dance-hall music originating in the Dominican Republic) to Candomblé music to straight-up funk in the style of James Brown (the US artist from whom Carlinhos took his stage name). In addition to creating the popular percussion ensemble Timbalada, he has a number of excellent albums of his own (notably Alfagamabetizado). Involved in many diverse projects, Brown was even nominated for an Oscar in 2012 for best original song (‘Real in Rio’ for the film Rio), which he and Sergio Mendes composed.
Brazilian Rock, Pop & Hip-Hop
MPB tends to bleed into other genres, particularly into rock and pop. One artist who moves comfortably between genres is Bebel Gilberto (the daughter of João Gilberto), who blends bossa nova with modern beats on jazz-inflected bilingual albums like All in One (2009). Another heiress of Brazilian traditions is the Rio-born Marisa Monte, popular at home and abroad for her fine singing and songwriting. Mixing samba, forró (traditional, fast-paced music from the Northeast), pop and rock, Marisa has created a number of fine solo albums (Barulinho Bom – A Great Noise in English – is one of her best) and has performed on many others. Her brief collaboration with Arnaldo Antunes and Carlinhos Brown resulted in the fine album Tribalistas (2003). Other notable young singers who hail from a bossa line include Roberta Sá, whose albums blend elements of bossa, jazz and even reggae. Her 2016 album Delírio no Circo was nominated for a Grammy in 2017. Fernanda Porto, whose music is often described as drum ’n’ bossa, blends electronica and bossa grooves; check out her 2009 album Auto-Retrato.
The expat singer-songwriter and performance artist Cibelle incorporates a mix of pop, folk and Brazilian sounds in her lush (mainly English-language) recordings, like those on The Shine of Dried Electric Leaves (2006) and the more electro-oriented Unbinding (2014). She came to prominence as the main vocalist on Suba’s noteworthy album São Paulo Confessions (1999). With a host of Grammy nominations to her name, Céu has many fans both at home and abroad. She has recorded three albums over the last seven years, creating dreamlike melodies with elements of tropicália, samba, reggae and jazz. Her album Caravana Sereia Bloom (2012), is a colorful work with songs inspired by a road trip across Brazil. Her critically acclaimed fourth album, Tropix (2016), won in two different categories at the 2017 Latin Grammy awards.
Brazilian hip-hop emerged from the favelas of Rio sometime in the 1980s, and has been steadily attracting followers ever since. Big names such as Racionais MCs first emerged out of São Paulo, but Rio has its share of more recent success stories. One of the best on the scene is Marcelo D2 (formerly of Planet Hemp), earning accolades for albums like A Procura da Batida Perfeita (2003) and A Arte do Barulho (2008).
Better known to international audiences is Seu Jorge, who starred in the film Cidade de Deus and performed brilliant Portuguese versions of Bowie songs on Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic. His best solo work is Cru (2005), an inventive hybrid of hip-hop and ballads, with politically charged beats.
Most of today’s hip-hop artists hail from São Paulo. A few names to look out for include Emicida, a rapper admired for his cutting improvisational rhymes. Check out his funk-laden single ‘Triunfo,’ one of his early breakthrough hits. Rael de Rima is a fast-rapping lyricist with a strong sense of musicality, often performing with guitar and a full back-up band (a rarity for many hip-hop artists). MC Criolo, whose songs tackle urban violence, police brutality and racism, has become a huge hit in the favelas.
Brazil gets its share of megarockers on world tours. It also has a few homegrown talents. The group Legião Urbana from Brasília remains one of the all-time greats among rock lovers. The band (which folded shortly after the death of lead singer Renato Russo in 1996) enjoyed enormous success in the 1980s and early 1990s, and has sold over 15 million records. Raul Seixas, Skank, O Rappa, Os Paralamas Sucesso and the Rio-based Barão Vermelho are other essential names. The versatile and original Ed Motta, from Rio, injects soul, jazz and traditional Brazilian music into rock.
In other genres, indie-rock favorites Los Hermanos were a top band that created catchy albums before breaking up in 2007. Check out Ventura (2003) or Bloco do Eu Souzinho (2001), one of the seminal pop-rock albums of its time. Vanguart, fitting somewhere in the folk-rock genre, are also a group to watch. Their self-titled debut album (2007) channels samba, blues and classic rock. Other breakout successes include the girl-band CSS, which stands for 'Cansei de Ser Sexy' ('Tired of Being Sexy'), who blend ’80s new wave and electro-pop with irreverent lyrics (sung in English) and up-tempo beats.
Rising stars in the music scene include BaianaSystem, a Salvador-based group who channel traditional Northeastern rhythms with accents from West Africa, the Caribbean and beyond on albums like Outras Cidades (2017). Another Salvadoran to be reckoned with is the singer and composer Lucas Santtana, whose 2017 album Modo Avião has earned him comparisons with João Gilberto and other legendary Brazilian artists from the past. Delving into experimental sounds, the artist Thiago Nassif creates playful melodies, fractured rhythms and amorphous sonic textures on Trés, an album he produced with Arto Lindsay in 2015, which Nassif rereleased in 2018. The acclaimed singer-songwriter Ava Rocha incorporates both traditional Brazilian rhythms (samba, bossa nova, tropicália) as well as rock, pop and funk on her eclectic albums. Trança (2018) is one of her best.
The Northeast has perhaps the most regional musical and dance styles. The most important is forró, a lively, syncopated music centered on the accordion and the zabumba (an African drum). Although a few artists, such as Luiz Gonzaga and Jackson do Pandeiro, have achieved national status, forró was long dismissed by urbanites as unsophisticated. The 2000 film Eu, Tu, Eles (Me, You, Them) brought down-home forró to center stage, aided in part by Gilberto Gil singing the hit Esperando na Janela.
The trio elétrico, also called frevo baiano, began more as a result of a change in technology than in music. It started as a joke when, during Carnaval in Salvador in the 1950s, a group of musicians spearheaded by innovative musical talents Dodo and Osmar (aka Adolfo Nascimento and Osmar Alvares Macedo) got on top of a truck and played frevo with electric guitars. The trio elétrico is not necessarily a trio, but it’s still the backbone of Salvador’s Carnaval, when trucks piled high with speakers – with musicians perched on top – drive through the city surrounded by dancing mobs. Another important element of Carnaval on the streets of Salvador is the bloco afro (Afro-Brazilian percussion group). Filhos de Gandhi and Grupo Olodum are the most famous of these: Filhos has deep African roots and is strongly influenced by Candomblé; Olodum invented samba-reggae.
Mangue beat (also known as mangue bit), from Recife, combines folkloric and regional styles with international influences as diverse as hip-hop, neo-psychedelic and tejano (instrumental folk music with roots in northern Mexico and southern Texas). The early leaders of the genre were Chico Science and Nação Zumbi – the title of their 1996 masterpiece, Afrociberdelia, kind of summed up what its music was about.
Axé is a label for the profuse samba-pop-rock-reggae-funk-Caribbean fusion music that emerged from Salvador in the 1990s. Taking its cue from Salvador’s older Carnaval forms, axé was popularized by the powerful, flamboyant Daniela Mercury. Other exponents include the groups Ara Ketu and Chiclete com Banana. At its best it’s great, superenergetic music – hear Daniela sing ‘Toda Menina Baiana’ (Every Bahian Girl) – but some bands overcommercialized it at the end of the ’90s.
The influence of Brazilian indigenous music was absorbed and diluted, as was so much that derived from Brazil’s indigenous cultures. The carimbó music of the Amazon region (where the majority of the country's indigenous population lives today) is influenced primarily by the black communities of the coastal zones.
The eating of human flesh, as practiced by at least a few pre-Columbian tribes, contributed to some notion of Brazilian identity. In the 1920s the intellectual movement of anthropophagy (a fancy word for cannibalism) came to denote Brazil's lust for new ideas and culture from abroad that would be consumed, digested and then transformed into something uniquely Brazilian.
In music, bossa nova incorporated (ingested) American jazz, blues and classical music, but created something entirely new. A few years later, along came the tropicalistas, who were open admirers of Oswald de Andrade's 1928 Manifesto Antropofágico (Cannibalistic Manifesto). Tropicália devoured elements of American rock and roll, blues, jazz and British psychedelic styles, as well as samba and even bossa nova, and produced a powerful new sound entirely Brazilian in its construction.
This notion of cultural cannibalism has been used to explain the prodigious output of Brazil not only in music, but also in fiction, painting and even filmmaking.
Top Sounds from Brazil
One of the world’s great music cultures, Brazil has an astounding array of talented musicians. A list of our favorite songs could fill a small book, but we’ve limited our highly subjective pick to 24 songs from 24 different artists.
- ‘Sampa’ – Caetano Veloso
- ‘Alvorada’ – Cartola
- ‘Calice’ – Chico Buarque & Milton Nascimento
- ‘Aguas de Março’ – Elis Regina (written by Tom Jobim)
- ‘Hoje é Dia da Festa’ – Elza Soares
- ‘Namorinho de Portão’ – Gal Costa
- ‘Quilombo, o El Dorado Negro’ – Gilberto Gil
- ‘Desafinado’ – João Gilberto
- ‘Mas Que Nada’ – Jorge Ben Jor
- ‘A Procura da Batida Perfeita’ – Marcelo D2
- ‘Novo Amor’ – Maria Rita
- ‘Carinhoso’ – Marisa Monte (written by Pixinguinha)
- ‘Besta é Tu’ – Novos Baianos
- ‘Panis et Circenses’ – Os Mutantes
- ‘Beira Mar’ – Raimundo Fagner and Zeca Baleiro
- ‘Carolina’ – Seu Jorge
- ‘Acenda o Farol’ – Tim Maia
- ‘Garota de Ipanema’ – Tom Jobim
- ‘Não me deixe só’ – Vanessa da Mata
- ‘Felicidade’ – Vinícius de Moraes
- 'Boca do Ceu' – Ava Rocha
- 'Magalenha' – Carlinhos Brown
- 'Grito de Paz' – Bixiga 70
- 'Amor Pixelado' – Céu
Sidebar: Music Blogs
- The Saudade Project (www.saudadeproject.com)
- Slipcue (www.slipcue.com/music/brazil/brazillist.html)
- Brazilian Music Day (brazilianmusicday.org)
- The Brazilian Sound (http://thebraziliansound.blogspot.com)
The Brazilian Sound, by Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha, is a well-illustrated, readable introduction to Brazilian music, with insight into regional styles and musicians (big-name and obscure). Useful discography included.
Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World, by Ruy Castro, is an excellent book that captures the vibrant music and its backdrop of 1950s Rio.
Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, by Caetano Veloso, describes the great artistic experiment of tropicália in 1960s Brazil. Although digressive at times, Veloso captures the era’s music and politics.
The sensually charged lambada dance craze swept Brazil in the late ’80s. It even made a brief international appearance, spurred by laughably bad films such as Lambada and The Forbidden Dance.
Raul Seixas (1945–89) is often called the father of Brazilian rock. Many of his wild rock anthems are well known, and it’s not uncommon to hear shouts of ‘toca Raul!’ (play Raul!) at concerts. Curiously, Paulo Coelho (the bestselling New Age author) cowrote many of his songs.
Life in Brazil
Brazil is a nation of astounding diversity, forged from African, European and indigenous influences, along with the tens of millions of immigrants who flooded into the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Brazilians of today represent a complicated portrait of colors and creeds and hail from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. The lifestyle is no less diverse – not surprising for a country that's home to both age-old indigenous cultures and modern metropolises.
Constructing a portrait of the typical Brazilian is a complicated task, given the wide mix of social, cultural and economic factors in play. One thing that everyone agrees on is the huge chasm separating the rich from the poor.
The country’s middle and upper class live in comfortable apartments or houses, with all the trappings of the developed world, including good health care in private clinics, cars, vacation homes and easy access to the latest gadgets and trends (though prices for luxury goods are much higher here). The wealthiest send their children to private schools and abroad to university. Maids are common – even among middle-class Brazilians – and some families have chauffeurs and cooks. Depending on where one lives in the country, crime is likely to be of high concern. Those who can take extra precautions, opting for high-security buildings or even hiring bodyguards.
Somewhere below the elite are working-class folks struggling to put food on the table and pay the rent; the children tend to live at home until they are married. Couples tend to marry younger.
At the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder are favelados (residents of the favelas), who live in self-constructed housing (usually boxy concrete or brick dwellings) in crowded makeshift communities. Ranging in size from a few thousand inhabitants to over 70,000, favelas are found in nearly every urban area in Brazil. Most residents have electricity and running water, though open sewers run through many favelas. Access to education, adequate health care, transportation and other essential infrastructure can often be limited, though this is slowly changing under government-funded favela-improvement schemes.
In the countryside, conditions for the poor can be even worse. Unequal land distribution dating back to the colonial era means that thousands of homeless rural families are left to squat on vacant land or work long hours as itinerant laborers for low wages.
Regardless of socioeconomic background, most Brazilians have a healthy appreciation for a good party (Carnaval is but one manifestation). This joie de vivre can be seen in football matches, on the beaches, in the samba clubs and on the streets. The flip side of this trait is saudade, that woeful manifestation of longing or deep regret, given much play on old bossa nova records.
Brazil is the world’s fifth-most-populous country, but it also has one of the smallest population densities, with around 24 people per sq km. Most of Brazil’s population lives along the coast, particularly in the South and Southeast, home to 75% of the country’s inhabitants. Until the mid-20th century, Brazil was largely a rural country – today its population is more than 80% urban. The population in cities has exploded in the last half-century, though growth is slowing.
The Northeast has the highest concentration of Afro-Brazilians, with Salvador as its cultural capital. In the Amazon live Caboclos (literally ‘Copper-Colored’), the descendants of indigenous peoples and the Portuguese. In the South is the most European of the Brazilian population, descendants of Italian and German immigrants.
While there is much more mixing between races, Brazil is a long way from being a color-blind society. Afro-Brazilians make up the bulk of low-paid workers, and are far more likely to live in favelas than in middle-class neighborhoods. More than 40% of Afro-Brazilians live in poverty (twice the rate of whites). Afro-Brazilians die younger than whites, earn less and have a greater risk of going to prison. Barely 2% of Afro-Brazilians attend university, though a quota system approved by the supreme court in 2012 aims to address the long-standing racial imbalance. Black political representatives and even high-ranking black employees are rarities – clear examples of the lack of opportunities for black people in Brazil.
The indigenous population today numbers more than 900,000, comprising 240 tribes. Although this is a fraction of the estimated two million or more in Brazil at the time of European arrival, the indigenous population has shown a remarkable resurgence in recent years: the population has tripled since 1970. Customs and beliefs vary widely from tribe to tribe – as do the strengths of these traditions in the face of expulsion from traditional lands, declining numbers, missionary activity and other influences.
After centuries of genocidal attacks, slavery, dispossession and death from imported diseases, Brazil’s indigenous population is growing again but still faces a host of problems. Most of them live in the Amazon rainforest, and therefore the threats that the rainforest faces – logging, mining, ranching, farming, roads, settlements, dams, hydroelectric schemes – also threaten the indigenous whose way of life depends on it.
Brazilian identity has been shaped not only by the Portuguese, who provided its language and main religion, but also by the indigenous population, Africans and the many immigrants who arrived over the years from Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
Indigenous culture, though often ignored or denigrated by urban Brazilians, has helped shape modern Brazil and its legends, dance and music. Many indigenous foods and beverages, such as tapioca, manioc (cassava), potatoes, maté and guaraná (a shrub whose berry is a stimulant; also a popular soft drink) have become staples.
The influence of African culture is also evident, especially in the Northeast. The slaves imported by the Portuguese brought with them their religion, music and cuisine, all of which have become a part of Brazilian identity.
Brazil had several waves of voluntary immigration. After the end of slavery in 1888, millions of Europeans were recruited to work in the coffee fields. The largest contingent was from Italy (some one million arrived between 1890 and 1920), but there were also many Portuguese and Spaniards, and smaller groups of Germans and Russians.
Immigration is only part of the picture when considering Brazil’s diversity. Brazilians are just as likely to mention regional types, often accompanied by their own colorful stereotypes. Caboclos, who are descendants of local indigenous groups, live along the rivers in the Amazon region and keep alive the traditions and stories of their ancestors. Gaúchos populate Rio Grande do Sul, speak a Spanish-inflected Portuguese and can’t quite shake the reputation for being rough-edged cowboys. By contrast, baianos, descendants of the first Africans in Brazil, are stereotyped for being the most extroverted and celebratory of Brazilians. Mineiros (residents of Minas Gerais state) are considered more serious and reserved than Brazil’s coastal dwellers, while sertanejos (residents of the backlands – called sertão – of the Northeast) are dubbed tough-skinned individuals with strong folk traditions. Cariocas (residents of Rio city) are superficial beach bums according to paulistanos (residents of São Paulo city), who are often denigrated as being workaholics with no zeal for life – a rivalry that anyone who’s lived in LA or New York can understand.
Today there are dozens of terms to describe the various racial compositions of Brazilians, and it is not uncommon for apparently white Brazilians to have a mix of European, African and indigenous ancestors. Yet, despite appearances of integration and racial harmony, underneath is a brutal reality. Although black and multiracial people account for 45% of the population, they are sorely underrepresented in government and business, and often see little hope of rising out of poverty. Indigenous people are even more openly discriminated against, continuing a cycle that began with the genocidal policies of the first Europeans.
Brazil has a vigorous media, and anything vaguely controversial – whether political or social in nature – will garner serious attention by the Brazilian press. There is substantial press freedom today, although the nation does have some antiquated press laws left over from the military dictatorship (for instance, ‘crimes of opinion,’ ie published articles that besmirch the names of government officials, are criminal offences).
Today Brazil’s most successful media conglomerate is Rede Globo, the world’s third-largest TV network (behind NBC and CBS) and watched by more than 90 million Brazilian viewers daily. TV is by far the biggest form of media in Brazil, though radio is also popular (with thousands of radio stations nationwide), and there are hundreds of dailies across the country.
Until the 1990s, the media and political demagogues worked hand in hand. Shortly after radio arrived in Brazil in the 1930s, President Getúlio Vargas initiated weekday transmissions of the Voice of Brazil as a means of distilling government propaganda to the people. The rise of Brazil’s great media mogul Roberto Marinho – who went on to found Globo – was largely assisted by his decision not to criticize the fascistic regimes of the military government from 1964 to 1984. Other newspapers simply foundered if anything remotely critical of the government was published.
Women in Brazil
Brazil had one of the earliest feminist movements in Latin America, and women were among the first in the region to gain the right to vote, in 1932. Today there is a growing number of feminist NGOs, dedicated to educating women about their legal rights and family planning, while also training police how to handle cases of domestic violence. In Brasília there’s even a feminist lobby.
Dilma Rousseff, who became Brazil's first female president in 2011, served as a major icon for breaking down barriers for women. Sadly, her tenure ended abruptly when she was impeached and removed from office in 2016 for budgetary violations. Some of her supporters feel that she was the victim of an anti-feminist backlash; her fall from power was particularly stinging given that many of the parliamentarians who voted to remove her from office were under investigation for far more serious offenses than Rousseff.
Regardless of advances, many machista (chauvinist) stereotypes persist, and women are still sorely underrepresented in positions of power. Women occupy only around 11% of seats in the National Congress. As of 2018 this makes Brazil the lowest ranked in all of Latin America (where women on average make up around 29% of the legislature).
In other spheres, women represent around 43% of the workforce – a big leap from decades past but still below the average in Latin America (where women comprise 54% of the workforce). Unfortunately, the wage gap remains high. Depending on the industry, men earn anywhere from 22% to 36% more than women of the same age and income level.
Instances of domestic abuse are frighteningly common, and Brazil has the seventh-highest rate of femicide in the world, with 4.4 murders per 100,000 women (more than double that of the US). In response, the first women’s police station opened in 1990 specifically to handle violence against women. Today there are more than 300 women’s police stations, largely staffed by female police officers.
Women receive 120 days of paid maternity leave (men receive five days of paternity leave). Abortions are still illegal in Brazil (except in cases of rape and maternal health risks), and an estimated one million are performed each year, often with substantial health risks. More than 250,000 women each year are hospitalized from clandestine abortions. In 2018, the Supreme Court was considering a plan to decriminalize abortion, and the issue was a hot topic in the presidential election that year.
Meeting Brazilians: one kiss on each cheek for ladies (start at the left – her right); a handshake between gents. The same holds true when bidding goodbye.
Dozens of uncontacted indigenous groups still live in the Amazon. In 2018 FUNAI (Brazil's National Indian Foundation) released drone images of a tribe that had no known contact with the outside world. FUNAI estimates there are at least eight different uncontacted indigenous peoples living in the area.
How to Be a Carioca (1992), by Priscilla Ann Goslin, is a humorous portrait of the Rio dweller, with tongue-in-cheek riffs on beach-going, driving, soap operas, football and carioca slang.
For information on press freedom in Brazil and other countries, visit Reporters Without Borders (www.rsf.org; available in English, Spanish and French), the website of the international watchdog association.
Greater São Paulo had 2.2 million residents in 1950, compared to 22 million in 2018.
The 1979–83 droughts in the Northeast were among the worst the country has ever experienced, leaving between 250,000 and one million people dead.
Survival International (www.survivalinternational.org) is a good source of information on indigenous Brazilians.
The Ukrainian community in Brazil numbers 550,000, the majority of whom live in the South. Prudentopolis is a city of Orthodox churches and Slavic features, with 75% of the population of Ukrainian descent.
Japanese immigration began in 1908, and today São Paulo has the world’s largest Japanese community outside of Japan.
Domesticas (Maids; 2001), the first film by Fernando Meirelles, delves into the lives of five women who work as domesticas, creating a compelling portrait of Brazil’s often overlooked underclass.
Benedita da Silva: An Afro-Brazilian Woman’s Story of Politics and Love (1997) is the memoir of Brazil’s first Afro-Brazilian female senator, detailing her rise from the favelas to becoming an important political voice.
A huge variety of animals call the Amazon home: piranha and pink dolphins ply the waters, macaws fill the air in squawking flight, squirrel monkeys dart through the trees, and tarantulas and poison dart frogs lurk in the underbrush. The lush rainforest and murky water can make spotting animals quite hard, but all the more rewarding when you do.
- Jaguar The Americas’ largest cat, though Amazonian jaguars are smaller than those elsewhere. During the wet season, they can live for months entirely in the treetops, munching mainly on sloths. Where to see: Mamirauá, FLONA Tapajós, Upper Rio Negro
- Margay Small cat that’s a master climber, with paws that can rotate 180 degrees. Where to see: Mamirauá, Upper Rio Negro
- Three-Toed Sloth A fairly common sight, sloths (or preguiça in Portuguese) are a favorite prey of jaguars and harpy eagles. Where to see: throughout the Amazon
- Squirrel Monkey Aptly named, squirrel monkeys are tiny and agile, living in clans numbering into the hundreds. Where to see: throughout the Amazon
- Capuchin Monkey Early explorers thought this small monkey’s brown fur looked like the hooded cape of Capuchin friars. Where to see: throughout the Amazon
- Howler Monkey The male howler’s deathly cry can be heard for miles, though spotting the brown or black tree-dwellers can be tough. Where to see: Mamirauá, around Manaus
- Coati Related to raccoons and similarly clever, coati have long tails and long, sensitive noses, which they use to forage for insects, lizards and other small prey. Where to see: throughout the Amazon
- Giant Anteater Distantly related to sloths, Amazonian giant anteaters are skilled climbers, a trait useful for feeding on insect nests built in tree trunks. Where to see: throughout the Amazon, but difficult to spot
- Brazilian Tapir Up to a meter tall and weighing over 200kg, tapirs are a prized but challenging prey for jaguars, caiman, even anaconda, and of course humans. Where to see: throughout the Amazon, but difficult to spot
- Spider Monkey The largest and most intelligent of Amazon monkeys, spider monkeys are also among the most sensitive to human intrusion. Where to see: primary forest areas
- Toucan Its long, colorful beak allows the toucan to crack hard nuts, but makes long flight difficult. Its distinctive whistle lets you know ones near. Where to see: throughout the Amazon
- Ibis With long, curved beaks, the brilliant scarlet ibis, or guará, prefers mangroves and estuaries, while the larger green ibis is common further inland. Where to see: Algodoal, Ilha Marajó, around Manaus, Mamirauá
- Macaw Known as araras, Amazonian macaws can be scarlet, green or blue. Macaws mate for life, and pairs can be seen (and heard) in long, squawking flights in the morning and evening. Where to see: throughout the Amazon
- Amazon Parrot Catch-all name for various closely related species of parrots, mostly green with splashes of red, yellow or blue, and highly adept at mimicking human speech. Where to see: throughout the Amazon
- Harpy Eagle Over a meter tall, harpy eagles are the Americas’ largest raptors, known to snatch monkeys and sloths right out of trees. Where to see: throughout the Amazon, but difficult to spot
- Hoatzin This pheasant-like bird may be a living link between dinosaurs and modern birds, with its reptilian appearance, poor flying, and claws on its chicks’ wings. Where to see: Floresta Nacional do Tapajós, around Manaus, Upper Rio Negro, Mamirauá
- Yellow-Rumped Cacique This talkative yellow-and-black bird is one of the most commonly seen birds in the Amazon, known for building its dangling bag-like nests near active wasps' nests. Where to see: throughout the Amazon
- Wattled Jacana A common bird with a loud urgent call, found in wetlands throughout the Amazon. Male jacanas incubate the eggs, while females may maintain up to four active partners. Where to see: throughout the Amazon
- Giant Otter Up to 2m (6ft) long, giant otters are playful and social, though hunting and trapping (for their soft, extremely dense pelt) has reduced their numbers to critical levels. Where to see: Xixuaú-Xiparina Reserve, Upper Rio Negro
- Boto The Amazon’s famous pink dolphins are easy to spot, occurring in large numbers throughout the river system. Unlike other dolphins, botos can bend their necks and paddle backward, adaptions that help them navigate the flooded forest without getting stuck. Where to see: throughout the Amazon
- Tucuxi The Amazon's 'other' dolphin looks and behaves much like a bottlenose dolphin, but grows to just 1.5m (5ft). Unlike botos, tucuxi do not venture into the flooded forest to feed. Where to see: throughout the Amazon
- Amazon Manatee Although they grow to nearly 3m (10ft) and up to 450kg (1000lb), manatees are extremely difficult to spot in the wild and their precise numbers are unknown. Manatees gorge on aquatic plants during the wet season, and may fast for several months when the water is low. Where to see: Mamirauá
- Pirarucú The world's largest scaled fish, pirarucú (also known as arapaima, outside the Amazon) can grow to 3m (10ft) and 220kg (480lb) and breathe air from the surface. Where to see: around Manaus, Mamirauá
- Stingray Most Amazonian rays have distinctive spots and a nasty sting if you step on them. They are more closely related to Pacific rays than Atlantic ones, one of the clues that the Amazon originally flowed east to west. Where to see: throughout the Amazon
- Piranha The Amazon's most famous fish is found through the river system, and ranges from 14cm to 26cm (5.5in to 10in). There are at least 30 species of piranha, including the small but aggressive red-bellied piranha. Contrary to myth, piranha rarely bite humans. Where to see: throughout the Amazon
Reptiles, Amphibians & Insects
- Caiman Caiman are related to alligators and live throughout the Amazon. The largest type, black caiman, can grow to 6m (20ft), but most are 2m (7ft) or less. Where to see: throughout the Amazon
- Anaconda The world's largest snake is known to grow up to 11m (37ft) and weigh more than 225kg (500lb), though stories of much larger ones abound. They live mostly in swamps and river channels, and eat fish, turtles, and occasionally caiman or land animals such as deer and rodents. Where to see: around Manaus, Mamirauá, but difficult to spot
- Poison Dart Frog Most poison dart frogs are tiny (around 1.5cm) and brightly colored. Some secrete a powerful toxin, which indigenous Amazonians used to make their blow darts even more potent. Where to see: throughout the Amazon, but difficult to spot
- Tarantula The Amazon has several species of huge, hairy arachnids, including one with a leg span of more than 33cm (13in). Most tarantulas live in burrows, and hunt insects, frogs, even small birds. Where to see: throughout the Amazon
- Morpho Butterfly The brilliant metallic blue wings of the morpho butterfly have a way of brightening up any forest path. They can grow up to 20cm (8in) across, though most are somewhat smaller. Where to see: throughout the Amazon
- Ants A single acre of Amazonian rainforest can have more than 3.5 million ants, and collectively ants make up 10% to 30% of the Amazon's total animal biomass. There are dozens of species, including leaf-cutter ants and aggressive bullet ants. Where to see: throughout the Amazon
Brazilian architecture encompasses a wide variety of styles and influences, from glittering 400-year-old baroque churches to futuristic art museums from the era of modernism. Highlights include colonial town centers like those in Ouro Preto and Salvador, as well as groundbreaking designs in Brasília, Rio and São Paulo. Architectural surprises lurk everywhere in Brazil, including a lavish theater of eclectic style in the heart of the Amazon and art deco beauties in the southernmost reaches of the country.
Indigenous & Colonial Architecture
Although little is known of pre-Columbian architecture, numerous Amazonian tribes still use traditional designs and locally sourced materials in the building of houses and communal spaces. Designs vary from region to region, with groups like the Yanomami living in huge circular communal dwellings known as yanos, which can house up to 400 people. Each family maintains its own hearth where meals are prepared. In the center of the yano, a huge open-air plaza is used for communal gatherings, games and rituals.
In the early days of European colonization, architecture meant strong buildings that could withstand the elements, and fortresses built in strategic locations along the coast. The earliest Portuguese constructions, built in wood and earthworks, were later transformed into imposing stone citadels, a handful of which still survive. Overlooking the entrance to Baía de Guanabara, the Fortress of Santa Cruz da Barra was originally built over the improvised redoubt built by the French in the mid-1500s. During Portuguese rule the fort served as the most important defense system in the colony, and proved instrumental in defenses against French and later Dutch invasions. Around 300m off the coast of Salvador, the fort of São Marcelo, built in the early 1600s, stands atop a bank of reefs and is one of the only circular forts in the country.
As small colonial outposts grew into villages and towns, the church took on a prominent role, sponsoring the construction of learning centers, hospitals and missions. In the 1600s the Jesuits built a series of missions in parts of present-day Rio Grande do Sul as well as Paraguay and Argentina. The brick buildings, with baroque details and carved wood interiors, were built by indigenous craftsmen, though nothing of the interiors survives. In ruins today, these eerie remains provide an astonishing record of the past, and were declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1983.
The mannerist style of early colonial buildings was characterized by largely geometric facades with square-shaped windows and triangular pediments. This style was visible in buildings like the Mosteiro São Bento in Rio and the Igreja dos Santos Cosme e Damião in Pernambuco. As riches flowed through Brazil in the 18th century, this fairly austere design gave way to the excesses of the baroque. Newly constructed churches and convents featured ornamental facades, while interiors had elaborately carved wooden details, hand-painted azulejos (Portuguese tiles) and an abundance of gold leaf.
Salvador, as the capital of colonial Brazil, became the backdrop to many impressive buildings still standing today – including works like the Igreja e Convento São Francisco with exuberant gilded woodwork covering nearly every surface. As elsewhere in Brazil, enslaved peoples helped construct many buildings in the historic Cidade Alta as well as creating some of its most stunning artworks. Artists like O Cabra spent years working on his spectacular Senhor Morto (the Dead Christ) for the Ordem Terceira do Carmo.
Other stunning colonial architecture blankets the streets of Olinda, which is essentially an 18th-century city. Its architectural wealth and unique atmosphere stem from its 20 baroque churches and many convents, chapels and houses. In São Luís, the entire street plan of the late 17th-century heart of the city survives, along with many historic buildings including fine mansions with colorful tiled facades.
Some of the finest buildings from the colonial period are found in the inland state of Minas Gerais. Fueled by the gold rush of the 1700s, lavish wealth was bestowed upon the town of Ouro Preto. Hilly cobblestone streets wind past some 150 architecturally significant buildings, including nearly two dozen baroque churches. It’s Brazil’s greatest concentration of baroque buildings, some of which were designed or embellished by the genius of Brazilian baroque, Aleijadinho. Lovely Ouro Preto is joined on the World Heritage List by Diamantina, founded by 18th-century diamond hunters. Other Minas towns, such as Tiradentes and São João del Rei, also have significant colonial buildings.
In the early 19th century, a group of architects, artists and composers was selected by the Portuguese crown to bring new life to Brazil. Now that Rio de Janeiro was the imperial seat of power, it needed a makeover to suit the royal entourage. The French Artistic Mission arrived in 1816 and introduced a whole new design aesthetic to the budding Brazilian empire. Neoclassicism became the official style and was formally taught in the newly founded Imperial Academy. The works built during this period were grandiose and monumental, dominated by classical features such as elongated columns and wide domes. Among the many fine examples of this period are Rio’s Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, the Theatro Municipal and the Casa França-Brasil.
Over the next three decades, neoclassicism spread to other parts of Brazil as builders left the heavy colonial-style aesthetic behind and embraced the new design principles inspired by classical antiquity. Grand buildings from this period include the Palácio dos Leões in Maranhão, the Teatro da Paz in Belem, the Assembleia Legislativa da Província de Pernambuco in Recife, and Dom Pedro II’s former summer palace in Petrópolis.
The end of the 19th century brought new elements to the rigid strictures of neoclassicism. True to its name, eclecticism embraced a wide range of influences, bringing a new form of monumentality, more decorative facades and exotic elements. It also pulled from the past, using Romanesque, Gothic, Moorish and even baroque flourishes. At the same time, technological innovations allowed builders to use materials in new ways, such as cast-iron frames, which were making their appearance in Europe and the US. Eclectic architecture was used in theaters, parliamentary halls and colleges.
Dating from this time are grandiose buildings like the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus, which is famed for both its grandeur (including Murano glass chandeliers and Carrara marble stairs) as well as unusual elements like the ceramic tile dome featuring the colors of the Brazilian flag. In Rio, the Real Gabinete Português de Leitura (Royal Reading Room) shows inspiration from the much earlier manueline period (early 1500s), with a Gothic facade and the highlighting of its metallic structure.
In the 1930s the art deco movement was characterized by clean geometric facades featuring obvious symmetry and a lack of ornamentation. In comparison to eclecticism, art deco created a more simplified, streamlined aesthetic. It was also better suited to the increasingly vertical urban landscapes as population growth began to rapidly accelerate in Brazilian cities. Art deco design became widespread in Brazil. A few outstanding examples from that time include the Palácio do Comércio in Porto Alegre, the Estação Dom Pedro II (aka Central Station) in Rio de Janeiro and the Elevador Lacerda, connecting the lower and upper towns in Salvador.
The 1930s also saw the emergence of a new generation of Brazilian architects, led by Oscar Niemeyer and influenced by the modernist ideas of Le Corbusier. Niemeyer was pivotal in breaking away from the neoclassical style and designing without ornamentation, using steel and glass in elemental, aesthetically pleasing shapes. He is considered one of the great pioneers of modernism, and his reach is global.
Niemeyer’s best-known project wasn’t a building but rather an entire city. The nation’s new capital, Brasília, was created in the 1950s and early 1960s from scratch by Niemeyer, urban planner Lúcio Costa and landscape architect Burle Marx. Although Brasília has its critics, it’s still considered one of the world’s most audacious urban-design projects. Its wild, airplane-shaped street plan has many iconic building, including the crown-shaped cathedral, the Santuário Dom Bosco, and dramatic government buildings, such as the Palácio do Itamaraty and Palácio da Justiça. Outside the capital, Niemeyer created many innovative designs (often featuring his trademark curves), such as the Museu do Arte Contemporânea (MAC) in Niterói. Its fluid form and delicate curves are reminiscent of a flower in bloom (though many simply call it a spaceship on the launchpad).
The Contemporary Scene
Many other talented architects emerged in the second half of the 20th century. Lina Bo Bardi (1914–1992), born in Rome, immigrated to Brazil following WWII. Highly active in Brazil’s intellectual life, her first project was São Paulo’s Casa de Vidro (Glass House; 1951), a Zen-like cube atop slender columns that melds into the surrounding landscape. She went on to expand on the idea of weight and levity in her design for the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), a bold design featuring two huge red concrete frames that suspend the interior glass structure above the ground. She remained active in the design world until the 1990s, both as a practitioner and a theorist, collaborating in numerous projects. Her many admirers remark on her ‘anthropological architecture’, design based on a respectful attitude toward the user.
One of Brazil’s best-known living architects is Paulo Mendes da Rocha (born 1929). In 2006 the São Paulo–based architect won the Pritzker Prize (the Nobel of the architecture world) for his ‘deep understanding of the poetics of human space’. Part of the avant-garde group of ‘brutalist’ architects, Mendes da Rocha designs with simple materials and formats that are readily available and easily constructed. There’s also an ethical dimension to his work that focuses on the harmony between indoor and outdoor space. His work can be seen in São Paulo’s Praça do Patriarca, a revitalized public space with a curved steel canopy that appears to float overhead.
Sidebar: Slave-built Churches
All across Brazil, many of the finest colonial building were built by enslaved people. Although not allowed to enter the beautiful churches they built for white colonists, slaves managed to build a few important gathering spaces for their own communities, some of which still stand today: Igreja de Santa Efigênia dos Pretos, in Ouro Preto; Igreja NS do Rosário dos Pretos, in Salvador; and Igreja NS do Rosário dos Homens Pretos, in Olinda.
Sidebar: Architecture in Print
- The Curves of Time: The Memoirs of Oscar Niemeyer (2000), Oscar Niemeyer
- When Brazil Was Modern: A Guide to Architecture, 1928–1960 (2003), Lauro Cavalcanti
- Roberto Burle Marx: The Lyrical Landscape (2001), Marta Iris Montero
- Architectural Guide, Brazil (2015), Laurence Kimmel et al
Sidebar: Iconic Brazilian Designs
- Museu de Arte de São Paulo, São Paulo
- Congresso Nacional, Brasília
- Sítio Burle Marx, Rio de Janeiro
- Teatro Amazonas, Manaus