We always knew that planning a trip to Brazil would be a challenge. Officially the 5th largest country in the world, we knew that it wouldn’t be possible to fit in everything on one trip. Instead, we chose to approach our Brazil itinerary with a focus on some spectacular highlights.
I have to admit; this was a hard approach for me. Brazil has been on my travel wish list for so long, I was incredibly tempted to spend my time jetting around frantically to see as much as possible. Long story short, I am glad I didn’t.
Brazil isn’t a place that you should rush through. It’s a place that you need to take your time in, uncovering all the things about it that make it special. You know, all those things that made you want to visit in the first place.
Looking back, choosing to travel the country in a total of 3 weeks in one region was the best decision we made. It was not only the perfect introduction to a country that is incredibly diverse but it also whet our appetite for a return visit.
Putting together a trip to Brazil
While it is possible to travel through Brazil independently, and plenty of people do, we highly recommend seeing Brazil on a tour, like we did.
Most of the experiences listed here are highlights from our Wonders of Brazil tour with G Adventures. If you’re considering taking a tour in Brazil, this outline will give you a look into the experience you could have by booking this tour.
Taking a tour for our first visit not only helped us set the pace for a great trip but kept us on track instead of tempting us to divert from a plan to explore other areas. The itinerary we experienced was specifically designed to introduce us to the diversity that Brazil offers.
If you’re planning to visit Brazil independently, this guide will give you a good starting base for where you can go and how you should pace yourself for a great visit.
The Perfect First Time Brazil Itinerary
Rio de Janeiro – we recommend one week
If you’re a nature buff, like me, you’ll find it easy to fall for Rio de Janeiro from the moment you step off the plane. The city is set right into lush jungles that push toward the ocean. It’s one of the most beautiful cities I have ever laid eyes on.
I never really understood why most of the people that you talk to about travel to Brazil chose to only spend their time in Rio de Janeiro. Now that I have been there, I totally get it. This city is addictive and provides an incredible base for endless options of exploration.
We ended up spending a week in total in this magical city, which officially brought our Brazil itinerary to 3 weeks when combined with our two-week Wonders of Brazil tour with G Adventures.
We did a lot but barely scratched the surface of all the wonderful things to do in Rio de Janeiro. Between the intense Portuguese colonial history that forever shaped the tone of Brazil to the haunted past of the slave trade, Rio de Janeiro is a city with soul and intriguing history around every corner.
Things we did in Rio de Janeiro:
- City Tour: Taking a city tour to see the iconic sites. You simply cannot visit Rio de Janeiro without visiting Christ the Redeemer, Sugar Loaf Mountain, Selaron Steps, Santa Teresa and the Metroplitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastion.
- Enjoying the beaches: The song ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ enters my head immediately whenever someone asks me about Rio’s famous beaches. Yes, we visited the likes of Copacabana, Ipanema and yes, they are spectacular. Brazil has a beach culture unrivaled by any other place we have been to and you need to experience it on a visit.
- Helicopter Ride: We soared over the city in a spectacular doors off helicopter ride. Choosing to go just before sunset gave us some pretty amazing light and incredible views of Rio’s famous beaches, Christ the Redeemer and more.
- Favela Tour: Learning about the Planeterra projects that have been implemented in Vidigal with an intimate favela tour. While favelas are often the center of media, mostly for crime and violence, we seem to overlook that they are their own thriving communities. Our tour introduced us to what like is like inside the favela for the people who live there and how they are working to preserve their corner of the city that they call home.
- Samba Tour: Learning about Samba is a rite of passage for any visitor to Brazil. We didn’t even hesitate to book a new tour offering in the city called, Soul of Samba, where we introduced to the complete history of Samba music through an interactive tour around Rio de Janeiro. The tour included stops in the downtown historical district, a behind the scenes experience at the City of Samba to learn about Rio’s famous Carnival and more street art than you could imagine existed in one place. This was hands down our favorite tour in the city.
- Hang Gliding: Rio de Janeiro is world famous for hang gliding and you can bet we made a point of trying it out for ourselves. There really is nothing as exhilarating as hurling yourself off a mountain while watching the stunning topography of forest, beach and city unfold below you.
- Landscapes Tour: If you’re into photography, this tour is fantastic for getting you to as many vantage points of Rio de Janeiro as possible. It navigates all around Guanabara Bay providing different perspectives of the city.
- Attend Carnival Festival: We planned our tour so that we would be back in Rio de Janeiro in time to attend the impressive Parade of Champions at the Sambodromo. We splurged for box tickets, which gave us front row seats to one of the most spectacular parties we have ever been to in our lives.
Where to stay in Rio de Janerio
The most obvious choice is Copacabana and for good reason. This area is largely developed and caters well to an international market. There is a large variety of shops, restaurants, hotel options and infrastructure.
The only downside is that it is one of the pricier areas. That aside, along with Ipanema, I also think it is the safest place to base yourself during your stay in Rio de Janeiro.
We stayed at the Royalty Rio Hotel for the duration of our stay in Rio both before and after our tour with G Adventures. The hotel is well located and comfortable.
Other districts to consider include Ipanema, Centro, Santa Teresa and Botafogo.
Ilha Grande – 2 Days
The island paradise of Ilha Grande was a pleasant surprise on our Brazil itinerary. Untouched by development, at least of the modern and expansive kind, this island harkens to the vacations of old.
With no roads, no vehicles and no high rises, you’re left to experience the lush island and magical beaches without distraction. Heck, WIFI was even a rare commodity during our visit.
Instantly reminding me of Gili Trawangan in Indonesia, the first thing I said out loud was that I wished we were staying longer. There are so few places in the world like this today that when we find them we want to stay and enjoy them.
If you have flexibility on your side, then you should definitely consider spending a few extra days on this island. In my opinion, you cannot travel to Brazil without making a stop here.
Things we did in Ilha Grande:
- Island Speed Boat Tour: We spent an entire day beach hopping around the outside of the island. We had access to places that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach and with the weather on our side, we were even treated to the often inaccessible ocean side of the island. Highly recommend if you like quaint places and spectacular beaches.
- City Walk: The main ‘town’ on Ilha Grande is not large but does have some interesting things to check out. They have a square, small church, artisan market, ocean walk and several store options. In addition, you’ll have a chance to browse the many restaurant options.
Where to stay in Ilha Grande
Apart from a very few homestay options in other parts of the island, you will find accommodation options for all budgets in the main town. Everything is within walking distance from the main pier.
If you have luggage that you cannot move on non-paved streets, there are several ‘luggage porters’ available on the pier that will take your bags to your accommodation when you arrive. The cost is $5 and that includes return transfers of your luggage when you leave.
We stayed at the Pousada Bugio, a small eco-friendly place located on one of the back streets. While not in the thick of the action, we enjoyed that it was very quiet. There was a small super market across the street to buy snacks and it was a short walk to the main street on the beach.
Paraty – 2 Days
Set on the coast, the town is also backed by lush forests making it the perfect base to combine island hopping, jungle trekking and history on your trip to Brazil.
Time has stood still in this charming colonial town where you can stroll the streets and marvel at the Portuguese architecture that was constructed in the late 1500’s. Serving as a base for the Portuguese, this city has survived the rise and fall of gold, coffee and slavery.
Designed in classic colonial style, the streets form a massive grid of cobblestoned streets that make navigation easy. What sticks out the most are the colorful doors and small artisan shops. Be sure to have your camera ready as you roam, there are photo opportunities at every corner.
Things we did in Paraty:
- Island Hopping Cruise: One of the most popular things to do in Paraty is to go island hopping my schooner. Being located directly on the water, the marina gives you access to hundreds of islands and beaches on a day trip. Most trips stop at 3-4 islands and offer beach landings, snorkeling and onboard lunch options,
- Jeep Tour: Heading off for a day of exploration in the Serra de Bocaina National Park, this ended up being our favorite day trip in Paraty. The tour takes you into the surrounding forest where you explore waterfalls, hike in the forest and visit a couple Cachaca distilleries.
- City Tour: Every day you have the option of joining a free walking tour of the city that leaves from the main square. You’ll visit the churches of the city, have iconic buildings pointed out and learn the history of the city over 2 hours. Tours depart daily, expect Wednesdays, at 10:30am and 5pm, rain or shine.
- Samba da Benção Street Party: Every Monday night around 8pm, the locals gather in the main square of Paraty to dance Samba. Unique to Brazil, Samba is infused with heave African rhythms and accompanied by dance moves that will leave you in awe. Don’t let that deter you though! Everyone is encouraged to dance and party into the wee hours of the morning. Just be sure to drop a donation in the hat when it comes around.
Where to stay in Paraty
With the city being so walkable, there really isn’t a bad place to stay. That being said, our accommodation was located outside of the historical center.
With the city being a focal point for visitors, the streets can be crowded and loud. So while we were at first not thrilled about the location of our pousada, we learned that it was actually the perfect solution.
We stayed at Refron du Mar Pousada Paraty, located right on the beach and just outside the historical center where we were able to get away from the busy streets when we were done exploring.
This pousada was very clean and setup like a colonial courtyard with the rooms located just off a large open air central area.
Iguazu Falls – 2 Days
The amazing natural wonder is all you have ever dreamed it would be, and more. Set in some of the lushest forest we have ever seen, these falls open the forest with huge clouds of mist.
It is easily one of the most exotic places you can visit in the world and a sheer testament to the power of nature.
The falls are accessible from both the Argentinian and Brazilian side, both of which we recommend you taking the time to experience. Besides gawking at the falls, there are a number of activities to do as well.
Things we did in Iguazu Falls:
- Visit the Brazilian Side: The Brazil side is comprised of a beautiful park with a long walking trail that skirts the falls. Along the trail you’ll come across various viewpoints that overlook the water, as well as opportunity to see some wildlife.
- Visit the Argentinian Side: From Argentina, you’ll have a completely different perspective and a variety of trails that will give you every vantage you can imagine, including walkways that take you straight into the spray zone. As with the Brazil side, the wildlife is plentiful and there is even a tourist train to help you access the hiking paths.
- Helicopter Ride: From the Brazil side, you have the option of taking a scenic helicopter flight over the falls. While the view is stunning, it is not a good flight for photography. It lasts about 15 minutes and they put 7 people in the helicopter, making it hard to see much.
- Skydiving: Yes, you can skydive over the rainforest. While you won’t be jumping out directly over Iguazu Falls themselves, you will have an incredible vantage point of the area. Not to mention an adrenaline rush.
- Speed Boat under the falls: If you do nothing else during your time at Iguazu Falls, then do this. After boarding an inflatable speed boat, you will be taken up river and right to the base of the massive falls. Just seeing them from below is impressive but the fun gets started them they bring you in close for a total soaking.
Where to stay in Iguazu Falls
With Iguazu Falls being a now booming tourist stop on people’s routes around South America, it is no surprise that the towns on both Argentina and Brazil sides have been built up to support the influx.
We stayed on the Brazilian side and found the city to be very modern with lots of hotel and restaurant options.
Our stay at the Hotel Del Rey was very comfortable. Centrally located, it is within easy access to many of the best restaurants in the city. It also features onsite dining and a rooftop pool area.
Bonito – 2 Days
Beautiful, natural, wild Bonito. No longer much a of a secret, this is where you go to see some incredible natural wonders in Brazil. Boasting an insanely clear river system, you can have the adventure of your dreams here through snorkeling and cave exploring.
The city itself is very small and built exclusively for tourists. Looking around from there, all you can see if retired farm land. But don’t let that deter you. Outside of town is where all the wonder is, so don’t sell yourself short by not participating in any tours.
Things we did in Bonito:
- Snorkel the Rio da Prata: Hands down the best site to visit is this famous river. Known for its sparkling turquoise waters and ultra-clear visibility, this is the adventure you cannot miss. Snorkeling trips here are guided and regulated, meaning you should make your reservations well in advance of visiting. Showing up without a booking is not a good idea, as these tours often sell out months in advance.
- Gruta Azul: There are many caves in the Bonito area that are worth checking out but if you only have time for one, I would recommend going to Gruta Azul. Your visit will involve some walking through the rainforest before reaching the cave entrance, in which you will then begin your walk down into the cave. There are many stairs but the vibrant blue pool at the bottom is worth the effort. Something to note, you are not allowed to swim here, just enjoy the natural splendor. What makes Gruta Azul interesting is the discoveries that have been made here, including a Giant Sloth and Saber Tooth Tiger.
Where to stay in Bonito
There isn’t much to the town of Bonito. It literally exists as a place for tourists to base while exploring the natural wonders of the area. It’s a one street town with a reasonable amount of accommodation and dining options.
We stayed at Muito Bonito which is like stepping into a tiny oasis. The hotel is like a tiny resort complex with great gardening and natural buildings.
At the center of the property is a wonderful pool with a bar. The rooms were comfortable, had A/C and internet access.
Pantanal – 2 Days
No trip to Brazil would be complete without a visit to the Pantanal. Officially the largest wetland in the world, roughly the size of France, the Pantanal is bursting with wildlife and adventure opportunities.
I have to say that 2 days is nowhere near enough time to experience all that this region of Brail has to offer. We got a small intro taste on our first trip to Brazil, but I am going to level with you. I think a solid week would be more appropriate and you would need to fly into the very middle to get the best experience possible.
If you are looking to view Jaguars, something that is very realistic and possible in the Pantanal, you will have to do just that. Your chances of having a sighting at the southern part is possible but very rare. Keep that in mind to manage expectations.
Things we did in the Pantanal:
- Bush walking: There are few ways to get up close to an area than by foot. Accompanied by experienced guides, we set off into the wetlands by foot in search of wildlife and exotic flora. During our bush walk we observed several species of birds and blazed our own paths through the thick forest. I wouldn’t recommend trying this without a guide who knows the area and be sure you’re prepared for the heat and insects.
- River Boat Trip: Some of the best wildlife sighting is often done by water, so be sure to get into a boat during your visit. We cruised up and down the main river near our Pousada and found fantastic opportunity for viewing birds and reptiles.
- Piranha Fishing: If you’ve ever dreamed of pulling the Amazon’s most vicious fish out of the water than this is for you. With the help of the guides, you’ll drop traditional stick pole lines into the water, baited with fresh meat, and try your luck at fishing. The best part, whatever you catch can be cooked for lunch that day too.
- Bird Viewing: The Pantanal is a bird lovers paradise. I’ve never seen such a high species concentration of birds in one place, ever in my travels. From the exotic species of macaw and parrot, to the smaller song birds, they were everywhere. Truth be told, we easily spotted 50 species of bird in our 2 day visit.
Where to stay in the Pantanal
Our particular itinerary visited the southern tip of the Pantanal, closest to Campo Grande. In this location is a perfect little property that offers two styles of accommodation based on budget.
Pousada Santa Clara is owned by a local farmer’s family and offers the full spectrum of transportation into the lodge, accommodation, meals and excursions during your stay.
You can either stay in the more rustic riverside area, where there are hammocks and dormitory style sleeping options or you can opt for the boutique styled main property. This option features private rooms, A/C, internet access and a pool.
We split our time between the two options and have to say they were both great. The riverside camp has totally screened in areas so you experience little to no insects. There are also basic restroom and shower facilities.
Attend Rio Carnival
Carnival in Rio is literally the biggest festival in the world. If you travel to Brazil around this incredible time, we recommend that you make some time to attend this spectacular festival. Spanning an entire week, there are many things to see and experience as part of the festivities.
This includes street parties, private parties, concerts, competitions and parades. It is full on immersion into Samba.
If your trip to Brazil is during the time period that coincides with this major festival, you will see sprinklings of it throughout your travels, even in the smallest towns. However, the heart of the celebration happens in Rio de Janeiro.
Want to party it up for Carnival but don’t want to do it alone? Check out this unique 6 day tour that explores the Carnival festival for the full duration.
If full on partying for a week isn’t your thing, have a look at when the Parade of Champions will take place and book your tickets for that. This will give you an intimate look at the best Samba schools in Brazil. It’s a unique experience that you shouldn’t miss.
Hot Tip: Book your tickets to any of the Carnival events as far in advance as possible. Prices skyrocket the closer you get to the events.
Tips for planning your Brazil itinerary
Best time to visit Brazil
Like most tropical places, Brazil really has two seasons, wet and dry. However, the length of these seasons can vary greatly depending on the region you are visiting.
High season is experienced when the Brazilians are on vacation, coinciding with the country wide celebrations of Carnival. This period generally extends from December to March and also includes July.
During this time, pricing will be high and many of the popular places will be crowded.
Weather in Brazil can be observed as follows:
- Fall (March-May) and Spring (September-November) offer comfortable temperatures and not much rain. Ideally making this the best time to visit.
- Summer (December – February) is very hot and very crowded. Despite the heat, it is also the height of the rainy season. This brings a healthy population of insects.
- Winter (June-August) offers cooler temperatures and way less people in country. It is also much drier. If you want to see jaguars in the Pantanal, this is when you want to go.
Getting around Brazil
As we mentioned before, apart from the week we spent in Rio, we spent two weeks on tour with G Adventures. Their tour includes all transportation, which was a mix of mini-buses, coaches, boats and planes.
If you are planning to travel to Brazil independently, you will get around the country in much of the same manner. The country supports an extensive bus system that connects most places. If you have a bit more budget and less time, flying is a good option too.
Local flights are provided by LATAM and Avianca. It is also possible to work with a travel agency to book on the ground travel in advance.
Renting a car is also an option that people choose to do in Brazil. There is an extensive network of well maintained roads in the southeast, so traveling between all of the places in this Brazil itinerary is possible by rental car.
Keep in mind that Brazil is HUGE. What may look like a short distance on a map can often take a full day to traverse on land. Be sure to double check distances with Google Maps and factor in time for traffic and stops when calculating commutes.
Costs & Budget
The official currency of Brazil is the Real (pronounced as ree-al). We recommend planning to withdraw local currency from the ATM instead of exchanging cash. This will ensure you get the best rates and pay less fees.
Major credit cards are widely accepted at most hotels, shops and hotels. We were able to pay for most tours with credit card as well.
We found Brazil to be quite expensive when compared to the likes of Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. It was more on par to what you would experience in Argentina or Chile. Something to keep in mind when budgeting for your trip.
Getting a Brazil Visa
One of the reasons we put off a visit to Brazil for so long was the extensive process in place to obtain a visa. It used to be that US citizens would have to apply for a visa through a physical embassy in the USA.
This required extensive paperwork and having to mail in our passports for several weeks. The process was not easy and not cheap.
In 2018, Brazil changed this policy to e-visa, meaning that you could apply for a visa online and it only cost $45. This is what we did and the process was very easy to complete.
As of June 17, 2019, citizens of the USA, Canada, Japan and Australia will no longer need a visa to visit Brazil. This is exciting and will open up Brazil in a way that it has never been before for travelers.
If you’re planning to travel to Brazil before June 17, 2019, you will still need to apply online like we did. The process is easy and straightforward. You’ll be asked to complete an application, upload a copy of your passport and a photo (pay attention to the spec requirements) and then pay the $45 application fee. You can expect to receive your visa, via email, in less than a week.
Safety in Brazil
This is a widely discussed topic by most people planning to visit Brazil. While there are currently no nationwide security advisories in effect for Brazil right now, it is important to recognize that Brazil is a place where you should exercise caution.
Much like other countries in South America, it is important to remain vigilant at all times when out exploring, especially in the bigger cities. To be honest, I was terrified to walk the streets of Rio de Janeiro. I had read so many horrible things that I almost let it ruin my time there.
Turns out, if you follow your instincts, act smart and don’t flaunt anything fancy, you can have an amazing time without any worries.
Some tips for keeping yourself safe in Brazil:
- Always be aware of your surroundings. I am not saying to be paranoid but keeping your head up and eyes open will go a long ways to keeping you safe and less of a target.
- Do not carry your phone on the street. You will see locals doing this but don’t do it. Thieves target tourists and are masters at easily picking your phone out of your hand.
- Do not leave your purse or phone on the table or hanging from a chair at a restaurant.
- Avoid empty or poorly lit streets.
- Do not go out alone, always take someone with you.
- Do not carry excess cash or debit cards with you.
- Leave your passport in the hotel.
- Lock up everything in your hotel room. They provide a safe for a reason, use it. Put away all valuables before going out for the day, including laptops.
- Know where you are going before you leave so you can walk with purpose.
- Do not leave anything unattended while enjoying the beaches.
Most of the crime against tourists in Brazil is petty. Meaning they are after your things and not your life. Don’t be a hero, if you have an encounter, give up the item and move on.
First Time Tips
- I’ve said it before and I will say it again, Brazil is huge and diverse. Do not underestimate this.
- You will be tempted to see as much as possible on your first trip to Brazil. Fight that temptation and plan your itinerary in a practical way. Pick a region and stick with it. This will allow you to enjoy the places you visit instead of spending your whole vacation moving between places.
- To truly maximize your time, it is best to fly between places. This will cost a lot more money, but you’ll have more time in each place you visit.
- Book all of your flights well in advance for the best rates and options.
- Also, book all of your accommodation in advance. Especially if your trip to Brazil is in high season.
- Purchase travel insurance. Not only does this protect your investment, it will cover any items that may go walking.
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