Meet the Other Brazil

The country’s unheralded, European South is more than beaches, rainforests, and Carnival.



Cataratas do Iguacu

Photo by Stephen Buel

Our open-air vehicle bounces over the plains of the Pantanal at night. Its passengers, some wrapped in blankets from our outfitter, Fazenda San Francisco, have been instructed to keep quiet to facilitate our safari’s overriding goal—to glimpse an onça-pintada, which we Americans know as a jaguar. We have seen capybara, caiman, giant anteaters, and a pair of frolicking foxes, including one stalking and catching a rodent. But, so far, no cats.

Suddenly, our guide commands a stop by rapping on the truck's roof, focusing her halogen spotlight on some movement near the riverbank. Red eyes glow back at us. Although they are not the eyes we all hope to see, we issue a collective gasp as we observe a breathtaking jaguatirica, or ocelet. The sleek, 3-foot-long cat pauses and stares at us before gracefully skulking off, muscles rippling under its dazzlingly taut spots.

We’re not in Tanzania or Botswana, or even Africa. Our safari is in Brazil, specifically the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland and home to these and other beasts, including piranha, marsh deer, howler monkeys, and countless bird species, including macaw, herons, and toucan.

Coastal Brazil is what most American travelers know, where bikini-clad beauties prowl the aquamarine seas and fine-sand beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana. Some Americans also brave urban Brazil, most notably Rio de Janiero and São Paulo, where futebol fans scream, parades pulse until dawn at Carnival, and impoverished citizens dwell in massive hillside favelas. And who is not at least aware of the Amazon, where indigenous tribes live in ever-shrinking rainforests and ungodly creatures lurk in a massive river basin that drains 40 percent of the entire continent.

But Brazil is far more varied than the regions best known to Americans. Much of Southern Brazil, engine of the country’s industrial and agricultural economy, is strikingly reminiscent of Europe, and was settled mainly by Germans, Italians, Poles, and other Europeans. Four of Brazil’s southernmost states—Mato Grosso do Sul, Paraná, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande du Sul—rarely get much attention, but should, because they teem with activity, attractions, agriculture, and a healthy German obsession with beer.

Aside from the fantastic wildlife-viewing of the often-ignored Pantanal, the South also boasts one of the seven wonders of the world, gushing Igauçu Falls, on the country’s border with Argentina, near Paraguay. After you visit the excellent aviary inside the Parque Nacional Iguaçu and walk along the pedestrian causeways that line both sides of the massive Igauçu River, a drenching adrenaline-filled boat ride for an up-close view of the falls is an absolute must. Dress for a downpour.

Cosmopolitan Curitiba, with a population of almost 1.9 million people, is the south’s biggest and most economically thriving city. For a representative tour of this city known for its smart public transit, visit the sprawling Jardim Botânico gardens and the impressive Museo Oscar Niemeyer, a well-curated museum with a collection of Brasilian art named for its architect, who is world famous for the space-age buildings that define Brasilia, the nation’s capital.

After you’re done exploring, wander into cobblestoned Old Town Curitiba for a meal and a beverage. You won’t have to drink for long to discover one of the traits that characterizes Brazil’s friendly culture. A liter of Skol, the country’s most popular beer, is typically shared in small glasses, a ritual of communal drinking that also spills over to mate and caipirinhas, Brazil’s national tea and cocktail, respectively. And the denizens of one of Old Town’s charming outdoor bars may encourage you to try a submarino, in which a shot-glass-sized beer stein of cachaça—rum’s Brazilian cousin—is plunked into a full-sized draft of Skol. After a few submarinos, you, too, may submerge.

Other local attractions include a game of futebol by one of Curitiba’s two pro teams, Coritiba Foot Ball Club or Clube Atlético Paranaense, the latter of which cultivates a badass, pirate ethos reminiscent of the Raider Nation. Or you can take a day trip via the Serra Verde Express train through the lush coastal Serra do Mar mountain range to the picturesque colonial town of Morretes, a worthwhile excursion punctuated by wonderful scenery and delicious dining.

The German influence is heavy in Santa Catarina, and the eastern city of Blumenau identifies itself as the Teutonic capital of the region. This neat-as-pin burg, full of microbreweries, has put itself on the international beer-lovers’ map with its annual Oktoberfest, one of the world’s largest outside of Munich. It also caters to tourists with major shopping and abundant accommodation action.

Beyond such major attractions, traveling by car or bus makes most sense in the south. While Brazil moves most of its goods via towering, conjoined trucks, its roads are not on par with American interstates. Although most highways are in better shape than our own, they are usually two-laned and require cautious driving, which makes such transit a slow, if scenic, ordeal.

Far across the state on the banks of the Uruguay River, Santa Catarina’s westernmost city is Itapiranga, a hilly, bucolic village whose German heritage is reflected in the pointed roofs of its pristine downtown. With it own major Oktoberfest, Itapiranga has seen the art of beer-making enter the academic realm, making its way to the local university’s laboratory so students can learn how to perfect conventional lagers, Vienna-style lagers, and wises, or white beers. This important research has reached its pinnacle at Lassberg, a sprawling new brewpub on the outskirts of town, which brews perhaps Brazil’s best pilsner. Buy a bottle and in no time at all you may find yourself sharing it with new, Brazilian friends.

Brazil is as stingy with visas for Americans as the United States is for Brazilians, although visa requirements are waived through Sept. 18, 2016, for the Olympics. Normally, give yourself at least two months to procure one. And given the spread of the zika virus, women who are pregnant or plan to become so and their sexual partners, are advised by the Centers for Disease Control not to visit any area below 6,500 feet in elevation. Visit CDC.gov for the latest advisory.

 

Resources

Fazenda San Francisco Agro Ecoturismo: www.FazendaSanFrancisco.tur.br
Cataratas do Iguaçu: www.CataratasDoIguacu.com.br

Parque Nacional do Iguaçu: www.ICMBio.gov.br/ParnaIguacu/guia-do-visitante.html
Museo Oscar Niemeyer: www.MuseuOscarNiemeyer.org.br/home
Oktoberfest Blumenau: www.oktoberfestblumenau.com.br/en/
Lassberg: www.Lassberg.com.br

 

2016-08-08 03:36 AM

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