When you say the words Rio de Janeiro, many people have visions of glorious sun and dark-skinned bikini babes serving coconut cocktails.
I, on the other hand, picture beaches with expressways running past them, muggings, and carjackings.
That's not to say either vision makes up a complete picture on its own, but they're opposing views of one of Brazil's most popular destinations, Rio. I still think you should visit the city of Rio - it is lovely in its own way - but I'd also like to suggest six other places to go in Brazil.
It would be silly to not start with one place that Brazilians go for their beach holidays: the sandy peninsula of Buzios. The area claims that their twenty-something beaches are all individually unique, and while I can't claim to have visited all of them, all the ones I saw were - some sandy, some rocky, some with blue waters, others with green waters. The only thing in common was my sunburn, so wear sunscreen. Many of the beaches are set in small coves, so the ocean water is like a warm bath - so nice you could spend all day out there.
By day, when not at the beach, you can enjoy the boating tours and scuba school; tours can be found at the main piers. Otherwise, stroll up and down the main strip where you can get the latest Brazilian fashions and other beachwear (read: sunglasses and jewelry). At night Buzios is a buffet banquet of good food; some say it's expensive, but if you head into the sidestreets you're bound to find a good steak or seafood hut.
Ouro Preto is known as one of the best preserved colonial cities in Brazil and you'll spend much of your time exploring all the historic buildings. My notes tell me we saw at least ten churches (and that's skipping a few), there is no shortage of museums, and the Teatro Municipal (Opera House) is the oldest functioning theater in South America, celebrating its 240th birthday this year. You should know that is not permitted to take photos or video inside most of the churches and museums.
A popular option after overdosing on the churches is to head for Itacolomi National Park for some hiking and stretching the legs. You can hike all the way to the rock and the boy, a very odd-looking rock formation visible from the town below. Visitors to Itacolomi must hike with a guide, which your hotel or accommodation can easily arrange for you.
Oh Salvador, you are so beautiful. One of the brightest and most vivid stops in Brazil, one look at the Old Town of this city and you'll know why it was given UNESCO World Heritage Status - as you walk down the sloping streets between squares, with the hustle and bustle of street vendors and the heat of the Brazilian sunshine, this might be the closest thing to paradise.
If you see people wearing a tight ribbon around their wrist, that's a fita. It is a Brazilian good luck bracelet, and you have to have a Brazilian tie it around your wrist while you make a wish. If the ribbon naturally wears away and falls off, the wish will come true. If you cut it off, it won't. In the neighborhood of Bonfirm, to the north, you'll find a church that is a very well known pilgrimage site, and this is the perfect place to get your fita.
Personally, I'd skip Salvador during Carnival - it is the biggest carnival in the world so absolute chaos ensues - but if you want to really party, then this is where you want to be. Because of this, the city has quite a number of good bars, clubs, and restaurants year-round.
For a glimpse of a classic colonial town, look no further than Paraty (remember that the ty is pronounced chee... para-chee). I just love the buildings here; they're mostly cracked white facades with these wonderfully colored highlights, such as the doorways or shutters. The historic center is small and easily explored in an afternoon; Paraty makes a great base to explore beaches (Trindade being the most beautiful and thus most popular) and diving islands, but be sure and check out the waterfalls, too - Andorinhas is nice, and so is Pedra Branca.
This is also the place to buy cachaça, a sugar cane-based rum produced here. Try it first; head to a bar and order a caprihina, a lovely lime and cachaça mix. If it isn't your taste you can also have a caprioska, which is the same but made with vodka.
Penedo makes the list purely for novelty factor - it is known as Brazil's Christmas village, a trivia fact worth noting for your next pub quiz. The city center is filled with shops offering various types of crafts and household goods, all gathered around a Christmas tree. The explanation is that Penedo is Brazil's only Finnish colony, so the immigrants have done well to leave their stamp on this small village.
I can't say for certain whether or not everything is homemade but you can tell much of it is, and the store owners are so friendly. A suggestion is to head to one of the very nice food stores and get yourself a jar of doce de abóbora, also known as pumpkin sweet. It's kind of like pumpkin jam. There is also a very tasty chocolate house.
Last but not least, Tiradentes is one of Brazil's gastronomic capitals and it is also remarkably well-preserved, from the centuries-old buildings to the dusty and bumpy cobblestone streets. One of my favorite buildings is the Church of Saint Anthony - half a ton of gold was used to decorate the church's interior, so when you get inside, look up! The 1700s water fountain Chafariz de São José has three spouts of water named Love, Fortune, and Health. You can drink up if you like.
Outside the city there's also a steam locomotive train affectionately called Smoke Mary. Inaugurated in the late 1800s, it only runs along 7.5 miles of track, but it is a winding mountain trail with fantastic views of the valley, mountain flora, and river landscapes. After all those cobblestones, it is the perfect place to rest your weary feet.
A Word on Travel Safety
The best way to travel in Brazil, in my opinion, is by car with plane hops as necessary. For roadtrips, if you don't speak Portuguese I'd highly suggest bringing someone who does, as it will make your journey so much more pleasant and safe.
Drug-related violence is a problem, particularly in Rio (the state, not just the city). If you travel off the main highways expect a police checkpoint during your travels (see above regarding the need to speak some Portuguese). Extreme caution is advised as always - dangling expensive cameras and flashing lots of cash will invite nothing but trouble.
photos, top to bottom, by: aaepstein, thombo2, jrubinic, Rodrigo_Soldon, Peteris2009, elicrisko