I go to Rio and Sao Paulo ...

Despite unrest, the parties - next year's World Cup and the 2016 Olympics - will go on. Chris Moss provides a step-by-step guide.

After decades of overselling a handful of tried-and-tested beach destinations, Brazil is now inviting travellers to explore further. Even the mildly adventurous tourist can get deep into the Pantanal, the immense wetlands of the south that rival the Amazon for biodiversity, or drive the coast roads of the north-east. Intrepid beach lovers can mingle with Brazilian travellers on the Costa Verde, in Fortaleza, and in the resorts of Santa Catarina. City-hoppers can go to Brasilia to see what futuristic architecture looked like in the 1960s, to Sao Paulo for fine food, to Salvador da Bahia for Afro-Brazilian culture, and to Olinda or Ouro Preto for colonial treasures - though perhaps not in one go, as distances are enormous.

The enduring favourites are there too: Rio (not to be missed), the Iguacu Falls, the Amazon River and rainforest. In and around all of these, hotels, restaurants and services are greatly improved.

A fire in January that killed more than 200 at a nightclub in Santa Maria in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul was a reminder that safety in Brazil is never guaranteed. In Rio de Janeiro, a special police squad is still kept busy by drug gangs, murderers and armed robbers. And recent weeks have seen mass demonstrations in several cities against the government.

In general, however, increased security has helped revive not only Rio but other once crime-ridden cities; most observers agree there is a link between increased prosperity and falling crime. It's too early to say whether the boom will share the wealth in a way that will transform Brazil for good.

But this is a nation on the rise, and it will be interesting to see how economic and political power meld, or compete with, the national passions - for music and culture, for football and sports, for carnival and the carnal, for having a good time, come what may. For travellers, it is unquestionably an exciting time to be visiting South America's most diverse and most seductive country.

WHERE TO GO

Brazil is the fifth-largest country in the world: you could fit India, Argentina, Algeria and Britain inside it and still have room for Brazil's little motherland, Portugal. Given this vastness, a holiday can combine several destinations. But check journey durations before signing off on an itinerary: it takes nine hours from Boa Vista in the north to Porto Alegre in the south; the distance by road is about 5230 kilometres.

The best approach is to decide what type of holiday you want - beach, nature, hiking, birdwatching, history, city, water sports - and then make a plan. To see a couple of places, you'll need at least 10 days. There's a difference, too, between the beaches of Fortaleza, where you'll see more Brazilians, and Florianopolis, where you might encounter hordes of Argentine holidaymakers. Similarly, where history is on show - Ouro Preto, Olinda and Salvador's Pelourinho quarter, for instance - you'll run into tour groups, while in overlooked destinations such as Brasilia, Sao Luis and Belem, you may experience more culture than you expect.

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Brazil's biggest attraction is, arguably, its wilderness. If the Pantanal and Amazonia lack the mammals of Africa, they make up for it with magnificent flora, landscapes and bird life.

RIO DE JANEIRO, THE COSTA VERDE AND SAO PAULO

Rio de Janeiro thrills first-time visitors, no matter how many photographs they have seen of the glittering Sugar Loaf, the sleek Cristo Redentor and the extravagant samba-school parades of Carnival. Stripped of its status as Brazil's capital in 1960 and an economic runner-up to Sao Paulo, it nonetheless exudes big-city confidence. Part of this is down to the setting: the sweep of Guanabara Bay, the granite-and-quartz rocky outcrops, the curved beaches, the tropical vegetation of the Tijuca Forest National Park, and a 12-million-strong metropolis fitting around that. There are also the nightlife, restaurants and bars, the culture, art and bohemia that you only get in cities not totally given over to business and wealth-creation. Rio excels at hedonism.

The city's residents, the cariocas, possess a joie de vivre. For every supermodel parading perfection in an otiose bikini on fashionable Leblon, there's a brace of happy beer bellies hanging over the beach bars on old-school Copacabana or resurgent Leme.

Away from the ocean, art galleries, such as the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes and the new Casa Daros in Botafogo (dedicated to contemporary Latin American artists), and the brutalist architecture in the city centre, are worthy half-day trips. The bars and clubs of Lapa, the nightlife district around the 18th-century Carioca Aqueduct, will fill a long, late evening. East of Rio is Niteroi, the architect Oscar Niemeyer's former home and the site of his elegant, saucer-shaped Museu de Arte Contemporanea, and, 160 kilometres farther, Armacao dos Buzios. Normally shortened to Buzios, this peninsula of coves and small beaches was made famous by Brigitte Bardot in the '60s and still attracts Rio's beautiful people.

Rather than flying from Rio to Sao Paulo, take a road trip down the so-called Costa Verde; tour operators such as Audley Travel (audleytravel.com) can make this into a five-day, five-star experience, ensuring you only have to drive from outside the big cities.

From north to south, great stopovers on the 604-kilometre route include the pristine island of Ilha Grande and pretty colonial town Paraty; Ubatuba and Sao Sebastiao for their beaches; Ilhabela, another island, for sailing and hiking; and finally Santos, to see the stadium that nurtured the talents of Pele, the biggest name in Brazilian football.

The Costa Verde, washed by warm, clean seas and fringed by the forests of the Mata Atlantica, has long been an escape duct from the two megacities. Exploring it is a great way to combine good dining and stays in smart beach hotels and/or fazendas (ranches) with some diving, walking, cycling, kayaking or surfing.

Sao Paulo is a schizophrenic city. Its residents, the paulistanos, like to remind people that the metropolitan district of 20 million souls generates a third of the national GDP. Question them a little, though, and they confess that they love to escape to Rio and the northern resorts.

Very rich Sao Paulo residents use helicopters to get around, because the traffic is horrendous (last year, 180-kilometre traffic jams were reported as "average"). To get the most out of a visit, book a swanky hotel such as the Unique or Fasano and limit your outings to the restaurants in Jardins, strolls along the Avenida Paulista, taxi rides to the art galleries and a picnic in the architecturally and botanically diverse Parque do Ibirapuera.

BELEM, MANAUS AND THE AMAZON

Belem and Manaus are the places to start, or finish, a traditional riverboat voyage along the Amazon. Shallow-hulled vessels depart in each direction every day and complete the 1585-kilometre journey in about five days. The view? Brown river and a thin line of green. The point? Peace and quiet, heat and humidity, and clocking the length and girth of the river.

If you're in no hurry, break your journey at Monte Alegre to see prehistoric rock and cave paintings; at Santarem to visit Fordlandia (an abandoned industrial utopia in the rainforest); the beaches of Alter do Chao; and Parintins for its well-preserved colonial architecture.

As vessels approach Manaus they cross the Encontro das Aguas, where the Amazon meets the Negro, a major tributary.

Riverboats are basic, with a few airconditioned cabins, a deck or two for hammocks, a canteen and a bar (though some services, especially those on vessels with religious-sounding names, are dry). It is as authentic as travel gets, but without Portuguese, it can be hard work to fill the long days.

At Belem it's worth seeing the lively, traditional Ver-o-Peso market, the smartly regenerated dockside warehouses known as the Estacao das Docas and, a 90-kilometre ferry ride away, the largest river island in the world: Ilha do Marajo, the size of Switzerland, largely uninhabited and home to scarlet ibis, cranes and herds of water buffalo.

Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, which once grew rich on rubber, is famed for its opera house, Teatro Amazonas, which opened in 1896. The city has plenty more grand-looking buildings, some pretty dilapidated: it's a busy hub but feels laid-back, and has an excellent ethnographic collection at the Museu do Indio.

There are seaplane trips, as well as popular three- or four-day cruises up the Rio Negro from Manaus to see the Anavilhanas - an immense archipelago of river islands. Vessels such as those of the Amazon Clipper fleet (amazonclipper.com.br) and the MV Tucano (naturetours.com) look like upgrades of ordinary riverboats; on board though they are lavish, with 16 to 18 berths and plenty of space. Continue upriver to Tefe and you can stay at an out-of- the-way but comfortable jungle hotel such as the Uakari Lodge (uakarilodge.com.br) in the Mamiraua nature reserve - the largest flood plain in the world.

SALVADOR, RECIFE AND THE BEACHES OF THE NORDESTE

It is in Salvador, the state capital of Bahia, that the African influence on Brazilian culture is most keenly felt, whether in the shape of capoeira dancers in Pelourinho, the old part of the city, or in the pungent local cuisine cooked in azeite de dende (palm oil), or in the carnival, which is massive and manic but less commercial than Rio's.

Salvador, founded in 1549 on a bluff above the Baia de Todos os Santos, has dozens of historic sites including ecclesiastical buildings, museums and markets.

The city, Brazil's third-largest, is a sprawl, but it's easy to get to the beaches, either close by at Barra - like a low-key Rio city beach - or by continuing north along the so-called Estrada do Coco (Coconut Road) to the cleaner and more serene beaches of Praia do Forte and Praia de Sitio do Conde.

South of Salvador are Trancoso and Porto Seguro, both known for backpackers and beach parties.

Inland is Lencois, a former diamond-mining town with a colonial air, and close by, the Chapada Diamantina National Park. With a mesa rock formation, caves, waterfalls, gorges and glistening pools, the area is good for walking and abseiling.

Continuing north, the highway goes through the two coastal states of Sergipe and Alagoas. If you're driving, stop at Penedo, a well-preserved colonial town, and Maceio, which has beautiful urban beaches and also, as a resort popular with Brazilians and Argentines, good restaurants.

The next state, Pernambuco, is a major sugar producer. Its capital, Recife, can seem untidy but is good for nightlife and frevo music, which derives its name from the way brass bands "boil" a rhythm into a frenzy. When Recife was a fishing village, power in this region was settled in nearby Olinda, where the colonial sector is now a United Nations' World Heritage Site.

THE PANTANAL

Partly because the Amazon is often in the news for deforestation and other environmental woes, the Pantanal has become Brazil's most highly promoted wilderness destination. But this tropical wilderness, which occupies the western flank of Mato Grosso do Sul and part of Mato Grosso state, also happens to be a wondrous environment for nature lovers.

"Pantanal" means "wetland", and during the rainy season (October to March) there is flooding in the cerrado (grassland and palm savannah). There are also smaller areas of rainforest, Atlantic forest, chaco (dry forest and scrub close to Paraguay) and river systems - and together, these provide habitat for hundreds of bird species, including the wattled jacana, jabiru stork and hyacinth macaw. The Pantanal also has impressive mammals, including the tapir, giant anteater, maned wolf, giant river otter and jaguar.

In the rainy season the animals congregate on islands; in drier months they come to the riverbanks. Trips here often combine stays at a fazenda (cattle ranch) and boat trips to see flora and fauna. Other options include the Caiman Ecological Refuge (caiman.com.br) and the SouthWild Jaguar Flotel, a static riverboat (southwild.com).

Access to the Pantanal is usually via Corumba or Cuiaba; the main airports in the region are at Cuiaba and Campo Grande.

BRASILIA, MINAS GERAIS AND OURO PRETO

The international reaction to Oscar Niemeyer's death in December 2012 was a reminder of the influence of his architecture - and particularly his masterpiece, Brasilia. The Brazilian capital is a remarkable city. Niemeyer's fondness for poured concrete, sensual curves, plain, white-grey surfaces and his daring use of space have given Brasilia's civic quarter an almost alienating harmoniousness.

As the seat of government - the stylish presidential residence, the Palacio da Alvorada, has no protective walls and can be ogled from close by - the city is full of politicians and power brokers.

Encircling the federal district is the state of Goias, which contains two significant national parks The Paranaiba Headwaters, the world's largest area of protected dry tropical forest, is home to maned wolf, capuchin monkeys and macaw; Chapada dos Veadeiros has pampas, marsh deer and jaguar, plus hundreds of bird species.

South of Brasilia is the hilly state of Minas Gerais. Its capital, Belo Horizonte, is a prosperous city with a mountainous setting, outstanding modern architecture and the excellent Museu Mineiro, known for its colonial-era religious art. There's a scenic rail trip to Vitoria (13 hours each way), the state capital of neighbouring Espirito Santo, which has beaches, colonial buildings and a 16th-century fortified convent.

About 97 kilometres south-east of Belo Horizonte is Ouro Preto, named after the "black gold" (gold mixed with alluvial iron ore) that generated a rush in the late 17th century. From 1720 until 1897, Ouro Preto was the capital of Minas Gerais, and the mansions, churches and civic buildings built by the city's fathers has made it one of the loveliest urban centres in Brazil. Tourism is big business there, but don't let that put you off.

THE IGUACU FALLS AND THE GAUCHO LANDS

When it comes to cowboys, ranching and eating steak, people tend to think of Argentina and Uruguay. But in the southern states of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil has gaucho traditions that have flourished since the 16th century.

As well as ranches (fazendas) open to the public, Rio Grande offers visitors an opportunity to see some of Germany's most far-flung outposts, at Gramado and Canela. The alpine setting, the wurst and sauerkraut, and the Pomeranian dialects might trick you into thinking you are back in the Old World - especially during one of the beer festivals.

Another different Argentine connection can be found along the coast. In January and February, middle-class families from Buenos Aires and beyond flock to the resorts of Florianopolis and Ilha de Santa Catarina to enjoy the sandy beaches and swim in the waters of the South Atlantic. The setting of leafy hillsides, small coves and smart villas is enticing, and there are good restaurants, hotels and water-sports operators.

Finally, the Iguacu waterfalls are on the Brazil-Argentina border. The Brazilian side affords a panoramic view of hundreds of falls of varying sizes, including the thundering chasm of the Devil's Throat.

In the surrounding national park the flora is exceptionally diverse, and you can either walk or take small electric vehicles to observe orchids, bromeliads, ferns and some very tall, old trees.

The nearby city of Foz do Iguacu is a big, ugly place and the Hotel das Cataratas, beside the falls, is the best hotel in the area (hoteldascataratas.com). If you travel there, consider visiting Argentina, where you will be closer to the falls and be able to spend a night in Puerto Iguazu, a smaller, more pleasant town.

ON THE WEB

To help you plan, see the official site, www.visitbrasil.com. You can find tour operators on the website of the Latin American Travel Association (lata.org).

Deep Brazil (deepbrazil.com), run by Regina Scharf, a journalist, is a good first base for Brazilian culture and links to other blogs. Chris Pickard, deputy chairman of the Latin America Travel Association, has written braziltheguide.com and worldcuptheguide.com.

See FIFA's World Cup pages (fifa.com/worldcup/index.html) to visit, virtually, the tournament stadiums. The official Olympic site is rio2016.org.br.

Marcos Prado's riogayguide.com is a lifestyle guide.

FIVE PLACES TO STAY

IN RIO

The Copacabana Palace opened in 1923 and has long drawn royalty and the rich. It reopened in November 2012 after a six-month refurbishment. If you can afford the $1000-a-night rates, book a beach-view room. See copacabanapalace.com.

IN SAO PAULO

Unique is a visually arresting, contemporary, bunker-style hotel in the heart of Jardins and the Ibirapuera Park. See hotelunique.com.br.

IN SALVADOR

Casa do Amarelindo, in the historic sector, is a 10-room hotel in a restored 19th-century mansion. Most rooms have bay views and the decor reflects Salvador's African heritage. See casadoamarelindo.com.

ON COSTA VERDE

Pousada Picinguaba is a charming, French-owned guesthouse with nine rooms, set on a peaceful bay in a nature reserve. See picinguaba.com.

IN THE AMAZON

Cristalino Lodge, in southern Amazon, has wood-framed bungalows and slightly smaller rooms. All are smartly decorated and fitted with eco-friendly water and heating systems. See cristalinolodge.com.br.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Qantas has a fare to Rio for about $2071 low-season return from Sydney, including taxes. Fly to Santiago (12hr 30min) and then to Rio (4hr 15min); see qantas.com.au. Melbourne passengers pay about $100 more and fly to and from Sydney to connect. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 90 days.

GETTING AROUND

TAM and Gol (voegol.com) operate from their hubs in Rio, Sao Paulo and Brasilia; both fly to more than 60 destinations. There are also many smaller airlines operating intercity jets and provincial services.

STAYING THERE

Brazil's large cities are full of big, established hotels as well as glitzier boutique properties. On the coast, the choice is often between pricey resorts and smaller, budget hotels.

MORE INFORMATION

visitbrazil.com; smartraveller.gov.au

Telegraph, London

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