The most heavily populated part of the country is the Southeast, where the three largest cities – São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte – form a triangle around which the economy pivots. All are worth visiting but Rio, which really is as beautiful as it seems in pictures, is the one essential destination. The South, encompassing the states of Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul, is the most economically advanced part of the country and includes much of the enormous Paraná river system. The spectacular Iguaçu Falls on the border with Argentina is one of the great natural wonders of South America.
Central Brazil is dominated by an enormous plateau of savanna and rock escarpments, the Planalto Central. In the middle stands Brasília, the country’s space-age capital, built from scratch in the late 1950s and still developing today. The capital is the gateway to a vast interior, Mato Grosso, only fully charted and settled over the last fifty years; it includes the Pantanal, the largest wetlands in the world and the richest wildlife reserve anywhere in the Americas. North and west Mato Grosso shades into the Amazon, the world’s largest river basin and a mosaic of jungle, rivers, savanna and marshland that also contains two major cities – Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon itself, and Manaus, some 1600km upstream. The tributaries of the Amazon, rivers like the Tapajós, the Xingú, the Negro, the Araguaia or the Tocantins, are virtually unknown outside Brazil, but each is a huge river system in its own right.
The other major sub-region of Brazil is the Northeast, the part of the country that curves out into the Atlantic Ocean. This was the first part of Brazil to be settled by the Portuguese and colonial remains are thicker on the ground here than anywhere else in the country – notably in the cities of Salvador and São Luís and the lovely town of Olinda. It’s a region of dramatic contrasts: a lush tropical coastline with the best beaches in Brazil quickly gives way to the sertão, a semi-arid interior plagued by drought and grinding poverty. All the major cities of the Northeast are on the coast; the two largest are sprawling Recife and Salvador, Brazil’s most heavily Afro-Brazilian city and a fascinating place to visit. The coast of the Northeast is developing rapidly these days, taking advantage of proximity to Europe to attract package tourists and holiday-home buyers. But it is big enough for it still to be possible to get away from it all.