Brazil’s booming southern states – Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul – are often strangely absent on tourist itineraries of the country. The cities of Curitiba and Porto Alegre will host 2014 FIFA World Cup matches, and the region is already a huge draw for Brazilian, Argentine and Uruguayan tourists. Yet it can be a hard sell for European and North American travellers – it lacks the glamour of Rio but often sports the same prices thanks to the booming economy. After an obligatory pilgrimage to the mighty Iguazu Falls most Western travellers simply move on. So what makes those sudamericanos stick around? Here’s ten reasons I can think of immediately…
Travelling all the way to Brazil to visit a German beer festival might seem strange, but this is Deutschland done with Brazilian flair. Blumenau’s annual Oktoberfest is the biggest German festival in South America, attracting over 500,000 revellers to its vast beer tents, folk dancing, shooting matches and German singing contests. With treats like cuca de banana (Brazilian banana cake) to mop up the suds and the white-sand beaches of Floripa and Balneário Camboriú a short ride away, it’s unmissable.
Praia Mole is one of the most gorgeous beaches in Brazil, a strip of pristine sand beneath low-lying cliffs and dunes. It gets busy in summer, but despite its popularity commercial activity has remained blissfully low-key. The next beach south is the equally enticing Praia da Joaquina, equally popular with surfers and sun-seekers alike. Both beaches are a short drive away from the fashionable bars and restaurants of Florianópolis.
Seriously. The German connection once again provides the allure at the small Alpine-like resort towns of Gramado (famous for its Natal Luz Christmas lights festival) and Canela. ‘Café colonial’ down here means a vast buffet of cakes, pastries and cold cuts, usually served as a sort of afternoon tea. Try it at Bela Vista Café Colonial in Gramado or sample the schnitzel, wurst and apple strudel at Strudelhaus in Canela.
There's a long list of art galleries and museums worth seeing in the south but this place, 3km to the north of Curitiba’s old town, probably tops them all. Designed by the Brazilian architect after whom it was named and resembling a giant, silver eye, the galleries themselves are as much the attraction as the Modernist art on display.
Everyone loves a scenic train ride, and this is one of most enchanting on the continent, winding around mountainsides, slipping through tunnels and traversing one of the largest Atlantic Forest reserves in the country between Curitiba and the coast at Paranaguá.
Famed for its golden beaches and tranquil setting, the idyllic ‘Island of Honey” in the Bay of Paranaguá is a hit with backpackers and surfers looking to enjoy the simpler things in life and the island’s waves, some of the most gnarly on the Atlantic coast.
As the home of Brazilian churrasco (barbecue), Porto Alegre boasts some historic (and belt-busting) culinary delights. Barranco has been a meat lovers’ paradise since 1969 – try the celebrated (and gargantuan) vazio, the classic steak cut of the south, and the all-you-can eat “salad sidecar”. Banca 40 in the Mercado Público has been justly lauded for its bomba royal ice cream dessert since 1927, while nearby Gambrinus is the city’s oldest restaurant, knocking out typical gaucho food – lots of beef –since 1889.
The other natural showstopper in the south lies within the largely untouched wilderness of the Parque Nacional dos Aparados da Serra: the dizzying canyon of Itaimbézinho. Some 5.8km in length and 720m deep, its upper walls are wrapped in mist and cloudforest, while the canyon floor is a mass of subtropical vegetation.
The highlight of this jungle-smothered reserve is the mesmerizing, other-worldly Cascata do Caracol, a stunning waterfall that plunges dramatically over a 131m-high cliff of basaltic rock in the middle of the forest.
Dramatized in the tear-jerking movie The Mission, the Guarani War of 1756 devastated much of the south as the Spanish and Portuguese sought to exercise control over semi-independent Jesuit missions. Rio Grande do Sul is home to seven now ruined Jesuit Missions, with four in an excellent state of preservation. The best place to base yourself is the town of Santo Ângelo, where you can access the haunting mission of São Miguel Arcanjo, founded in 1687.
Stephen Keeling was in Brazil on a research trip for the new edition of Rough Guides' South America on a Budget.
Top image: Araucaria trees, Itaimbezinho Canyon, Cambara do Sul, Rio grande do Sul © Bernard Barroso/Shutterstock