The states forming the South of Brazil – Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul – are generally considered to be the most developed parts of the country. The smallest of Brazil’s regions, the South maintains an economic influence completely out of proportion to its size. This is largely the result of two factors: the first is an agrarian structure that, to a great extent, is based on highly efficient small and medium-sized units; and the second is the economically active population that produces a per capita output considerably higher than the national average. Without widespread poverty on the scale found elsewhere in the country, the South tends to be dismissed by Brazilians as being a region that has more in common with Europe or the United States than with South America.

Superficially, at least, this view has much to substantiate it. The inhabitants are largely of European origin, and live in well-ordered cities where there’s little of the obvious squalor prevalent elsewhere. Beneath the tranquil setting, however, there are tensions: due to land shortages, people are constantly forced to move vast distances – as far away as Acre in the western Amazon – to avoid being turned into mere day-labourers, and favelas are an increasingly common sight in Curitiba, Porto Alegre and the other large cities of the South. From time to time these tensions explode as landless peasants invade the huge, under-used latifúndios in the west and south of the region, and it is no coincidence that it was here that the Landless Movement (Movimento dos Sem Tera) first emerged.

For the tourist, though, the region offers a great deal. The coast has a subtropical climate that in the summer months (Nov to March) draws people who want to avoid the oppressive heat of the northern resorts, and a vegetation and atmosphere that feel more Mediterranean than Brazilian. Much of the Paraná’s coast is still unspoilt by the ravages of mass tourism, and building development is essentially forbidden on the beautiful islands of Paranaguá Bay. By way of contrast, tourists have encroached along Santa Catarina’s coast, but only a few places, such as Balneário Camburiú, have been allowed to develop into a concrete jungle. Otherwise, resorts such as most of those on the Ilha de Santa Catarina around Florianópolis remain fairly small and do not seriously detract from the region’s natural beauty.

The interior is less frequently visited. Much of it is mountainous, the home of people whose way of life seems to have altered little since the arrival of the European pioneers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Cities in the interior that were founded by Germans (such as Blumenau in Santa Catarina), Italians (Bento Gonçalves in Rio Grande do Sul) and Ukrainians (Prudentópolis in Paraná) have lost much of their former ethnic character, but only short distances from them are villages and hamlets where time appears to have stood still. The highland areas between Lages and Vacaria, and the grasslands of southern and western Rio Grande do Sul, are largely given over to vast cattle ranches, where the modern gaúchos keep many of the skills of their forebears alive. The region also boasts some spectacular natural features, the best known being the Iguaçu waterfalls on the Brazilian–Argentine frontier and the incredible canyons of the Aparados da Serra.

Travelling around the South is generally easy, and there’s a fine road network. Most north–south buses stick to the road running near the coast, but it’s easy to devise routes passing through the interior, perhaps taking in the Jesuit ruins of São Miguel.

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