Previously this was an area not easily reached by Americans, who had to travel further south to Brazilian airline hubs in Rio or Sao Paulo and then double back to destinations in the north. That was then…
Now several airlines offer daily flights between Miami and Manaus in the heart of the Amazon with connecting flights to all major Brazilian cities.
Northern Brazil is waiting for travelers to discover its Atlantic beaches, dunes and coastal towns and cities as well as its prime eco-tourism destinations with jungle lodges, rainforest villages, and zoological parks to explore.
Some of Brazil's most beautiful and unspoiled beaches are along its northeastern Atlantic coast. If it's beaches you like, begin in Salvador, capital of Bahia state. Here you'll find an exotic city with roots deep in African culture. In colonial times slaves were brought here to work on the surrounding sugar cane and tobacco plantations. The culture lives on in the music, food and artwork of the region.
Visitors will encounter food vendors, including black women dressed in 18th century costumes selling traditional specialties made from the fish and produce of the region. Another unique sight is demonstrations of Capoeira, a traditional foot-fighting technique brought by Angolian slaves and is performed by experts and street performers alike.
Salvador, commonly called Bahia, has colonial architecture, fabulous regional food, a number of museums and churches and various beaches on the nearby Atlantic coast. The best beaches are Jaguaripe, Piata and Itapoa, which can be reached by city bus. North of the lighthouse at Itapoa there are beachfront camping areas for a truly natural experience.
For those seeking a little more comfort there's the recently developed Costa do Sauipe resort area north of Salvador. You'll find a number of hotels and resorts with access to miles of unspoiled beaches. One example, Superclubs' Breezes all-inclusive resort, boasts five miles of private beach in addition to all the other amenities you expect from Superclubs.
Trade winds from the North and South Atlantic converge on the northern coast of Brazil bringing balmy, breezy weather to hundreds of miles of palm-lined beaches. Fortaleza anchors this area as capital of Ceara state. Facing the ocean, the city is a series of beaches connected by a wide, waterfront promenade lined with cafes and enlivened by street artists and craft vendors. At night the area becomes the center of activity as people stroll along the waterfront to catch the evening breeze, stopping at the open-air restaurants and bars and browsing stalls displaying paintings, crafts, and other wares.
The most popular in-town beach is Praia Fortuna, about 10 minutes east of the center of the city. There are nice waves, dunes, fresh-water showers, straw shacks selling local seafood specialties and vendors offering chilled coconuts with the top cut off and a straw inserted to sip the milk.
There's plenty to do after the sun goes down, too. Croco Beach, a popular nightspot with several bands performing in a complex of open-air buildings fronting Fortuna Beach, offers good food, cool drinks and dancing.
There are other beaches in Fortaleza, each attracting a different crowd, but if you want the ultimate northern Brazil beach experience, visit the dunes that stretch east from the city.
Noted for its miles of colorful sand dunes and a laid back attitude, Canoa Quebrada, about two hours from Fortaleza, is well worth a visit. The main mode of transport here is by dune buggy. On a recent visit our bus dropped us off at the head of the town's main street, Broadway, a pedestrian avenue lined with small restaurants and shops. From here we hopped on dune buggies for a wild ride through the cobblestone streets of the town. Once on the beach we stopped at the top of a flight of stairs leading down to the Barraca Chega Mais, an outdoor restaurant that hugged the sandy cliffs above the Atlantic.
We were seated at a long tables on a shaded terrace overlooking the ocean and platters of whole fish with toppings of grilled vegetables and salsa, giant prawns and lobsters, salads, french fries and beans and rice were served "family style". There was plenty of cold beer and the view was splendid.
We made it back up the stairs and took a long ride across the famed dunes that dot the Atlantic coast in this area of Brazil. In some places it was a shear drop, making the ride like a sand roller coaster, and all of the scenery was incredibly beautiful. The sand, the clouds and the ocean all seemed to be as nature had intended.
After a tour of the city, the dune buggies dropped us at the bottom of Broadway just at dusk. We strolled by a number of cafes along the way as they geared up for evening patrons, and wished we were spending more than an afternoon here.
For an entirely different Brazilian experience, head to Amazonia. There's flora and fauna galore with plenty to see and do.
Manaus, less than five hours from Miami by air, is the capital of Brazil's Amazonas state and the hub of a growing eco-tourism industry. Facing the Rio Negro to the south and surrounded by tropical rainforest, life here revolves around the river.
This city had its heyday during the rubber boom of the late 1800s and early 1900s and buildings from that era remain. The classically styled opera house hails to the time when wealthy people sent their clothing to Paris to be laundered. It was lavish then but time has taken its toll. Now a manufacturing center for electronics and motor vehicle assembly, the city is making a comeback and the port is busier than ever.
The city's municipal docks were designed to float because of seasonal changes in the level of the river and are still an interesting tourist stop. Villagers, with canoes loaded with pineapples and bananas, load their cargo onto larger boats for the trip downriver and larger riverboats vie for passengers.
Opposite the docks, the city's market teams with activity. The ironwork from which the original market was constructed was imported from France but vendor's stalls soon outgrew the space. The market now covers several city blocks and is a wonderful place to shop for souvenirs - especially the mounted, stuffed piranhas and decorative blowguns that most people bring back.
About an hour by boat from Manaus is one of the area's premier natural wonders -- the "Meeting of the Waters." Here the light brown waters of the Rio Solimoes and the dark waters of the Rio Negro meet and flow side-by-side for several miles before intermingling to form the Amazon. Of course the Amazon basin is made up of a number of rivers that begin in the Peruvian Andes and drain most of northern South America, so this is just one meeting but it's more interesting than most. It looks like chocolate and butterscotch pudding blending and, if you dangle your hand in the water as you cross between the two, you'll feel a difference in the temperatures of the waters.
Most fish don't cross the barrier between the two rivers. A notable exception is the dolphin. Schools of dolphin are often spotted on the Amazon and gray dolphins are fairly common. If you're lucky, you might glimpse a pink one. Although popular in Amazon folklore with differing tales about their magical powers, these mammals are nearing extinction so keep your eyes open.
There are a number of eco-lodges in the jungle surrounding Manaus. Most are accessible only by boat and offer a variety of activities, so there's something for every traveler. Some are rustic and offer a more natural setting. Others are geared toward tourists and families and provide the same unique jungle experience but with a swimming pool and cool drink at the end of the day.
We like the Ariau Amazon Towers, about two hours up the Rio Negro from Manaus. Here a philosophy centered upon preserving the land, assisting the local people and educating the rest of the world about the Amazon is paired with comfortable accommodations, good food and unique surroundings. There's even a cyber-café!!
The complex of circular structures is built in native style above the river's flood plane and connected by walkways high in the jungle canopy. Along the walkways are feeding stations for the macaws and monkeys that are native to the area so photo opportunities abound.
Standard rooms are triangular and most don't have air-conditioning but the views are spectacular. Deluxe rooms have AC, 360° views and screened porches with hammocks.
During the day there are canoe trips, jungle walks, piranha-fishing excursions and visits to native settlements to see how the people live. Evening boat rides to spot wildlife at night, gaze at the stars in total darkness and listen to the sounds of the rainforest end the day. This is a family-friendly and eco-sensitive, yet fun, place to discover the marvels of the Amazon.
Another eco-option is cruising the Amazon. The activities are similar to the lodges but you see more of the river as you cruise. We recently spent a leisurely day on the luxury yacht MV Desafio, a 24-passenger vessel that offers 4-day/3-night cruises from Manaus.
We visited the "Meeting of the Waters" and then boarded motorized canoes to explore lakes and smaller tributaries. Our guide pointed out native birds and trees but one highlight of this trip was that local children in small canoes approached our boat to show us their "pets" - a baby crocodile, an anaconda and a young three-toed sloth. The sloth was like a bristly stuffed toy and seemed to enjoy being passed from person to person in our canoe while posing for the camera.
Desafio cruise passengers enjoy daily canoe excursions, trekking in the jungle, piranha fishing, swimming and nighttime outings. Meals are served in the air-conditioned dining room surrounded by panoramic views of the river and each air-conditioned cabin has a private bathroom with a shower.
There are other Amazon cruising options, from no stars to deluxe. The Amazon is navigable from Belem, in the river's delta, to Iquitos, Peru. Many tourist-friendly boats connect cities along the river.
For a real adventure, buy a hammock and hang it on the deck of one of the many riverboats at any city's municipal dock and travel like the locals do.
Farther downriver, Belém, the capital city of Brazil's Pará state, and located at the mouth of the Amazon delta on Guajará Bay about 50 miles from the Atlantic coast is emerging as an eco-tourism destination. Here mango trees shade the streets and colonial buildings peek from between modern ones throughout the older sections of the city.
The city's famed Goeldi Museum complex is a quiet oasis in the midst of the city. The zoological gardens offer a chance to observe indigenous species, both caged and roaming free. We watched a three-toed sloth lazily maneuver through the branches of a tree overhead as we gazed at electric eels in a pool below. There's also an aquarium, museum and bookstore. Some areas are now undergoing remodeling and will soon re-open.
Many public plazas dot the city. The Plaza Republica, anchored by the city's Opera House, is a pleasant place to walk, especially on weekends when stalls featuring souvenirs and handicrafts line the adjacent sidewalks.
We visited the old city fort where visitors may climb upon the ramparts and watch the sun set over the harbor. There's also a great view of the city's Ver-o-Peso market.
The market is best visited early in the day. Its many buildings and stalls hug the waterfront and colonial buildings, now preserved by the city for their historical value, add charm to the surroundings. Freshly caught fish, ripe produce, fruits and herbal remedies are a few of the things you'll find in abundance. Whether browsing with a camera or shopping basket, this is a colorful and interesting place to wander.
The Amazon delta around Belem offers a number of options to explore. There's sport fishing, jungle trekking and leisurely exploring by boat the small rivers that make up the delta. A day on the water is a must here.
You can't say this is the "tip of the iceberg" when touting the weather friendly, worry-free vacations Brazil offers - icebergs are one thing Brazil doesn't have.
Brazil has small towns and big cities, vast wetlands teaming with wildlife in the Pantanal, the magnificent falls at Iguassu, Oscar Niemeyer's early architecture in Belo Horizonte and later in the planned capital, Brazilia. There are hundreds of beaches, carnivals and festivals to discover. There's even an emerging wine producing area in the south near Porto Alegre.
The upcoming World Cup and Olympic Games Brazil will be hosting are sure to highlight Brazil as a destination for sports lovers but there's s much more to discover here.