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Where Next: Big-Picture Brazil
Amazon expeditions, floodplain safaris, hang gliding over Rio—in Brazil, wild is a
way of life.  Text by Joe Robinson   Photograph by Leonardo Papini/Getty Images
Photo: Hiking in Brazil
ON THE EDGE: Hikers in the Pantanal region, at the lip of the Aquidaban waterfall

The Perfect Week: Action plans for the trips of your life

Heather Thorkelson knew she was way off the beaten path when one afternoon, as her guide piloted their Zodiac along a distant tributary of the Amazon River, two local teenagers in a dugout canoe came paddling up beside them. "We'd been trekking through the jungle, seeing all this incredible wildlife—caimans, sloths, monkeys—and suddenly these guys show up to gawk at us. For them, we were the exotic animals," Thorkelson says.

The backwater sortie was one of many for the 27-year-old pharmaceutical sales rep from Toronto, who explored the upper reaches of the river on a ten-day GAP Adventures expedition from Iquitos, Peru, to the Brazilian Amazon hub of Manaus. On side trips up remote river offshoots, the crew had to hack their way through the overgrowth. "It's hard to describe how dense the trees were," she said. "We would go deep into the jungle and stumble across communities hours away from anything."

Adventures come supersized in Brazil, and the Amazon is the premier colossus—home to the largest rain forest on the planet, one of the biggest river systems, and the top river by volume. While you could easily spend weeks exploring this jungle primeval, four or five days is enough to get an authentic taste of bush living. That leaves ample time for sampling the action beyond Amazonia.

In the south, one of the globe's largest interior wetlands and ecological reserves—the Pantanal—bursts with caimans, peccaries, jaguars, and hundreds of species of birds. On the eastern coast, hang gliders swoop off ridges above the city of Rio de Janeiro, rock climbers scale postcard pinnacles, surfers ride jade-colored breaks, and in the balmy night, at festive sidewalk bars, the locals indulge in their national pastime: living it up. And while hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to Rio during Carnaval, most rarely venture beyond the festivities—which is why the price of adventure here remains well below that of other exotic destinations.

The main reason why Brazil is underexplored, however, is because it is such a vast place—almost as large as the United States—and English may as well be Serbo-Croatian outside of São Paulo's financial centers and Rio's glittery beach district. Luckily for travelers like Thorkelson, a number of reputable outfitters run far-reaching adventure trips that offer all the accoutrements of comfort while keeping close to the ground and the people.

On a recent customized trip with Australian & Amazonian Adventures, Denver attorney Lee Ann Huntington and her 14-year-old daughter, Hana, mounted a safari in the Pantanal, hang glided 1,500 feet (457 meters) above Ipanema, dived with dolphins off the northeast coast in the Fernando de Noronha Archipelago, and sped dune buggies over sand hills along the beaches north of Natal. "The Pantanal was amazing," says Huntington, "like an untouristed Africa. And the ranchers we stayed with were such generous hosts."

Brazil's massive geography is rivaled only by the immense spirit of the Brazilians themselves. Passionate, uninhibited celebrants of life, they have plenty of room to revel in and know how to pass the party along.


Expedition Rio
On the famed beaches of this city you can surf glassy tubes, play volleyball soccer-style, or just lay back and people-watch (as is the local custom). But the lush ridges towering over Rio hide a web of hiking trails and superb launchpads for hang gliders. At night the town's top workout is found on its dance floors. Try local favorite Rio Scenarium for kinetic samba action ($6; www.rioscenarium.com.br) and a taste of the city's general atmosphere of euphoria.

Base Camp: Across the street from Ipanema, Rio's most renowned beach, is the Hotel Sol Ipanema ($145; www.solipanema.com.br). It may not be lavish, but it's got location.


Into the Amazon
The Amazon River is the main highway of a wet zone fed by a mayhem of tributaries. To navigate this soggy realm, you have to travel by water without
getting trapped on it. Most cruise ships leave you straining to glimpse clumps of trees on distant shores, but the better outfitters will take you upstream on riverboats to where the real exploring begins—jungle treks, wildlife tracking, nighttime caiman-spotting, and fishing for piranha. The bait? Raw meat.

Base Camp: The Taj Mahal Continental Hotel ($96; www.grupotajmahal.com.br), near a wayward opera house built by mad rubber barons, is a prime jumping-off point for Amazon excursions. 
 

Marsh Madness
A vast, sloshing floodplain in Brazil's southwest, the Pantanal is more than 17 times the size of Florida's Everglades National Park. The world's biggest jaguars roam here, as do giant anteaters, river otters, and capybaras. More than 400 avian species, from fluorescent blue-and-yellow macaws to jabiru storks, make this a birding Valhalla. Your flat-bottom canoe will dodge caiman and be portaged past dry patches in the trucks of local ranchers. Out of Bonito, in the heart of the marshland, you can snorkel crystalline natural-spring rivers loaded with tropical fish, paddle the flow, and shower in warm waterfalls.

Base Camp: With towns confined to the periphery of the swamplands, your best bet for lodging is a pousada—a ranch guest house—such as those arranged through Amazon Adventures ($270; www.amazonadventures.com) or Open Door ($246; www.opendoortur.com.br).
 

Shore Party
The northeastern state of Bahia is the historic heartland of the country and of Afro-Brazilian culture. Poor but vibrant, the area is a hotbed of musical hybrids (such as the energetic axe and the Tex-Mex-ish sertanejo) as well as a growing number of waterfront activities. You can sail, surf, ride a Jet Ski, or bask on idyllic horde-free beaches from Natal all the way to Maceió. For some of the country's premier scuba diving, head offshore to the secluded Fernando de Noronha Archipelago, a little-known marine sanctuary. Back on the mainland, north of Natal, four-wheel it up and down a natural roller coaster formed by the hundred-plus-foot (thirty-plus-meter) sand dunes at Genipabu Beach.

Base Camp: The Novotel Natal Ladeira do Sol ($65; www.novotelnatal.com.br) puts you on the beach mere strides from the breakers.
 
 
Go Guided
 
THE FAMILY AFFAIR: Even the shortest attention spans will be kept occupied on Southwind Adventures' 11-day safari in the Pantanal ($2,275; www.southwindadventures.com). Childish delight will grip all when giant river otters pop up for photo ops, human-size storks labor to get airborne, and troupes of squirrel monkeys cavort through the treetops. Guests are lodged in comfortable houses on the grounds of a private ranch and nature reserve.

THE SAMPLER PLATE: Indulge in the urban and backcountry highlights of Brazil—Rio, the Afro-Brazilian capital of Salvador, and the Amazon—on an 11-day swing with Brazil Nuts ($1,600; www.brazilnuts.com). The itinerary factors in ample time for independent exploring during the city stays. Piranha fishing and jungle treks are on tap for the Amazon leg. Lodging ranges from rain forest ecolodges to fully equipped riverboats.

NATURAL WONDERS: On a 12-day journey with Amazon Adventures ($1,385; www.amazonadventures.com), you'll start by prowling the trails and takeoff spots on Rio's wraparound ridges and snorkeling among the city's profusion of offshore isles. Then you'll head out to trek the fringes of the Amazon, swamp-dog the Pantanal on a birding safari, and gawk at the power of thundering Iguaçu—South America's answer to Victoria Falls.         
 

Vitals

WHEN TO GO: Sync your summer escape with Brazil's peak winter months—June and July. The weather is warm and dry in the Amazon and the northeast, but it won't leave you roasting on a spit.
 
GETTING AROUND: Brazil's adventure playgrounds are too far apart to tackle by road, so domestic flights are a necessity. A Brazil Air Pass (www.brol.com) gives you four to six stops on Varig ($499) or TAM Airlines ($491).
 
WHAT TO BRING: Mosquito repellent is a top priority in the sultry Pantanal, Amazon Basin, and northeast. Other essentials: a money belt, river shoes, and a Portuguese phrase book.



Cover: Adventure magazine

Pick up the June/July 2006 issue for 50 top adventures in the national parks; how to move to Montana; the best ten-day Brazil vacation; 11 instant weekend escapes; and new watches, cameras, and sunglasses for summer.

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