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WHERE TO GO
The most heavily populated and economically advanced 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 in their own right, though Rio, one of the world¹s most stupendously sited cities, stands head and shoulders above the lot. The South, encompassing the states of Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul, stretches down to the borders with Uruguay and northern Argentina, and westwards to Paraguay, and includes much of the enormous Paraná river system. The spectacular Iguaçu Falls (at the northernmost point where Brazil and Argentina meet) are one of the great natural wonders of South America.
The vast hinterland of the South and Southeast is often called the Centre-West and includes an enormous central plateau of savanna and rock escarpments, the Planalto Central. In the middle stands Brasília, the country¹s space-age capital, built from nothing in the late 1950s and still developing today. The capital is the gateway to a vast interior, the Mato Grosso, only fully charted and settled over the last three decades; it includes the mighty Pantanal swampland, the richest wildlife reserve on the continent. North and west, the Mato Grosso shades into the Amazon, 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 Xingu, 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. It¹s a region of dramatic contrasts: a lush, tropical coastline with the best beaches in Brazil, slipping inland into the sertão, a semi-arid interior plagued by drought and appallingly unequal land distribution. All the major cities of the Northeast are on the coast; the two most famous are Salvador and Recife, both magical blends of Africa, Portugal and the Americas, but Fortaleza is also impressive, bristling with skyscrapers and justly proud of its progressive culture.
WHEN TO GO
Brazil splits into four distinct climatic regions. The coldest part in fact the only part of Brazil which ever gets really cold is the South and Southeast, the region roughly from central Minas Gerais to Rio Grande do Sul, which includes Belo Horizonte, São Paulo and Porto Alegre. Here, there¹s a distinct winter between June and September, with occasional cold, wind and rain. However, although Brazilians complain, it¹s all fairly mild. Temperatures rarely hit freezing overnight, and when they do it¹s featured on the TV news. The coldest part is the interior of Rio Grande do Sul, in the extreme south of the country, but even here there are many warm, bright days in winter and the summer (DecMarch) is hot. Only in Santa Catarina¹s central highlands does it occasionally snow. The coastal climate is exceptionally good. Brazil has been called a "crab civilization" because most of its population lives on or near the coast with good reason. Seven thousand kilometres of coastline, from Paraná to near the equator, bask under a warm tropical climate. There is a "winter", when there are cloudy days and sometimes the temperature dips below 25°C (77°F), and a rainy season, when it can really pour. In Rio and points south the summer rains last from October through to January, but they come much earlier in the Northeast, lasting about three months from April in Fortaleza and Salvador, and from May in Recife. Even in winter or the rainy season, the weather will be excellent much of the time.
The Northeast is too hot to have a winter. Nowhere is the average monthly temperature below 25°C (77°F) and the interior, semi-arid at the best of times, often soars beyond that regularly to as much as 40°C (104°F). Rain is sparse and irregular, although violent. Amazônia is stereotyped as being steamy jungle with constant rainfall, but much of the region has a distinct dry season apparently getting longer every year in the most deforested areas of east and west Amazônia. And in the large expanses of savanna in the northern and central Amazon basin, rainfall is far from constant. Belém is closest to the image of a steamy tropical city: it rains there an awful lot from January to May, and merely quite a lot for the rest of the year. Manaus and central Amazônia, in contrast, have a marked dry season from July to October.