Visitors have to fly 575 miles northwest from Rio or 540 miles north from Sao Paulo to reach Brasilia, the country-capital that President Julcelino Kubitschek intentionally moved from Rio to a remote interior site to create a new and architecturally spectacular space for politics. With the recent increase in nonstop flights from the U.S., Brasilia is not only more accessible for travelers, but geographically serves as a logical gateway to The Pantanal, a wildlife discovery-and spread over one of the largest freshwater wetlands in the world.
While the world has other planned cities—Washington, D.C. for one—none has the daring and vision of Brasilia. Founded in 1960, the capital is internationally known and enjoyed for its urban design and architecture.
Day 1-2: Brazil’s futuristic capital is quite simply a Mecca of modernism. The urban design, in the shape of a huge bird, was the work of Lucio Costa, with architectural elements by Oscar Niemeyer (the Metropolitan Cathedral is perhaps the master’s boldest work), and landscaping (seeded with plants from the Amazon) by Burle Marx. Most of the major architectural marvels lie along the Eixo Monumental, and with a Plano Piloto Circular bus ticket, one can hop-on-hop-off at most monuments in the futuristic complexes of government palaces (Palacio do Itamaraty is the super-star). Another essential to know: the capital has one of the highest concentrations of starred restaurants in the country.
Day 3-4: Consider making the trip (200 miles) west from Brasilia to Goias Velho, a former gold mining town that is one of the best-preserved colonial towns in Brazil. Its historic center is also a little-known UNESCO World Heritage Site. On view are seven colonial churches, the most impressive being the 18th century Igreja de Sao Francisco de Paula, and the Bandeiras Museum, which traces the history of the region’s gold rush. There are several charming pousadas in town, and many family-style restaurants serving traditional Goiana cooking. (Empadão are a specialty.)
Day 5: Return to Brasilia for a last-minute look around, perhaps sunset from the observation deck atop the TV Tower, if you haven’t taken a helicopter tour during the previous visit. Or take a hike in the Jardim Botanico, go for a sail on Lake Paranoa, or dine overlooking the lake at the Royal
Tulip Brazilia Alvorada hotel.
An enormous floodplain (50,000 sq. miles), extending its reach into the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso Sul, the Pantanal is home to some of Brazil’s most spectacular wildlife and scenery. Although the Amazon has the celebrity image, it is the Pantanal that shines as Brazil’s top destination for wildlife viewing and birdwatching. Making themselves at home here in great numbers are jaguars, caimans, anacondas, giant otters and capybaras, while the list of resident birds includes toucans, macaws and jabiru stork. Pantanal is a primetime destination for eco-adventurers, while anglers will find some of the best fishing (March-October) rivers in the world.
Note: Every September, thousands of people—most toting fishing poles—descend on Caceres on the banks of the Rio Paraguai for the International Fishing Festival, recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest fishing fete. For trophy catches of pintado, dourado and pacu fish, winners take home cars or boat motors.