South from Sao Paulo, the superstars of this corner of Brazil are Iguaçu Falls and the beaches of Santa Catarina’s cool island capital Florianapolis. The South consists of three states—Parana, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul. And international visitors are always surprised to find the climate becomes more Mediterranean than tropical and the population—descendants of German, Italian, Polish and Ukrainian immigrants—distinctly European.
Set against the background of the Atlantic Rainforest is one of the grandest natural wonders in the world—Iguaçu Falls, whose 275 cataracts spill in a torrent over the precipice more than 1.5 miles wide between Brazil and Argentina. Visitors are surprised to learn that the falls are more than double the width of Niagara Falls and 60 ft. higher. The rainforests engulfing this area are protected by the national parks of each country.
Day 1: Take the essential walking tour on the Brazilian side of the falls, one that offers the more stunning panoramic vistas than the Argentine side. Birders and others will love the Parque das Aves, which hosts some 900 bird species protected in enormous walk-in aviaries within the forest. In the afternoon, it’s time for an “eco-drive” in the national park and a thrilling raft ride on the churning Parana River, over the rapids and under the falls. Prepare to get wet.
Day 2: Tour the Argentine side, which is where 70 percent of the cataracts are located. Entering the national park, there is a small museum providing a good introduction to the region’s flora and fauna, and a shuttle mini-train that runs to two easy walking trails: one at eye level with the top of the falls and catwalks threading behind the falls; another leads to the base of the falls. Another train stop puts passengers upstream at the Devil’s Throat where 14 separate falls flow together to form the most powerful waterfall on the planet.
Day 3: Brazilian adventures to experience on this day include floating trips on the river, orchid hunting, birdwatching, guided forest hikes, and even rock climbing and rappelling. And, of course, the most breathtaking view of the falls is going to be aboard the 10-minute helicopter ride that sweeps in thrillingly close to the thundering waters of Iguaçu Falls. The flight can be extended to include the Itaipu Dam, the largest generator of hydroelectricity on the planet; this monumentally impressive dam can also be visited on a half-day ground tour.
The capital of Brazil’s southern state of Santa Catarina is Florianapolis, which sits on 33-mile-long Santa Catarina Island. This is a natural beauty of an island measuring 300 sq. miles and boasting 42 easy-to-reach beaches and Azorean fishing villages. Landscapes are a mix of lush rainforest and gargantuan sand dunes, and for stay-awhile visitors, this is a perfect destination to explore by rental car.
Day 1: In the morning, take a tour of Florianopolis, concentrating on the historic center, visiting the Casa da Alfandego, the former custom house that houses a local artisans’ association, and the Mercado Publico with its colorful stalls and lively cafes. Have a seafood lunch (every day, anywhere) and spend the afternoon at a beach. Surfers should head for (and stay on) east coast beaches, particularly Joaquina and Mole, and the dunes of Joaquina are favorites for sandboarding.
Day 2: Book an oyster tour, and learn all about this cottage industry while tasting both steamed and raw oysters, washed down with wine. In the afternoon, choose another beach, perhaps beautiful Santinaho on the north coast, also the departure point for the Aranha Mountain Hike, exploring a nature reserve of gorgeous dunes and a unique resting forest. The rest stop for refreshment and a swim is Mocambique Beach.
Day 3: For visitors here July to November, head south to the fishing village of Garopaba where Right whales migrate from the Antarctic to mate, give birth and nurse their young off this southern Brazilian state’s coast. During the summer months, the wild and windswept beaches of Garopaba beckon serious surfers.
Visitors who cross the bridges from Santa Catarina Island onto the mainland find more beaches stretching north and south, while inland attractions include Joinville, the largest city in the state of Santa Catarina and one whose rich cultural life comes to even more life each July during the largest Dance Festival in the world (a Guinness Book of Records entry), as well as a bloomin’ Flower Festival in November; and Blumenau, which was settled by Germans and hosts an Oktoberfest gala, second only to the one in Munich. Almost anytime is the time to climb aboard the breathtaking Serra Verde Express train that runs from the cultural city of Curitiba beneath peaks and through canyons to the coast.