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Geography of Brazil

Most of Brazil is forested on ancient rock, with different forested, plains, or barren regions divided by mountain ridges. Brazil’s most prominent geographical feature is the Planalto Brasileiro, a central plateau which takes up most of the eastern, southern, and central parts of Brazil. The highest point of land in this region, Pico da Bandeira, is a mile and a half high, and can be hiked to its summit in a single day. Altogether, these mountainous highlands make up half of Brazil’s land area.

The northern part of Brazil is dominated by the Amazon River basin, which straddles the equator. Half of Earth’s rainforests can be found in this region alone. At the Meeting of Waters near Manaus, the Rio Negro merges with the Rio Solimoes, or upper Amazon, to form the main part of the Amazon River. However, because of widely different temperatures and other water qualities, the water from the very dark-colored Rio Negro runs side by side with the sandy-colored water from the Rio Solimoes for more than 4 miles without mixing.

The Amazon River basin is the most thinly populated region in Brazil. Nearly all of its population lives in a few cities, especially Belem and Manaus, which are the only cities in this region with a population of over 1 million people. In the depths of the Amazonian rainforest, there may still be tribes which have never encountered the outside world.

Most Amazon tour travelers access the Amazon River basin by way of the Para River at Belem, or fly directly into Manaus or one of the other airports in the region. Much of this region is inaccessible except by river or air, but the Amazon River is navigable by cruise ship as far inland as Manaus.

In the central part of Brazil bordering Bolivia and Paraguay, the land turns into the Pantanal, a gently sloped basin which collects all the water runoff from that part of the plateau. Although much of the land floods in the rainy season, the higher parts of the Pantanal may be completely dry for months during the dry season. The ready access to seasonal water on rich silt has made the Pantanal one of Brazil’s richest agricultural regions. The only road into this entire region is the Transpantaneira, a raised dirt road which is subject to occasional flooding. Once again, the best way to access this region is by air.

In Brazil’s south, the Iguacu River and Parana River form a natural border between Brazil and Paraguay. Here, the drop from the plateau is sudden and steep. At the point where Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay meet, the Iguacu River tumbles from the plateau to form Iguacu Falls, which are 3 times higher than Niagara Falls (although Niagara Falls has a greater volume of water). The way the rainbows shatter among the cascading panoramic series of waterfalls is an experience not to be missed.

Further upriver along the Parana River is the Itaipu Dam, a joint hydroelectric project between Brazil and Paraguay. At roughly 5 miles wide, it is the second largest dam in the world after the Three Gorges Dam, and is considered one of the 7 modern wonders of the world. However, visually, it may never be a substitute for the lost Sete Quedas waterfall, which was deliberately flooded by the dam’s reservoir.

As the southernmost Brazilian state, Rio Grande do Sul is the only part of Brazil which includes the rolling hills and grass plains which are known as the pampas. Thus, it is also the gateway to the pampas gaucho culture of Uruguay and Argentina.

However, many travelers to Brazil never venture beyond Brazil’s Atlantic coast. If you just want sun and sand, Brazil has more than 2,000 beaches to choose from, including the world-famous Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro. Other popular beaches in Brazil can be found at Recife and other places along the horn of Brazil. This region occasionally suffers from drought, but that means all that many more sunny days for sun worshippers.

An unusual combination of sand and fresh water can be found at Marajo Island, which sits almost directly on the equator across from Belem. The outflow from the Amazon River is so great at this location that the island is completely surrounded by fresh water, even on its Atlantic sides.

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