Brazil is by far the largest country in South America. From the Amazon to the coast, it hosts a vast array of wildlife and landscapes within its borders. Rio de Janeiro, the nation’s capital and cosmopolitan hub, hosts the world-famous Carnival each year, and is also a great place to catch a game played by the renowned Brazilian football team. Whether you’re looking for a jungle adventure, hip scene, or relaxing vacation, a Brazilian cruise has something to offer.
Brazil’s first peoples were composed of several ethnic groups descended from ancient migrants from North Asia. They were semi-nomadic tribes who subsisted on hunting, fishing, gathering, and some agriculture. These early cultures did not leave stone monuments or keep written records, and unfortunately most wood and bone relics have deteriorated in the humid climate.
A significant number of these tribes were wiped out with the arrival of European diseases, and others were enslaved to work on Portuguese sugar plantations.
Today, native tribes have been offered official protection by the FUNAI (National Indian Service). There are still some tribes living deep in the Amazon that have been able to resist acculturation into Brazilian society. Unfortunately, rubber exploration daily poses a serious threat to these native peoples, including expulsion and death.
Colonization of Brazil
The first European to land in Brazil was the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvarez Cabral, in 1500. The region received its name from the pau-brasil, a wood brought back by the explorers that produced a red dye. Portugal began to colonize the area about 30 years after Cabral made landfall. The colonies exported agricultural goods, mainly sugar, back to Portugal; gold and diamonds were also mined for a short time during these early colonial years. Portugal began to bring African slaves to Brazil to work in these colonial endeavors, in addition to the smaller quantity of native slaves.
As the Napoleonic Wars advanced on Portugal, the King Joao fled with his court to Rio de Janeiro in 1808. When he returned to Portugal, he left his heir Pedro as regent of Brazil. Dom Pedro was crowned as the first Emperor of Brazil when the country received its independence in 1822.
Dom Pedro’s son, Pedro II, was deposed in 1889 and replaced by Brazil’s first de facto president. The country became the United States of Brazil, and the large states of Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais alternated the presidency for several decades.
A military junta took control of the government in 1930, setting in motion a series of military regime changes that occurred until 1985, when indirect elections took place and Brazil returned to a civil government regime.
Brazil is a vast country, the biggest on the South American continent by far. One of Brazil’s most incredible features is the Amazon basin. This second-longest river in the world is surrounded by rainforest; it is not crossed by a modern bridge at any point of its flow. The basin composes all of the north and central portions of Brazil. The Amazonian rainforest is the largest rainforest in the world. The river has hundreds of tributaries, supporting a vast array of life all the way to its outlet to the sea. A trip to Brazil would be incomplete without a glimpse of the impressive Amazon.
Brazil has a long a diverse coastline along the Atlantic Ocean that includes both sandy beaches and dramatic cliffs and mountains ranges. The highest peak in Brazil, Pico de Neblina, reaches to 9,735 feet. The greatest mountain range is called the Sierra del Mar.
Iguassu Falls are the widest waterfalls in the world. They form an immense semi-circle made up of 275 individual falls. These are located on the Argentinean border, offering the opportunity to add another country to a Brazilian cruise.
Brazil’s huge topography also hosts savannahs and low mountains in the South, where the Pantanal floodplains open up. The country has something to offer to every type of traveler.
Most of Brazil’s population is clustered around the southeast coast. The states of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo dominate agriculture, development, and cosmopolitan trends. A Brazilian cruise will most likely stop in one of these bustling cultural hubs of Brazil.
Incredible Numbers of Wildlife
Brazil is known to have some of the highest numbers of wildlife in any country in the world: the most mammals, highest primate diversity, and highest number of terrestrial vertebrates and invertebrates in general. A Brazil tour is sure to reveal an astonishing array of animals.
The Amazon region hosts the greatest biodiversity in the world, with 20% of the world's bird species living here. Travelers may expect to see several species of monkeys, and keep looking to the trees to see three-toed sloths. Tapirs and coatis run along the forest floor, along with the capybara, the world’s largest rodent. Travelers will most likely not see (or want to see) the majestic spotted jaguar, black jaguar, and ocelot that roam the Amazon. Some giant otters may be seen playing in the river itself, avoiding the prehistoric-looking caiman with whom they share the waters. This region is home to a long list of snakes (including the legendary anaconda), turtles and tortoises, and lizards.
Exotic birds inhabit the extensive canopy. Colorful parrots and macaws are abundant, and the species range from tiny hummingbirds to great eagles. Beautiful butterflies and other fascinating (some of them very large!) A fortunate birder may even spot a harpy eagle, the largest raptor in all the Americas and one of the largest eagles in the world.insects also inhabit the air in the Amazon.
The mata atlantica, or Atlantic forest, extends along the entire coast of Brazil from Recife south to Uruguay. This region includes a rich variety of forests, shrublands, and savannahs, as well as such a large number of endangered species that it has been declared a World Biosphere Reserve. Maned sloths and spider monkeys can be found only in the Atlantic forest.
Along the coast, dolphins are frequently sighted. An array of sea life completes the long list of wildlife that calls the vast country of Brazil their home. Fall is the whales’ calving season. From July through September, you can sometimes catch glimpses of whales with young calves from Santa Catarina island and some other southern parts of the Atlantic coast.
As one of the world’s largest wetland areas, the Pantanal’s exceptional biological diversity includes a wide variety of aquatic and semi-aquatic plants, as well as freshwater fauna such as the giant river otter. As many as 700 species of birds can be found in the Pantanal, including the yellow-headed caracara, jabiru stork, black vulture, macaws, heron, and horned screamer. The elusive Maned Wolf may be found here as well as the Great Anteater. Most of the birds, animals, and plants native to the Pantanal can be found nowhere else on earth.
Along the Uruguay border, pampas deer and pampas foxes peep out through the long grass of the Brazilian pampas. In this region alone, a sharp-eyed birder can add over 50 different birds to their life lists, including the rufescent tiger-heron and the elegant crested tinamou.
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As the savvy traveler has probably already figured out, Brazil’s weather is as variable as its landscape. The equator bisects the country, and so 90% of the country is tropical. Temperatures along the equator are hot with next to no seasonal variation.
As the fifth largest country in the world, Brazil has a correspondingly wide diversity of climate, ranging from temperate to equatorial. Belem, Macupa, and other northern parts of the country are dominated by equatorial and tropical rainforest weather. Rio de Janeiro has an extremely warm and muggy savannah climate which borders on monsoon tropical. Sao Paulo and points further south have a temperate climate. Snow sometimes falls on the higher mountains, while the southernmost parts of Brazil can expect an occasional frost. Thus, there is no single best time of year to visit Brazil.
Yet most parts of Brazil outside the equatorial region do have seasons, and some of them even come close to having frost during their winters. In general, the busiest and warmest times of year for beaches are December, January, and February, which is high summer in the southern hemisphere. At this time of year, shallow ocean temperatures can be as high as 75 degrees in many places. However, most people from temperate parts of the world will find most major Brazilian beaches comfortable at any time of year.
Belem and the Amazon River basin
The weather in this region of Brazil is predominantly steamy and very stable in temperature. Year-round high temperatures average in the high 80s, while low temperatures almost never go below 70.
As a rainforest region, there is no genuinely dry season. However, the rainfall between June and November is only around 5 inches per month near the mouth of the Amazon, while further north in Macapa, on the equator, it can drop to under 2 inches per month, especially after September. In contrast, the rainfall during the rest of the year can reach up to 17 inches per month.
Recife, Bahia, and Northeast Brazil
This region of Brazil has a tropical monsoon climate, with strong wet and dry seasons. It is extremely hot, with high temperatures consistently in the high 80s and low temperatures in the low 70s. The coolest time of year is July and August, because the seasons are reversed south of the equator. Even then, the average high temperature is still over 80 degrees, although this is somewhat moderated by ocean breezes.
The rainy season runs from March to August. The heaviest rainfall usually comes during June and July, with an average of over 15 inches per month. However, a slight variation in the trade winds can make most of the rain miss the region entirely. In those seasons, drought and brush fires can be a serious issue. Even during the regular rainy season, rainfall drops off fast further inland.
Brasilia and the Brazilian highlands
Most of the Planalto Brasileiro is tropical savannah, which has a dry season and a humid season. This close to the equator, temperatures are fairly consistent year-round, with average high temperatures in the high 70s and low 80s, while average low temperatures range from the mid-50s up to the low 60s.
The coolest night temperatures fall between May and September, just before the humid season hits in October. The rainiest months are November through February, with an average rainfall that can reach 10 inches per month. However, it may not rain at all between May and August.
Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Santa Catarina, and Southeast Brazil
The few miles difference between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo makes the difference between a tropical savannah climate and a humid subtropical climate. Proximity to ocean breezes and elevation makes a great deal of difference in both temperature and humidity levels. Persistent strong ocean winds can make even Sao Paulo feel cold.
On average, high temperatures in Rio de Janeiro range from the high 70s to low 80s, with the coolest months being May through October. Temperatures at night are roughly 10 degrees lower than their daytime highs.
Sao Paulo has roughly the same summer temperatures, but gets slightly colder during the winter, with June and July average highs only reaching the low 70s and nighttime temperatures dipping down into the mid-50s. However, sometimes Sao Paulo experiences a “little summer” at the end of July, with a few unseasonable days of temperatures in the low 80s. These kinds of sudden changes have given Sao Paulo a reputation for unreliable weather.
Rio de Janeiro has fairly consistent rainfall year-round, with a small spike in April and again in December. In these months, the monthly rainfall may hit 6 inches. Otherwise, the average monthly rainfall is 4 inches or less.
In contrast, Sao Paulo has a strong rainy season from October to March, with monthly rainfalls of nearly 10 inches during January and February. During July and August, Sao Paulo hardly gets any rain at all.
On Santa Catarina island, summer high temperatures are in the mid-80s and summer lows are in the low 70s. In winter, high temperatures average in the high 60s, while lows can dip into the mid-50s. There is a small rise in total rainfall during summer and a small dip in total rainfall during winter, but typical monthly precipitation only ranges from about 4 to 8 inches, with the rainiest months being February and March.
Severe storms used to be extremely uncommon in the northern parts of this region, although Sao Paulo does have the occasional severe thunderstorm. However, in January 2011, Rio de Janeiro experienced its first recorded tornado-like storm.
Iguacu Falls and South Brazil
The climate of the Iguacu Falls is highland subtropical, with hot summers and cool winters. Average summer high temperatures between November and March are in the low 90s, with lows in the high 60s. June through August are the coldest months, with daily highs in the low to mid 70s and night time lows below 50 degrees.
The driest months are July and August. There is also a rainfall spike in October, although most months can expect 4 or 5 inches of rain.
Further south in the Brazilian pampas, the temperatures get cooler, fog is much more common along the coastal region, and the changes of season are more sudden. With no mountains or other highlands to block wind and storms, the interior is often extremely windy after a frontal system has passed. The best time of year to visit this region is between September and February, before the heavy autumn rains hit.
The cuisine of Brazil is just as diverse as the rest of its culture, mixed with flavours from Portugal, Africa, and its own indigenous peoples. It is very common for a Brazilian recipe to substitute a locally available ingredient for one which is not as available, such as manioc for potatoes.
The cuisine of the Southeast is the most well known, as that region houses the major cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Comida mineira is world famous; it consist of a combination of rice and beans, chorico sausage, corn, and queijo de minas, an excellent fresh cheese. Polenta and fried bananas also come from this region.
Brazil’s national dish is feijoada, a traditional Portuguese stew made with beans, beef, and pork, which is often served with rice. Coffee is the national drink, and many of the best coffee beans are grown on the Brazilian highlands. These foods can be found in most parts of Brazil.
In the South, the gauchos (South American cowboys) have influenced this cuisine that is famous for its sun-dried beef and churasco (Brazilian barbeque). The South also produces the bulk of Brazilian wine.
The Northeast was most heavily influenced by Portuguese cooking; fish and seafood are abundant on the coast, and are accompanied by goatmeat, cassava, and rice and beans.
The cosmopolitan hubs of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, as well as the larger cities of Brazil house an array of international foods as well as the best of all regional Brazilian cooking.
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A Complex and Beautiful Culture
Brazilian culture is a rich blend of European, African, and indigenous elements, which varies strongly by region.
Brazil’s larger cities birthed the samba and many other kinds of Latin dancing, including strange mixes such as samba-reggae and Axe styles and capoeira, a uniquely Brazilian martial art which is also a dance in its own right. It was created by enslaved Africans as a sly method of maintaining their skills and physical shape under the watchful eyes of their masters. Meanwhile, at the southernmost tip of Brazil, Argentine and Uruguayan gaucho influences take precedence.
Brazil's music diverges from other musical styles of South America. The country is famous for samba, bossa nova, frevo, and foro. The samba is Brazil's unofficial national music style. Its roots are African, and it is full of intricate harmonies made with drums and a type of guitar.
In 2014, Brazil will be able to celebrate its strong football (soccer) culture when it hosts the FIFA World Cup. The main host city will be Rio de Janeiro, but Brazil has received special permission from FIFA to have 12 hosting cities. The Brazilian national football team has won 5 previous World Cups, more than any other FIFA nation. As the Brazilians say, “The English invented football. The Brazilians perfected it.”
The official language of Brazil is Portuguese, with a Brazilian twist. Much of Brazil’s distinct architecture has Portuguese roots as well, especially along the coast in places such as Holambra in Sao Paulo. Further inland, the historic opera house in Manaus, built with imported Italian marble and French glass, bears silent witness to the bygone days of the rubber barons.
One of the most ambitious architectural projects ever is Brasilia, the largest planned city ever completed. When coming into Brasilia by air, you can clearly see how the streets, parks, homes, and government buildings of Brasilia are laid out along the pattern of a flying bird. Located just 200 miles from the historic quarter of Old Goias, a UNESCO World Heritage site, Brasilia was designed to be a thoroughly modern capital city for a country which was coming of age. The dream became reality on April 21, 1960, when the capital was officially transferred to Brasilia from Rio de Janeiro.
Portuguese colonization was also the original source of Brazil’s strongly Catholic religious roots, although Roman Catholicism is not as dominant in Brazil as it used to be. However, many good Brazilian Catholics see no contradiction in participating in spiritist or Afro-Brazilian rituals under the shadow of the 130-foot tall Christ the Redeemer statue, blessing Rio de Janeiro from its lofty perch atop Sugarloaf Mountain.
One of Brazil’s most famous traditions is based on a Candomble ritual to honor the orisha of the sea. More than 2 million people dress in white and go to the Copacabana beach every year on New Year’s Eve. At midnight, everyone throws flowers into the ocean or lights candles on the sand, and many people also go into the water and jump 7 waves while making a wish for the coming year.
No introduction to Brazilian culture would be complete without mentioning Carnival. On the weekend, Monday, and Tuesday before Lent begins, every major city in Brazil bursts into party mode, with parades, pagents, unbelievably fantastic costumes, regional music, and samba performances. Business which is not related to Carnival shuts down for the week.
The festival originated when the Church incorporated pagan celebrations of thanksgiving into its calendar. Portugal was particularly fond of these celebrations, and brought it to the New World where it caught on quickly. Carnival occurs to mark the start of Lent, as a "farewell to the pleasures of the flesh".
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The Brazilian environment is incredibly rich in natural resources, not to mention the first-place winner of the world’s biodiversity. Many species living in the rainforest are thought to be undiscovered. Unfortunately, these precious areas are under considerable threat; even as new species are discovered, others slide into extinction before our eyes.
Extensive logging and rubber exploration are responsible for deforestation on a massive scale. An area the size of a small country is destroyed every year. In addition to providing habitat for uncounted species the Amazon is capable of absorbing a huge amount of carbon dioxide, which is essential in controlling the world’s rising climate. The Brazilian government is often unable to regulate logging practices, as many logging operations are unofficial and difficult to detect in the rainforest’s vast reaches.
However, Brazil has been successful in creating several protected areas. As of today, the country has thirty-five national parks, twenty-three biological reserves, six ecological reserves, and twenty-one ecological stations.
A short drive inland, a very unusual combination of sand and fresh water can be found at Lencois Maranhenses National Park. The desert-like sand dunes of this national park develop surprisingly large, deep lagoons during every rainy season. Later, during the dry season, they dry out so completely that most lagoons vanish entirely. This allows the sand dunes to move, so that next year’s lagoons will never look exactly the same.
The cerrado is a tropical savannah which can be found mostly on the southern part of the Planalto Brasileiro, towards the Paraguay border. Although this region is one of the biologically richest savannahs on earth, much of this region is being converted to agricultural monoculture with the assistance of government subsidies. The historical city of Goias and the famous hot pools of Caldas Novas can both be found in the north part of this region, a short drive from Brasilia and a slightly longer one from Rio de Janeiro and San Paulo.
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Brazil's Political Structure
Brazil is a democratic republic with a governing president. Laws are enacted by the bicameral National Congress. The people of Brazil use a system of proportional representation to elect their representatives.
Between 1968 and 1985, Brazil was briefly ruled by a military dictatorship. Since 1985, the country has returned to civilian government characterized by peaceful transitions of power.
Democracy was fully re-established to Brazil in 1988, ushering in the current Federal Constitution. The Brazilian Federation is composed of four autonomous entities with no power hierarchy: States, Municipalities, Union, and the Federal District. The division of power among the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches exists as well, organized by the above four entities and elected by direct suffrage. The country is currently governed by Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first woman president.
Given its great size and population, Brazil is a South American leader in politics as well as economics. It is considered a leader of developing countries worldwide, with a foreign policy oriented toward multi-lateralism.
The economic policies initiated by former president Fernando Cardoso have completely eliminated hyperinflation and grown Brazil’s economy into the seventh largest in the world. However, this early economic progress has come at the expense of high taxes and poor investment in public services, along with increased corruption. Although Brazil’s economy was relatively untouched by the recession of the late 2000s, inflation has now crept back up to 6%.
In June 2013, these grievances erupted into widespread protests in most Brazilian cities. Thus far, most of these protests have been peaceful. The National Congress has addressed several specific grievances, which may reduce the level of protests later this year.
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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Brazil's Modern History
Brazil’s modern history begins with the Napoleonic Wars. When Napoleon occupied Portugal, King John VI fled to Brazil. From 1808 to 1821, Rio de Janeiro was not just the capital of Brazil but the capital of Portugal as well.
Of such things, the seeds of independence are sown. When King John VI returned to Portugal in 1821, he made his son Pedro the regent of Brazil. However, Pedro refused to return to Portugal. Instead, he declared Brazil’s independence on September 7, 1822. It took 3 years, but Portugal finally recognized Emperor Pedro and Brazil’s independence in 1825.
Within 3 years, Pedro I was undone by his domineering relations with the Brazilian parliament and by the Argentina-Brazil war of 1825-1828, which resulted in Brazil’s permanent loss of Uruguay. At the demand of the Brazilian people, Pedro I abdicated in favor of his 5-year-old son in 1831. After a sometimes stormy regency, Pedro II was proclaimed Emperor in 1840, at the age of 14.
Under Pedro II, the Brazilian economy finally escaped its dependence on brazilwood, sugar, cotton, gold, and diamonds. Coffee became the new Brazilian gold. Commerce and industry shot up. The first railroads were built, and the population of Brazil tripled, mostly through European emigration. Although Paraguayan raids forced Brazil to declare the War of the Triple Alliance in 1865, the half century under the rule of Pedro II was mostly peaceful and prosperous.
However, a different kind of trouble was waiting in the wings. The major landowners were not happy about the slow shifts toward abolition. When Pedro’s daughter Isabel officially signed into law a parliamentary bill which abolished slavery, it triggered a series of reactions which culminated in the overthrow and exile of the royal family. On November 15, 1889, Brazil became a republic.
The change in government did not interrupt the march of progress. As the world stumbled uneasily towards the War to End All Wars, a new boom began in Amazonian rubber, which resulted in the brief glory of the rubber barons before cheaper Asian sources undercut the Brazilian rubber market. Today, the historic opera house in Manaus, built with imported Italian marble and French glass, bears silent witness to those bygone days.
During this time, the Brazilian government also acted to protect a few treasured natural areas. Foremost among them was Iguacu Falls, which became a national park in 1897. Cautious development since that time has made the unbelievable beauty of these falls much more accessible to travelers than they used to be.
Following a brief dreadnaught race similar to that between Germany and Great Britain, Brazil entered both World War I and World War II on the Allied side. The postwar period and 1950s were marked by the most ambitious construction projects yet, culminating in Brasilia, the largest planned city ever completed. When coming into Brasilia by air, you can clearly see how the streets, parks, homes, and government buildings of Brasilia are laid out along the pattern of a flying bird. Located just 200 miles from the historic quarter of Old Goias, a UNESCO World Heritage site, Brasilia was designed to be a thoroughly modern capital city for a country which was coming of age. The dream became reality on April 21, 1960, when the capital was officially transferred to Brasilia from Rio de Janeiro.
However, at the same time as these marvels were becoming reality, social conditions for the majority of Brazilians were eroded by unrelenting inflation. Even during the Brazilian economic miracle which catapulted the country to the seventh largest economy in the world, the gaps between rich and poor were continuing to grow. In June 2013, these longstanding grievances erupted into widespread protests in most Brazilian cities.
Brazil's Ancient History
Brazil is the largest country in South America and the fifth largest country in the world, with a sweep of history to match. Human habitation in Brazil began at least 8,000 years ago, possibly much earlier. The first Europeans arrived in Brazil in 1500 AD, just 8 years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue. From that time to this, Brazil has emerged as one of the leading nations of the 21st century.
It was once thought that the ancestors of the Brazilian indigenous tribes crossed the Bering land bridge during the last Ice Age, between 15,000 and 20,000 years ago. From there, they gradually migrated south, until they reached Brazil between 8,000 and 11,000 years ago.
However, some artifacts at the Pedra Furada archaeological site are at least 17,000 years old, and possibly up to 32,000 years old. Thus, the earliest tribes in Brazil may have descended instead from people who walked over a previous Bering land bridge during a previous ice age, roughly 21,000 to 40,000 years ago.
Another emerging theory is that some Brazilian tribes may have originated from the other direction. This kind of contact may have occurred through Polynesian sea journeys, which covered thousands of miles. Another route for migration might have been by way of the Antarctic glacier during the last Ice Age.
In addition to circumstantial evidence that this kind of migration is possible, DNA testing has confirmed that the extinct Botocudo Indians who used to live in the Espiritu Santo region, just north of Rio de Janeiro, had Polynesian DNA. The Botocudo were best known for their habit of inserting large wooden plugs into their ear lobes and lower lips.
Archaeological interest in the Amazon rainforest and other wilderness areas of Brazil is growing fast, and new discoveries are being made all the time. Although the predominantly humid climate of Brazil has destroyed wood and even bones, stone arrowheads and pottery shards still tell their tale. The rock, the soil, and the Brazilian sky have even unveiled a few surprises.
Some of the most promising sites can be found at Pedra Furada in Serra da Capivara National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which is located roughly 400 miles inland from Recife. Archaeological tours to this region often use Petrolina as a base.
The rock paintings in these caves are a minimum of 6,000 years old, and could be up to 17,000 years old. Yet human habitation in Brazil may be even older than that. Some charcoal samples from the area are at least 56,000 years old. However, it is still uncertain whether these are from deliberate hearths or natural fire events.
These hidden civilizations thought surprisingly big. Deforestation of the Amazon forest in Acre, Brazil, has revealed massive earthworks which form highly geometric geoglyphs up to a mile long, which can only be seen properly from the air. These geoglyphs are between 1,000 and 2,000 years old in their current form, or possibly even older if they were remade regularly. The discovery of these geoglyphs has been forcing scientists to rethink everything they thought they knew about the Amazon rainforest.
In the early 16th century, the Spanish explorer Francisco de Orellana became the first European to sail down the length of the Amazon River. He reported that the banks of the river were densely populated agrarian towns and cities, going upstream for hundreds of miles. The pre-Columbian city on the island of Marajo was home to 100,000 people. Altogether, as many as 5 million people may have lived along the Amazon River, far more than its total population today. The secret behind their success was terra preta, the miracle soil of the Amazon rainforest which had been built up by their ancestors over centuries.
Today, the Amazon River basin is the most thinly populated region in Brazil. Although nearly every person in Brazil has some indigenous ancestry, many tribes were completely wiped out by the results of Spanish and Portuguese contact: some through disease, others through a deliberate policy of extermination. After 5,000 years of continuous habitation, all that remains of these ancient cities are a few fragmented artifacts, several patches of dark earth, and the silent rock carvings and geoglyphs.
However, in the depths of the Amazonian rainforest, there are still at least 67 known tribes which have never had outside contact. Much of the Amazonian rainforest is still unexplored, so there may still be some tribes which have never encountered the outside world at all.
History of European contact and colonization
Brazil is the gateway to central South America. Pedro Alvares Cabral officially claimed the land for the Portuguese Empire when he landed at Porto Seguro, in what is now Bahia, on April 22, 1500. Some scholars think that the Portuguese already knew about the horn of Brazil when Portugal and Spain divided the world in half between them in the Treaty of Tordesillas. Thereafter, Brazil would remain predominantly Portuguese, even during the half-decade when Portugal was under Spanish rule.
The earliest wealth of Brazil was the wood and dye of the brazilwood tree. It was called the brazilwood tree because it was similar to a different tree in the Far East which was also known as brazilwood. Thus, this tree gave Brazil its name, and not the other way around.
Trade in this dye was so valuable that the coast of Brazil was soon plagued by smugglers and pirates. Partly to counter this smuggling, the first permanent Portuguese settlement in Brazil was established at Sao Vicente in 1532, near modern-day Santos, Sao Paulo. A second settlement followed at Olinda in 1537, near modern-day Recife.
The oldest city in Brazil is Salvador da Bahia, which was founded on March 29, 1549. Salvador would continue to be the capital of Brazil until 1763, when the capital was transferred to Rio de Janeiro. It has been out of the mainstream of Brazilian industrialization ever since, which has allowed its old downtown area, the Pelourinho, to survive and, after restoration during the 1990s, to thrive.
However, there were also attempts by other nations to establish secret colonies to harvest brazilwood. The most famous of these is the 1555 attempt by Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon to establish France Antarctique, the earliest of the colonies on Guanabara Bay. That colony was evicted by the Portuguese in 1567, with the help of a nearby fort which the Portuguese had built 2 years earlier. In its place, a Portuguese settlement grew up around the fort. Its location would turn out to be extremely important.
As the settlements grew, the brazilwood riches were supplemented by sugarcane plantations. The high world demand for sugar, combined with a perfect climate for sugar cultivation, ensured a high profit. Cotton and then coffee were later added as cash crops.
Alongside the sugar trade came the slave trade which provided the people to work on the plantations. Between 1532 and 1888, when Brazil finally banned slavery, an estimated 4 million slaves were brought to Brazil from Africa. Many indigenous people were also captured and enslaved during the first century of colonization.
Sugar was the backbone of the Brazilian economy until the 1690s, when the discovery of gold and diamonds near modern-day Bela Horizonte converted Minas Gerais from barely populated to mining towns almost overnight. These were the first large inland settlements in Brazil.
For much of the next century, most of the new gold and diamonds in the world were being found in Brazil. However, all that wealth was useless unless there was a way to ship them to their markets. Suddenly, the small town which had grown around the fort on Guanabara Bay gained a new identity as the primary port to the mining regions. That was the real beginning of the growth which has made Rio de Janeiro one of the major cities of the world. Just 7 decades after the first gold strike, Rio de Janeiro became the new capital of Brazil. Even today, after the political offices have been moved inland, Rio is still the spiritual and cultural capital of Brazil.