As host of the 2016 Summer Olympics, Brazil is attracting plenty of attention – and this vibrant, varied country has plenty to show off about.

Brazil has long lured cruise travellers with its beautiful beaches, packed with beautiful people. Of course, the jewel in the crown is Rio de Janeiro. But there’s much more to the Brazilian coast than Rio – from Florianópolis in the south to Recife in the north-eastern corner and the Amazon and Belém in the north.

Over the past decade, Brazil’s economy has greatly improved and there’s a growing prosperous middle class. Now the eyes of the world are turning towards Rio as it hosts the FIFA Confederations Cup this year, the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016. In July this year, Pope Francis will visit Brazil, and some 2.5 million people are expected to attend World Youth Day.

Brazil is larger in area than Australia but has a coastline less than a third the length of ours. As the country gears up for its upcoming sporting bonanza, it’s putting money into developing Rio and five other ports: Fortaleza on the north coast, Natal, Recife and São Salvador de Bahia in the north-east corner and Santos to the south of Rio. Each has its own appeal and all appear regularly on cruise itineraries.

Fortaleza has a Spanish/Portuguese/Dutch history dating back to 1500. It’s the second most-visited city by Brazilian tourists, after Rio. There are beaches, a maze of waterways, shopping malls and good nightlife. Recife (the name means reef) is a city of almost four million people and contemporary culture extends from a large Carnaval to a thriving restaurant and bar culture.

Natal is a beach resort city where the main attraction is the surrounding sand dunes and beaches, rather than city or culture. This is where wealthy Brazilians come to spend their summer holidays in a clean, relatively safe environment.

São Salvador de Bahia sprawls around a natural harbour and the city’s colourful historic centre (the Pelourinho) has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its extensive early Portuguese architecture. Today, it’s also known for its cafés, nightlife and music that also reveals a strong African heritage. Like Chile’s Valparaiso, Salvador is split by an escarpment, with a historic elevator linking the two sections.

Santos is where legendary football player Pelé began his professional career. It’s also a major export port for coffee and once had a coffee stock exchange (now a museum). Much of the city is built on an island and the beach is fringed by the longest beachfront garden in the world.

Ocean and River Cruising

In most countries ocean cruising and river cruising are neatly divided. Not so in Brazil, where the Amazon is navigable by cruise ships for more than 1,500 kilometres. The inland cruise destination is the city of Manaus, which has a population of 2.5 million. Made rich by rubber barons, the city’s best-known attraction is the Teatro Amazonas, a copy of the Paris Opera. It’s still an important trade port and the stepping-off point for jungle tours.

In a cruise industry conference in Miami this year, the complaint was made that bureaucracy, over-taxing and lack of infrastructure were turning cruise lines off visiting Brazil. That’s unlikely to happen, however, as it has what is, arguably, the world’s most desirable coastal drawcard: Rio de Janeiro.

It often seems as if there’s an invisible filter around Rio so that this most exquisite setting can be inhabited only by beautiful people living fabulous lifestyles. Towering volcanic plugs surrounded by dense jungle overlook wonderful tropical white-sand beaches fringed with busy bars and restaurants pulsing to a samba beat. No wonder Rio is known as the Marvellous City.

The city itself isn’t the main attraction here; that’s split equally between Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Both beaches are excellent but the crowds that throng to them are even more spectacular – and their choice of, or lack of clothing is remarkable. Even the resortwear locals don to go for coffee is smaller than swimwear in other countries. The view from Sugarloaf is as grand as so many movies have depicted it. The beachfront cafés and hotels bustle with glitterati. Tourists are often warned not to wear jewellery on the streets here – I suspect that might be because you can’t compete with the spangled locals.

Brazil is a complete world unto itself. Around 200 million Portuguese speakers in a largely Spanish continent, Brazilians often don’t look beyond their borders. The whole country is exotic and unusual, and it also has the largest river, the most extensive rainforest and perhaps the most beautiful city in the world. Because Brazil can be challenging to visit, it’s an ideal destination to explore on a cruise.

Is Rio safe?

The rape of a 21-year-old American student and the bashing of her French boyfriend on a bus in Copacabana in April this year brought the question of security in Rio – and other Brazilian cities – back into sharp focus. Officials say it was an isolated incident and experts say security in Rio and Brazil, generally, is better than it’s ever been. But the country still has a much higher crime rate than in Australia, Europe or the US. Cruise lines go out of their way to protect their passengers, so organised shore tours are safe enough, but one should be cautious when planning solo activities.[/infobox]


While Carnaval (Carnival in Portuguese) is celebrated throughout Brazil, Rio’s is by far the most impressive. It takes place over four days, before the start of the 40 days of Lent that lead up to Easter. In 2014 it begins on February 28. Some half a million foreign visitors come to experience it each year. The centre of the action is the giant Sambadrome, but there are endless parties in every neighbourhood and on every beach.

Holland America Line has scheduled Maasdam for three full days in Rio for Carnaval 2014 (plus a voyage up the Amazon) as part of its 49-day round trip voyage from Fort Lauderdale on February 7.[/infobox]

Who goes there?

The majority of cruise vessels are in Brazil over the summer months (October to April) and Rio is a popular port on round-the-world and other long voyages. Companies that operate in the area include Costa Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Cunard, Fred Olsen, Holland America Line, Hapag-Lloyd, MSC, Oceania, Princess, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, Silversea and Swan Hellenic.