World Cup 2014 Part 2: What to See Off the Pitch in Brazil’s Host Cities
For part two of our 2014 Brazil World Cup travel feature, we head north and west. From the technicolor wildlife of the Amazon to the African beats of Salvador, the post modern capital of Brasília, and the tropical idylls of the northeast coast, here’s the scoop on what World Cup travelers should see and do off the pitch.
Salvador is an out-of-body experience. Capital of the northeastern state of Bahía, the city reigns as Brazil’s party capital with as many as 2 million people rejoicing in the city’s streets for ten uninhibited days during what has become the world’s largest carnival. The neighborhood of Pelourinho forms the city’s heart and soul, a pastel hued enclave of pretty colonial houses that nudge up against local handicraft stores, bars, cafés, and spectacular churches.
Head for the Largo Cruzeiro de São Francisco to experience the Brazilian martial art known as capoeira; a fusion of music, dance, and lots of kicks and spins. Brazil’s rich African legacy and ethereal sensuality is expressed through Candomblé, a composite of African paganism and Catholicism that brings new meaning to the concept of a religious mass. During rituals known as toques, worshippers become possessed by their Orixá (protector god). Ceremonies usually involve animal sacrifice and pulsating drum beats, not to mention a lot of writhing, convulsing, and a fair amount of pyrotechnics.
Capital of the northeast state of Ceará, with a population of 2 million, Fortaleza is Brazil’s fifth largest city. Fortaleza is where forró music was born. This sensual, Latin version of a waltz is based on the instrumental interplay of an accordion, a bass drum called a zabumba, and a metal triangle. Forró’s rhythms are so intrinsic to the region’s psyche that going out on the town translates, literally, as “going to forró.”
While the city itself is hardly a beauty, the World Cup has proved the catalyst for a much needed revamp. The monumental 67,000-seater Arena Castelão stadium, known to locals at the Gigante da Boa Vista (Giant with a Good View) is one of the county’s biggest stadiums and will host six World Cup matches, including a quarter final. The World Cup will coincide with the festas juninas, or June festivals, when the streets are transformed into a massive dance party. Within reach of the city, the Ceará coastline offers idyllic coves and isolated beaches which regularly top the travel industry’s best beach lists.
While sightseeing is not Natal’s selling point, the city does have a handful of sights worthy of a day or two’s exploration. Along the waterfront, many of the old buildings of the down-at-heel Ribeira district are being restored to their former Art Deco glory. At the very the tip of Natal’s peninsula, the 16th-century Fort of the Three Kings is a fairytale, childlike vision of what a fort should look like.
The city’s living room is the Via Costeira (and its adjacent cycle path), a coastal promenade which funnels south to Ponta Negra, a former fishing village with the best beach closest to the city that is crowned by the Morro do Careca, a massive sand dune reaching almost 400 feet. North and south of Natal, there are beaches for every mood and moment. Maracajaú is a well reputed snorkeling spot, with crystalline, shallow coral reefs five miles from the shoreline and easily accessed via a moored platform. South of Natal, Pipa is a laid-back, former hippy haven where dolphins cavort right offshore.
In April 1960, Brasília usurped brash and beautiful Río do Janeiro to become Brazil’s capital city. The ultimate planned city, famed architect Oscar Niemeyer was commissioned to design a futuristic utopia that would eliminate political, social, and economic barriers and create an outward expression of an egalitarian philosophy. Neimeyer’s love of sensual waves summoned a style of architecture that, he claimed, resembled both the curvaceous form of the Brazilian woman and the undulating mountains of his homeland. The result feels at times Orwellian, at times cold and stark, but always honest, thrilling, and gloriously avant grade.
While Brasília thrives as a dynamic, cosmopolitan center for multinational businesses, the quest to marry human forces that are essentially organic with a structured model has become the great challenge of Brasília’s time. Still, it is impossible for visitors not to be inspired by the city’s sublime modernist monuments or to be moved by the resolute belief of Oscar Niemeyer.
The smallest of the host cities, the unpretentious cowboy town of Cuiabá is the capital of Mato Grosso. While the city itself is hardly loaded with must see attractions, Cuiabá is the gateway for the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetlands on Brazil’s western flanks. One of the most biodiverse places on the planet, the Pantanal’s fragile ecosystem is home to over 1,000 bird species, 480 reptile species, 400 fish species, and more than 300 mammals including herds of the capybara (the world’s largest rodent) and elusive the jaguar.
Within 80 miles of the city you can relax in thermal waters, or take a snorkeling, rafting, or rappelling trip. North of the Pantanal, the breathtaking Parque Nacional da Chapada dos Guimarães is an otherworldly landscape of kaleidoscopic, sandstone rock formations and plunging waterfalls that remain under the tourist radar.
Hot and sticky, Manaus forms the urban heart of the largest tropical rainforest in the world. In the 19th century, the city built its wealth as the world’s first and only international rubber supplier — that was until a Brit named Henry Wickham smuggled Para rubber tree seeds to England in 1876. During their short lived hey day, the city’s rubber barons didn’t really have a knack for the understated, as evidenced by the opulent, neoclassical opera house, Teatro Amazonas, and the regal Palacio Rio Negro, which is now a renowned cultural center.
For libations, or to sample the unique flavors that characterize Amazonian cuisine, head to the lively neighborhoods of Adrianopolis and Cachoeirinha. A fusion of sustainable engineering and stunning design, the 44,500 seater Arena da Amazônia is a nod to the region’s diverse cultures; the stunning metal latticework stadium was inspired by an indigenous basket and will play host to four group phase matches.