Land in Rio de Janeiro and enjoy the view on the way in from the airport to the Zona Sul, where you will likely pass several favelas (squatter settlements) rich with history, the Guanabara Bay and Rio's packed commercial port, the city's colonial-era downtown, and finally arrive at the beachside, where the open Atlantic greets you. Cool down with an icy açaí berry drink at sunset.
Logistics: Wear your breeziest clothes on the flight so that you can keep cool when you arrive in sunny Rio de Janeiro, where summer temperatures are the norm most of the year.
Take the train up Corcovado to the Christ Statue, where the 360 views of the city never fail to impress. Once you descend, a short trip through the charming neighborhood of Botafogo will take you to Urca. There, ride a cable car to the top of the iconic Sugar Loaf mount, where you can enjoy a different perspective on the city. End your day at the Praia do Arpoador, right between Copacabana and Ipanema. Locals applaud there as the sun sets.
Logistics: Check the weather to make sure the Christ Statue will not be above the clouds. Wear comfortable shoes for hiking, especially on rocky Arpoador. You can also hike the hill that leads up to the second tram station of the Sugar Loaf mount.
Since Rio bursts with beauty, travelers often overlook many of the city's indoor treasures. Try the Roberto Burle Marx Farm, a plantation-turned-museum dedicated to Brazil's most famous landscape designer. You should also make time for the Museu de Arte Contemporânea, designed by the one and only Oscar Niemeyer, in Rio's sister city, Niterói, across the Guanabara Bay. Top the night off with live music in Rio's grunge-chic party district, Lapa.
Logistics: Enjoy the view as you cross the bay to Niterói, either by the Rio-Niterói bridge or the ferry from Praça 15.
Rio's long coastline offers a beach for every taste. Want crowds and people-watching? Try Copacabana, with lunch in the Confeitaria Colombo along the Forte de Copacabana. A surfer's beach? The Prainha past Barra da Tijuca is for you. A beach for families? You can't go wrong at the low-key Praia do Leblon.
Logistics: Beyond Copacabana and Ipanema, you will need a car or long bus rides to get to the beaches farther southwest along the coast.
Make your way to the airport in Rio for a short flight to Brasília. Enjoy the view of Brasília at night—the Esplanada dos Ministérios is generally empty and feels elegant and massive lit in the dark. Remember that Brasília was the city of the future—half a century ago. Enjoy Oscar Niemeyer's modernism and the clean lines of the government buildings of the Esplanada dos Ministérios. If you don't stay in Niemeyer's Brasília Palace, at least have dinner in the elegant Oscar restaurant to enjoy the grounds. Feel free to enter the boisterous Congress—just show an ID to get in.
Logistics: Take note of whether your flight leaves in Rio from Santos Dumont, the domestic airport, or Galeão, which is both international and domestic. The former is usually preferable and closer to Zona Sul hotels. Brasília has a speedy metro, but a taxi is a better option if you have difficulty orienting yourself on Brasília's highly organized map, which involves cardinal directions, "sectors," and numbered streets.
Fly into Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil's side of the famous South American falls. Remember that the city is but a launching pad to the falls.
Logistics: Talk with local tour operators to decide whether to take a bus into the falls or a private taxi, which means you'll pay your own entrance fee separately. If you arrive early enough in the city, head straight to the falls—the Brazilian side has fewer trails and can be enjoyed in a few hours.
The general wisdom is the following: Brazil's side of Iguaçu offers the best views, while Argentina's side offers the fun winding hikes that often directly overlook the falls. A boat trip into the falls is a thrilling way to enjoy its majesty.
Logistics: Crossing the border is a cinch, but make sure your Brazilian visa is in order so that you can return to Brazil afterward. Bring a towel if you plan on doing a boat ride.
Fly from Iguaçu to São Paulo to enjoy a day in the country's frenetic commercial capital. Wander anywhere in the city and you're likely to find a museum, top-notch restaurant, or a world-class boutique. Don't miss the outstanding collection at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo.
Stroll along Avenida Paulista, the packed heart of commercial São Paulo. The Jardins neighborhood will take you to more mouthwatering restaurants than you can handle. Check out the bustling Mercado Municipal for a light lunch and, if time permits, take a taxi to the massive CEAGESP wholesale market. The warehouses of fresh foods and endless stream of buyers will make you appreciate what breadbasket Brazil has to offer.
Logistics: The metro in São Paulo is extensive, so make sure you grab a map before riding. Remember that distances in São Paulo can be quite far. Give yourself plenty of time between outings.
Try to fly in through the Santos Dumont airport so that you can hop out for an extra afternoon in Rio. Sunsets are glorious year-round.
Logistics: Give yourself cushion time, especially during holidays. Long lines for emigration can hold you back.
Spend your first afternoon visiting either Corcovado and the Christ Statue or Sugar Loaf. Relax at night with caipirinhas from a beachside kiosk.
Logistics: To keep days in Rio stress-free, consult a map to see the distances between your outings. Remember that rush hour is not just in São Paulo—try to make sure you are set to wait out the worst afternoon traffic.
Explore Rio de Janeiro's Tijuca forest, a sprawling national park in the middle of the municipality. Hike up the Pedra Bonita for great views. If you're feeling especially adventurous, you can then hang-glide down to the São Conrado beach.
Logistics: Start early to avoid the hottest part of the day. Wear sunscreen since the sun burns strong in Rio.
Take a break after a strenuous day by lounging on either Copacabana or Ipanema Beach. Take several leisurely strolls to fully appreciate Rio's beach culture. The city's lagoon, called the Lagoa, offers a series of chic bars and restaurants behind Ipanema beach.
Logistics: Be careful with Rio's strong undertow and waves. Bring only the bare minimum of belongings to the beach, and make sure someone from your group keeps an eye on them.
Say good-bye to Rio with breakfast at the Confeitaria Colombo, one of the city's oldest restaurants and known for its sweets, before flying to Salvador, the bayside capital of Bahia State. If you start in Pelourinho, you won't have to look hard to find live music in the evening.
Logistics: Keep in mind the difference it makes to fly from Rio de Janeiro's Santos Dumont, the centrally located domestic airport, or Galeão, the international airport about 45 minutes from it. Traffic leading toward Galeão during rush hour is often at a standstill.
Stroll along Pelourinho, the center of historical Salvador, and the surrounding churches, art galleries, and museums. Start in the Largo do Pelourinho, where you can visit the impressive Museu da Cidade. Head up Rua Maciel de Baixo and stroll the cobblestone streets of the colonial district, flanked by houses in pastel shades. Continue through Praça da Sé to the Municipal Square towering above the Lower City, which offers spectacular views. Have a snack of acarajé, the traditional fried snack with shrimp and spicy peppers.
Logistics: Wear comfortable shoes—you may need to hike up one of Salvador's steep streets.
Bahia is a seedbed of Brazilian culture. To learn more, visit the comprehensive Museu Afro-Brasileiro (Afro-Brazilian Museum) next to the Catedral Basilica. Many of the country's top musicians have come from here. Make a point to find live music and capoeira, a highly rhythmic form of martial arts. The Balé Folclórico de Bahia, for example, stages exhilarating dance shows that showcase the region's Afro-Brazilian culture.
Logistics: Salvador's life often happens on the streets. Carry only what you need so that you can have your hands free.
Manaus, the gateway to the Amazon region, is not just a hop from Brazil's coastal cities. Remember that distances in Brazil's Amazon region are far, and flight service is sparse. You'll need to reserve at least half a day for this leg of the trip, since there are no direct flights from Salvador. When you arrive late in the day, check out a few Manaus sites, such as the iconic Opera House whose dome is tiled in the colors of Brazil's flag.
Logistics: Make an effort in advance to find a close connecting flight, often via Brasília, that will minimize your trip time. Flight service from Northeastern cities remains minimal to none.
Here, your options are limited only by your time. With five or more days, you can plan an excursion to a lonely river reserve, such as the breathtaking Mamirauá, with floating guest homes on the river and with pink dolphins jumping outside your window. A shorter trip could involve seeing the two-colored "Meeting of the Waters," where the dark waters of the Rio Negro meets the sandy-colored Rio Solimões to form the mighty Rio Amazonas. If you don't have the time for a long trip on the river, try a short day trip, such as the Praia do Tupé, a half-hour riverboat ride along the Rio Negro from the center of Manaus. Gird yourself and hire a guide for a day of tree climbing up a 130-foot Amapazeiro.
Logistics: A normal "barco" (boat) will take you at the leisurely speed of a regular riverboat, often several days to get to popular Amazonian destinations, whereas the speedboat "lancha," sometimes called an "ajato," will fraction the time of your rides, albeit without the ability to lounge around on the deck. Generously apply bug spray, as mosquitoes are a real threat. It is also highly recommended that you get a yellow fever vaccine before going to the Amazon.
Look for some of the only-in-the-Amazon products, such as the healing copaiba oil or the "milk" of the Amapazeiro tree, used for medicinal purposes. A bar of the energetic guaraná, which locals grind into a fine powder using the hard, dried tongue of the pirarucu fish, will keep you awake during your next adventure.