With the shock waves of war radiating outward from the Persian Gulf, distant Brazil has gained new appeal for American travelers who like a pinch of the unpredictable but do not want to cross the Atlantic this time around.
Tourism to Brazil had declined in the late '80s because of high prices and a frightening crime epidemic in Rio de Janeiro. But now Americans have to fear terrorists more than thieves.
Though Brazil supported the United Nations resolutions against Iraq, it is staying close to neutral. In addition, for the moment general political peace prevails here. There are no guerrillas in the mountains, no food riots in the cities.
The instability of world oil markets has undermined President Fernando Collor de Mello's tough program to curb hyperinflation. Prices are cruelly high for Brazilians, but for foreigners the dollar is gaining value every day against the local currency, the cruzeiro. While travel to and in Brazil remains pricey, the growing strength of the dollar means there are many bargains to be found by visitors who allow time and flexibility for perusing.
Nor is it necessary to tackle the bugs and boas of the Amazon to see sights that are distinctively Brazilian. Too often Americans seem to forget that Brazil is the world's fifth largest country, with a land mass bigger than the continental United States. Its variety is vast.
Moreover, with a country so substantial and so insulated by mountains, rain forests and language (Brazilians speak Portuguese) from the rest of Latin America, Brazilians are remarkably free of complexes about their national identity. As a result, Americans are neither stigmatized as imperialists nor venerated as kings of capitalism. Most of the people traveling around Brazil are Brazilians, and an American visitor can move among them relatively unperceived, without being called upon to justify the bombing of Baghdad at every turn.
The flight from Miami to Rio takes about eight hours. For those wishing to avoid American carriers, the Brazilian airline Varig, though uneven, is capable of brilliant service. For $440, travel agents in the United States sell the Brazil Airpass, a non-refundable air pass good for travel during a 21-day period on any one Brazilian airline to five different Brazilian cities, with unlimited connections through Rio or Sao Paulo. You make the reservations directly with the airline once you get to Brazil, and they can't be altered. Though its rules are complicated, the air pass is an economical way to cover a lot of ground.
Rio has a wide variety of accommodations, from modest to luxury. The Othon chain, which has several modern hotels along the Rio beaches, is currently offering doubles for $100 a night. To go in style, stay at the Copacabana Palace, a stately lady with a fresh facelift. Room rates start at $120 double, with free upgrading to a deluxe room.
Take Rio for what it now is: an aging beauty of a metropolis whose sagging features are a bittersweet reminder of past splendor. The busy boardwalks along Ipanema or Copacabana beach, and out around Arpoador Point between the two, are good places for a midmorning stroll. Resist the temptation to sunbathe or swim: Brazilians hurl mountains of trash on those beaches during the weekends, and despite recent heroic efforts by the city sanitation authorities, neither the beaches nor the water are yet clean. Muggings are frequent, so when you go out leave everything in your hotel safe deposit box except the shirt on your back and a little cash.
A visit to the famous Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado hill, though trite, remains obligatory for the urban panorama. Another must destination: Tijuca Forest. The road through the park is closed to traffic on Sundays, and there in the heart of Rio you can walk for free through miles of tropical forest where toucans and marmosets roam in the wild.
Plan on very late nights for music -- it's central to the Brazil experience. A bossa nova revival is underway: Precursors Johnny Alf and Joao Donato have returned to clubs like People in Leblon, and Leila Pinheiro is touring with a revue of the classics, leading a new generation of bossa nova musicians. Check what's on the bill at the Canecao theater. Recently tropicalismo veteran Caetano Veloso dropped in for a few nights with only his acoustic guitar, a lovely, intimate performance.
Rental cars in Rio cost about $40 per weekday, plus 30 cents a kilometer -- sometimes cheaper on weekends. Visitors should drive extremely defensively. There seems to be an automotive jihad underway in Brazil, with many Brazilians driving as though it would be a high honor for them to die in a gory car accident.
Parati, a 17th-century port town whose colonial center has been closed to traffic and impeccably restored, is worth a visit. From Rio, it's a couple of hours' drive south through the Barra da Tijuca to the Rio-Santos road and along the Green Coast. The delightful Pousada do Ouro (Tom Cruise stayed there before you) charges $93 a night for a double, breakfast included. The pleasant but much simpler Hotel Coxixo or the Pousada da Marquesa charge $50 a night or less. In Parati, you can rent a schooner ($10 a trip) or a motorboat for a day cruise out to the many offshore islands.
Two hours north is Itatiaia National Park, an expanse of forest and a birdwatchers' mecca that Brazil declared a preserve in 1937 and then apparently forgot. The best choice is a spotless Swiss-style lodge right in the park, the Repouso Itatiaia, with a sauna and a natural-spring pool; it charges $64 a night for a chalet with all meals included. Inquire at the desk about hiking trails to the peaks and waterfalls in the park, which has so little development that you may feel like the first explorer.
To sample Brazil's more far-flung attractions, the air pass comes in handy. From Rio, the air pass can take you about 750 miles southwest across Brazil to Foz do Iguacu, another conventional tourist stop that is nevertheless worth it, since travelers still return saying that words fail them to describe the power of the waterfalls there. The Hotel das Cataratas (doubles from $96 with breakfast included) is right at the falls.
Ouro Preto, 180 miles north of Rio, is an elegantly preserved 18th-century colonial mining capital that is also a modern-day university town. It's reachable by bus from Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais. Doubles at the Estrada Real, on the outskirts of town, start at $84 with breakfast included. But an enterprising visitor can find a cheap bed at one of the student hostels, known as republicas.
From Belo, check connections to Natal, on the northeast coast. The miles of beaches north of town are graced with long dunes. The top of the line is the seaside Vila do Mar, which charges $95 for a double room with breakfast. Today Natal is a place to live out the reverie of a pure, broad beach that 30 years ago drew voyagers to Rio de Janeiro.
For more information, contact the Brazilian Tourism Foundation, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 519, New York, N.Y. 10176, 212-286-9600. Julia Preston is a special correspondent for The Washington Post based in Rio de Janeiro.