Planning a visit to the gorgeous, dazzling family-fun destination of Brazil requires expertise. Considered the earth’s most biodiverse country, Brazil hosts an array of first-class opportunities for families. Deciding what to do with your family may be overwhelming at best when bearing in mind overland and domestic transports and distances, tours to keep your kids’ interested, food preferences and logistics. This is where a seasoned tour operator is extremely helpful and why we want to share some highlights for an entertaining top family vacation with bucket-list items, nature, wildlife, adventure and relaxation.
Rio de Janeiro
Most international flights land in either Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo, so beginning a vacation in one of these cities is the best way to kick off a family adventure. With its spectacular location directly on the ocean and its iconic attractions, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Rio is our favorite.
There are many must-sees in Rio, but the most recognized is the Christ the Redeemer statue standing 130 feet tall and looking over the city and surrounding majestic landscape from the peak of Corcovado mountain in the Tijuca Forest National Park. In 2007, this engineering marvel of concrete and soapstone was named one of the Seven Wonders of the World and has become the most remarkable symbol of both Rio and Brazil. You can access the statue by way of a scenic road and exciting train ride. Taking your family picture by the statue is lifelong memory.
Families with active kids can experience a hike through the Tijuca Forest — it’s the most authentic way of understanding the true grandeur of this area. The exuberant Tijuca Forest is the world’s largest urban rainforest encompassing 12.4 square miles. This forest was originally protected in 1861 because of the foresight of then Emperor, Dom Pedro II. He had concern for Rio’s freshwater supply when witnessing deforestation of the area surrounding the city. He ordered the replanting of the forest and it continues to play a key role in supplying Rio with fresh water to this day. Your family will love exploring and seeing a large variety of insects, butterflies, howler monkeys and birds along the trails.
Rio is an active city with many outlets for outdoor excursions. Does your family follow the Olympics? A fun activity is a bike ride around the scenic Freitas Lake. The trail is five miles long with music, food and drinks offered along the way. This lake is where the rowing events of the 2016 Summer Olympics took place, so it’s fun to imagine the fury of the competition as you leisurely cycle around this body of water.
Another must-do in Rio is experiencing the coastal vista from the top of the Urca Hill National Monument and Sugar Loaf Mountain. Along the shores of Guanabara Bay, Sugar Loaf spires up as if it were the head of a dog lying on the bay looking seaward. The Urca Hill National Monument comprises the dog’s body, overlooking the city. These two together are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are connected not only by land but by cable car, as well. A short family hike through the forest will bring you to the Urca Hill, where you will get a great overview of the city and the bay as your guide shares various points of interest. From here you can catch a cable car to the summit and observation deck of the monolithic Sugar Loaf for the most incredible panoramic views of Rio. Below you can also see the famous Copacabana beach as well as the Santa Cruz fortress.
Two hours’ drive outside of bustling Rio with a 30-minute boat water crossing and you can experience the pristine and undeveloped “Big Island.” Ilha Grande has emerged as the region’s popular tourist destination because of its lush unspoiled nature, blue-green seas and rugged landscape. Approximately 87% of the island is protected land by the Brazilian government as a state park.
Ilha Grande also holds the largest remaining populations of many endangered species and is one of the most prosperous ecosystems in the world. The water surrounding the island is protected and houses surprisingly diverse marine wildlife as it converges tropical, subtropical and temperate-zone climates allowing corals, fish, penguins and whales to live together in harmony.
Kids will have a great time walking along the beaches exploring for treasures. The Blue Lagoon, located in the northern part of the island, is a sought-after snorkeling destination and is sure to impress the entire family. Enjoy an electronics-free days in this island paradise, where you can explore and see waterfalls, sit on pristine beaches, kayak, swim in clear waters, hike or bike through the forests, join your guide for a boat ride or enjoy conversations with your unplugged children.
What family vacation is complete without visiting the largest waterfall system in the world? A two-hour and 15-minute flight out of Rio takes you to Iguazu Falls and all its offerings. Iguazu Falls spans 1.7 miles and ranges from 197 to 269 feet high. Depending upon the water level, anywhere from 150 to 300 waterfalls can be present in this Natural Wonder of the World.
Bordering Brazil and Argentina, the falls are unevenly split between the two countries, with the majority of the falls in Argentina that will also visit. The international division of the falls lies in the heart of the area where almost half of the river’s flow falls. This narrow U-shaped chasm is called the Devil’s Throat and is a site to behold.
Brazil and Argentina have created national parks on both borders to protect the natural and pristine beauty of the area. To get the most of your visit to Iguazu, it is recommended to experience the falls from both countries. Brazil has a gorgeous panoramic view of the falls and with older children, you can take speed boat rides up the Iguazu River into the Devil’s throat for a thrill-seeking adventure. In addition, you can take a spectacular helicopter ride over the falls for bird’s-eye views.
For an overland adventure to discover the forest surrounding the falls, you can take a Jeep safari or go on a nature hike to secluded cascades. Many families combine the Jeep and speedboat tour for a day of adventure.
A stay at the Belmond Hotel Das Cataratas is highly recommended, as it is the only hotel located in the national park on the Brazilian side. Staying here, you will have access to the falls at any time — even when the park is even closed. You’ll get to see the falls during spectacular sunrise or early morning hours when the wildlife is the most active. This hotel is very family friendly, with a pool and access to baby cots, rollaway beds, Playstations, DVD’s, toys and special children’s menu items.
Another family stop while in the Iguazu area of Brazil is the Parque das Aves (Bird Park). This park is the largest in all of Latin America and offers opportunities to see and interact with innumerable birds, butterflies, snakes and native species. Special programs allow you to go behind the scenes and if you have older teenagers, an interactive forest experience with the local Guarani people is available.
Iguazu Falls offers great opportunities to connect with the landscape. Boardwalks take you to hidden corners with plenty of picture-perfect moments and closer to different sections of the falls, where you feel the fresh water spray. Several friendly trails allow you to walk along the forests (on the banks of the Argentinean side) and see many wild animals including Coatis, Capuchin and Howler monkeys, armadillos, toucans, parrots and butterflies. There is also an ecological train that takes you directly to the boardwalk leading to the Devil’s throat, so you can experience the falls in all its grandeur.
Best Time to Go South
The best time to visit this subtropical region is October through June, with Brazil’s formal summer running from December through the first of March. To avoid crowds, consider visiting in the shoulder season, especially March, April, August or September, as this is when you’ll find the best weather at Iguazu Falls.
Several wonderful tour operators are available to customize a trip specific to your family’s desires, from luxury accommodations with butler service to cozy and simple lodges. No matter what you need, the destination has it. And your family will thank you for the beautiful memories and the strengthening of generational ties that only a family vacation can offer.
By Dana Johnson, Southwind Adventures Director and Travel Consultant. For more on Brazil, visit Southwind Adventures.