There’s more to Brazil than just football, samba and its famously raucous nightlife... The massive South American country is also home to a number of cultural and natural sites that have been inscribed by the World Heritage Committee into UNESCO's World Heritage List.
With 19 sites that are now eternally protected, visitors to the country have their pick of what to see. From historic towns to natural wonders, there is something for everyone to visit. The only problem is deciding where to visit on a tight schedule. While UNESCO sites are never a disappointment, some are more impressive than others. Here are some of our favourites...
Iguazu National Park
Near the border of Brazil and Paraguay, Iguazu National Park contains one side of Iguazu Waterfalls. This massive series of waterfalls contains 275 individual falls that that spread 2,700 metres across and fall with an ever present roaring thunder into the Iguazu River below. The current created from the waterfalls is so powerful that when it flows into the nearby Itiapu Hydroelectric Dam, it is able to produce enough electricity to power all of nearby Paraguay and a sizeable portion of Brazil.
It is not just the waterfalls that were deemed an important natural site by the World Heritage Committee when Iguazu National Park was inscribed to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1986 – the pristine subtropical forest that includes a number of endangered flora and fauna was taken into account too.
As there are such a large number of endangered plants and animals within the park borders, visitors are only allowed to walk along the marked walking trails. These trails take visitors to admire waterfalls and forests alike. Trails show off the waterfalls at different angles and there is even one that takes visitors over the water for a panoramic view. Aside from the awe-inspiring waterfalls, visitors are likely to spot a plenty of wildlife, including anteaters, a whole range of butterflies, river otters, monkeys and parrots.
The city of Salvador was the original capital of Brazil as it was one of the first Portuguese colonies built in Brazil. The capital was later transferred to the current day capital of Brasillia in the 1950s, in an effort to help populate the interior of the country. Recognized as one of Brazil's first colonial cities and its original capital, Salvador became a UNESCO World Heritage in 1985. While the modern age has slithered into Salvador, visitors can still walk the streets past endless rows of brightly-colored houses created in the colonial Renaissance architectural style from the 16th to 18th century.
Within the center of the city is the Pelhourinho Plaza, where much of the city’s activity took place, including the African slave trade. Africans were plucked from their homes in Africa and brought to Salvador where they were sold and worked in the gold mines, sugar plantations and tobacco plantations that surround the city. Today African-Brazilian culture still permeates Salvador.
The Church of San Francisco is a sight that cannot be missed. This particular church shimmers in the warm Brazilian sunlight as it is covered entirely in gold.
The Amazon Rainforest, which is one of the world's most important ecosystems, only became a UNESCO site in 2000 in what is just one more measure to protect it from human destruction. It seems that bearing UNESCO's eternal protection hasn't slowed down the illegal logging industry, but it still provides recognition to an area that is often referred to as "The World's Lungs".
The area that is protected by UNESCO is officially referred to as the Central Amazon Conservation Complex that covers six million hectares, showcasing a variety of terrain including tributaries, channels, oxbow lakes, archipelagos and igapo forests. It also protects a number of endangered species including the arapaima, Amazonian manatee, river dolphins and the black caiman.
The Amazon Rainforest is such an incomprehensible mass of landscapes that a visit there requires some planning. From the city of Manaus, visitors can find a number of river boats and cruises that go into the area safely. Many even offer to take visitors into the rainforest on foot to explore the flora and fauna up close.
Creativecommons.org/Pedro Henrique Ponchio
The historic town of Ouro Preto played a key role in the Brazilian gold rush. Even the name of the town means "Black Gold".
Little gold was mined in the city itself, but most of it flowed through the port city in colonial Brazil on its way back to the Old World during the 17th and 18th centuries. As wealth flowed through the city at an overwhelming pace, it began to show in the city's architecture itself. Soon, Ouro Preto played host to impressive Baroque-style churches funded by the town's wealthy barons. It was this wealth that lead to the original name for the town to be "Villa Rica”, which means "Rich Town."
It was in 1980 that the town itself was induced into UNESCO's World Heritage List for not just being a place of historical importance, but also because of the sheer beauty of these colonial buildings. It was there that the sculptor Aleijiadinho was commissioned to create some of his best work. Visitors can see his Roccoco facade and bas-relief on the Church of the Third Order of St Francis or the Twelve Prophets that are carved in soapstone on the front of the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus of Matosinhos. The Sanctuary of Bom Jesus of Matosinhos is actually a UNESCO site within a UNESCO site, being separate World Heritage site from the city itself.
While the Pantanal Wetlands, located in southwestern Brazil, is less well known than the infamous Amazon Rainforest, the conservation area is a better spot to go for spotting a variety of birds and other wildlife. Obviously, it is easier to spot wildlife in a flat wetland area than within the endless trees and shrubbery of a forest.
Within the state of Mato Grosso, the Pantanal Conservation Area covers a sizeable 187,818 hectares and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. It is one of the world's largest freshwater wetlands, provided by the Cuiaba and Paraguay rivers that flood the plains each year and fuel the vast ecosystem.
Visitors can hike through the region, take boats around the water or go horseback riding. Those who want to spend multiple days there can even stay in the UNESCO Eco-Lodge. This is an excellent area to see heron, egret, jabirus, caiman and river otters, as well as 80 other mammal species, 650 bird species, 50 different types of reptiles and over 400 different types of fish.
Rio de Janeiro
Creativecommons.org/Cyro A. Silva
Rio de Janeiro, nicknamed "The Marvelous City", is the newest addition to Brazil's UNESCO World Heritage sites. This metropolis with its world-famous beaches, the iconic Christ the Redeemer Statue and the rolling hills covered in Atlantic Rainforest of Tijuca National Park as a backdrop was nominated and induced into UNESCO's World Heritage List in 2012.
Whether it is from the peak of Corcovado Mountain or in the waters of the picturesque Guanabara Bay, Rio de Janeiro has breathtaking views in every direction. Aside from admiring the aesthetics of the city, Rio de Janeiro is also home to some wild nightlife and fabulous shopping – so overall it is a very exciting city that is worthy of protecting and enjoying.
Visitors should consider visiting some of the determining factors that led to the city's induction into the prestigious World Heritage List such as their 200-year-old botanical gardens, the famous beach in Copacabana Bay, and the statue of Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado Mountain.