Rio de Janeiro — the gateway to South America

There’s not a doubt Rio is a crazy, colorful place. But have you ever thought about using it as a way of seeing more of South America?

When people think of South America, the images that spring to mind are often those of Rio de Janeiro: beaches, carnivals, football, beautiful people, partying and excitement. All these things are stereotypes for a reason, and there’s not a doubt Rio is a crazy, colorful place, but have you ever thought about simply using it as a base to explore more of the continent?

There are now cheap flights to Rio de Janeiro with Norwegian departing from Gatwick, so we’ve decided to take a further look into some other fantastic destinations that are easily reachable from RIOgaleão airport with direct, affordable flights. Let’s discover more of what South America has to offer.

Florianópolis, Brazil (flight time: 1 hour 30 minutes)

The area around Florianópolis prides itself with more than 60 beaches — Shutterstock Rio de Janeiro — the gateway to South America
The area around Florianópolis prides itself with more than 60 beaches
 

Brazilian weekly news magazine Veja recently described Florianópolis as “the best place to live in Brazil”, and it’s little wonder why. It’s almost like everything you’d want from the country but turned up to 11.

“Floripa” consists of the island of Santa Catarina, as well as part of the mainland and a number of smaller islands, meaning there are over 60 beaches, and it’s becoming something of a second home for people who don’t want to spend their weekends in a huge city but don’t want the party to end either.

The city proper is an example of typical colonial Brazil, with 18th century houses, markets and alleyways. The northern part of the island is the part most tourists visit, while the south has more of a homely feel; less busy, and where you get a much stronger feeling of the native Azorean culture.

Having so many beaches to choose from means that depending where you go, things will feel different. There are beaches famous for their all-night parties, some known for their surfing and laid-back attitude, and some that are still working beaches, places where you can watch fishermen repairing their nets or bringing in their catch.

Having so many beaches to choose from means that depending where you go, things will feel different Rio de Janeiro — the gateway to South America
Having so many beaches to choose from means that depending where you go, things will feel different

Speaking of that, it’s the place to be for seafood lovers, with tainha (mullet) plentiful, cheap and delicious, as well as a number of places offering everything from traditional Brazilian seafood dishes to the hippest sushi in the country.

It’s also a center of sport and adventure; as well as surfing there’s windsurfing, kitesurfing, sandboarding, paragliding… basically any sport you can name that involves being hurled around by either wind or waves. You can go hiking, either for an hour or so to one of the local swimming holes, or spend a few days exploring. Maybe you’ll find that perfect hidden beach or sparkling tropical waterfall you’ve always dreamed about? 

Brasília, Brazil (flight time: 1 hour 45 minutes)

The Pantanal area of around 150,000 square kilometers of a wetland is the largest reserve on the planet — Shutterstock Rio de Janeiro — the gateway to South America
The Pantanal area of around 150,000 square kilometers of a wetland is the largest reserve on the planet — Shutterstock
 

Brasília is, as trivia fans will know, the capital of Brazil. Founded in 1960, it’s like nowhere else on the continent due to its unique landscaping and modernist architecture.

Everything is straight lines, clean and white, with swathes of greenery running through it; a curious design experiment that’s been both criticized and highly acclaimed. Those who love it find it utopian and spacious. Those who don’t feel it’s dehumanizing and monotonous.

Whatever you think of Brasília, one thing that can’t be denied is that it’s a doorway to the surrounding regions, and the surrounding regions are some of South America’s most beautiful and exotic finds.

See, for example, Pantanal. This is an area of around 150,000 square kilometers of wetland, the largest reserve on the planet, and is home to an array of animal and plant species; not just birds and fish, but jaguars, caimans, capybaras, otters and more are all here for you to spot. It’s easy to find a tour, either on foot or by boat, and you can stay at an eco-lodge, or earn your keep on a farm stay.

With a plethora of caves, lakes, crystal clear rivers, and crashing waterfalls, Bonito is the place to be — Daniella cronemberger / Shutterstock Rio de Janeiro — the gateway to South America
With a plethora of caves, lakes, crystal clear rivers, and crashing waterfalls, Bonito is the place to be — Daniella cronemberger / Shutterstock

For more stunning sights of the geological kind, the aptly-named eco-tourism hub of Bonito is the place to be. Caves and lakes, crystal clear rivers, crashing waterfalls and dense, lush forests are cared for and maintained with the utmost care.

Snorkeling tours are popular, and you can glide lazily down the rivers and streams fin-to-fin with some of the most striking aquatic life you’re ever likely to see. Out of the water, explore the Amazonian underworld by exploring the cave systems, glittering with minerals illuminated by shafts of sunlight piercing the rock.

If you’re tired of adventuring, there are a number of riverside beaches that offer resorts and places to stay for a day or two. Relax in the sunlight, go for a swim, or watch the monkeys leaping between the trees on the far riverbank. It’s eco-tourism at its peak.

Iguazú Falls, Brazil / Argentina (flight time: 2 hours 10 minutes)

Iguazú Falls mark part of the border between Brazil and Argentina and are twice as tall as the Niagara Falls Rio de Janeiro — the gateway to South America
Iguazú Falls mark part of the border between Brazil and Argentina and are twice as tall as the Niagara Falls

A waterfall with its own airport? Oh yes. But this is no ordinary waterfall. The Iguazú (sometimes Iguaçu) Falls are the largest waterfall system in the world. They mark part of the border between Brazil and Argentina and are twice as tall as the Niagara Falls. Formed into a semicircle stretching for 2.7 km, the water slams down 275 separate drops, some as high as 82 meters.

It’s been a national park since 1939 as, on top of the falls, the Atlantic Forest is home to a wide range of flora and fauna, much of it protected, some of it endangered. Jaguars, pumas, eagles and parrots are among the species that call the forest home.

After arriving, there are buses or taxis to get you to the national park no matter which side (Argentinian or Brazilan) you arrive on, and once you’re inside the park, free and frequent bus services are available to take you to various locations within the park. There are trails on both sides for walks through the forest, as well as walkways to get you closer to the deafening thunder of the falls themselves. If you’re feeling brave, the Argentinian side offers inflatable boat rides to get even nearer.

The park is open from 09:00 to 17:00, and isn’t as busy in June or July due to the fact that it’s winter in this part of the world. The flip side to that is that water levels are lower in the winter… although summer can get incredibly humid, so the most popular times to visit are spring and autumn.

To be honest, however, it’s one of nature’s greatest sights, and it matters little when you go. You’ll be treated to a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle whatever happens.

Recife, Brazil (flight time: 2 hours 45 minutes)

With many rivers, small islands and over 50 bridges, the city is often called The Venice of Brazil — Shutterstock Rio de Janeiro — the gateway to South America Rio de Janeiro — the gateway to South America
With many rivers, small islands and over 50 bridges, the city is often called The Venice of Brazil — Shutterstock
 

“The Venice of Brazil” is characterized by exactly what you’d expect from a city with that nickname: rivers, small islands and over 50 bridges make up the city center, giving it a feel dissimilar to many other cities in the country. It’s the capital of the state of Pernambuco, the part of Brazil that juts out into the Atlantic, that positioning meaning that, in 1537, it became one of the earliest cities settled by the Portuguese.

Its setting is certainly impressive, stretching for miles along the coast and more miles still inland. Recife Antigo, the Old Town, is a very small part of a vast and sprawling city, sitting as it does on its very own island. Compared to other cities featured in this article, it’s neither the prettiest nor the most notable. But that’s not really what draws people to Recife. What brings people is the pace of life here.

Frevo is a traditional dance and musical style originating from Recife Rio de Janeiro — the gateway to South America
Frevo is a traditional dance and musical style originating from Recife

There’s no denying that it’s an exciting place. It’s noisy, crowded, and in a massive hurry. But that also means that there’s always something going on. No matter which way you turn, things are happening, and this means that the Recifense are intensely proud of their city. It has a distinct personality, one of industry and animation, confidence and defiance.

So if Recife works hard, it must play hard too, right? Oh absolutely. The food capital of northern Brazil, there are hundreds of great restaurants and bistros to choose from, and for later-night action, the bars and clubs stay open almost until dawn, so whether you’re after rock, dance, techno, blues, or a million other genres and sub-genres of music, you’ll find them here.

The large student population is always up for making the most of every night, so throw yourself into all that Recife has on offer. You’ll create memories that’ll last you a lifetime.

Montevideo, Uruguay (flight time: 3 hours 5 minutes)

Montevideo is a vibrant, eclectic and cultured city with a rich history — Ivo Antonie de Rooij / Shutterstock Rio de Janeiro — the gateway to South America Rio de Janeiro — the gateway to South America
Montevideo is a vibrant, eclectic, and cultured city with a rich history — Ivo Antonie de Rooij / Shutterstock
 

Montevideo is the capital of Uruguay, and sits on a bay of the same name. It’s consistently listed as Latin America’s number one city in terms of quality of life, and is home to approximately two million people (or around half the population of the country).

It’s a vibrant city, eclectic and cultured, with a rich history, and from the port to the beaches, from the tower blocks to the beautiful Old City, it’s a colorful, welcoming place.

Rather than the traffic jams, frantic pace, noise and bluster of cities like Buenos Aires or São Paulo, Montevideo feels very laid-back, not particularly like a major city at all in some aspects.

Sure, when you get downtown and everything is shiny glass and gleaming steel you know you’re in a thriving place, but its seafront boardwalk lined with palm trees and late-night beach bars, its stately old buildings contrasting with new street art on every corner, and its ramshackle little restaurants spilling out into the night tell you that Montevideo is different.

The Old City itself is a rainbow of brightly-colored buildings more reminiscent of Havana or Miami than anywhere else — Guaxinim / Shutterstock Rio de Janeiro — the gateway to South America
The Old City itself is a rainbow of brightly-colored buildings reminiscent of Havana or Miami — Guaxinim / Shutterstock

Head to the Port Market between the Old City and the docks to find a place where it seems very little has changed since the 1800s: iron-pillared warehouses with intricate wooden ceilings are filled with stalls selling fantastic local food. Pair that with a bottle of local, full-bodied red wine and you’ve got the quintessential Uruguayan culinary experience.

The Old City itself is a rainbow of brightly-colored buildings more reminiscent of Havana or Miami than anywhere else. Dancing or playing music on the streets, or simply hanging out and seeing friends are what this city is all about. It’s all there for you, so get involved!

Buenos Aires, Argentina (flight time: 3 hours 25 minutes)

Buenos Aires is acknowledged as one of the most vibrant, vital and multicultural cities on the planet — Shutterstock
Buenos Aires is acknowledged as one of the most vibrant, vital and multicultural cities on the planet — Shutterstock

Immerse yourself in a city that combines a slightly faded air of old-world European glamour with the bubbling passion of the Latin temperament. It’s glorious, grand, sultry and sexy. Where else could create the tango, a dance that’s often been described as “making love vertically”?

It’s truly beautiful too. Like any other huge city, it has its eyesores and its sections of concrete jungle, but the elegant palaces, vast boulevards and colorful local barrios show the history of the city in unique detail, each building adding a little more to the story.

A flood of immigration from Europe at the end of the 19th century led to Buenos Aires being acknowledged as one of the most vibrant, vital and multicultural cities on the planet, and all the better for it.

Walk around the streets and soak up the daytime atmosphere before heading back for a nap. You’ll need it. Restaurants don’t really start serving seriously until 9pm, and bars don’t feel like bars until midnight. Going clubbing? Expect to start heading where you’re going between two and four in the morning.

Restaurants don’t really start serving seriously until 9pm, and bars don’t feel like bars until midnight — Milosz Maslanka / Shutterstock Rio de Janeiro — the gateway to South America
Restaurants don’t really start serving seriously until 9pm, and bars don’t feel like bars until midnight — Milosz Maslanka / Shutterstock

When you’ve recovered, you’ll discover that it’s also a city of sport. Argentina’s love of football is well known, and whenever either of the city’s big two (Boca Juniors and River Plate) are playing, expect fireworks (literally!). Even if they’re not, the city is football mad: Vélez Sársfield, San Lorenzo, Huracán and Argentinos Juniors are also based in Buenos Aires.

If other ball sports are more your thing, Argentina has a long-standing love of rugby, and there are a number of clubs in the city, and tennis has been huge since the glory days of Guillermo Vilas and Gabriela Sabatini in the 1970s and 80s.

It’s difficult to extol all the virtues of Buenos Aires in so few words. You’ll just have to visit and find out for yourself why people fall in love with it.

Córdoba, Argentina (flight time: 3 hours 30 minutes)

Córdoba is a cultural and educational powerhouse in its own right
Córdoba is a cultural and educational powerhouse in its own right

Cordobesas — people from Córdoba — like to think of themselves as different from people from the more celebrated capital. Indeed, it may be over 700 km from Buenos Aires in the north of Argentina, but Córdoba is a cultural and educational powerhouse in its own right.

Home to Argentina’s oldest university and a center of student activism, the city is still packed with students, giving it a happy, laid-back, feeling. Don’t let that fool you though: give it the slightest chance and Córdoba can let its hair down!

The people are fun-loving, like to party, and have (for Argentinians anyway) an unusual accent which gives the impression that life isn’t too serious and can be approached with a smile… and it usually is!

One thing central to Argentinian culture is wine, and Córdoba makes a good starting point for discovering the best
One thing central to Argentinian culture is wine, and Córdoba makes a good starting point for discovering the best that the country has to offer.

Try some unusual shopping in the Paseo de las Artes, a weekend street market that sprawls for several blocks through the Güemes neighborhood. Handicrafts, vintage clothes and accessories, bric-a-brac, old records and more can be had for that slice of ultimate Argentine hipsterdom to take home with you. The area is filled with little bars and cafes, so even if you don’t find anything you can always just sit and people-watch.

One thing central to Argentinian culture is wine, and Córdoba makes a good starting point for discovering the best that the country has to offer. There’s a startling variety available, but the staple is Malbec, brought to Córdoba by Jesuit monks in the 16th century and cultivated for centuries into a source of great national pride.

There is nothing people love more than a long lunch or dinner, discussing the world and making jokes over a bottle or two of wine, as well as a selection of local meats and cheeses. A barbecue (asado) without wine would be seen as a tragedy, and whatever you find will be inexpensive, fruity, and utterly delicious. So take a break from traveling and enjoy some of the finer things in life in Argentina’s second city. Cheers!

Article published in association with RIOgaleão airport