Two epic weeks of beaches in Florianopolis, rivers in Bonito, waterfalls in Iguazu, and wetlands in the Pantanal.
By Stephanie Frias
Southern Brazil is an amazing choice for families looking for an epic road trip, immersion into nature, plus a mix of village and city cultures. Our journey included islands and beaches, waterfalls and grasslands, rivers and caves, and so much more in the Brazilian states of Santa Catarina, Paraná, and Matto Gross do Sul.
Our route begins in Florianópolis, a 9-hour drive (700 km/430 miles) from São Paulo or 15-hours from Montevideo, Uruguay (1,400km/860 miles). Use this Google Maps link to follow this route from Florianopolis for 14 days through Southern Brazil.
Begin the trip mid-week on the stunning Brazilian island of Florianópolis. You’ll spend 2 days here in the capital city for the state of Santa Catarina. The mainland city boasts nearly half a million residents, but it’s easy to escape to sultry beaches known as many to be the most beautiful in Brazil.
There are more than 42 beaches on the islands, known as praias (pry-uhs), barras (sand bars), or balnearios (baths). Beeline to Praia Campeche for that classic, sleepy surf village vibe. Branch out from there to explore wild coastlines with white sand beaches, dunes, jungles, coastal mountains, and turquoise seas. Other great beaches for families include Praia da Lagoinha and Praia dos Ingleses on the north shore. Or, the nearby Praia Mole. And don’t miss the exquisite fishing village of Barra da Lago, resting on a tidewater channel between the ocean and a large lagoon.
- Where to Stay: 2 days at Barra da Lago Hostel by Hostelling International
- Best Days of the Week: The beaches of Florianopolis are definitely best-appreciated mid-week. Try to arrive at midday from Monday to Thursday. Keep in mind that to get the beaches you must pass through downtown, and traffic is quite heavy in the evenings and all weekend long.
When the weekend does arrive, the best place to be with kids is in Camboriú, about 85 km north. Also known as Balneario Camboriú, the smaller beach city is a resort village known for its stunning highrise skyline, vacation homes, and tons of summer-time fun on weekends all year round. There is plenty to do here catered towards families, but the action is largely limited from Friday to Sunday when weekenders flock to the coast for beach fun.
Among the dazzling attractions is a pirate ship ride complete with a live pirate act that sails across the bay, leaving visitors at a secluded resort-style beach for the day. The ship picks up passengers again, just before sunset, to return to the mainland. It’s an obvious kid-pleaser and pretty fun for the parents, too. Another family-focused attraction is Parque Unipraias (a forest park that connects to a remote beach via cable cars) with roller coasters and a fairyland village.
Camboriú also has perfect beaches and a calm cove ideal for kids. There are many family-friendly services including food stands, umbrellas for rent, shade trees, park benches, a boardwalk, pier, and even playgrounds. Not to mention a plethora of cafes, boutique shops, and restaurants.
- Where to Stay: 2 days at Pousada Villa Di Loire
- Best Days to Visit: Friday and Saturday
Sunday is an idyllic time to kiss the beach goodbye and take an afternoon cruise up to the hills, in search of waterfalls and old town Europe. There is a little known pocket of civilization in the state of Santa Catarina, where numerous historic immigrant villages remain alive and well. Europen settlers arrived in the area long ago, bringing with them their eclectic architecture, customs, and cuisine.
A popular choice is Prudentopolis, a Ukrainian village in the Paraná state. But, recent concerns over safety issues in the city might have you prefer an alternative. Opt for a smaller village of German descendants known as Corupá, just 130 km west of Camboriú.
The tiny village of Corupá has a population of just over 10,000 and a whole lot of charm. There are numerous interesting outlying sites worth checking out for a day or two. There are several nature reserves, a historic seminary, and the notable Rotas da Cachoeiras aka Route of the Waterfalls. It’s an amazing ecotourism based waterfall hike that visits 14 natural falls in the area.
- Where to Stay: 2 days at Pousada Eco Vila Ecologica
- Best Days to Visit: Any day
The next stop on the list is a trip to one of the biggest natural tourist attractions, not just in Brazil, but in South America. Iguazu Falls or Foz do Iguazu as the Brazilians call it, is the largest waterfall system on the planet. Although it won’t be off the beaten path, you shouldn’t get this close and skip it.
From Corupá, it’s a 10-hour leg and 750 km to the monster falls that hug the borders of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil (in the Paraná state). As it’s a major tourist attraction, the best advice is to visit mid-week and during the shoulder season if possible. October is a better bet than January (as many tourists head here before going to Rio for Carnival) to skip the throngs of tourists. The waterfall gush is heavy year-round but runs clearer in October vs January, when the falls can be brown due to the rainy season.
The Iguazu Falls are an impressive sight and it’s no surprise that they are included in the list of the 7 New Wonders of Nature. It spans more than 1.7 miles in width falling as many as 269 feet and includes at least 250 individual falls. You can visit the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls with just 2 days. But, if you plan to see the other side in Argentina, you’ll want to allow for 2 days more to see both sides.
- Where to Stay: 2 days at Tango Inn Downtown Iguazu
- Best Days to Visit: Midweek
Prepare for another big driving day that will take you far from the crowds and back into total nature immersion. Bonito is truly the highlight of this trip and you’ll regret not allowing at least 4 days for this Brazilian gem. The drive is another 750 km drive from Iguazu Falls to Bonito; approximately 10 to 11 hours on the road.
Bonito is a small village (under 20,000 residents), resting near the Amazon wetlands, often referred to as the Amazon Basin. It doesn’t look like the Amazon Rainforest yet, as it’s primarily surrounded by grassland, marshlands, and regional farms.
Truly one of Brazil’s best kept secrets, you’d never suspect the wonders hiding between the forests, prairies, and farms. Bonito is an epic freshwater destination most-loved for its totally kid-friendly river snorkeling excursions.
Crystal clear rivers, lakes, and waterfalls offer prime viewing spots for native freshwater species including vibrant fish, snakes, and more. The Rio do Prata and Rio Sucuri are shallow, tepid waterways where families can experience the adventure of a lifetime. Kids ages 5 to 99 are fitted for wetsuits, lifejackets, water shoes, and snorkels before being guided on a lazy river float. Smaller kids can ride alongside in a canoe with a parent and the tour guide, who never leaves your side for the 1-hour trip.
Beyond the snorkeling, there are oodles of outdoor adventures to be had. Go zip-lining and paddleboarding over fabulous green lakes at the Balneário do Sol and Praia da Figueira beach resorts, on a tree canopy course at Sitio Ybira Pe, or spelunking and scuba in the renowned Gruta do Lago Azul. With more than 35 eco-adventures, Bonito is sure to keep you enthralled for a full 4 days (if not more).
- Where to Stay: Book all adventures and 4 days at Bonito HI Hostel
- Best Days of the Week: Any Day
The last leg of the trip takes you 450 km and 4 hours northwest to the Brazilian Pantanal, on the border of Brazil and Bolivia. The nearest city is Corumbá, but the recommended hostel is on a ranch in the heart of the Pantanal. The Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetlands, otherwise known as the floodplains of the Amazon Rainforest.
It’s a wild and rare place whose breadth isn’t entirely known but is estimated to include 12 distinct ecosystems spread over as many as 75,000 square miles. These landscapes are the secret safari-getaway of Brazil. Visitors have the chance to see wild animals like caiman, capibara, jaguar, anteaters, macaws, and anacondas just to name a few. The Pantanal is home to nearly 1000 bird, 300 mammals, 500 reptiles, 400 fish, and 9,000 invertebrate species.
There are many ways to explore the landscapes through jeep safaris, independent drives, river trips, night walks, and more. 2 days minimum are ideal to soak up as much of this animal paradise as possible.
- Where to Stay: Book all adventures and 2 days at Hostel São João.
- Best Days of the Week: Any
Good to Know
Getting There & Around
It’s quite popular to visit South America as overlanders, driving your own car as independent travelers on a road trip. South Brazil is best accessed from Uruguay to the south or from São Paulo to the north. This route begins in Florianópolis, a 9-hour drive (700 km/430 miles) from São Paulo or 15-hours from Montevideo, Uruguay (1,400km/860 miles). Use this Google Maps link to follow this route from Florianopolis for 14 days through South Brazil.
An alternative to this road route (if you aren’t an overlander) would include renting a car in Florianopolis or São Paulo and returning it at the Campo Grande airport at the end of the trip. It may also be possible to do this as a bus route, although the duration and order of the trip may vary.
If you aren’t overlanding and plan to fly in to make this trip, you can catch international flights from the USA to São Paulo or Montevideo. Or, you can find cheaper flights to Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires, Argentina and connect with regional flights to Florianópolis. If you book with Skyscanner, you can even book your flight, car rental, and hotel stays all in one click with the Skyscanner App.
On the return trip, the closest airport to Pantanal is in Campo Grande (about 5 hours or 430 km away). From there, you can take a cheap regional flight to Rio de Janeiro, and then from Rio to the USA.
Speaking the Language
If you haven’t noticed already, Brazil is a Portuguese speaking country. In most places, you won’t be able to get by on Spanish alone, like in other South American countries. Although there are some similarities, language differences are more complex than it initially seems. However, it’s not too difficult to find people who speak English, but you won’t hear it widely spoken on the street. Many educated Brazilians do speak fluent English if you just ask. Staying in an international hostel, like Hostelling International will ease up the language immersion quite a bit. They usually have at least one staff member who speaks English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Pay extra attention to the names of cities on this route, and learn how to pronounce them properly. The cities have very similar spelling and pronunciation, if you don’t get it right, you could easily veer off in the wrong direction. Incorrect pronunciation could leave locals unable to help you. Set your Google Translate app to offline mode, so you can rely on it if need be.
Download Google maps for the cities and regions you need before you begin traveling. Internet and phone signals are not always reliable when traveling between cities. Paper maps are not common, so you can’t expect to just stop at the gas station and grab one if your digital map won’t load.
Rules of the Road
Before hitting the road in South America, there are few things to know before you go. Not all rules of the road apply, as you would expect. Particularly things like right-of-way, no passing zones, speed of traffic, and driving on the shoulder. In other words, many drivers will simply do whatever they feel like doing without any repercussions. The main thing to keep in mind is the biggest vehicle always wins. And, if you see a crazy driver, just get out of the way.
General street etiquette also does not apply. Drivers will honk, swerve, cut you off, even roll down their window to yell curse words or shake their fist, if they don’t like your driving. It’s nothing personal, it’s just the culture. It’s best not to participate though, and try your best to simply ignore any antics. It’s also quite normal to see people pull off the side of the road to urinate or to throw trash out their windows. Again, just look the other way! It’s not the time or place to educate.
Toll roads are not uncommon and they may cost anywhere from pocket change to a few dollars. Some will accept credit cards, but the systems are unreliable, so always carry cash.
Checkpoints are also common. Police will pull you over for both legit reasons and for no reason at all. They will find any possible reason to ask you for a donation, but it’s unlikely they will ever offer an official ticket. Make sure you have the correct paperwork and know the rules of your visa, car insurance, etc. If you are well informed, they won’t have much leverage. Resist any requests for bribes, but always be friendly and otherwise cooperative.
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