Architecture, Scenery Make Brazil a Shutterbug's Paradise

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil -- If I had purchased individual flight segments for a recent trip to Belo Horizonte, Salvador, Recife and Belem, my intercity travels would have cost $1,683.

Instead, using a Trans-Brasil Air Pass, I started in Sao Paulo, flew to these four cities -- and could have included a fifth, had time allowed -- all for $490.

Since the pass is valid for any five of Trans-Brasil's 23 domestic destinations, agents and clients can create a variety of intriguing itineraries.

A look at my recent program serves as a sample.

Only 50 minutes by air from Sao Paulo, Belo Horizonte is too often viewed as a gateway to historical towns such as Ouro Preto. However, Brazil's fourth-largest city boasts parks, museums and churches deserving closer inspection.

Capital of Minas Gerais, a state known for its seemingly endless supply of precious stones and ores, Belo Horizonte, not surprisingly, has an impressive mineralogy museum with some 2,500 exhibits.

The chapel of Sao Francisco de Assis, another must-see, was designed by Oscar Niemeyer.

A succession of parabolic vaults shelter an exterior mural in blue tiles. Within are more azulejo designs of angels and shepherds.

Located in the business, cultural and financial heart of things, the five-star Othon Palace Hotel overlooks a large municipal park.

The 285 guest rooms provide pleasant quarters with the expected amenities. Service is exemplary.

For the ultimate in exclusivity, the Master Floor's private lounge features specially embossed china.

Rates run $153 to $356, single, $170 to $396, double, including breakfast. The fax number is (011) 55-31 212-2318.

For less than $6 (barely more than my taxi fare for the 10-minute ride from the hotel to the station), comfortable buses make the two-hour journey to Ouro Preto.

Ouro Preto's cobblestone streets beg to be strolled.

If the hilly terrain demands frequent rest stops, dozens of ornate churches and as many picturesque cafes provide respite.

In every direction, rust-colored tiled roofs and gold and white church steeples demand yet another photo.

It soon becomes clear why Unesco declared the town part of the Cultural and Historical Patrimony of Mankind.

Recommended lodgings include Pousada do Mondego, fax (011) 55-31 551-3094, and the Grande Hotel, fax (011) 55-31 551-1612.

Although the former is newer and more upscale ($115 to $143, single, $129 to $163, double), the Grande was designed by Niemeyer and includes interesting duplex suites ($63 to $100, single, $76 to $110, double).

Salvador, next stop on my northeastward jaunt, is a vacation destination all its own. Beach lovers, culture buffs and music devotees all will feel the place was created for their pleasure.

From the lacy white Bahian dresses of the women to the pinks, blues and yellows of its buildings, the historical Pelourinho district could pass for a stage set.

Proclaimed an "international treasure" by Unesco, Pelourinho abounds in architectural interest. Once again, clients should pack those walking shoes.

For an insight into Salvador's unique blend of Portuguese and African culture, the City Museum, located in the historic district, features paintings, votive offerings and life-size statues of the 14 Orixas, gods and goddesses of the traditional Candomble religion.

Both Pelourinho and Bonfim Church (the latter best viewed when outlined in thousands of lights at night) are reached easily by city buses.

Considering the high price of Brazil's taxis, many clients will want to avail themselves of the city buses.

The five-star Othon Palace, featuring seaviews from every room, bustles with conventions, and agents are advised to book early.

Its 268 guest rooms are spacious, and public areas are attractive. Some restaurant staff don traditional Bahian dress.

Rates run $202 to $386, double, including a humongous buffet breakfast; singles are $15 less. The fax number is (011) 55-71 245-4877.

In no time, I was in Recife (during the one-hour flight, I set my watch back one hour). Only the Chamber of Commerce would call Recife an especially pretty city, but it has some nice churches around Patio de Sao Pedro and an unusual museum devoted to the sugar industry.

Clients can book an excursion or for $1.10 can hop on a bus to visit neighboring Olinda.

One guidebook calls Olinda as striking as Ouro Preto, but this seems like gross hyperbole. Still, once visitors escape the persistent "guides," the hilly streets lined with pastel-hued houses exude a definite charm.

Upscale clients might choose Recife's 197-room Sheraton, fax (011) 55-81 361-4680; rates run $160 to $185, single, $175 to $200, double.

I stayed at the beachfront Praia Othon, a three-star, 225-room property, and enjoyed satisfactory accommodations and an excellent restaurant. Rates are $85 to $194, single, $94 to $261, double; fax (011) 55-81 465-4767.

Two river cities, situated on different Amazonian tributaries, tempt visitors to Brazil: Manaus, far to the west, and Belem, up the coast and around the country's eastern hump from Recife.

While Manaus' opera house is more legendary, Belem's Teatro da Paz also presents a grandeur not commonly associated with the Amazon.

The pink-and-white columned structure, dating to 1869, hosted the likes of the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in its heyday.

Although Belem's riverfront area could use some spiffing up, it is full of Amazonian ambience.

The main attraction is the sprawling, cast-iron Ver-o-Peso market, adorned with peaked steeples at each corner.

Main and secondary streets alike are dirty, smelly and wonderful. Vendors line either side displaying cashews and Brazil nuts, cookware, tapes and underwear virtually under foot. Clients might inspect purchases for footprints.

Radios blare, car horns honk and hawkers use microphones to be heard. Open storefronts occasionally send forth a welcome blast from air conditioners.

For a change of pace, clients can join a boat excursion along the Gwama River to observe the daily pursuits of river people and enjoy a jungle walk. The latter serves as a crash course in area flora, fauna and tropical trivia.

To ensure client satisfaction, agents should recommend the Belem Hilton, the city's only deluxe property.

Centrally located opposite the Teatro da Paz and a lovely park, the 361-room property is in the midst of an ambitious renovation program, thanks to its dynamic general manager, Vinod Agarwal.

Staff described Agarwal as "always walking around, checking everything and making plans." One added that he never seemed tired.

Rates at the Hilton run $198 to $322, single, $223 to $396, double; fax (011) 55-91 225-2942 or call (800) HILTONS.

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