From Iguazu Falls to Rio, exploring Brazil's myriad charms

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Iguazu Falls on the Brazil-Argentina border puts lesser falls to shame with its sheer size and natural beauty.
Iguazu Falls on the Brazil-Argentina border puts lesser falls to shame with its sheer size and natural beauty. Source: Courtesy of MRNY

While not particularly notable for her acerbic wit, the redoubtable Eleanor Roosevelt tossed off a one-liner that rivals the best of Dorothy Parker's bon mots when she visited Iguazu Falls and declared, "Poor Niagara."

Roosevelt's cheeky response to the majestic waterfall mirrors that of millions of visitors who make the trek to one of the world's most extraordinary natural wonders. Formed approximately 132 million years ago, Iguazu straddles the border of Brazil and Argentina, and its immensity becomes readily apparent during a daring helicopter flight that swoops and dips above the two-step, staircase waterfall that divides the mighty Iguazu River. While not for the fainthearted, Helisul's panoramic flights are piloted by consummate professionals who angle the chopper for optimum photographic opportunities.

Equally exhilarating, the rigid-inflatable boats of Macuco Safari navigate to the base of the waterfalls. Captains chart the churning waters with deft choreography that leaves passengers drenched or dry, depending upon their preference.

For those more inclined to explore from terra firma, Iguazu National Park provides numerous trails for hiking, biking and touring throughout its nearly 500,000 acres. The recent addition of three baby jaguars to the population of indigenous fauna at the Unesco World Heritage site means that some trails require caution — or an additional caipirinha, the Brazilian national cocktail so ubiquitous that it can be found amid a grove of palms in a rainforest. 

The 5.6-mile Black Well Trail commences on a suspended walkway that traverses deep into the heart of one of the largest forest preservation areas in South America before concluding along the banks of the Iguazu River, which forms the border between Brazil and Argentina. A sunset boat tour glides atop Iguazu Falls as egrets skim the water.

Named by the indigenous Guarani people, Iguazu means "big water," which is without question a fitting name. The massive river empties into the Parana River at the convergent borders of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Known as the Triple Frontier, the area provides a unique perspective on three national cultures and their historical interdependence. 

From atop an observation wheel on the Brazilian side of the river, visitors can see for miles into the neighboring countries. On weekends, Brazilians cross the border for a night of Argentine immersion at Puerto Iguazu. Behind the unmarked doors of the Argentine Experience, a private dining room hosts guests for a rollicking, raucous dinner party marked by malbec, steak and mate (a traditional caffeinated beverage). 

For the best of indigenous Brazilian cuisine, visitors head to Casa do Chef, the private, interactive cooking school created by chef Fabio Taveira. An exuberant devotee of Brazilian culinary heritage, Taveira offers a tasting menu comprising the best of Brazilian comfort food, including feijoada (a stew of meat and beans), and then displays his expertise on the saxophone. 

After a night of caipirinhas and samba, the private apartments at the Wyndham Golden Foz are a welcome refuge. Located in the center of Foz do Iguazu, the all-suite property furnished by local artisans towers over the border city, offering exemplary views of the Parana River and the Triple Frontier region. 

An Executive Suite at the Hilton Barra in Rio de Janeiro.
An Executive Suite at the Hilton Barra in Rio de Janeiro.

With a flight time of less than two hours from Rio de Janeiro, Iguazu is easily accessible via the recently privatized Rio Galeao Tom Jobim Airport, which sponsored my trip along with two Hilton properties in Rio, the Hilton Rio de Janeiro Copacabana and Hilton Barra Rio de Janeiro. 

The transformation of Rio Galeao commenced in 2014 with an investment of nearly $500 million, which has resulted in an airport as exceptional as Singapore's Changi, another airport in the management group's portfolio. 

Passengers at Rio Galeao have access to various VIP services, including an entire level dedicated to VIP lounges, as well as meet-and-greet valet services, helicopter transport, premium parking, hotel and spa. More than 150 dining and shopping options are supplemented by a bespoke boutique of prestige Brazilian brands.

For travelers from the U.S., Rio Galeao operates daily, nonstop flights from five cities, and Brazil's electronic visa program makes it easier than ever to fly into the heart of Carioca culture. 

The Hilton Copacabana dominates Copacabana Beach as the tallest building on the strand.
The Hilton Copacabana dominates Copacabana Beach as the tallest building on the strand.

Cariocas at Copacabana

The distance from Rio Galeao Airport to Copacabana is less than 15 miles, which means that U.S. travelers can arrive at the Hilton Copacabana in time for the hotel's copious breakfast buffet.

At nearly 40 floors, the Hilton Copacabana reigns as the tallest building on the beach, which means that oceanfront rooms offer uninterrupted views of one of the world's most famous beaches. Notable for its Internationalist architecture, the 545-room hotel was built in 1976 and was completely renovated in 2011, with Hilton assuming management last year. From the hotel's rooftop pool deck, the panoramic view sweeps from the beach at Leme, the traditional start of the city's New Year's celebratory processions, to the far end of Copacabana and Ipanema beyond.

Beloved for its Carioca hospitality, the Hilton Copacabana remains a favorite of locals, which makes the landmark hotel a buzzing base camp from which to explore the colorful charms of Rio. Daily sunsets at Ipanema are cheered with applause and caipirinhas, followed by Amazonian cocktails at Palaphita, the popular outdoor tropical lounge situated along the city's lagoon where Rio's lights twinkle on the water.

From atop Corcovado Mountain, another of Brazil's 21 Unesco World Heritage sites, the breathtaking view encompasses Sugarloaf and the extraordinary topography that makes Rio one of the world's most spectacular waterfront cities.

A tour through Rio in an open-topped Jeep revealed a city that is far more remarkable than the one portrayed by the world's headlines. Deep within Tijuca, Rio's urban rainforest, capuchin monkeys frolicked overhead as waterfalls cascaded through the dense vegetation. Amid a grove of jackfruit, it wasn't entirely surprising to find a table of freshly muddled mango caipirinhas served by two smiling Cariocas, one more reminder of the quotidian pleasures of Brazil. 

Room rates at the Hilton Copacabana start at $250 per night; rates at the Hilton Barra start at $100 per night.

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