IT'S hard to get bored in Brazil. There is always football of course, and the country just won the Copa America.
But there are many more different kicks in this land of 27 states and 188 million people, and the backpacker does have a challenge in deciding where to start.
Though the buses are excellent, distances between destinations can be huge. For long distances, flying is recommended but tickets can be exorbitant.
Little wonder then that many backpackers prefer to stick to the north-east to discover Brazil at leisure. Distances between destinations are easily covered by bus or, better still, by air, which is affordable in this region, thanks to low-cost carriers like TAM and GOL.
STREET COOL: Artistic expressions brighten the walls along the cobbled streets of Salvador's Pelourinho.
CHURCH BEAUTY: The baroque sandstone facade of Igreja da Ordem Terceira de Sao Francisco in Salvador is a work of art.
NORTH-EAST Brazil, which comprises nine states, is where the Portuguese first landed and settled. Salvador, the capital of Bahia state, is the crown jewel of the region, overlooking a vast bay the Portuguese sailed into in 1549.
They derived their wealth from planting sugar and tobacco and brought in hundreds of thousands of slaves from west Africa. This has given Salvador its unique flavour today - a European city with an overwhelming black population whose African traditions still survive.
The best of Salvador's architectural gems can be seen in the Old Town or Pelourinho (whipping post) where slaves were auctioned and tortured.
However, despite many fabulous churches (don't miss the Sao Francisco Church with its gold-covered jacaranda wood carvings) and museums, chances are you will be spending more time out in the cobbled, steep and winding streets.
The distractions are many - a capoeira (martial art) display, a drum performance, a street party or the beat of tambourines wafting from a music shop tucked among pastel-coloured colonial buildings.
Vendors hawk hammocks, handicrafts and CDs while the Baianas, women in big colourful traditional skirts and headscarves, are hired by restaurants to entice you to drop in.
In bars and nightclubs, beer is 2 to 5 rials (S$1.60 to S$4) a bottle. There is seldom a cover charge, unlike in Rio de Janeiro, and there is always a good crowd and dancing.
IF SALVADOR is Brazil's music and cultural capital, Olinda, in the state of Pernambuco to the north, comes a close second. To get to Olinda, you fly (90 minutes, 112 rials) or take the overnight bus to Recife (12 hours, 98 rials). From there, it is 7km to Olinda by bus or taxi.
The city is spread across a series of small hills with steep streets lined with beautiful old houses, churches and elegant squares.
RIOT OF COLOURS: Creative art work adorns the walls of a typical building in Olinda.
It is best explored by a leisurely stroll through its historic quarter. You can duck into old churches and convents, browse in open-air arts and crafts markets, have a refreshing coconut drink at a street stall or simply admire the baroque facades of colonial buildings.
One evening, I was drawn to the mesmerising beat of drums from a building that looked like a warehouse; inside, it was packed with youngsters dancing away.
If the music is good, so too is the food. On Rua do Amparo, it is dining with a view (overlooking the ocean and Recife) at trendy restaurants, with names like Goya and Officina de Sabor, offering shrimp and fish.
FROM Olinda, it is only seven hours by bus to Natal but it is a world away - one of beaches, great surfing, giant sand dunes and buggy rides.
Although Natal, the capital of Rio Grande do Norte, was founded in 1598 with a Portuguese fort as proof of its antiquity, it has hardly any traces of its colonial heritage.
The modern city is focused on providing fun for holidaymakers.
ITSY-BITSY, POLKA-DOTTED: Babes in 'dental floss bikinis' enjoying the sun at Jericoacoara.
Natal is a good introduction to Brazil's beach culture. The desire to sun on the beach and frolic in the sea is so great that even tables and chairs are placed in the water.
And wherever you turn, you will see women wearing the most itsy-bitsy of bikinis that are so tiny that the locals have a name for them - "dental floss bikinis".
Natal is at the start of a most spectacular coastline studded with hundreds of beaches. In its hinterland are sweeping sand dunes, created by the action of winds. A top draw is to ride in a topless buggy and roam among the dunes.
For 60 rials, I set off one morning in a buggy driven by Jaime, with three others, all Brazilians from the south. Like every bugeiro (buggy driver), he wore surfing shorts, wrap-around sunglasses and handled the buggy as if he were in a Formula One race, heading north towards our destination - Genipabu - with the biggest dunes reaching 50m high.
FROM Natal, I flew to Fortaleza, a burgeoning city in Ceara and a jump-off point to some of the best beaches in Brazil. My choice was Jericoacoara (pronounced gerry-kwa-kwa-ra), 320km away, or Jeri for short. Little has changed in this sleepy fishing village in the 25 years since it was first 'discovered'.
Although it has electricity, there are still no street lamps and the 'streets' are mere sandy tracks. Donkeys and horses are widely used.
Despite the lack of conveniences - or because of that - the cognoscenti have been beating a path to Jeri, designated as a national park. Many stay indefinitely.
That Jeri has retained its idyllic ambience is remarkable given the increase in pousadas (guesthouses) and chic shops and restaurants.
The difficulty of access is the answer - seven hours by bus on a rough road from Fortaleza and another hour in a four-wheel-drive truck over sand dunes.
The main highlight in Jeri is to go out in a buggy to explore huge dunes, lagoons, rivers and mangrove swamps.
AFTER Jeri, it was back to reality and the urban attractions of Sao Luis, capital of Maranhao, the last state in the north-east, which borders the Amazon region.
Founded by the French in 1612 before the Portuguese ousted them three years later, it is a striking colonial city, despite the obvious signs of decay.
It is Brazil's capital of reggae music and proximity to the Amazon has given it a special character. This is evident in its climate (more humid), people (an injection of indigenous Indian into the European-African mix), landscape (lush rainforest nearer the border), festivals and culture (best glimpsed in a tour of its many splendid museums).
From Sao Luis, it is 12 hours by bus or an hour by air to Belem, port city of the Amazon and the start of another adventure, this time by river, into the heart of Brazil.
Tan Chung Lee is a freelance journalist.
Photos: Tan Chung Lee
Top Photo: Reuters
5 THINGS TO DO
1 Try the delicious national drink, caipirinha, made with crushed fresh lime, sugar and cachaca, a sugarcane spirit.
2 Sample the north-east region's spicy cuisine, which uses coconut milk, the spicy malagueta pepper and dende (palm) oil. The typical dish is moqueca, which is similar to curry, with a choice of crab, fish, prawns or mixed seafood.
3 Watch a folkloric show in Salvador for an insight into Bahian culture. The songs and dances include capoeira and Afro-Brazilian dances. The slickest performers are the acclaimed Bale Folclorico da Bahia.
4 Experience dining in a 'por kilo' (by the kilo) restaurant, a unique Brazilian institution. It is an economical way to eat as you are charged by the weight (about 20 rials or S$16 for a kilo). You choose from a wide variety of dishes, then go to the cashier to have your plate weighed.
For those with bigger appetites, the 'eat all you can' buffets, at around 25 to 35 rials per head, may be of better value. They are usually offered in a churrascaria, where a variety of grilled meats is also carved at your table.
5 Stay in a pousada for the best deals. Price ranges from 50 to 80 rials for an en suite single room. For those on tighter budgets, albergues or hostels offer dorm beds for around 25 rials. All accommodation deals include breakfast.
1 Don't be surprised to see frequent and public displays of affection between couples. The Brazilians are an uninhibited lot.
2 Don't be taken aback at how skimpily dressed Brazilian women are. They are comfortable with their bodies and unafraid to flaunt their assets.