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Brazil is a unique combination, simultaneously old and young. "Old" in the sense that, though charted and colonized by Europeans at roughly the same time as North America, European civilization took root faster and flowered far earlier here. While Virginia Company adventurers starved to death on the James River and Massachusetts Bay colonists subsisted in rude huts clustered around a single narrow church, Brazilian cities like Salvador and Olinda thrived with paved streets, walls and houses of stone, and high cathedrals gilt with gold. "Young" because Brazil as a country did not achieve independence until 1822, and didn't throw off the monarchy and proclaim itself a republic until 1888. In today's Brazil, elements of old and new coexist in every aspect of society: architecture, technology, culture, festivals, food, business attitudes -- all mix the most modern with the most tradition-bound.

Today

Brazil is a land of incredible diversity, a place where native hunters, Pantanal cowboys, priests of West African gods, and city slickers with roots in Italy, Syria, Portugal, and Japan all happily call themselves Brazilian. An extraordinary ability to enjoy life may be the one and only thing they have in common. Making that first million by age 30, scaling a mountaintop because it's there -- these aren't the things that animate Brazilians. Friends, and especially family, are what matter, plus beer and a beach, bar, or soccer stadium in which to enjoy it all. Whether this general disinterest in things political is the result or the cause of Brazil's rather painful 20th-century history is a chicken-and-egg question. What is certain is that having experienced both the giddy expansion of the "economic miracle" of the 1960s and the debt, recession, and inflation crises that followed, Brazil has now settled into something approaching normality. Inflation is manageable, crime is decreasing, and the army is safely back in the barracks where it belongs.

Challenges in the future include getting a grip on corruption (not the petty kind that bothers tourists, but the lose-a-billion-dollars-in-a-Swiss-bank-account kind that bothers taxpayers); coping with growth as Brazil's already huge cities continue to expand; and finding a way to balance environmental preservation -- particularly in the Amazon -- with the demand for economic development. If Brazilians have learned the hard way that they can't solve these problems at the drop of a hat, they can at least behave like the rest of the democratic world and somehow muddle through -- having fun even as they muddle.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.