Celebrate the Christmas season in Brazil. // © 2015 Lena Katz
Feature image (above): Maria Fumaca is the historic wine country train in Bento Goncalves (a municipality in Rio Grande do Sul). // © 2015 Creative Commons user anapaulahrm
With Rio de Janeiro on everyone’s bucket list and Trancoso, Bahia, established by some as the A-listers’ getaway of 2015, everyone’s wondering which Brazil destination will register on the North American radar next. The answer might very well be the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul — but not for the reasons you would suppose.
While the state breeds international supermodels and boasts vast swathes of undeveloped beach, its tourism draws have less to do with bikinis and quite a bit in common with Bavaria. Here, you’ll find South America’s Christmas capital, Brazilian cowboy culture and some delightful bubbly.
Adriane Brocker Boeira, general director of tour operator Grupo Brocker Turismo, describes the state’s unique character as a mix of Texas ranch lifestyle, New Zealand terrain, Bavarian architecture and an Orlando theme park.
This is the best description we’ve heard — fittingly, from a native and local tourism expert — and can help set expectations for first-time visitors. Tell clients not to worry about the bathing suit or the sunblock. Instead, bring hiking boots appropriate for trekking out to waterfalls, an extra suitcase in expectation of splurging on inexpensive leather goods and an extra stomach for some truly decadent food and sparkling wine.
Christmas spirit cranks up to high levels in early November around Gramado and Canela, two mountain towns that were originally rest stops for horseback travelers during the time of German and Italian settlement. Nowadays, this mountain resort is a leisure destination full of charm.
Brazilians’ love of Orlando theme park culture is evident everywhere — especially in Gramado’s Christmas pageantry. Throughout November and December, a parade and a spectacular outdoor Christmas show run several times a week, drawing thousands of viewers. Buildings and downtown spaces are decked out with sparkling lights and installations reminiscent of Christmas. With Bavarian-styled architecture and Swiss-influenced food, the destination feels like a Tyrolean village — only with spring and summer taking place in December.
The aesthetic isn’t the only Bavarian aspect of this surprising destination. There are hundreds of fondue restaurants in Gramado and Canela and approximately two chocolatiers on every blo¬ck. The third culinary cornerstone is the “churrascaria” — all-you-can-eat grilled meat, carved tableside. All-you-can-eat service has crossed over into most of the local restaurants, especially at lunch. Waiters will keep serving guests until they’re told to stop.
The municipality of Bento Goncalves is the heart of Brazilian wine country. It’s a busy tourism destination with 100 tasting rooms and a historic wine country train, named Maria Fumaca. The entire ride is 90 minutes, so it’s a great way to get a quick overview of the region. Tour operator Giordani Turismo operates the wine train, but is not the only receptive tour operator that books it. The popular attraction serves some 350,000 passengers a year.
Caxias do Sul is the less-developed wine region — well off the beaten path for international travelers. Its many small tasting rooms are scattered around a largely utilitarian city. The biggest annual event is Festa da Uva (Grape Festival). History buffs will also appreciate Caminhos da Colonia, a tourist route and former walking path for immigrants who were looking to settle in the highlands.
U.S. travelers will be first bemused, then charmed and, finally, delighted by this Brazilian state. With the exchange rate highly favoring the U.S. dollar, Rio Grande do Sul is a secret that clients will be grateful to discover.
Gramado hosts FESTURIS, Brazil’s largest tourism trade fair, annually in early November.