Brazil is huge - something that you should be clear on right from the start. Brazilian territory spans an absurd 3,300,171 square miles, or 8,547,404 square kilometres. That's even larger than the United States (ignoring Hawaii and Alaska). That considerable amount of space is packed with some 170,000,000 people, who don't come close to filling all the space - at least not evenly.
Brazil is located in South America. It is by far the largest country on the continent and the only one to have Portuguese as the official language. It borders on every single South American country, with the exception of Chile and Ecuador and covers four time zones: from -2 GMT to -5 GMT. There is also an enormous diversity in the types of climate and terrain: in Brazil there are places where it snows, there are plains, beaches, jungles, forests (or their memories) and just about everything else, except mountains, which are really the mainstay of the west coast of South America in countries like Chile.
Brazil possesses two of the most biologically-diverse ecosystems on the planet. One is the famous Amazon rainforest, which is mostly (but not completely) contained within the the country's borders, and is home to the largest river - in water volume and containment - in the world, the Amazon. The other is the cerrado, which, believe it or not, contains an even greater variety of species than the Amazon. The cerrado is, more or less, the Brazilian equivalent of the savannah, without the lions: the best that the cerrado manages to come up with in terms of dangerous wildlife is a couple of wolves.
A Condensed History of Brazil
The Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral discovered Brazil in 1500. It became a Portuguese colony, exporting lumber, gold, coffee and various other goods, thanks, in great part, to the large contingent of imported African slaves.
Various other countries tried to establish colonies in Brazil, including Holland, France, and Spain, but they all eventually failed or were driven out by the Portuguese, who desired sole exploitation rights. Jesuit priests came to Brazil and had a huge influence through their catechising, preaching, writing and their founding of cities (such as São Paulo). Native Indians were freely massacred during the colonial period, something that took little effort and was only lightly opposed, due to the fact that the native indians were organized in dozens of tribes, as opposed to a homogenous empire such as that of the Incas or the Aztecs.
In 1822, independence was declared, and the Brazilian Empire was founded. It had two Emperors (Don Pedro I and Don Pedro II) and seven regents during its existence. It was the only post-colonial American monarchy ever to come into power1. The descendants of the royal family still exist, and maintain the old family name of 'Orleans de Bragança'.
Towards the end of the 19th Century, there was unrest - or rather, the unrest became less controllable than usual - between the anti-slavery movements and the pro-Republican movements. It quickly became obvious that changes were just around the corner. The Empire tried to adapt, with measures such as The Golden Law, signed in 1888, which made Brazil one of the last countries to abolish slavery, but it all came to naught, for in 1889 the Emperor was exiled and the Republic was proclaimed.
The 'Old Republic' lasted from 1889 to 1930, and had some highly original notions about democracy. The coffee barons formed a dominant oligarchy, until the Revolution of 1930 brought Getúlio Vargas to power. This wily dictator was probably the most cunning politician ever seen south of the Rio Grande, and during his first stay in power, he launched Populism, a form of government that was based on trying to placate everyone at once. To this end, Vargas demonstrated democratic, fascist, socialist, and various other leanings during his tenure in power. He did his best to prevent the foreign exploitation of Brazil, and was at least partially successful. He also initiated the country's industrialization. Through a variety of means, he managed to hold onto the Presidency until 1945, when he was deposed, and he returned to power after democratic elections in 1950. In 1954 he executed one of his most well-timed and audacious political manoeuvres: he killed himself. In this, he became a martyr, guaranteed the political fortunes of his successors for a while, and made himself a folk hero.
There followed a succession of presidents who varied from the strongly pro-USA Eurico Gaspar Dutra to the aggressively nationalistic João Goulart. During this process, in 1960, President Juscelino Kubistchek inaugurated the city of Brasília, moving the capital inland from Rio de Janeiro. In 1964, there was a military coup d'etát, which was carried out with the aid of a certain foreign intelligence agency (which will remain nameless). The coup occurred due to President Goulart's supposedly communist leanings. A military dictatorship was implemented, which was to last until the 1980s. Thousands of people were exiled, had 'accidents' or 'disappeared' during this period, and torture was not completely unknown in the interrogation rooms, in the way that pasta is not completely unknown in Italy.
The dictatorship ended in 1983, with the last of the military presidents, João Baptista Figuereido, making the curious affirmation that he would '... make this country into a democracy, and crush all those who oppose me!' When he made good on his promise, Brazil began to know the wonders of modern democracy, with the first elected president in almost 30 years dying before his inauguration, the second elected president being impeached, and the third elected president deciding he liked the gig so much that he got Congress to change the constitution and got himself re-elected.
Brazil is one of the world's richest economies and yet it has extremely bad social indicators. It has the most unequal distribution of wealth in the world, the education and health care systems are in shambles, and corruption is more or less wanton. Crime is at a very promising level, assuming you're not the kind of person who thinks crime is a disadvantage in a country. There are drug-runners (not nearly as many as Colombia, however), kidnappers (not nearly as many as Mexico, however), and all the other usual suspects. However, if you're rich enough and live in the right places (not Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo) life can be comfortable and safe.
Regarding cities, there are three main cities in Brazil nowadays: Brasília, the political capital (population 2,043,169), São Paulo, the economic capital (population 10,405,867 - fourth largest in the world), and Rio de Janeiro, the beach capital (population 5,841,914).
An Abridged Cultural Overview of Brazil
Brazil's culture is first and foremost a mixture, much like its population. African, Indian, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, German and Italian cultures, among others, have shaped modern Brazil. Each region of the country has a different accent, different clothes, different foods, different folk songs, and a different general outlook on life, the universe, and everything.
Religion is predominately Catholic in Brazil, though it is notorious for its fusion of beliefs, especially in the countryside, where there are strong influences from the old voodooesque African slave religions. The Protestant and Evangelical churches are growing, but still cannot match the numerical clout of the 70% Catholic population.
Brazil has its own types of music (samba, bossa nova, MPB, pagode, axé), its own martial arts form (the African-derived capoeira), its own foods (start with feijoada2 and vatapá3 and work your way down), and various other highly original cultural manifestations. Football (as in the version played in England with your feet - known as soccer by some) is the national mania, although volleyball is also popular. Brazil's football team is the only one in the world to have qualified for every single World Cup and to have won the cup four times, due largely to the abilities of such players as Pelé, Garrincha, and Zagallo. Zagallo is actually the only man in the world to have won four World Cups - two as a player, one as a coach, and one as a physical trainer.
The Brazilian's outlook on life is very casual. Everything is done at the last minute, and Brazilians are known for trying to solve everything with their jeitinho, or 'little way', which in practice means to get your wife's second cousin's friend who works in the Guatemalan Embassy to try to get you the visa you were supposed to have obtained six months ago right at the last moment. Brazilians tend to be friendly and outgoing, with hugs and kisses flying right and left at social occasions.
The butt of most Brazilian jokes are the Portuguese and the Argentinians. The Portuguese are looked down upon as stupid, are said to all be called Joaquim and Manuel, and are in general ridiculous. The Argentinians are old border rivals, who are said to be arrogant and selfish, and the average Brazilian will definitely be gloating as he gazes at a television report regarding the Argentinian crisis.