Regions and Cities for Expats in Brazil

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: May 2014

Physical Features

The fifth largest and fifth most populous country in the world, Brazil takes up about half the area of South America. The Amazon Rainforest takes up most of the north and west of the country. Most of the Amazon basin is flatland, though the Guiana Highlands in the far north contain Brazil’s highest mountains. South and east of the rainforest are the Brazilian Highlands, which descend sharply via the Great Escarpment to the coastal area, which is lower lying but quite uneven and containing several bays. The far south is the only portion of Brazil that is not tropical.

Political Divisions

Brazil consists of 26 states plus the Federal District. These states are commonly grouped into five larger economic macro-regions. Basic information for these is given in the table below:


Region Area
Population Density
(per km2)
Largest City
Northern 3,869,638 16,980,000 4.4 Manaus
North-East 1,561,177 55,800,000 35.7 Salvador
West Central 1,612,077 15,000,000 9.3 Brasília
South-East 927,286 84,450,000 91.1 São Paolo
Southern 577,214 28,800,000 49.9 Curitiba


Northern Brazil, which consists of the states Rondônia, Acre, Roraima, Amazonas, Pará, Amapá and Tocantins, is largely made up of the Amazon Rainforest. The largest tropical rainforest in the world and the world’s most precious ecosystem, it is slowly being eaten away by developers and illegal loggers. The region also contains grasslands, swamps and the Guiana Mountains.

The only large city is Manaus and there is little economic or industrial activity. This area is home to the vast majority of Brazil’s indigenous population. The constitution guarantees that the Amerindians are to be left undisturbed, though this has not always been observed. This region has undergone substantial tax incentivisation and funding recently.

The North-East is another incentivised region. It consists of the states Maranhão, Piaui, Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Sergipe and Bahia. All of these except Bahia are small states, once the original Portuguese colonies, as this area is the where the Portuguese first settled in Brazil. The North-East is home to the country’s first capital, Salvador, which is still the region’s largest city.

This macro-region is economically deprived, has high unemployment, and, in some cities, very high crime rates. Its climate is hot, and drier than that of the other regions. Despite this, the North-East is important for its agriculture.

The Southeast (Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo) is by far the most populous region, containing more than two-fifths of the country’s population. It is also the most economically important region, containing as it does the country’s two main metropolises, São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro, and Brazil’s third largest city, Belo Horizonte.

São Paulo is the most important business, commercial and financial city in South America. With a population exceeding 20 million, it is also the most populous city in the southern hemisphere. It is also highly ethnically diverse, including not only Europeans, Middle Easterners and Japanese, but also Brazilians from all over the country as well.

Rio de Janeiro (‘January River’) was the capital of Brazil for two centuries and is still in some ways at the heart of the nation. This is particularly true in the cultural sphere: Rio has the greatest library, theatres and museums in Brazil. There are also the hugely popular festivals, one reason why Rio is the premier tourist destination in the southern hemisphere. Additionally, Rio is Brazil’s sixth largest port. Rio is also a city of contrasts; the poorest live in shanty-towns or favelas, often on or near hillsides that are vulnerable to collapse.

West Central Brazil (Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Goiás and the Distrito Federal), though mostly underdeveloped, contains the national capital, Brasilia, which is just over 50 years old. The site of Brasilia was chosen to facilitate the development of the interior, and the city is now Brazil’s fourth largest. Migrants from all over the country have moved to Brasilia, so the city is like a microcosm of the whole country. Brasilia is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its groundbreaking architecture. The city has most of the institutions you would expect of a capital city, though some have remained in Rio de Janeiro.

Southern Brazil (Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul) is, unlike the rest of the country, temperate. This is a mostly agricultural area, though it does contain the Itaipu Power Plant, the second largest hydroelectric plant in the world.