A guide to the 2014 Brazil World Cup
What do you get when you stage the world's most popular event in the world's sexiest country? A football fest in a G-string.
The World Cup in Brazil starts in June and looms as a month of goals and groans to a backdrop of shimmering beaches and shimmying bodies, Amazon forests, amazing architecture, waterfalls and wildlife.
Although the results of the main ticket ballots are yet to be announced, there's no point waiting till then to prepare for a daunting logistical challenge: getting there, finding somewhere to stay, getting around and trying to enjoy the experience amid all the tourist traps, traffic jams and potential political protests.
With World Cups, the laws of economics are simple: the more inaccessible the country, the more outrageous the prices charged by airlines, hotels and tour operators.
Brazil is a prime example. If you haven't bought your flights yet, pour a stiff drink before you read on.
There are basically four ways to fly to Brazil: via Santiago in Chile, Dubai, Johannesburg or Los Angeles.
Sao Paulo is the main hub in Brazil and flying to Rio de Janiero will generally cost more than flying to Sao Paulo or Brasilia, the capital. You need to think about trading the cost of an extra flight versus convenience.
Whether you stay two weeks or four, flights on all of the above routes may cost more than $3000, most closer to $4000.
The quickest way to Brazil is with LAN Airlines/Qantas via Santiago, Chile, and on to Rio (27 hours) departing out of Australia. If you have plenty of time and want a stopover, the cheaper route is via LA and then (via Miami) to Sao Paulo or Brasilia: this can cost $3450 if you stop at Hawaii as well as Miami, or $3900 if you fly direct from Sydney to LA.
If you want to fly to Rio, Emirates has a fare for approximately $4200 via Dubai (30 or so hours total).
Brazil is massive so moving from one part to another requires planning to enjoy the experience beyond merely getting to matches.
This will be hard enough in itself, as every team plays their first-round games in different cities, most of them a long way from each other.
Firstly, scratch trains - Brazil's military dictatorships of the 1970s ran them into the ground. If you don't want to drive, the main options are flights or buses.
The former are quick but filling up fast. Inter-city budget flights booked a few months ago sold out and prices are rising every week.
The domestic airlines in Brazil are Tam, Gol and Avianca.
Having checked the fares nearly every day since getting our tickets in the earlier December ballot, I have not yet seen evidence of extra flights being put on.
If you're unlucky, you might pay several hundred dollars for a one-hour round trip. For example, Cuiaba is half-way to the Amazon and flights there are already quite expensive. Getting out is another challenge altogether. Porto Alegre is easier because it's serviced by Rio flights as well as Sao Paulo.
And although Curitiba is drivable from Sao Paulo, it is hardly worth the effort to rent a car and drive, even if you have four people in your group, like we do.
Between the three-hour plus trip, and getting out of a city of 18 million people, you're spending more than half a day on the road before you even get to your destination city, let alone park and queue with 40,000 fans.
Buses are an obvious compromise: the national network is extensive, regular and affordable, though slow (six hours for 420 kilometres from Rio to Sao Paulo). You don't have to worry about parking or being held-up. But how much time do you want to spend on the road?
WHERE TO STAY
There are two basic ways to organise your accommodation, and they will determine how you travel around the country to matches, and seeing the sights.
Either choose one city as a base, or fashion a flying "road trip" through the cities where your matches are played.
We chose the first option: a base in Rio. If you're staying for longer than two weeks, it makes the most sense.
You can find an apartment, generally cheaper than hotels and with more room, take in the colour of the Fanfest at Copacabana Beach and relax between match-day flights.
The city's modern, high-rise blocks routinely have 24-hour security. But you should ask, not assume.
On the other hand, staying in Rio or Sao Paulo means doubling up on a few more flights than if you simply fly from one match city to another, staying a few days in each.
This second option is worthwhile if you only plan to go for a couple of weeks.
It also allows you to stay in more modestly sized cities, with populations of 1-2 million and fewer traffic issues.
But it does mean you're forever in hotels and forced to take all your luggage with you. We found a genuine two-bedroom apartment near the Botanical Gardens in Rio, about 30 minutes from the beaches.
There are countless apartments around Copacabana, Ipanema and the upmarket suburb of Leblon just behind them. However, you need to check very closely exactly what is offered. Many claim to be suitable for four people, but have only one bedroom and a sofa bed in a cramped lounge area.
If you're looking for hotels outside the two big centres, you need to move quickly to get something decent and close to the centre of town on match days.
Despite these logistics to think about, make sure you leave enough time to sample the sights and delights beyond football.
Brazil boasts beaches and wildlife, man-made and natural beauty to rival the northern hemisphere capitals. Plus the X-factor: samba culture, thumping nightlife and the siren call of The Girl From Ipanema.
To fit in sightseeing between matches, half-way along the coast between Rio and Sao Paulo lies a beautiful colonial village called Paraty, recommended by several friends.
An hour north of Sao Paulo is Brasilia, a city built from scratch in 1956 to replace Rio as the national capital. Designed by the modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer, Brasilia has divided opinions since it was founded in 1960. Its layout and buildings set it apart from the rest of the country, although the critic Robert Hughes described it as "a ceremonial slum".
For beach culture, further north still lies the colonial splendour of Salvador, with a strong African flavour, and the beautiful beaches of Recife, Natal and Fortaleza. In the south, Porto Alegre offers a decided Argentine influence and a smattering of German and Polish culture. Further south again lie the extraordinary Iguazu Falls on the Argentine border (you should try to see the falls from both sides of the border).
Way out to the west lies the almost mythical city of Manaus, deep in the Amazon, with a dazzling array of wildlife and nature options. And this grab-bag does not even begin to scratch the surface.
GETTING MATCH TICKETS
Depending on your luck in the draw, and your bank balance, there are several ways to get extra tickets: buy them in the official FIFA ballots; go to ticket shops which inflate the prices by anything up to 300 per cent, or swap and trade your tickets on fan sites such as Ticket4football (English phone number, Spanish address) or Big Soccer (American).
I have used Big Soccer, especially in Germany 2006 when demand was intense, as it is now. The fans I met and swapped with proved to be reliable and courteous and I had no nasty surprises. I am using Big Soccer again this year and have found willing and reliable trading partners.
Last June, Brazil was ignited by a series of grassroots political protests against the cost of staging the World Cup and how the money could have been better spent on much-need public infrastructure. The organisers have vowed to mount more protests as the global spotlight shines on their country.
Add to that the endemic police-gang tensions in the two major cities and Brazil's reputation as a country where everyone gets robbed, and you could be excused for thinking it's all too hard.
But they said that for South Africa too. In truth, there is never a safer time to visit an edgy country than during the World Cup or Olympics.
Governments put on huge extra police and security measures and a national pride ripples through the local population, bringing out their best behaviour.
Nevertheless, there are obvious precautions: don't wear an expensive watch or wave around your smartphone or digital camera in public.
Take a photo of your passport and leave it on your smartphone; that way you don't have to carry it around with you.
Carry a spare credit card in a safe place, and consider reducing the limit on your everyday card to something low enough for buying the odd meal or trinket, but nothing more.
In any case, you have probably paid for nearly all of your major costs before leaving Australia.
If that's all too scary, imagine this: a giant samba party at Ipanema, free cocktails all round and a giant TV screen behind the dancers showing a match where Australia thrashes Spain.
Sydney Morning Herald