Does a trip to Brazil cost the earth? I'd always fancied seeing the land of dental-floss bikinis and rainforests for myself but although São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro may be enticingly close together on the map, getting there from London involves a nonstop flight of 12 hours. Better to stay at home, then. Or not? For an eco-worrier, thinking about the impact of flying can make you put away your passport.
Holidaying in Brazil would require a mental trade-off. I convinced myself I could go, as long as I did more than usual to lessen my carbon footprint. I would, of course, hang up wet towels in hotel bathrooms, turn off taps while brushing my teeth and ensure the room's TV wasn't on standby. As well as offsetting the CO2 created by my return trip across the Atlantic, on the ground I would limit my use of taxis and find other ways to get around if I wanted to justify my visit to two of South America's largest and liveliest party cities.
In a country synonymous with deforestation and the effects of climate change, it was only right that I use my holiday in Brazil to go a deeper shade of green as well as brown. As such, I decided I would also forgo afternoons on Copacabana beach and do something self-improving, namely visit some of the projects funded by Investing In Nature, an eco-partnership between a handful of conservation charities, Botanic Gardens Conservation International (a charity supported by British Airways), Earthwatch Institute and the WWF.
Both São Paulo and Rio are part of a bio-diverse hot spot known as the Atlantic coastal forest, a once sprawling mass of greenery, which intensive logging and sugar-cane farming has reduced to a threadbare strip along the country's northeastern coast. Only seven per cent of the forest's original cover remains, making it more endangered than Brazil's more famous Amazon rainforest. With this sad fact ringing in my ears, I head first to São Paulo's Jardim Botânico (Avenida Miguel Stéfano 3031, +55 11 5073 6300), an oasis of preserved Atlantic coastal forest. Attracting visitors looking for a shady picnic spot away from the smog, it's more than just a guidebook must-see. Botanists here look after 700 rare types of orchid, have discovered more than 100 plant species previously unknown to science within the garden's grounds, and revived three plants officially considered extinct. There's a nice café attached, too.
Here, conservation is bound up with education. During my visit, local school children with magnifying glasses and muddy hands were noisily learning to plant seedlings while studying the Pau Brasil, the national tree, which the gardens are helping to keep from extinction. I make my way to the recently opened jungle walk, a nature trail through bamboo thicket. We spot an armadillo scuttling in the undergrowth and are forced to dodge the fruit stones, among other more objectionable detritus, thrown at passing visitors by the endangered bugio monkeys. There's gratitude.
I get a warmer reception at a WWF-funded nature reserve in Poço das Antas, near Rio. It's home to the golden lion tamarin, which is bright orange like a fairground toy with a squeak that's just as distinct. The cute little critter used to exist across the whole of the Rio de Janeiro state but due to the destruction of the Atlantic coastal forest there are now fewer than 1,400 in the wild. In 1971, when WWF started working with its partners to protect the primate's threatened habitat (it was WWF's first project in Brazil), there were fewer than 200 left in the wild. Even though the tamarin is the first endangered primate ever to improve its conservation status, most Brazilians will only ever see one on the back of a 20 real note, the Brazilian currency. Thrilled to be allowed so close to the monkeys, I place bananas on a branch for them to snatch up while I - shamefully - pose for pictures. Even on an eco trip you need holiday snaps.