Despite being Brazil’s largest city (and the third most populous city on earth), Sao Paulo is often over-looked as a tourist destination. The beaches and party-hard reputation of Rio de Janeiro capture the imaginations of travelers more than the sprawling urban landscapes and cosmopolitan atmosphere of Sao Paulo.

In recent years, Brazil has become the unofficial leader of the developing world. This is usually a reference to economics and trade, but the nation has also played a role when it comes to environmental issues. Negative stories like the destruction of the Amazon’s rain forest are noticed the most often, but Brazil has taken a progressive approach to alternative fuels, ecotourism and urban development.

Though Sao Paulo’s skyline suggests nothing but endless urban landscapes, the city has plenty of green surprises. Its public transit system, though crowded, is an easy way to get around and there has been a city-level movement to increase the number of green spaces and to build an extensive network of bicycle paths. Add a vibrant organic eating scene that supports small farms to the list and the Sao Paulo (often referred to as Sampa in local slang) becomes an impressive destination for environmentally conscious travelers.

Go green

With 11 million inhabitants, it is bound to get crowded on public transportation during rush hour. Crowded, but never unusable. By far the most convenient way to traverse the city is on the subway (the Metro). The four lines (a fifth is in the works) are clean, reasonably safe and provide a great alternative to the packed, often confusing, streets. A network of buses and commuter trains feed the subway, making public transit the easiest way to get around in the city. A prepaid card known as the Bilhete Único allows riders of any form of mass transit to pay for their fares without having to carry cash.

Though densely packed, Sao Paulo’s crowded roads have some noticeably green features. Most cars run on ethanol (made from sugar cane), thanks to a national movement. Every taxi in the city uses this clean-burning alternative to traditional fuel.

Trying to negotiate the crowded sidewalks and streets on a bicycle might seem suicidal, but Sao Paulo has a large network of underused bike paths. A project is under way to lengthen these roadways for two-wheelers. When it is completed there will be 190 miles of trails . Though only a fraction are currently useable, pedaling is still a reasonable way to see the city.

Relax green

Despite its thoroughly urban appearance, Sao Paulo has been adding green spaces to its landscape at a rapid rate. In the past five years, the number of public parks has doubled with 30 more green spaces under construction. Ibirapuera Park , Sampa’s version of Central Park, is by far the most popular. At nearly 450,000 acres, it is large enough that it does not seem over-crowded, even when more than 100,000 locals use its lawns and sports fields each weekend.

Eat green

Sao Paulo is the epicenter of the organic and locally grown food movement in Latin America. Evidence of this can be seen everywhere from the latest “hot” restaurant to the long-established markets where small farmers can sell their goods to the public.

The Mercado Municipal is a gigantic market with a historic exterior. Like everywhere else in Sao Paulo, it gets extremely crowded at times, but is a worthwhile trip because of the easy access visitors get to obscenely fresh local produce, fish and meats.

Tordesilhas , a hip eatery that has generated a fair bit of buzz among local foodies, is one of many venues that are trying to bolster their reputation and help small farmers by offering seasonally changing menus designed around what is currently available.

KAA Restaurant , another upscale hotspot, shows off its environmentalism in its design. The building features a living wall that is made from more than 7,000 tropical plants that are native to the area.

Play green

Of course, when most people think of environmentally friendly tourism in Brazil, they think of the jungle, not the city. There are plenty of eco-adventures available near Sao Paulo. S erra da Cantareira State Park , less than a half-hour from downtown S.P. (during non-rush-hour), is a popular bird-watching spot that also features plant species native to the area’s Atlantic rain forests. Serra do Mar State Park , a park located in the Ubatuba coastal area about 150 miles from Sao Paulo, is a center for nature conservancy and the preservation of endangered species, including several species of sea turtles that are near extinction.

Sleep green

The Melia Jardim Europa has dedicated one of its floors to the environment. Fittingly dubbed the Green Floor, it is where guests can take their eco-friendliness to the next level. The World Wide Fund For Nature is a partner in the project, which features biodegradable products in the rooms, recycling bins and nontoxic cleaning agents.

Sao Paulo is an urban jungle. But it is not only characterized by the problems that generally plague major metropolises. If you take its recent developments and future plans for parks, bikes and public transportation, it stands as one of the world’s more impressive examples of an environmentally friendly city.

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Destination of the week: Sao Paulo
Though Sao Paulo’s skyline suggests nothing but endless urban landscapes, the city has plenty of green surprises.