Great escape to Brazil's Green Coast
Go Brazil:When living among 20 million people in São Paulo gets too much for Tom Hennigan, it’s time to head for Brazil’s famed Green Coast and a bypassed colonial gem
LIVING IN AN urban monster like São Paulo you must have your escape strategies at the ready. When almost 20 million neighbours start getting on your nerves, you know it is time to get away and recharge.
Since I first arrived in Brazil over five years ago one of my favourite retreats is the colonial town of Paraty which nestles almost halfway between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. It is the jewel of Brazil’s Green Coast, and though it takes me about four hours to get there, the drive is part of the experience, winding down mountains to what is perhaps the country’s most spectacular stretch of coastline.
Backed by rainforest-clad mountains and looking out onto a bay of islands and inlets, Paraty was the point of departure for Portugal’s treasure fleets which headed for Lisbon packed with legendary amounts of gold and diamonds.
After its heyday in the 18th century, it was bypassed by a new road linking the goldfields directly with Rio and the bustling town began its long slide into irrelevance, which happily meant developers missed it altogether and its original colonial character was left intact waiting to be rediscovered.
And in the 1970s it was, its beaches by Brazil’s hippies and the old colonial centre by the arty sets in São Paulo and Rio, who snapped up semi-derelict colonial houses, opening guesthouses, galleries and restaurants and so giving birth to a tourist phenomenon.
As a getaway destination it has a bit of everything. The colonial centre has great restaurants to go with its old churches and the huge rough cobblestones make it car-free, a blessed release after the traffic choked freeways of São Paulo. There are literally hundreds of beaches in the area, some ideal for anyone looking for a party, others so small they do not even appear on maps.
Now it is also home to Brazil’s premier literary festival which this year takes place over the first week of August. Word of the location’s charm has spread along the literary grapevine and organisers have little problem attracting top writers and singers (this year Lou Reed will take a break from his South American tour to give a talk).
Regular visitor Salman Rushdie is back as is Isabelle Allende while Colum McCann will continue the strong Irish connection with the gathering.
The beauty of the festival is that you do not even have to buy tickets to attend. So long as you are willing to watch the various talks and round-tables on a big screen you can dip in while exploring the town.
In fact, the real fun is away from the main event. With no cars able to circulate in the old centre, it is easy for the street performers attracted by the festival’s public to take over.
Even if you come for intellectual stimulation you should do like the writers and take some time off to explore the bay by boat. One of the charms of Paraty’s beaches is that many can only be reached by water.
Just head down to the quays in the old centre and fix a price with one of the many boatmen touting for business.
The local fleet comes in all sizes. A large group can charter a schooner for the day or a couple can hire a small boat for a few hours. Despite some of these boats being tiny, they nearly all have a sundeck so you can stretch out as the captain makes his way across the bay. Do not be afraid to haggle – the more boats that are tied up the stronger your bargaining position.
A personal favourite to head for is the tiny Praia do Engenho which has the advantage of having a small trail that leads a couple of hundred metres to a bar where you can have a hearty fish lunch and cool off with one of Brazil’s spectacularly chilled beers.
WITH SPECTACULARmountains ringing the bay, there is excellent hiking for the more adventurous. In April I joined a three-day trek through the car-free nature reserve that is the Juatinga Peninsula. This involved hiking on trails often through dense rainforest which every so often would suddenly break to provide stunning views of empty tropical beaches that we climbed down to for a dip.
Each night we slept in small fishing villages where creature comforts were few – electricity is a recent arrival – but the fish dinners were excellent. Our destination was the village of Pouso da Cajaíba, a collection of small houses on a golden beach where high tide looks as if it will spill into the small church.
If you don’t fancy having to hike into Pouso you can take one of the boats that serve the community from Paraty. Local fishermen rent rooms or just enough space to sling a hammock to young hippies eager to get back to nature. With no roads, television and your return to civilisation dependent on weather conditions, villages such as Pouso da Cajaíba are popular with those for whom even Paraty doesn’t qualify as getting away from it all.
But for those who value their creature comforts Paraty’s colonial pousadas, or guesthouses, are a better option. These allow you to stay right in the heart of the old colonial centre. There is no traffic to disturb you during your stay but, if you do visit in high-season, you might find it rather claustrophobic once you step outside of your cloistered retreat. Paraty can get very full around New Year and again at carnival with day trippers – think Portofino or the Amalfi Coast in August.
LAST NEW YEAR’SI skipped the crowds in the centre and stayed at the Chácara das Acácias, about 3km away on the Cunha road, which conveniently has a bike path running alongside it. This pousadais a collection of small cabins scattered around an old villa all in a beautifully maintained garden that has been sculpted out of the rainforest and is filled with tropical plants and shady trees. The rooms are small and simple but clean and your porch comes with hammock, ideal for lounging in the cool of the early morning listening to the exotic morning chorus.
Just writing this on another chaotic morning in São Paulo has me itching to book my next trip back.
Where to go, stay, eat and swim
When to go
Paraty is great to visit all year around but only go at New Year and carnival if you are comfortable with crowds. Carnival has a famous mud fight where thousands of people cover themselves, and each other, in mud and parade around town. FLIP literary festival (flip.org.br) this year runs from August 4th to 8th and tickets go on sale on July 5th and can be bought online.
Where to stay
Paraty’s tourist office has a full list of places to stay from campsites to luxury pousadas in the colonial centre here. See paraty.tur.br. Traditional pousadasin the colonial centre include Porto Imperial (pousadaportoimperial.com.br); Pousada do Ouro (pousadaouro.com.br); Sandi (pousadadosandi.com.br).
Outside of town is the Pousada Chácara das Acácias (paraty.com.br/acacias).
Where to eat
Food is one of Paraty’s strongest points. The town’s popularity with São Paulo’s culinary set means there are a number of excellent restaurants in the centre.
Banana da Terra on Rua Doutor Samuel Costa in the colonial centre vies for the title of Paraty’s top eatery and, as it does not take reservations, you will often find a well-heeled queue out front waiting patiently for a chance to try its contemporary reworking of traditional Brazilian cooking.
A little further down the street is Bartholomeu, which prides itself on its Argentine steak and caipirinhas. Here Brazil’s national cocktail is taken up a notch. The cachaça – Brazil’s sugar-based national liquor – is the best from the area and the fruit ranges far beyond the classic lime. I recommend one with tangerine. It is impossible to nurse and you’ll soon be needing another, despite the glass being the size of a small fishbowl.
A word of warning: many gringosfall in love with caipirinhas on their first night in Brazil, only to feel like they’ve been mugged the next morning. Cachaça can do that to you. It is rocket fuel which can have a dirty after-burn. It is best to ease your way into it. Be like a local and after your first switch to caipiroska – the same drink but made with vodka.
In Paraty on at least one night skip ordering dessert in your restaurant. It is more fun to buy it on the street. Dotted around town are vendors with large barrows offering a range of traditional Brazilian sweets. These basically consist of at least two of three staples – sugar, milk and fruit. But because Brazil has such a wide variety of fruits you will be a glutton or in town for a while before you work your way through all the options in the barrow.
My Juatinga Peninsular trek was organised by Paraty Explorer (paratyexplorer.com), a company operated by Belfast-born Michael Smyth. This tour had the advantage of having both Michael and a local guide (called Moses, appropriately enough) accompany us so, as well as making sure noboby gets lost in the wilds, we learnt plenty about the forest’s flora and fauna as well as the local Caiçara culture and history of Paraty from pre-European times right up to the present. Tours are customised and can include mountaineering and kayaking.
As well as the beaches reachable by boat you can take a bus to other famous ones such as Trindade, once a hippy paradise, now a laid-back collection of beaches and natural rock pools with bars serving reggae, beer and fish.
Picinguaba is just inside São Paulo state and is a sleepy fishing village with several pousadasby the small harbour and deserted beaches further south.
Within walking distance from Paraty’s colonial centre is Jabaquara beach which is the least appealing of those in the area but worth a trip for a natural mud bath down the end away from town. Ask in one of the bars where the “lama” is. It feels very oily and frankly weird putting it on but your skin will feel incredible for days afterwards.