In the late 17th century, when the Portuguese Bandeirantes (literally standard bearers or pioneers) discovered gold and precious stones in Minas Gerais, a safe deep water port was required to ship these riches back to Europe. The calm, sheltered waters of the Baía da Ilha Grande, accessed by the precarious Indian trails that traversed the Serra da Bocaina, were ideally suited for this purpose. Thus, in about 1670, the settlement of Paraty was founded and within 20 years was one of the most prosperous ports in the Iberian Colonies.
Unfortunately for the good burghers of Paraty, but happily for the modern traveller, by 1720 a much shorter trail had been blazed from the prospecting towns of Minas to Rio de Janeiro. Despite a brief disturbance during the coffee and sugar booms of the 19th Century, this historical accident, and the fact that Paraty only became accessible by motor vehicle in the 1950s, left the region in its own development-free time bubble.
Today Paraty is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its former wealth is reflected in some of the most beautiful and assiduously preserved colonial architecture in the whole of Brazil. The Centro Histórico is a masterpiece, with its baroque churches, roughly cobbled streets that flood with the rising tide and graceful merchants’ mansions. Set all this man-made elegance in a heart-stopping setting of rainforest-clad escarpments, the dramatic Costa Verde coastline, dozens of near deserted beaches and the tropical islands of the Baía and you have a combination of sophistication and natural exuberance that is hard to beat anywhere in Brazil.
It has to be said that, as a popular weekend retreat for the well-heeled of São Paulo and Rio, Paraty is not cheap by Brazilian standards but if anywhere around Rio is worth a bit of a splurge, this is it. One lower priced accommodation option is the Cigarras Pouso Familiar near the bus station. It is a popular location for makers of period movies and novellas and has en suite rooms including breakfast at R$100 and small self catering apartments for around R$150. My personal favourite, however, is the gorgeous Mercado de Pouso, Paraty’s former coffee market, on the old quayside beside the Santa Rita church, where a double room with air conditioning, ceiling fan and bathroom with breakfast included will set you back around R$250. The hotel also has its own 80 foot schooner and organises dolphin spotting, diving and beach cruises to the islands. For the truly budget minded, camping is available at the Camping Club do Brasil a short distance out of town beside the Praia do Pontal.
One of the real pleasures of Paraty is its bewildering profusion of excellent restaurants. In a high class field there are two that really stand out. The Restaurante da Matriz is situated in a colonial house on the main square, Praça da Matriz. It is rightly famous throughout Brazil for its deliciously authentic Caiçara dishes, named after the natives of this coastal region. Try the mouthwatering sea bass and shrimp moqueca, a traditional fish stew spiced with ferociously piquant dendê oil, or the prawns fried in batter with ginger and mango sauce.
If that doesn’t take your fancy, on Rua do Comercio you will find Merlin o Mago, an award winning establishment with an idiosyncratic fusion style that incorporates the best of Europe, Asia and Brazil. The restaurant is aptly named as its chef, the German-born former restaurant critic, Hado Steinbrecher, is truly a magician. His onion ice cream (yes, that’s onion ice cream) dumplings on tomato with grilled goat’s cheese are a sensation and you’ll have to go a long way to find anything to beat the lobster in orange sauce.
A good, if expensive, time to visit Paraty is during the low season months of July and August when two events draw visitors from all over the world. Every August since 1972 the town has organised the Festival da Pinga. Time was when the town and surrounding area had over 200 distilleries, or “alambiques”, producing Brazil’s sugar cane spirit, cachaça, the principal ingredient of the ubiquitous caipirinha. Whilst the alambiques are somewhat less numerous today, Paraty is still a major producer and the festival attracts some 20,000 aficionados who take their cachaça as seriously as any single malt whisky drinker.
For those of a less bacchanalian disposition, for four days every July Paraty becomes a sort of tropical Hay-on-Wye as it presents the annual Festa Literária Internacional de Paraty. Run by Bloomsbury Publishing founder, Liz Calder, the festival has played host to the likes of Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie and, after only three years, is already established as one of the world’s premier literary events.
Do bear in mind that accommodation prices can double and even triple during these busy periods and hotel bookings should be made weeks, if not months, in advance.
As far as activities are concerned, clearly the sea plays a major role. A number of companies offer skippered sailing and motor yacht charters in modern, well equipped boats and Paraty is also one of Brazil’s scuba diving meccas with a host of companies to choose from. On the other hand, if just lazing on a palm-fringed beach is your thing, the boat ride to Praia do Sono is an absolute must. Quite simply, they don’t make beaches any lovelier. Praia do Sono and the larger, busier beach at Trindade can also be reached by bus.
Paraty’s other major attraction is the Parque Nacional da Serra da Bocaina, which straddles the border of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and is home to endangered species such as spider and howler monkeys, harpy eagles, tree porcupines and giant anteaters. Four wheel drive and horseback tours of the Park and the Trilha de Ouro (gold trail), with English speaking guides, can be arranged at the Centro de Informações Turisticas on Avenida Roberto Silveira.
Paraty is a magical, almost unreal place with a delight round every corner. From the moment you arrive your senses will be overwhelmed by a heady confection of sights, sounds, smells and tastes that few places in the world can equal. Don’t take my word for it, though. While anchored in the Baía da Ilha Grande during his second South American voyage of 1501, Amerigo Vespucci wrote in a letter home, “Oh God! If there was a paradise on earth, it would not be very far from here!” He was not wrong.
To reach Paraty from Rio, take an air conditioned coach from the Rodoviária Novo Rio bus station. The journey time is about four hours. Here are some useful websites: Paraty, www.paraty.com.br/iindex.asp. Mercado de Pouso, www.mercadodepouso.com.br/. Cigarras Pouso Familiar, www.paraty.com.br/cigarras/ICIGARRA.HTM. Merlin o Mago, www.paraty.com.br/merlin. Restaurante da Matriz, www.paraty.com.br/matriz/index.asp. For yacht charters, Coconut Yacht Adventures (www.geocities.com/bra1868/) is a reliable German run company and for diving, Mr. Big Paraty (tel. 024/3371-1327) has a good reputation.
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