It is easy to overdo things in Rio. A spa treatment of mud baths and nettle-flower face packs might have cured me, particularly if it could be accompanied by 24 hours in a horizontal position in a darkened room. But I hadn’t come to Brazil to lie around. I had wind of a crumbling colonial backwater, a bay of fabulous beaches, and tropical forests of umbrageous silences just down the coast. Paraty seemed to offer the perfect rest cure for nights of too many caipirinhas and too much sweaty samba.
So on a bright Sunday morning I fled Rio, following the highway that snaked west along the spectacular Costa Verde. Escarpments of Atlantic rainforest rose on my right. Tantalising bays of scattered islands appeared on my left. One of the tantalising bays was the Baía da Ilha Grande, a vast and dazzling sweep of Atlantic surf said to contain 350 islands and over 600 beaches. The bay is Paraty’s doorstep.
One of the first settlements in the Americas, Paraty was already old when New Yorkers were still wading through cow shit on Broadway. Its grid of cobbled streets is lined with white-washed mansions whose open doors offer glimpses of rooms of baroque furniture, of plant-filled courtyards, of impossibly beautiful women with babies on their hips. The town is an idler’s dream and, in an age of insecurity, offers a timely and happy lesson that there is life after economic collapse.
When gold was found in Minas Gerais in the 17th century, Paraty sprang to life as the terminus for Brazil’s first road – the Gold Trail, the Trilha do Ouro – that carried the wealth of the mines down to the Portuguese carvels waiting on the coast. In dappled light, among jungles of bamboo and palms, the moss-covered stones of the Gold Trail are like the wreckage of an Incan ruin. Round a corner I met the self-appointed guardian, an ancient spectral figure who battles every day to keep the undergrowth from overwhelming Paraty’s history. He was a man after my heart: he blamed everything on Rio.
In the 18th century, the Gold Trail was diverted to Rio, deemed to be a more secure anchorage, and Paraty went into its first great decline. Things perked up again during the coffee boom in the 19th century. African slaves carried the beans down the old Gold Trail past other slaves carrying French furniture, cases of champagne and grand pianos up to the mansions of the coffee barons in the highlands. But when slavery was abolished in the 1880s and the soil became exhausted in the highlands, the coffee plantations shifted to easier climes and Paraty was sent spiralling into another decline. It entered the 20th century as a ghost town.
And that is the appeal of Paraty. The modern world has passed it by. Paraty is unscathed by progress. The old centre is intact, its streets too narrow, and their cobbles too uneven to admit cars. The old mansions are time capsules from a slower, more elegant age. Such was Paraty’s isolation that during the military dictatorship in the 1960s, political prisoners were sent into internal exile here.
In the 1970s paved roads arrived from Rio and from Sao Paulo, both about four hours away, bringing a generation of artists and bohemians who found the old town conducive to a laidback and contemplative lifestyle. Paraty now entered a genteel retirement devoted to boating, beaches, literature and art. The old gaol, which once housed smugglers and buccaneers, became a library. The old mansions were transformed into splendid pousadas or hotels. Galleries and boutiques, cafés and bookshops, sprang up along the old streets. The splendid schooners of this coast were converted to pleasure boats to ferry visitors to the endless beaches of the Baia de Ilha Grande.
Behind the old church the artist, engraver and poet, Patrick Allien, was at work in his studio on his handmade paper and copper plates. A Frenchman, he arrived in Paraty over twenty years ago, married a Brazilian and never went home, devoting his life to techniques that were invented in the time of Goya. Peering over the top of his horn-rimmed spectacles, he said this was the first place that gave him the time and space to explore his passions.
Down on the waterfront, a friend introduced me to Dom Juan, heir to the royal house of Braganza, rulers of both Portugal and Brazil until the monarchy business went tits up. To signal their retirement from the ruling game, the Brazilian Braganzas came to pretty but insignificant Paraty. “It is so much better than Monaco,” he said with a charming smile.
Across town, in the Pousada Paradeiro, Arnaldo Dias, once an actor in São Paulo, was quoting Cervantes among the potted palms and old family portraits in the rambling mansion he had helped transform into rambling hotel. He broke away from the 16th century to discuss beaches. “Some of the most perfect beaches in Brazil. And only a boat ride away.”
When you tire of what passes for urban life in this sleepy backwater, it is time to hit the beaches. I strolled down to the quay, hired a boat with a captain and headed out into the bay, chugging across an emerald sea, past islands of jungle and rock. Rounding the headland of Vermelha I was entering a world of beaches. After lunch at a restaurant on tiny Catimbau island, we headed for the string of ravishing beaches north of Trindade. Cepilho is great for surfing, Meio has beautiful rock formations: but Praia do Cachadaço is the pick of the bunch with glorious sands, a waterfall back in the rainforest, and a sea pool ideal for snorkeling.
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But the best of Paraty was yet to come. I had booked a house out on the bay and the boatman dropped me there on his way back to town. Accessible only by boat, Casa Cairuçu sits on a coast of rainforest, tiny fishing villages and pristine beaches. I felt happily marooned. It turns out that I had come to Brazil to lie around.
I lay in the hammock watching the boats crossing the bay, and the changing silhouette of the mountains on the mainland. In the evening I sat on the dock and watched unfamiliar stars swim across a southern night sky. Then I dove into the sea to float among trails of bright phosphorescence. This was the rest cure I was looking for.
PARATY IN BRIEF
Out in the bay the Casa Cairuçu is a gorgeous house accessible only by boat. It sleeps six, and comes with a maid service, shopping and guide services on arrival day, return boat transfers from Paraty, kayaks, and internet.
To eat, Porto is an excellent option. Try the salmon with passion fruit sauce. Banana da Terra is also highly acclaimed.
Stanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.