Sometimes a trip is all about relaxation. While the majority of my adventures are a little too active to fall under that category, there are a precious few whose primary purpose was simply just to get away and decompress. My 2013 jitney to Brazil was just such a trip, and I’m happy to share and relive the highlights with you now.
Destination: Brazil (Rio de Janeiro and the Costa Verde)
What Brought Me There
The winter of 2013 was a rough one for my wife and I, culminating in my father-in-law’s passing away. Between the stress, loss and freezing cold, never was it more apparent that we needed a break. Fortunately, we were able to use airline miles to book flights to Rio, which was the perfect gateway for the relaxation that lay ahead.
We started with a brief two days touring the city’s main sites such as Sugarloaf Mountain and the amazing beaches, before moving on to the gorgeous, pedestrian-only island of Ilha Grande. Next it was the too-charming-for-words cultural town of Paraty, situated in a paradisaical nook of the Costa Verde coastline for a few days until the inevitable return to Rio, home and a New York winter.
What I Loved
I’m not a big fan of city living, but my time in Rio, with access to such incredible beaches, made it more appealing. But even better were the lush mountain landscapes that stretch down the coast toward Sao Paolo state, with emerald green bays, abundant waterfalls and beaches galore.
On Ilha Grande I loved the sandy streets, dining on the beach by candlelight and the shady lane through the jungle leading up to our pousada. In Paraty, the whitewashed buildings trimmed with bright colors and festive lighting made every night feel like a fiesta. The comfortable accommodations caught between the mountains and the sea was the perfect place to be for the aforementioned relaxation we had come for.
What I Would Do If I Went Back
My travels in Brazil were limited to one tiny region. That is way too little time and range for a country so richly blessed with so many natural and cultural treasures.
If I were to return, I’d love to expand my explorations, from seeing Iguazu Falls in the South, the picturesque adventure town of Bonito on the border with Bolivia, and most of all the remote Atlantic island of Fernando de Noronha.
The whole package. Depending on the context that can mean a lot of different things. In terms of travel destinations, most would define a place with the whole package as being convenient to get to, offering lots of attractions for a variety of tastes, having abundant lodging & dining options, and featuring a sense of place with lots of charm. A couple of places like that come to mind: Ponza, Italy; Phuket, Thailand; Queenstown, New Zealand. But today I’m going to write about the one I visited most recently, and most recently reminded me that not only does the complete package exist, but it’s worth looking for. In this case, I found it in the charming town of Parati, Brazil.
Let’s start with that first prerequisite: being convenient to get to. I know, convenient is a relative term and Parati (pronounced: Pah-rah-CHEE’) is not exactly on the beaten track. In fact it was its inaccessibility up until the 1960’s that preserved this colonial gem & kept it worthy of being rediscovered. There is frequent daily (almost hourly) service on comfortable, clean, and thankfully well-air-conditioned buses from Rio de Janeiro’s Rodoviaria, lasting four to five hours depending on road construction. Yes, 4-5 hours on a bus sounds like a long time, but that includes food & restroom breaks with stunning scenery along the Costa Verde thrown in for free. Once there, Parati is a great base of operations for the entire region, and you’ll forget your bus ride after the first caiparinha.
On the subject of transportation, one of the greatest features of Parati is its compact, walkable nature. I personally stayed at the very edge of town and it was at most a half hour walk along the well-groomed (& lighted) Parati River promenade to the historic center. With most lodging options closer in it means nothing is too far to walk, and many outlying lodgings offer complimentary bicycles to guests.
Moving on to the subject of attractions, Parati is a great place to do everything or nothing and enjoy yourself while doing (or not doing) it. Situated on a lovely harbor, each morning an entire armada of wooden schooners venture out to a multitude of jungle-covered islets with secluded beaches and snorkeling opportunities in emerald green waters.
Costing between $20-$30 a person for a full day of exploring, this is a must-see of any visit, and the views alone of returning to the dock with the sun setting behind the town and surrounding mountains make it more than worth the price. If it’s the beach you’re after, most locals head 15 minutes or so south of town to Trindade Beach, the first in a succession of lovely beaches stretching right down into nearby Sao Paolo State. (My favorite was Ubatuba—not so much for the town itself but because it was so much fun to say out loud. Try it: ooba-tooba. Fun, right?). In the nearby mountains clad in the Mata Atlantica rain forest, hiking enthusiasts can walk the Caminho de Ouro (Golden Trail—the original purpose for the founding of Parati) or if walking isn’t your thing, you can take a horse ride to one of many local waterfalls & get a sense of life in the countryside. And for connoisseurs of liquors, spirits and the like, no visit would be complete without a stop at a local cachasa (pronounced: kah-SHAH’-sah) distillery, where they make the sugar-based liquor that is the chief ingredient in the caipirinha—Brazil’s national drink. (Think a high-octane mojito without the mint.)
When it comes to lodging options—particularly away from the major cities with their chain hotels—most people opt to stay at a locally-owned pousada, which is basically a cross between a bed & breakfast and a boutique hotel. Oftentimes these are converted old mansions, such as the ones in the historic center, while others in the more peaceful outskirts can be found on ordinary side streets. While prices and services vary, usually a stay includes breakfast and the local expertise of the pousada owner. For my part, I was thoroughly pleased with my stay at the unassuming yet eclectic Pousada Guarana www.pousadaguarana.com.br where hosts David & Jimena struck a perfect balance between value, comfort, and hospitality. I recommend them wholeheartedly.
When it comes to food, there are many ex-pats in town, the advantage of which being the opportunity to have authentic ‘foreign’ fare. Whether it be Thai, Middle Eastern, or the ubiquitous pizzerias, good eats are easy to find.
Lastly, there’s the ethereal quality of having a sense of place—that charm or personality that distinguishes it from everywhere else. Strolling through the roughly-hewn cobblestone streets of the historic center, it’s hard to imagine anywhere like it outside of Disney World.
With whitewashed houses in multi-colored trim in a simple grid around churches and a plethora of one-of-a-kind shops featuring the works of local artists, the charm factor is off the scale.
At night the restaurants will set up tables outside, street vendors and performers are out in full force, and the festive atmosphere will satisfy the soul of both romantics and adventurers. Few places I’ve been can match this ambience, and if it seems hard to picture that’s because the sense of contentment and well-being don’t translate easily to words. Like many other things in life, it has to be experienced to be understood.
I can go on and on about Parati but I’ll stop for now. Suffice to say, it is the whole package for anyone who can appreciate that a little extra effort in travel—as in life—can & will bring rich dividends for those who won’t settle for less.