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.
One of the most frequent questions I get asked when people peruse my travel photos is: “What made you go there?” followed by the inevitable: “How did you even hear about that place?” The response is the same for both: “I saw it in a picture.”
Yes, just as the beauty of Helen of Troy launched a thousand ships, so too a few travel photographs have sent me on a chase of many more than a thousand miles, just to witness the scenes depicted in person. My earliest recollection of this was an old book my parents had on a shelf in the crude entertainment center my dad built on his own when I was still a young boy. In it was the iconic scene of Machu Picchu, and I knew then and there I wanted to see it for myself. (I made the attempt to do so back in 2010 but was denied due to mudslides, so that goal is still pending).
Is it a sign of weakness that my mind (and wallet) are so open to suggestion? Perhaps. But there’s no doubt I have consistently had my expectations either matched or surpassed when I finally got to see the real thing. Below are just a few examples.
The Meteora, Greece
The first time I saw the image of ancient monasteries dwarfed by enormous pillars of stone, I thought I was looking at a scene from a video game (specifically something out of MYST). When I found myself in the general neighborhood of Greece I made visiting this otherworldly setting a priority and was thrilled when I was able to add hundreds of inspirational pictures to my own collection.
This surreal landscape captivated me at first glance. I mean, where else can you wander entire villages of sculpted rock right out of a Dr. Seuss book? Add to that the opportunity to stay in an authentic cave hotel (the coolest thing ever, btw) and I knew that despite being literally in the middle of nowhere (well, Turkey actually) it was worth the effort. My photo album is in complete agreement.
While India had always been a dream destination of mine, nothing stoked my wanderlust quite as much as a picture of Jodhpur, The Blue City as seen from the imposing Mehrangar Fort. Other than the intriguing color, the warren of flat houses, alleyways & staircases seemed a real-life M.C. Escher drawing. Considering its use as a setting in the Dark Knight Rises installment of the Batman series, apparently I’m not the only one to consider it as worth the trip.
It was in a book of travel photography that I first caught sight of the cobblestone streets and whitewashed houses of Parati. Having always wanted to go to Brazil anyway, I not only included it in my itinerary but also decided to spend the bulk of my time there. Sure, I had read up on all its fine attractions, charming pousadas and artistic vibe, but it was those first pictures that made me say “I have to go there” and made me feel so very glad that I did. In fact, very shortly I will be posting about what a marvelous place it is.
These are just a few examples but by now I’m sure you get the point. So the tip is: If you’re lacking in inspiration or have always taken the road most traveled, do yourself a favor and go down to your local library, take out a book on a destination that intrigues you, and flip through the pictures (or alternately, view my photo gallery.) Inspiration is never far away so long as there are pictures, and so long as there are pictures, there will always be a reason to travel.