The artwork of ‘sluggish’: discovering the coastal secret of Paraty in southern Brazil
An empty hammock is always an invitation, and this one was more tempting than most. Wrapped low over the terrace of the beach house, it was designed in the Brazilian style: a king-size strip of cream-colored cotton, lined with decorative crochet. It swayed idly in the Atlantic breeze, overlooking fishing boats, circling frigate birds, and the turquoise waters of the Baia de Paraty glistening in the afternoon sun.
With a sigh, I made myself comfortable. “A man in a hurry will be unhappy Brazil“, Wrote Peter Fleming in his 1933 classic” Brazilian Adventure “. “I’ve learned that I have to give up.” Almost a century later, this continent-sized country is still teaching impatient gringos valuable lessons about decelerating – and nowhere more than in Paraty.
Low roads, slow times drive along the Costa Verde west of Rio, Time seemed to slow down with each rainforest-covered bay we passed until we turned left and reached a town that had been largely unchanged for a century.
Like many travelers, I came straight from several hectic days in the big city, full of sightseeing, and my gaze was directed towards the even bigger metropolis São Paulo. But halfway between these two giants, I found myself in a different era.
Paraty Old Town (Dan Linstead)
The old town of Paraty dates back in part to the 17th century when the sheltered port was animated by Portuguese caravel fleets that transported gold to Europe. Today it’s a place to stroll through cobbled streets, peer into whitewashed churches, and watch hummingbirds scurry from one courtyard garden to another.
The UNESCO-listed city has perhaps the best collection of Portuguese colonial buildings in the world. This wasn’t an easy stopover, I quickly realized.
This was a lingering. The local tour guide Harry Cowan had clearly decided the same and had settled here from his hometown Argentina. He led me – slowly, of course – along Rua do Comercio to the town square and explained the history of Paraty, which is for the most part also the history of Brazil.
“There were really three eras – gold, coffee, and tourism – and cachaça flowed all the way,” he said with a wink, referring to the cane spirit that sets caipirinhas on fire.
The gold age was at the end of the 17th century when huge quantities were transported from mines in Ouro Preto in the north to Paraty. The early colonial city boomed and became the most important slave port in Brazil.
It was ingeniously built with its streets below sea level, so that floods washed away the debris – knee-high doorsteps protect Paratys houses from regular flooding to this day. And there were other architectural quirks: Harry pointed out the crooked red roof tiles that covered every house.
“They used to be made by wrapping the clay around a slave’s thigh. The technique even resulted in an unusual Brazilian expression – feito nas coxas (“made on the thigh”), which means something crude but effective. “
After gold, the coffee frenzy came in the 19th century when the city exported beans to Europe’s babblers while dozens of distilleries sprang up to delight Cachaça’s African workforce.
But when slavery was finally abolished in 1888 – Brazil was the last Western nation to do so – Paraty’s economy and population collapsed. In the 20th century it was a ghost town with only “a few crazy moonlight burners and some fishermen living and that’s it”. It is only in the last few decades that money – from Brazilian second home owners and travelers – has flowed back to Paraty.
Brightly painted boats (Dan Linstead)
We were now at the harbor, where rows of crazy colored boats huddled around the jetty and vultures patrolled the bank. Ahead lay the scattered islands and remote promontories of Paraty Bay – more to come – while behind us lay cloud-shrouded hills, part of the Mata Atlantica rainforest that once covered almost a fifth of Brazil.
The Mata Atlantica is another reason people tend to break away from Paraty. Though chopped back to a fraction of its previous size, it’s extraordinarily biodiverse – a global hotspot for endemics – and right in Paraty’s backyard. The old golden path still winds through it (a multi-day hike for the energetic), but Harry, always aware of the strain, suggested a simpler sample: a walk to a waterfall. So the next morning we took a short drive, parked on the side of the road, and slipped into the trees.
It wasn’t the jungle you find deeper in the hills, but it was lovely nonetheless. Everywhere there was a musty, sweet tangle of ferns, cacti and lianas, speckled with distant sunlight. Fantastically gnarled trunks carried vivid bromeliads, and bird of paradise heliconias hung in our path.
“This would have been a sugar cane plantation once,” Harry remarked. Obviously, nature hadn’t got the message of the slowdown: it had recaptured its territory at breakneck speed. The super-fertility of the Mata Atlantica is fed by the humid air of the ocean, and that’s exactly where I wanted to be now: out there.
If rainforest walks are one of Paraty’s charms, the fjord-like coastline and countless islands are the other charm. Schooners do a lot of business on day trips, but there are also a handful of places along the Ponta Grossa peninsula where you can stay longer and I made my way.
As I stepped on the footbridge at Casa Cairuçu that afternoon, I felt a delicious and rare feeling: roadlessness. A 20-minute drive across the bay had brought me from Paraty’s old town to this wooden bungalow that was hiding on the jungle coast. Along the headland, a handful of other houses jutted out of the green – a fisherman’s hut, the abandoned villa of a movie star from the 1950s – but only a long, winding walk or a boat connected us to everything.
Beach near Casa Cairuçu (Dan Linstead)
For those in a hurry, the next few days would have been really miserable. Being stranded on a small patch of land, a four-hour walk, forces you to change priorities. So instead of planning my next step, I found myself in the hammock on the porch, fascinated by the little things. A heron perched on a boulder and swallows a fish.
The geriatric bob of a turtle head in shallow water. The twittering call of the bem-te-vi bird. A volley of parakeets. The constantly changing light in the bay: silver to gold to pink to blue to black. And well, I’ve done a little research. I took a boat along the peninsula, home to a caicara fishing community (descendants of the Portuguese and native coastal settlers) and snorkeled with zebrafish at the small Ilha Comprida.
We anchored off beaches where – even if beaches aren’t your thing – you have to reluctantly applaud. I walked to Maria Della Costa’s house, the late movie star’s apartment, which is now eerily suffocated with leaves, and palm trees sprouting on the sun terrace.
But Ponta Grossa’s best secret wasn’t revealed until my last night. After sunset and dinner, I padded down to the house dock and plunged in to swim. Something strange, magical happened in the darkness: My arms and legs were pulling towards the stars.
With every swing or step through the water, a thousand points of light flashed and died. It was a phenomenon that I had heard of many times but never experienced bioluminescence produced by millions of tiny organisms in the ocean.
It was as unexpected as it was wonderful, and it would not have been me if I had advanced in my usual way of traveling. Paraty pulled me into his sleepy embrace and then gave me a reward like saying, “I told you.” I floated on my back in the glowing water as long as I could – you can’t linger forever – and then slowly swam back to the jetty.
The author traveled with Last Frontiers (lastfrontiers.com, 01296 653000) who specialize in tailor-made travel throughout Latin America.
Main picture: Chapel of Santa Rita. From the 18th century