Paraty, The Town That Time Forgot.
We landed at the Antonio Carlos Jobim International Airport in Rio de Janeiro at 5:45 a.m. We’d been awake since the previous morning and knew we had to stay awake until that night to avoid jet lag brought about by the overnight travel coupled with the time change. We had all day to make the 3 ½ hour drive to Paraty, so we weren’t in any hurry.
We had a reservation for an economy car with a GPS (God bless the GPS...) at Budget. The Budget office didn’t open until 6:30 a.m., so we settled on a bench and waited. And waited. And waited.
FINALLY, a young woman arrived who spoke about as much English as we did Portuguese. Somehow, we managed to understand each other. We particularly understood when she said, “No GPS.”
NO GPS?????? This was not a good start. But what were we going to do? We had no choice. We took the car without the GPS.
We were her first customers of the day. Her ONLY customers. Our car was on site at the airport. Yet...it took her 30 minutes to process our reservation. After that painfully long time, a little man motioned for us to follow him to our car. He proceeded to take us out into the ground transportation area where he led us to a sidewalk lined with taxis. He held up his finger and said, “Wait.” Then he walked off.
Thirty minutes later, we dragged our luggage back inside the terminal and returned to the Budget counter, where there were still no other customers. We explained that he had left us on the sidewalk a half hour earlier and vanished.
I don’t know Portuguese but I am pretty sure what she said to him on that walkie talkie could not be repeated in church. Or to your mother.
She led us out to our car herself and within minutes, we were inside our Fiat.
When the word “ECONOMY” is actually adhered to the back of your rental vehicle in raised metallic letters, you know you have not been upgraded.
It had been almost 2 hours since we landed and we were finally on our way out of the airport, tired and very, very irritable, with no GPS and nothing more than a handful of Google maps I had printed as a back-up.
Yes, we were driving.
This would be the single worst mistake we made in planning our trip to Brazil, other than choosing to go to Brazil in the first place. While it was a significant improvement over trying to use public transportation, the difficulty of the road system, the lack of signage and our inability to read what few signs there were, the danger posed by actually being stupid enough to drive a car through Rio de Janeiro, our lack of maps or GPS, and the incredibly ridiculous traffic jams made driving a bad, bad idea.
We were immediately thrust out of the airport into a maze of highways, bumper to bumper traffic, blaring horns, and signs that did not match my Google map. Street signs were flying past me with names like “Ln. Vermelha/Av. Pres. João Goulart” or “Estr. das Canárias.” I was totally confused, trying to match any street name on my map to any street sign I saw. I felt like I’d been shot out of a canon with a bag over my head and my butt on fire.
To say that driving in Rio is difficult is a gross understatement. Lanes are a mere suggestion. A three lane road is more likely to have about 6 lanes of traffic with everyone sort of carving out their own little space. Don’t forget about the scooters and motorbikes that simply fly up in between said lanes. Then you have the guys that walk up and down the street selling food to the people stuck in the traffic. Add to that about a million buses, poor signage, and no on/off access roads.
After a few minutes, I saw a sign with a road name I recognized and an arrow pointing to it’s access from my map, Avenue Brazil.
“Just keep following that,” I told Matt. “That’s the highway that will take us to Paraty.”
This worked just fine until we actually got to the access and had a choice of left or right.
“Which way?” Matt asked, sweat beading up on his brow. I had no freaking idea.
Given a 50-50 choice, Matt and I will make the wrong choice 99.9999% of the time. This time was no exception.
One of the first things we learned about the “highways” in Brazil, is that, unlike US interstates that have an exit approximately every mile or so, you might drive for 30 miles before finding an exit or appropriate turnaround in Brazil. We drove 45 minutes in bumper to bumper traffic with poverty stricken favelas (slums) surrounding us before there was an opportunity to turn around. We then had to drive the 45 minutes back to our starting point.
It had now been 3 ½ hours since we landed and we were still at the freaking airport.
Nerves shot, we just kept driving. What else could we do?
The stand still traffic lasted for about an hour. During that hour, we inched our way through the absolute worst part of Rio de Janeiro. Favelas are the slums of Rio. Like many third world cities, Rio has a very large population of poverty stricken people. Much of the population lives in favelas, or communities of squatter housing. Shacks are built one on top of the other along the steep hillsides that surround the city. Favelas are typically controlled by drug lords and are known for their high crime rates.
During the first hour of the drive, there were literally favelas stretching up every hillside, covering every imaginable space, for miles, and miles, and miles. They went as far as my eyes could see.
It was not a feel-good introduction to Brazil.
About the time I was asking myself for the twenty-seventh time WHY we had decide vacationing in Brazil was a good idea, the landscape abruptly changed. The traffic all but vanished and the dejected favelas gave way to rolling hills.
Then the rolling hills gave way to towering mountains that stretched down the coast as far as we could see. They were lush and green, with jagged peaks reaching to the heavens. A bright blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds stretched overhead and the highway coasted along the sea. We first caught glimpses of blue and emerald waters lined with verdant mountains at turns in the road, but eventually, the landscape opened up into vast stretches of deep blue sea fringed with white sand beaches and dotted with bright green islands.
It was an entirely different world from the one we had been in just an hour before. It was beautiful.
We had reached the Costa Verde, or Emerald Coast. There was virtually no traffic and the views astounded us for the next 2 hours. It was almost enough to make us forget the hellish morning.
It was about noon when we saw the sign for “Paraty.” Hot damn and hallelujah, we had made it.
Pronounced “Para-chee,” Paraty is a town that time forgot. Situated about 125 miles south of Rio de Janeiro, Paraty is a tourist destination, but it retains a character that is the very essence of Brazil. There was no major road from Rio de Janeiro to Paraty for almost one hundred years, causing Paraty to essentially be forgotten by the world.
Just like Sleeping Beauty with her fairy tale kiss, Paraty awoke from it’s sleep in 1975 with the completion of a road from Rio de Janeiro, but it remained untouched by most modern trappings. The historic town center was preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
You won’t see any cars on the streets of Paraty, but you might have to wait for a donkey-cart jam. The town is lined with stony streets, cobbled together hundreds of years ago by slaves, and are better suited for Havianas than heels. The old town is filled with cafes and restaurants and quaint shops. You can buy a colorful woven basket on the street or can buy a cold beer at any number of colorful bars.
It was the perfect place to undo the damage that Rio had done.
It was going on one o’clock by the time we found a place for lunch. As we stepped into the Margarida Café, I felt my brow unfurrow, felt my shoulders relax, and felt my breathing slow down.
The restaurant was an eclectic mix of bohemian art, mismatched tables and chairs, and tropical plants. Tall windows surrounded the restaurant and let the bright sunlight filter in. A grand piano was set up in one corner and someone was playing softly.
I ordered my first caipirinha. The caipirinha is Brazil’s national cocktail, made with local cachaca (sugar cane rum), sugar, and limes. Extremely potent and undeniably delicious, I was an instant fan. I made it my personal goal to sample as many caipirinhas as possible on this trip.
One Caipirinha down. Ninety-seven to go.
We learned on this trip that there seem to be several staple foods that appeared on virtually every menu in Brazil: pizza, pasta, grilled meats, seafood. The latter two almost always came with several side dishes and were ordered for 2 people.
For our first meal, too hungry and exhausted to make a bad meal choice, we went for the familiar. I opted for a dish of pasta with a rich tomato sauce and steak. Matt had a chicken that was marinated in a tangerine sauce.
With the soft piano music, the sunlight gently filtering in through the windows, the delicious food, and the strong caipirinhas, Margarida was a much needed oasis of salvation after a difficult start.
We took some time to walk around the old part of town. It is hard to describe just how beautiful it was. The stone streets made walking a challenge, especially after a caipirinha, but they were gorgeous. Block after block of white buildings with colorful wooden doors and shutters, in bright blue or bright yellow, greeted us with every turn. Wooden carts filled with goods were pulled by donkeys and restaurateurs were setting colorful tables outside their kitchens in anticipation of the evening’s guests.
It was hot and we were tired, so we made our way over to Vivenda Paraty, a pousada that was just outside of the old town. Unlike a traditional hotel, a “pousada” is a smaller, more personal place to stay. Pousadas are typically B&Bs, small inns, or boutique hotels. Opting to stay in pousadas rather than large hotels was one of the few things I did RIGHT when planning this trip.
I had selected pousadas that were highly rated and I ensured that each one had owners that either had English as a first language or spoke fluent English.
Pousada Vivenda Paraty is rated #1 in Paraty on Tripadvisor and let me tell you, it is well deserved. The owner is a delightful English gentleman that came to Brazil 26 years ago as a teacher, fell in love with it, and never left. He has a beautiful house and behind his pool and tropical gardens, he has 2 very private free standing cottages.
John welcomed us with a hug like old friends and led us to our cottage. The gardens were filled with orchids and tropical plants. The pool glistened, a cool and inviting blue. Our cottage welcomed us with a private veranda and a swaying hammock. Inside, the cottage had a kitchenette, sitting area, and a king bedroom with a large bath. It was all done in cool and crisp shades of white.
We did our very best to relax but not sleep, but the cool white sheets and delicious air conditioning made that a very hard promise to keep.
We asked John for his recommendation on dinner and his first recommendation was Margarida Café, so we asked him what his second recommendation would be. He highly recommended Punta Di Vino, a small restaurant specializing in Neapolitan style pizzas.
We headed toward old town to do some strolling, have some pizza, and sample some more caipirinhas.
The town was as beautiful at night as it had been that afternoon. The soft glow of light spilled from the brightly shuttered windows and café tables littered the streets, filled with flickering candlelight.
People wound up and down the streets as music poured out of most restaurants. Couples laughed at small tables with flickering candlelight to the sound of soft samba music. THIS was the Brazil I had envisioned and hoped for.
We found Punta Di Vino and chose to sit inside since it felt like it was about to rain. We were seated at a romantic little table in the corner and ordered a half carafe of wine.
The restaurant was warm and inviting. The wood stove used to cook the wood fired pizzas filled the air with a warm smell and the wine made everything feel mellow as a soft drizzle began to fall outside. The open window let in the fresh smell of rain and we could hear music playing from the lively bar next door.
We ordered a pizza with some type of Italian salami on it. The pizza was thin and crispy and the salami was incredibly rich and tangy.
The rain had stopped by the time we finished eating and we decided to walk over to find the source of the music we heard playing. “Brasil” was a small restaurant/bar just down the street. Tables were scattered all over the cobblestone front and more were packed inside the cozy interior. A live band was playing.
We hesitated in front just long enough for the waiter to grab our hands and coax us inside. He looked around, and seeing absolutely NO empty tables, held up his finger and ran off. Worried that this would be a repeat of the airport Budget guy….we were relieved when he immediately returned with a small table that he placed in a corner and pulled up two chairs.
How could we not get something now? We ordered 2 caipirinhas and a bowl of marinated olives.
When the band stopped playing, we paid up and headed over to Café Margarida for a final caipirinha of the night.
We figured out on that very first day that we were never able to drink more than 2 caipirinhas. A third would have been out of the question. They were that strong. When I got home, I looked up the recipe and figured out why. There is nothing in that glass but alcohol, sugar, and a crushed up lime. How many shots is that?
(Major travel exhaustion + two caipirinhas) x Vivenda’s super soft bed = One hell of a good night’s sleep.
I awoke to the sound of exotic birds whose songs I didn’t recognize. Soft white orchids waved in the morning breeze.
I tiptoed out to the verandah as Matt slept and found that the breakfast fairy had come in the night and set our table beautifully, in anticipation of our first full day in Brazil.
I stretched out in the breezy white hammock and read until Matt finally stumbled sleepily out into the early morning sunshine.
As we sat blissfully in soft chairs, two ladies carried over a tray laden with more food than we could eat.
Underneath a soft white netting were plates of tropical fruit, meats and cheeses, pastries and breads. We had their housemade yogurt and granola, fresh squeezed juice, and strong, hot coffee. They even asked if we wanted eggs cooked to order. With all this, who needed eggs?
I like the way Brazilians do breakfast.
It was a hazy morning, so we decided to wander over to town for a while before deciding what to do with our day.
My favorite part of town were the colorful wooden boats lining the harbor. There must have been a hundred of them. Each boat was painted in outrageous color and boasted and upper deck laden with pillows and cushions. Most had some sort of bar filled with exotic fruits and cocktails, and in front of each boat was a colorfully dressed Brazilian man trying to convince you to spend the day on his boat.
We were tempted, but the sky was clouding over and it didn’t look like much of a day to be stuck on the sea in a boat.
Instead, we chose to drive about 30 minutes down the coast to Trindade, a small village with beautiful beaches backed by towering mountains. To get there, we had to drive along the highway a short distance and then take a harrowing drive along a narrow, steep, twisting, turning road down to the village.
Our first stop was at Praia do Cepilho, a large beach littered with huge boulders. There was a little bar on the top of a hill overlooking the beach.
We decided to drive on to the small village, where we parked and walked out onto a beach at the end of the village, Praia do Meio. The beach was covered with small eateries, each one with a sprinkling of bright yellow or red plastic chairs and tables out front. The smells of fried fish and potatoes mixed with the fresh salt air.
It was then that I uttered the 4 words that make Matt cringe on vacation.
“I read somewhere that...”
He just wanted to sit down on the beach, stretch his legs, and read his book. Maybe get some fish and a cold beer. With those four little words, he knew I wasn’t going to let him do that.
“I read somewhere that there is a BETTER beach if you just hike through that stretch of jungle over there and over that small mountain.”
Poor Matt. There is a golden throne with his name on it waiting for him in heaven just for having to put up with me.
He sighed, gathered his things back up and set off across the beach behind me.
Praia Brava is said to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the area. Unfortunately, as would be a repeated theme on this trip, I didn’t have extremely clear directions on how to get there. Here were the directions I had, “When you arrive in Trindade, forget the beach right next to the village and go to the do Meio beach, further south: you will find two small beaches separated by a bunch of rocks in the middle. From there there is just one little obstacle, a small hill you will have to climb and go down. It’s a short climb that presents no problems in dry weather.”
We literally set off blindly through the jungle. In the wrong direction. No, not even the wrong direction, on the wrong entire trail.
There was a small path and I assumed that must be it. You know what they say about assuming don’t you? Well, just call me an A-S-S. After walking about 30 minutes in the broiling heat, sweat dripping off our brows, we came to a dead end with a small waterfall and a naked man. This was most definitely NOT it.
We trekked back through the hot, hot jungle to our starting point. At this point, most men would have cussed me out, maybe slapped me, and hoofed it back to the main beach without so much as a “How do you do,” but not Matt. He actually let me lead him down another path through the hot, hot jungle.
This time, we reached a dead end and a large chicken pecking at a pile of garbage.
After almost an hour of wandering around in the steamy jungle, toting our beach stuff, do you know what Matt did when we got back to Praia do Meio? He went and found the right trail for me.
Saint, I tell you.
After all that hot walking, it was only a short (but steep) 15 minute walk over a small hill to Praia Brava.
The beach was a mind blowing combination of blue water, white sand, rainforest, and green mountains. Not only was the beach beautiful, but unlike it’s cousin, Praia do Meio, it was virtually deserted.
We finally had our beach time and just enjoyed laying in the sand, reading and listening to the waves.
Eventually, we got restless, as we always do.
“I read somewhere that there is a natural swimming pool at the end of this beach….” I ventured.
Oh no. Here we go again.
We saw people walking a path at the end of the beach, so it was pretty easy to figure out where to go this time. It was about a 20 minute trek over lots of steep, muddy hills before we found ourselves at Cachadaco, a series of natural pools formed by giant boulders in the ocean.
We did the obligatory lagoon swim, even though the water must have been about 67 degrees. It was a beautiful spot, though.
About this time, I started thinking about how long it would take to walk back. Twenty minutes back through the steep, muddy jungle; another fifteen minutes across the beach; about fifteen minutes more to walk over the steep hill back to Praia do Meio.
But I was hungry NOW.
It was then that we noticed the little boats on the other side of the rocks.
$7 and 5 minutes later we were deposited safely in the sand of Praia do Meio beach, ready for lunch and a stiff caipirinha!
Matt was apparently through with allowing me to make any decisions for the day and he marched right up to one restaurant grabbed the menu, pointed at something and told the waiter he’d take that.
I am one of these people that orders every meal as though it’s my last. I look over the menu slowly, savoring each choice. I have to read each one in detail. Then I read it again. Maybe three times. Then I ponder my options. Matt simply didn’t have the patience to wait at that point. I learned that day that letting someone else order for you can be amazing.
Two strong caipirinhas showed up first. I was starting to really like these.
Shortly after the drinks arrived, the waiter brought several dishes and set them down. There was a platter of salad, a bowl of rice, and a platter of grilled fish and potatoes. The fish was grilled perfectly, topped with capers and limes.
Rice and potatoes? I like a country that double starches. Particularly after feeding me cake for breakfast. Oh yeah.
We also noticed this little bowl of grainy looking stuff. We smelled it. It had no smell. We tasted it. It had no taste. Seeing no benefit to it ,we passed it over.
Lunch was fantastically delicious and we ate until we could eat no more. We made our way back to Paraty and crashed at Vivenda for the rest of the afternoon.
Now that our food rules were all a mess, what with the cake for breakfast and the triple carb lunch, we decided there was absolutely nothing wrong with dessert before dinner so we headed into the old town for some gelato.
Gelato places were unique in Brazil. They were all self serve with tons of toppings. You simply put everything you wanted into your dish and then it was weighed at the register. You paid per kilo.
For dinner, we decided to try some oceanfront dining and headed to the beach of Praia do Jabaquara to find Restaurante La Luna. The restaurant was open to the ocean air, warmly lit with candles. We were allowed to choose our seats and opted for a thatched table facing the ocean on the back terrace. Our feet were in the sand and the waves gently lapped the shore only feet away.
Lunch had taught us that most meals were ordered family style for 2 people, so we went with it. We ordered grilled steak for 2.
It was delivered with a tray of condiments like peppers and chimmichurri, a salad, rice, fried potatoes, and another dish of the mystery stuff.
When I got back to our cottage, I decided to Google the mystery stuff. It turned out to be farofa, or toasted manioc flour. It is typically toasted with butter, salt, and bacon until it is brown. It is served alongside the main course and can either be sprinkled on by individual diners to their taste before eating, or eaten as an accompaniment in its own right, the way that rice is often eaten.
It is basically odorless and flavorless and appeared to serve no purpose other than to provide additional carbohydrates to your meal, in case the oversized bowls of rice and potatoes did not sufficiently accomplish that task.
I like the way Brazilians think.
We sat by the light of the pool and used the free wi-fi to let our parents know that we still had all 4 kidneys and called it a night.
It seemed like we had just arrived in Paraty and it was already time to move on. Before heading out, however, we enjoyed another fabulous breakfast at Vivenda Paraty.
We bid our farewell to John and set back out on the road. This time the drive wasn’t so bad because we were still on the quiet coast and were simply backtracking the way we had already come. The drive would take us about halfway back toward Rio, where we would then stop at the town of Angra dos Reis and do our best to figure out how to get to the ferry that would take us to the island of Ilha Grande.
The drive was spectacular….towering mountains and blue sea.
Originally, we had planned to stop for lunch before the ferry but Matt was feeling a little under the weather, so we didn’t stop, but headed straight for Angra dos Reis. Good thing I had loaded up on all that cake at breakfast.
Angra dos Reis was accessed by one single road from the highway that stretched down toward the beach. Everything in town was pretty much on this one road, so how hard could it be to find the ferry, right?
“Do you know where it is?” Matt asked.
I didn’t….but I had a photo of the ferry and a picture of the ferry companies logo and name. Believe it or not, that did the trick. We simply drove along the harbor until we saw that sign. We pulled into the parking lot.
A young man motioned for us to roll down the window, which we did.
“Ilha Grande?” he asked.
We nodded and he motioned for us to park.
When we got out of the car, we didn’t really know what to do. The young man came up to us with a clipboard and said something that sounded like, “Garbledy goo blah blah gibberish gibberish gibberish DIAS?”
Matt just looked at me. Like I knew Portuguese. Thanks, Matt.
“English?” I queried.
He shook his head. I shook my head. We were at an impass. He looked thoughtful for a moment, scratched his head, and then held up his fingers – one, two, then three and repeated “Dias?”
Ah ha! He was asking how many days. I held up three fingers. He nodded. He scratched his head again and then grabbed his clipboard. He wrote down “3 Dias...$60 Reis.” I understood. Parking and the ferry for 3 days was $60 reis (about $32). We handed him the money and headed for the ferry.
See! Who needs Portuguese!!
Phase one of the trip was over and phase 2 would soon begin. Soon we would be on our way to the mysterious island of Ilha Grande. I had visions of a tropical oasis filled with orchids and monkeys, meanwhile, Matt was feeling worse by the moment and had visions of nothing more than a soft bed and some Advil for his aching head.
We settled in to wait for the ferry.