by Tim Dawe
“Para-chee? Never heard of it.”
It’s my cursory response to advice offered by our elderly host, a Carioca, or resident of Rio de Janeiro. Now, Rio; I have heard of that, but what’s this Paraty? (pronounced Para-chee) Staying two blocks from the hedonism of Copacabana Beach, we’re been captivated by the sights of Rio. But before we move on to Sao Paolo, we’re off to Paraty.
We exit stage left from dramatic Rio at the city bus station. Brazil is a large and populous country but because of the terrain it lacks a rail network. Everything is moved along mainly narrow winding roads – goods and people. Our modern coach climbs up and down between verdant dense forest and the calm sea, itself shades of turquois. It’s not called the Costa Verde for nothing. A surprise stop, where half the passengers alight, is Angra, Brazil’s sole nuclear power station (who knew?). We follow the long arc of Baia da Ilha Grande, the beautiful bay that’s a magnet to summer tourists enjoying its beaches and 300-odd islands. It’s winter now, still warm enough to swim, and long misty clouds shroud the green mountain peaks.
After four hours we step from the bus to a car park outside the historic village. Pedestrians rule here and have the squares and cobblestone streets to themselves, except for an occasional horse and cart. It’s a step from the 21st to the 17th century; this is a place frozen in time. The buildings are colourfully painted looking like nothing’s changed since 1667. We decide on a posada on Rua da Cadeia. It looks like a film set – appropriate, as many movies have been shot at Paraty. The owner doesn’t like people, or make eye contact, but she does like cats – lots of them – and lots of “stuff”. In the dark, cavernous ground floor the cats have dominion over the stuff but we score a large, airy corner room with two balconies overlooking Matriz square and the sea – free of cats.
A short familiarisation walk reveals ingenious 17th century town planning. The main streets slope down to the waterfront. With each high tide the streets floods through high gaps in the seawall and rubbish, flung from colonial houses, flushes into the sea. A downside to this monthly ebbing and flowing is scouring that leaves flagstones and boulders jutting at dangerous angles. We wander the waterfront meadows down to the pier and yachts to marvel at the wide-angle scenes of whitewashed buildings framed by flat water and cloud-covered mountains. A warm breeze keeps the insects at bay. Tropical Paraty is low-lying, humid and water-laden.
Paraty is a party town, crowded in summer yet subdued today, largely confined to al fresco dining under festooned lights. But it would not be Brazil without spontaneous music and singing late into the night. Our family group opts for a casual dinner and a puppet show, Gruppo Contadores de Estórias, a local group but with extensive international reach and acclaim. The wordless theatre slowly coaxes the life-size puppets into being human. It’s professional and surprisingly creative, and with surprising West End prices.
Called Paraty by the Guaianás people as “river of fish”, it was founded in 1667 by Portuguese colonists, fortuitously in time to capitalise on the gold rush at inland Ouro Preto. The 1200km rough track down to the coast was dubbed path of gold. It was not one way. Going up the mountains to the interior plateau were provisions and slaves from Rio de Janeiro. The track ceased after pirates continuously raided Paraty vessels taking gold to Rio. At this time Baia da Ilha Grande was pirate central with Blackbeard and others fighting and plundering. The gold ran out and Paraty declined until the early 1800s, and the next boom: coffee. And sadly, more slaves. But better directed roads to Rio left Paraty slumbering, perfectly preserved, right up until the 1970s when it was discovered by the jet-set beautiful people.
We spend a day wandering and shopping. Among the many churches that punctuate the townscape is the much photographed Chapel of Saint Rita (1722) near our pousada, and now a museum. To me Rita doesn’t sound like a proper saint, but I am sure she was, as she was the church for elite white folk and freed slaves. We set off for a long walk to Forte Defensor (1703) over the river and along the coast. Unlike the town, it is mainly a ruin but a reminder of the need for security in largely lawless days. The walk along an overgrown track presents stunning white beaches and hidden coves washed by sparkling blues and greens.
As it was 300 years ago, the highest point in town remains the church steeple. Yet many of the old houses have the ultimate in luxury accommodation hidden behind their façades. We inspect Pousada do Ouro and its many comforts and features, rationalising that our pousada, the dark-planked, creaky cat home has “character” and “atmosphere”.
Paraty is a beauty. There’s everything for a holidaymaker in a tropical paradise. There’re sailboats to explore myriad islands and to dive and snorkel; there’s fresh seafood and boisterous Brazilians drinking cachaça and singing under starry nights; there’s cool greenery and secluded, pristine beaches to laze around; there’s shopping and luxury; there’re museums and discoveries; there’re waterfalls in tropical rainforests and walk and bike trails to nowhere, and there is the stunning scenery. For me it’s the romance of history; the imaginings of staying in an intact 350-year-old, picturesque little town with rugged green peaks behind, and dastardly pirates out to sea.
If you’re visiting Brazil soon for the Olypics, Paraty is well-worth a look – it’s halfway between Rio and Sao Paulo. Book now!