Campos do Jordao - A town with faux-Alpine architecture

Photo © Michael Sommers.

One of Paulistanos’ favorite getaways from the big city is Campos do Jordão (literal translation: Fields of Jordan). Only 2 hours away from São Paulo by car (3 hours by bus if you happen not to own a car – which is not the case of most people who frequent “Campos”), it’s often billed as Brazil’s Switzerland.

The highest town in the land – at 1,628 meters above sea level – Campos is surrounded by magnificent green mountains known as the Serra da Mantiqueira. To ram home the Swiss connection, much of the sprawling town sports faux-Alpine architecture. Hotels with names like Apenzell sport exposed beams and prominent fireplaces and restaurants with names like Matterhorn serve fondues and strudels (all at fairly exorbitant prices). Fancy boutiques selling locally-produced chocolates displayed like jewels are a dime a dozen.

Strolling its narrow streets is a surreal experience that awkwardly straddles the frontier between charmingly twee and tacky.

I recently traveled to Campos with my sister and we spent a lovely night at the traditional Hotel Frontenac, which reminded us quite a bit of an old-time Muskoka hotel. (Canadian allusions are increasingly as popular as Swiss ones: one of Campos’ most talked-about hotels, the Canadian Lodge, bills itself as the “first Canadian theme lodge in Brazil” with architecture inspired by a Quebec ski lodge and decorative curios such as hockey pucks and totem poles). The heart of Campos is a neighborhood called Vila Capivari which resembles a sort of Disney Alps for rich people. Strolling its narrow streets is a surreal experience that awkwardly straddles the frontier between charmingly twee and tacky. We had to keep reminding ourselves that we were in fact in Brazil.

Fortunately, we made our trip during the week and in the middle of summertime. Visiting Campos in the summer makes great sense since São Paulo is usually swelteringly hot and sticky. However, strangely, aside from some weekend traffic, during most of the year Campos is pretty quiet. The place only really gets scarily packed in the winter months of July and August when temperatures plunge below freezing and prices soar astronomically. During this time, São Paulo’s rich and famous (many of whom have homes in the surrounding hills) descend upon the place and take great pleasure in strutting around in fur coats (even though it was summer, we saw windows full of furs on sale, along with scarves and knitted sweaters, at micro malls such as the Shopping Geneva and Aspen Mall).

Happily, when we hit Vila Capivari, the shops were empty and the people in the streets appeared to be locals. Even so, we shuddered merely to imagine the winter crush. Truth be told, we were disappointed with Campos and ready to write it off – until we spent a second night in a relatively new hotel a few kilometers out of town along a winding country road called the Estrada da Horta Florestal.

Owned and operated by a young woman whose father commercializes sustainably harvested wood, the Pousada da Pedra is a large and charmingly homey place whose only nod to the Alps is that it’s surrounded by forested mountains. Even though it was the peak of summer, evening temperatures plunge to 15 degrees Celsius, which made us appreciate the working fireplaces (fed with fragrant local pine cones), the high tea served at 6pm, and the gigantic ceramic bowls of popcorn delivered to us as we huddled beneath our quilts to watch DVDs (a weird sensation for a summer’s night).

By day, however, the sun shone strongly and we set off along the country road in the direction of the Horto Florestal, a state park with various hiking trails. Although it’s too far to reach by foot, the landscape along the way was bewitching; an exuberant mixture of giant ferns, clumps of wild hydrangeas and lilies, bromeliads, creepers and heavily scented pines. Cows, horses, and waterfalls were frequent companions as were discrete, but obviously fancy chalets and expensive SUVs (a municipal bus drives by at regular intervals if you’re not up to walking).

After 5km and many photographs, we arrived at the appropriately named village of Descansópolis (descansar means “to relax” or “to unwind”) where a bridge leads across a river to a rustic restaurant called O Gato Gordo (The Fat Cat). My sister loves cats – as well as fresh river trout (which is a specialty along with pizzas cooked in a wood-burning oven) – and the scenery was irresistible. Accordingly, we took seats beneath the trees overlooking the river and indulged in a platter of grilled trout with broccoli and shitake mushrooms. The air was pure and the sky a freshly washed blue. Through the trees, we could see mountain peaks. It was very beautiful and we decided that we liked Campos do Jordão – in the summertime – very much after all.