Lying halfway between Rio and São Paulo, set amid blue ocean and jagged green mountains, Paraty is one of the most charismatic colonial towns you’ll ever encounter. Often referred to as a colonial jewel, it’s fitting that its origins are linked to the 18th-century gold rush. In the early 1700s, the Portuguese were looking for ways to facilitate the transportation of the extravagant quantities of gold found in neighboring Minas Gerais across the ocean and into their coffers. Traders widened an ancient Guaianá Indian trail that led through the Serra do Mar mountain range and down to the sea; at the end of the route sprouted the tiny port town of Paraty.
In the summer, Paraty can get quite busy, but so far it has managed to stave off the mass hysteria and upscale trendiness of other resort towns such as Búzios.Over the next few decades, Paraty grew into a modest yet stately town, its cobblestoned streets filled with single-story whitewashed mansions and austere but elegant churches. However, Paraty remained an isolated spot that was difficult to defend. Increasing bandit raids and pirate attacks took their toll and led to the building of a new gold route that linked Minas’s gold towns directly with Rio de Janeiro. As a consequence, Paraty’s importance declined, and over the next two centuries the town, always remote, slowly fell into oblivion. Its faded architecture remained frozen in time, preserved by its very isolation. In fact, until 1954 the only way to reach Paraty was by boat. It wasn’t until 1960 that the town was connected to both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo by BR-101, the Rio–Santos highway. Shortly afterward, in 1966, its historical center was declared a national monument. However, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Paraty began to attract a small trickle of hippies and artists, who were drawn to its bucolic charm and rich historic legacy. Many settled here, and as a result the town blossomed into a cosmopolitan place. Artists and entrepreneurs from around the globe transformed its 18th- and 19th-century houses into private homes and ateliers, boutiques, cafés, restaurants, and hotels, which in turn lured a steady stream of weekenders from Rio and São Paulo as well as international tourists and, more recently, an alternative GLS (gay, lesbian, and sympathizers) crowd.
In the summer, Paraty can get quite busy, but so far it has managed to stave off the mass hysteria and upscale trendiness of other resort towns such as Búzios. During the off-season, the town is languorous without being dull, and it is easier to soak up its seductive atmosphere. Urban charms aside, the surrounding region possesses numerous natural attractions. Within close proximity are dozens of gorgeously primitive beaches and deserted islands as well as the majestic Serra do Mar mountain range, riddled with hiking trails and refreshing waterfalls.
The Centro de Informações Turísticas (Av. Roberto Silveira 1, tel. 24/3371-4881, 9 a.m.–9 p.m. daily), located at the entrance to the centro histórico, has maps, bus schedules to other beaches, and other information. Two useful bilingual websites with lots of information are www.paraty.com.br and www.paraty.tur.br.
Viação Costa Verde (tel. 21/2233-3809) offers 10 daily bus departures between Rio and Paraty (4.5 hours, R$50). Viação Reunidas (tel. 0300/210-3000) offers four daily departures between São Paulo’s Rodoviária Tietê and Paraty (6 hours, R$45). The Rodoviária (Rua Jango Pádua, tel. 24/3371-1224) is 500 meters (0.3 miles) from the centro histórico.
By car from Rio, simply follow BR-101, the Rio–Santos highway (236 kilometers/147 miles). From São Paulo, take the Rodovia Ayrton Senna and then the Mogi-Bertioga highway to BR 101 and drive north to Paraty (338 kilometers/210 miles). An alternative route is to take the Ayrton Senna to the Rodovia Carvalho Pinto and then take the Rodovia dos Tamoios to BR-101 (285 kilometers/ 177 miles).
Sights and Recreation
Paraty’s compact centro histórico is considered by UNESCO to be one of the world’s most outstanding examples of Portuguese colonial architecture. Although the streets are laid out on a grid plan, the uniformity of the bleached houses coupled with streets’ multiple names can make it somewhat of a challenge to find your bearings. The crazily paved streets—constructed by slaves out of large irregular stones known as pés-de-moleque (“street kids’ feet”)—mean that vehicles can’t circulate, but also makes getting around treacherous for those with disabilities or sporting high heels. During high tides, the sea actually swallows up some of the streets closest to the port, temporarily transforming them into tropical Venetian canals. While tides and rainwater can leave the streets slippery, they also keep them clean.
The best way to explore Paraty is by wandering around at random. Among the town’s most handsome sobrados (mansions) is the Casa de Cultura (Rua Dona Geralda 177, tel. 24/3371-2325, 10 a.m.–6:30 p.m. Wed.–Mon., R$8). Built in 1758, it hosts cultural events and has a permanent exhibition tracing Paraty’s history. Several baroque churches are also particularly interesting. The town’s oldest church, Igreja de Santa Rita dos Pardos Libertos (Largo de Santa Rita, tel. 24/3371-1620, 9 a.m.–noon and 2–5 p.m. Wed.–Sun., R$1), dates from 1722. Built by freed slaves, its interior houses a small collection of religious artifacts. Constructed a few years later, Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosário (Rua do Comércio, 9 a.m.–noon Tues.) was built by and for Paraty’s slave population. Despite its simplicity, it is the only church in town with gold decoration on its altars, added in the 20th century. Paraty’s principal and most grandiose church, Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora de Remédios (Praça da Matriz, 9 a.m.–noon Mon. and Thurs.–Sat., 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun.) was where the bourgeoisie worshipped. Outside on the Praça da Matriz is a small daily crafts market selling local handicrafts. The town’s aristocrats held their services in the late-18th-century Igreja Nossa Senhora das Dores (Rua Fresca, 9 a.m.–noon Thurs.), with a privileged view of the sea and access to cooling breezes.
Venturing outside the centro histórico, take a 15-minute walk past Praia do Pontal to reach the Forte Defensor Perpétuo (tel. 24/3371-2289, 9 a.m.–noon and 2–5 p.m. Tues.–Fri., 2–6 p.m. Sat.–Sun., R$1). Crowning the Morro da Vila Velha, this fortress was built in 1703 to prevent Paraty’s gold from being hijacked by pirates. Restored in 1822, it houses a small museum with a display of local artisanal objects as well as a store selling handicrafts.
Paraty is rich in beaches: More than 200 can be found along the surrounding coastline and among some 65 islands. Most of the island beaches can be visited by boats leaving from Paraty’s Cais de Porto. Those up and down the coastline can be reached by car or bus. Although the town has its own beaches, they aren’t that attractive. The closest, Praia do Pontal, is a 10-minute walk from the centro histórico. While its beach barraca scene is lively, swimming isn’t recommended. Cleaner and more deserted are Praia do Forte and Praia do Jabaquara.
Some of the finest and most easily accessible beaches are at Trindade, a fishing village and former hippie hangout 25 kilometers (16 miles) south of Paraty along the Rio–Santos highway that can easily be reached by bus. The stunningly wild beaches of Cepilho and Brava are ideal for surfing, while Praia do Meio and Praia Cachadaço (also good for snorkeling) are prized for their calm waters and natural swimming pools. You can get to Cachadaço by a 20-minute hike through the forest or by boat from Praia do Meio. Trindade’s most far-flung beaches—Praia do Sono and Praia dos Antigos—are gloriously unspoiled. Reaching them entails a 2–3-hour hike.
Also close by—18 kilometers (11 miles) southwest of Paraty, 8 kilometers (5 miles) of which are on an unpaved road—is Paraty-Mirim, with a lovely bay and invitingly calm waters, as well as beach barracas, that you can reach by municipal bus or by boat. From here, you can catch a boat to the beautiful beaches of Saco do Mamanguá, Cajaíba, and Grande da Deserta. This trio of beaches are all backed by lush jungle and boast waterfalls in close proximity.
Various schooners offer five-hour trips around Paraty’s bay with stops at islands such as Ilha Comprida (known for its diving) as well as otherwise inaccessible beaches such as Praia da Lula and Praia Vermelha. Lunch is included, as are caipirinhas (and sometimes rambunctious live music that might grate on those who imagined a more bucolic outing). For more information contact Paraty Tours (Av. Roberto Silveira 11, tel. 24/3371-1327), which also organizes diving, kayaking, horseback riding, and hiking trips. A five-hour tour costs R$40 pp. Individuals and small groups can also charter boats at an hourly rate from the barqueiros at Cais de Porto and customize the excursion. The hourly rate for a small boat that seats 7–15 people ranges R$30–50 pp.
At the Associação de Guias de Turismo de Parati (tel. 24/3371-1783), individuals and small groups can hire guides to take them up and down the forested coastline to secluded beaches, with stops for bathing in bays and waterfalls. Another enticing journey is to follow the Caminho do Ouro, the route along which gold was transported over the mountains from Minas to Paraty during colonial times. The historical hike along a 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) stretch of irregular cobblestones can be done in the company of a guide from the Centro de Informações Turísticas Caminho do Ouro (Estrada Paraty-Cunha, tel. 24/3371-1783, 9 a.m.–noon and 2–5 p.m. Wed.–Sun., R$20). Ascending into the Serra do Mar, you are treated to breathtaking views of Paraty and the ocean.
The majority of Paraty’s restaurants—as well as the most expensive—occupy charming sobrados in the centro histórico. Paraty has attained quite a gastronomic reputation, with many restaurants taking advantage of the abundance of fresh fish and seafood to create innovative fare. Caiçara is the name given to local specialties that draw on fish, game, fruits, and vegetables traditionally used by the Costa Verde’s indigenous peoples. One of the most popular recipes is a dish called camarão casadinha (“married shrimp”). This aptly named treat consists of two jumbo shrimp tied together and fried after being stuffed with a filling of tiny shrimp and farofa. You can savor this specialty at Hiltinho (Rua Marechal Deodoro 233, tel. 24/3371-1725, 10 a.m.–midnight daily, R$50–60), a traditional eatery famed for its camarões, both “married” and in other delicious arrangements.
Banana da Terra (Rua Dr. Samuel Costa 198, tel. 24/3371-1725, 6 p.m.–midnight Mon. and Wed.–Thurs., noon–4 p.m. and 7 p.m.–midnight Fri.–Sun. Mar.–Nov., noon–midnight daily Dec.–Feb., R$40–50) serves up caiçara fare with a touch of refinement prepared by Ana Bueno, considered one of Brazil’s top chefs. True to its name, various varieties of bananas make frequent appearances on the (somewhat overpriced) menu—in guises both savory (banana-and-cheese-stuffed squid gratiné with shrimp) and sweet (warm banana tart with cinnamon ice cream). Another traditional favorite with a loyal following, Margarida Café (Praça do Chafariz, tel. 24/3371-2441, noon–midnight daily, R$25–35) is an appealingly atmospheric restaurant-bar serving innovative cuisine and pizza and featuring live jazz and MPB every night.
The location of Sabor da Terra (Av. Roberto Silveira 180, tel. 24/3371-2384, 11 a.m.–10 p.m. daily, R$10–20), just outside the centro histórico, may justify the low-wattage decor and equally low prices. However, this per-kilo restaurant earns high marks in terms of the variety, freshness, and tastiness of its buffet offerings, including grilled fish and churrasco as well as salads and seafood dishes. Another inexpensive option is Le Castellet (Rua Dona Geralda 44, tel. 24/3371-7461, 5:30–11 p.m. Mon. and Wed.–Sat., noon–11 p.m. Sun. Apr.–Dec., 5–11 p.m. daily Jan.–Mar., R$15–20). Chef Yves Lapide has outfitted this cozy little crêperie with attractive decorative touches from his native Provence, but his real forte is the delicious sweet and savory crepes, along with other French fare such as seafood bouillabaisse and tarte tatin.
Casa do Fogo (Rua Comendador José Luiz 390, tel. 24/9189-5111, 1 p.m.–1 a.m. Thurs.–Tues. fall–spring, 1 p.m.–1 a.m. daily summer, R$25–35) takes its name literally: A majority of its main dishes, not to mention desserts and drinks, arrive at the table on fire (fogo). Taking advantage of the local cachaça supply, local chef “Caju” flambées everything from shrimp (served with guava rice) to mangoes and star fruit (served with passion fruit jelly). The romantic atmosphere is abetted by nightly performances of chorinho and MPB.
Ever dreamed about being stuck on a desert island—albeit one with a great seafood restaurant? Located on tiny Ilha Duas Irmãs, Kontiki (tel. 24/3371-1666, noon–5 p.m. daily, R$20–30) serves fresh shrimp, crab, and fish along with paella and seafood pastas on a shady veranda overlooking the bay. Where else can you go snorkeling between courses? A free boat offers transportation from Paraty’s quay. With a minimum of 10 people, the restaurant opens for dinner as well.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.