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Paraty is perfect


I had barely scanned the sign, “Careful! Fog forms fast!” when a billowing cloud descended on the windy road, as dense as forest-fire smoke. It raced at breakneck speed across the narrow valley and, for a minute, I could see barely a few feet ahead of us. Then, as quickly as it had arrived, the fog floated away. Ahead lay an opulence of spinach-green jungle, thick and impenetrable, plummeting several thousand feet toward the azure waters of the Atlantic. We had entered “Mata Atlantica,” the Atlantic rain forest.  

For the next hour, the perky Fiat zoomed down a switchback highway, an offshoot from the main freeway connecting the cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. We cut through the jungle until we hit the coastal highway at the beach town of Ubatuba, a famous destination for surfers and divers. From there, we headed north toward the state of Rio. Much like the PCH in California, the Rio-Sao Paulo coastal highway is a picturesque route meandering along innumerable beaches and panoramic vistas of offshore archipelagos, ultimately winding its way into The Marvelous City, Rio de Janeiro. 

Baia de Paraty

Our destination, however, was a spot shortly after the state border where the Baia de Paraty, the Bay of Paraty, spreads open to mesmerizing treasures like the door to Ali Baba’s cave. The bay is garnished with dozens of jungle islands and hundreds of white-sand beaches which, even though visited occasionally, appear very much virgin. Shooting up around the bay is a colossal mountain range, Serra Bocaina, a national park covered by the Atlantic rain forest. 

Tucked amidst this imposing natural splendor is the colonial town of Paraty, the crown jewel of Baia de Paraty. Less than a minute after entering the town, we were forced to abandon our car because the streets were blocked off by massive anchor chains. Indeed, Centro Historico, the historic heart of Paraty measuring about half of the town dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, was off limits to cars. We stepped into a world of whitewash houses, shops and boutique hotels with tiled roofs stained by centuries of salty air and humidity. Vegetation had grown seemingly out of every crack on the walls. The colors were dense, fired up by a light that only the tropical sun can extract. The sea breeze carried scents of salt and fried coxinhas, mouth-watering fritters shaped as chicken legs and stuffed with white meat and cream cheese. German, Dutch, Italian, English, French and lilting Carioca, the Rio dialect of Portuguese, mingled and gave off the thrill of an intimate locale of international importance.

Paraty from the sea

We checked into our hotel, Pousada do Sandi, the old ritzy domicile of a 17th century gold shipper. After a few minutes of exulting over the private, wood-beam balcony that came with our double room, we jumped back into the car to begin our exploration of the area. We crossed the highway outside the town and began to climb a narrow road into the jungle. Our destination was an alambique, or a cachaça distillery. Cachaça (pronounced ka-sha-sa) is the powerful and bursting with flavor alcohol Brazilians squeeze from sugar cane; it packs a vicious punch and is less sweet but infinitely tastier than rum. Two days before, I had been entrusted with a secret list of the best cachaças by a zealous bartender who had been enamored with my tolerance for this devil juice; Alambique D’Ouro lay toward the top of the list. 

We climbed over two thousand feet in minutes. The forest around us thickened and, once again, tumbleweeds of fog bounced off the volcanic peaks jutting out of the dark green. We found the place without major setbacks. The overall look drew a sharp contrast against the tourist polish one finds in Napa wineries or Kentucky bourbon-trail distilleries. This hole-in-the-jungle was empty and mysterious, and for a second I felt as if I was there to pick up moonshine for smuggling. A water mill wheel scooped from a small creek. An old mulatta took us to a spot between the palms, where we were offered to taste pure and flavored cachaça. I do not tolerate the idea of messing up great liquor with fruity flavorings, so I grabbed two bottles of a-hundred-and-six proof, unadulterated firewater. 

We rushed back to town, but not before stopping by a cachoeira, a waterfall, on the way down the access road. Tucked a short hike into the jungle, it would not technically qualify as a waterfall; it was more of a strong sheet of water flowing at high speed along the surface of a block-wide, tilted stone face. The result felt like a water slide in an amusement park, only better and packed with more adrenaline. We slid and surfed down the rock a few times, and dove into the deep pool at the bottom to build sufficient thirst for the case of beer back at the hotel.

In the evening, we explored the town on foot. The single-story houses have been built a foot above the streets for protection against the high tide which spills daily into town. The streets resemble river beds paved with big oval stones from the time of the Portuguese: they dip in the middle and rise slightly at the curbs, facilitating the outflow of water. The necessity for this engineering became evident on every morning of our stay as the streets would flood into midtown and stay wet into the afternoon. The rows houses are uniform in shape, pristinely maintained, painted in blinding whitewash with details in yellow, blue or green. They are not imposing or rich but are as romantic and picturesque as the term “colonial port town” evokes. For its impressive and impressively preserved architecture, Paraty was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The town built its fortunes in the 16th and 17th centuries, when it rose at the end point of the Gold Trail. This was a route the Portuguese used to transport the gold from the mines in the state of Minas Gerais to the Atlantic coast. From there, ships would pick it up and deposit it into the coffers of the aristocrats in Portugal. In the 19th century, Rio took the place of Paraty and the town had little reasons for existence but for fishing and boiling great cachaça. For a century and more, Brazil and the world forgot about it until the coastal highway was built in recent decades. Then, everyone was stunned to discover a diamond right in their back pocket. The world, in turn, received a glimpse of Paraty in the international hit movie “Gabriela,” based on the book of the same name by the famous Brazilian author Jorge Amado.  

Paraty Street

Very much as a result of the UNESCO protection, the town has acquired a more dubious fame, that of an expensive tourist destination. We had a chance to experience this side on our very fist night, when we couldn’t find a place to have a real meal for less than thirty dollars a person, a serious amount for these parts of the world. The excellent moqueca, a mouth-watering fish-stew cooked in coconut milk, which we tried at Restaurante Da Matriz was not a good-enough excuse. It was true that, had we craved for a burger we could have wolfed down an industrial-sized one for a couple of bucks and the delicious coxinhas were always an option; still, the Tokyo rates for any type of civilized gastronomical entertainment stood at odds with the rustic place of great natural beauty, especially in ingenuous Brazil. 

On the following day, with the help of our hotel concierge, we rented a small motor boat for the entire day. This may sound like and extravagance, but it amounted to less than forty dollars a head. Romulo, the captain, came on foot to pick us up at ten in the morning; from the hotel, we walked the five minutes to the marina which was alive but not overwhelmed by local and international tourists. We had secured a few cases of beer and Romulo kept a bottle of cachaça in a cooler on the deck, so we climbed onboard of Calypso confident that we would be taken care of. The idea was to jump from one secluded beach to another until we got sick of the tropical paradise. We followed the plan thoroughly, but were never able to accomplish our goal.

Over the next six hours, we visited eight beaches accessible solely by boat. To reach them, we jumped overboard and swam. Sometimes, only sun rays and the sound of waves waited for us on the sand, and sometimes a dozen other adventurers, gulping down water from coconuts split open by machetes. We dove at random spots to find the bottom covered with starfish and sting rays lurking over the sand. At one point, I had lost the time of day, we anchored by a rock in the middle of the bay where a tiny restaurant served shrimp the size of quail. As we floated back towards the marina, the light turned silver and the mountains disappeared into the clouds. A tropical downpour washed the salt from our skin and left us drowsy and spent, craving a long nap before the next feast.

GUIDEBOOK:

VISAS: Americans need a Brazilian visa and a passport valid for at least 6 months from the date of entry into Brazil. Tourist visas have to be used 90 days after they are issued and are valid for a stay of 90 days. The visa costs $100 and is activated on the day a visitor enters the country. Apart form the embassy in Washington, DC, visas can be obtained from the Brazilian consulates in LA (http://www.brazilian-consulate.org/), Boston, Chicago, Houston, Miami, New York and San Francisco. 

GETTING THERE: Varig (http://www.varig.com/) flies from Los Angeles to Rio and Sao Paulo. Restricted round-trip fares start at $950. Once in Rio or Sao Paulo, drive to Paraty. Advantage Rent-a-Car has a branch at Guarulhos Airport in Sao Paulo (www.arac.com/arac_cars/brazil.htm; $22 p/d for Economy class); another option is Europcar (car-rental.europcar.com, $60 p/d). The roads to Paraty are well maintained. From Sao Paulo take the SP 116 to Taubate, then the SP 125 to Ubatuba and the BR191 North to Paraty. From Rio take the BR191 South to Paraty.

TELEPHONES: To call numbers in Brazil from the US, dial 011 (international dialing code), 55 (country code), and 24 (code for the state of Rio) or 11 (code for the state of Sao Paulo).

WHERE TO STAY:
Pousada De Sandi offers luxury amenities in a colonial setting (Tel: 011 (55) (11) 3864 9111 and 011 (55) (24) 3371 1236; http://www.pousadadosandi.com.br/, starting at $160)
Pousada Da Marquesa (R D. Geralda, 99, Paraty, Rio de Janeiro; Tel.: (24) 3371-1263; http://www.pousadamarquesa.com.br/, starting at $50)
Posada Arte Urquijo (R. Dona Geralda, 79, Centro Histórico, Paraty; Tel: (24) 3371-1362; www.urquijo.com.br/english/iindex.htm; starting at $120).
Most hotels in Brazil include an opulent breakfast as part of the daily rate.  

WHERE TO EAT:  
Refugio, Praca do Porto 1, in front of the pier; www.eco-paraty.com/refugio; (24) 3371-2447 this is the premier seafood restaurant in Paraty; entrees run $15-25.
Restaurante da Matriz, Praça da Matriz, nº 6, Centro Histórico, Paraty – RJ Tel: (24) 3371 2820, www.paraty.com.br/matriz/restaurante.asp
Villa Verde, Rodovia Paraty Cunha, km 7, (24) 3371-7808, http://www.villaverdeparaty.com.br/; Italian and regional cuisine; entrees run $15-25.
Ganges, Largo do Rosário, 5, Centro Histórico; www.eco-paraty.com/ganges; (24) 3371-1831. Indian and vegetarian cuisine; entrees run $10-18.

COSTS AND CURRENCY: The Brazilian currency is the Real (pronounced hey-al); currently the exchange rate is USD1=R2.3. Generally, Brazil is slightly cheaper than the US, but prices even up as the quality rises. Most prices in Paraty are at par with those in the US. 

GETTING AROUND: The best way to explore Paratyand the bay is on foot and in a boat. Drive to get to the alambiques in the jungle or the beach towns up and down the coastal highway.

TO LEARN MORE: The Paraty tourism office (http://www.eco-paraty.com/) offers extensive information in English. The website offers a Skype connection to their operators if you prefer to talk to them in person. 

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