Time to Paraty
Flee from Rio to a colonial backwater of enormous charm and character
IT is easy to overdo things in Rio. A spa treatment of mud baths and nettleflower face packs might cure me, particularly if it could be accompanied by 24 hours in a horizontal position in a darkened room. But I haven’t come to Brazil to lie around.
I have wind of a crumbling colonial backwater, a bay of fabulous beaches and tropical forests of umbrageous silences just down the coast. Paraty seems to offer the perfect rest cure for nights of too many caipirinhas and too much sweaty samba.
So on a bright Sunday morning I flee Rio, following the highway that snakes west along the spectacular Costa Verde. Escarpments of Atlantic rainforest rise on myright. Tantalising bays of scattered islands appear on my left. One of them is the Baia da Ilha Grande, a vast and dazzling sweep of Atlantic surf said to contain 350 islands and more than 600 beaches. The bay is Paraty’s doorstep.
One of the first settlements in the Americas, Paraty was already old when New Yorkers were still wading through cow dung on Broadway. Its grid of cobbled streets is lined with white-washed mansions; their open doors providing glimpses of rooms of baroque furniture, of plant- filled courtyards, of impossibly beautiful women with babies on their hips. The town is an idler’s dream and, in a recessionary age, offers a timely and happy lesson that there is life after economic collapse.
When gold was found in Minas Gerais in the 17th century, Paraty sprang to life as the terminus for Brazil’s first road — the Gold Trail, the Trilha do Ouro — that carried the wealth of the mines down to the Portuguese caravels waiting on the coast. In dappled light, among j ungles of bamboo and palms, the moss-covered stones of the Gold Trail are like the wreckage of an Incan ruin.
Around a corner I meet the selfappointed guardian, an ancient spectral figure, who battles every day to keep the undergrowth from overwhelming Paraty’s history. He is a man after my heart — he blames everything on Rio.
In the 18th century, the Gold Trail was diverted to Rio, deemed to be a more secure anchorage, and Paraty went into its first great decline. Things perked up again during the coffee boom in the 19th century. African slaves carried the beans down the old Gold Trail past other slaves carrying French furniture, cases of champagne and grand pianos up to the mansions of the coffee barons in the highlands.
But when slavery was abolished in the 1880s and the soil became exhausted in the highlands, the coffee plantations shifted to easier climes and Paraty was sent spiralling into another decline. It entered the 20th century as a ghost town. And that is the appeal of Paraty. The modern world has passed it by. The town is unscathed by progress. The old centre is intact, its streets too narrow, the cobbles too uneven to admit cars. The old mansions are time capsules from a slower more elegant age. Such was Paraty’s isolation that during the military dictatorship of the 1960s, political prisoners were sent into internal exile here.
In the 70s, paved roads arrived from Rio and from Sao Paulo, both about four hours away, bringing a generation of artists and bohemians who found the old town conducive to a laidback and contemplative lifestyle. Paraty now entered a genteel retirement devoted to boating, beaches, literature and art. The old jail, which once housed smugglers and buccaneers, became a library. The old man- sions were transformed into splendid pousadas, or hotels. Galleries and boutiques, cafes and bookshops sprang up along the old streets. The splendid schooners of this coast were converted into pleasure boats to transport visitors to the endless beaches of the Baia de Ilha Grande.
Behind the old church the artist, poet and engraver Patrick Allien is at work in his studio on his handmade paper and his copper plates. A Frenchman, he arrived in Paraty more than 20 years ago, married a Brazilian and never went home, devoting his life to techniques that were invented in the time of Goya. Peering over the top of his horn-rimmed spectacles he says this was the first place that gave him the time and space to explore his passions.
Down along the waterfront, a friend introduces me to Dom Juan, heir to the royal house of Braganza, rulers of both Portugal and Brazil until the monarchy business went tits up. To signal their retirement from the ruling game, the Brazilian Braganzas came to pretty but insignificant Paraty. ‘‘It is so much better than Monaco,’’ he says with a charming smile.
Across town, in the Pousada Paradeiro, Arnaldo Dias, once an actor in Sao Paulo, is quoting Cervantes among the potted palms and the old family portraits in a rambling mansion he has helped transform into a rambling hotel. He breaks away from the 16th century to discuss beaches — some of the most perfect in Brazil ‘‘and only a boat ride away’’.
When you get tired of what passes for urban life in this sleepy backwater, it is time to hit the beaches. I stroll down to the quay, hire a boat with a captain and head into the bay, chugging across an emerald sea, past islands of jungle and rock. Rounding the headland of Vermelha I enter a world of beaches.
After lunch at a restaurant on tiny Catimbau island, we head for the string of ravishing beaches north of Trindade. Cepilho is great for surfing, Meio has beautiful rock formations, but Praia do Cachadaco is the pick, with glorious sands, a waterfall in the rainforest and a sea pool ideal for snorkelling.
But the best of Paraty is yet to come. I have booked a house out on the bay and the boatman drops me there on his way back to town. Accessible only by boat, Casa Cairucu sits on a coast of rainforest, tiny fishing villages and pristine beaches. I feel quite happily marooned. It turns out I have come to Brazil to lie around.
I hang in the hammock watching the boats crossing the bay, and the changing silhouette of the mountains on the mainland. In the evening, I sit on the dock and watch stars swim across a southern night sky. Then I dive into the sea to float among trails of phosphorescence. This is the rest cure I have been looking for.
Casa Cairucu, main; houses in Paraty, above left; Capela de Santa Rita church on the Baia da Ilha Grande