Es­cape Olympic fever in the re­gion that has it all

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Cover Story - BRAZIL IN A NUT­SHELL THE BEST OF PARANA STATE

As im­ages of Rio fill our screens, Paraná state pro­vides an an­ti­dote. Michelle Jana Chan rel­ishes its rain­forests, quiet colo­nial towns, strik­ing ar­chi­tec­ture and de­serted beaches

Rio is the word on ev­ery­one’s lips five days be­fore the Olympic Games be­gins – but there is more to Brazil than Ipanema beach, Su­gar­loaf Moun­tain and the Art Deco land­mark of the Christ the Redeemer statue. The coun­try’s at­trac­tions are many and di­verse, from the vast nat­u­ral won­der of the Ama­zon rain­for­est to 16th-cen­tury colo­nial ci­ties, and from the wet­land wildlife of the Pan­tanal to the trop­i­cal beaches of Bahia. In a coun­try roughly the size of the United States, dis­tances are long and flight con­nec­tions of­ten force trav­ellers to pass in­con­ve­niently through São Paulo – but there is an­other way to ex­pe­ri­ence Brazil’s var­ied land­scapes with­out en­dur­ing nu­mer­ous long-dis­tance flights.

To the south of Rio de Janeiro is the com­pact state of Paraná. Here lie the safe, leafy city of Cu­ritiba, a his­tor­i­cal rail­way jour­ney to the colo­nial town of Mor­retes, great swathes of At­lantic rain­for­est, the rugged Serra do Mar moun­tains, and beaches that make surfers sigh. Far bet­ter known, of course, are the Iguaçu Falls which are also in Paraná.

I be­gan my jour­ney in the cap­i­tal Cu­ritiba, a city pop­u­lated mostly by Euro­pean im­mi­grants and one of Brazil’s green­est, with dozens of pub­lic parks, av­enues lined with pur­ple and yel­low ipês trees, and copses of araucária, a rel­a­tive of the mon­key puzzle tree. This city is quiet and cool, un­like much of Brand Brazil, the brasher ver­sion of the coun­try now con­spic­u­ous on our TV screens. There are cy­cle paths, pedes­tri­anised dis­tricts and a pioneer­ing pub­lic trans­port sys­tem. The motto on the Brazil­ian flag, Or­dem e Pro­gresso (Or­der and Progress), could be a slo­gan for Cu­ritiba. I vis­ited the strik­ing, eye­shaped Os­car Niemeyer mu­seum to see an ex­hi­bi­tion ded­i­cated to the coun­try’s most beloved Mod­ernist ar­chi­tect; the Free Univer­sity of the En­vi­ron­ment, built on a dis­used quarry; and best of all, the home of my guide’s mother. Eu­ge­nio in­vited me back for a Sun­day lunch of rice and beans. “This is not the des­ti­na­tion for car­ni­val and capoeira,” he told me, “but it is Brazil.” Cu­ritiba is the start­ing point of the Great Brazil Ex­press, the coun­try’s finest rail­way jour­ney with wood-pan­elled car­riages, vel­vet arm­chairs, bilin­gual nar­ra­tion and an un­lim­ited bar ser­vice.

Start­ing at nearly 3,300ft above sea level, the train trav­els through tun­nels, and over bridges and viaducts – switch­ing back and forth as it crosses the Serra do Mar range to­wards the coast. The jour­ney is through dense At­lantic rain­for­est, home to bromeli­ads and or­chids sprout­ing from trunks, tree ferns and gi­gan­tic hy­drangeas. I see glimpses of ex­otic birds – tan­agers, tro­gons and tou­canets – in the branches.

Four hours later, we pulled into Mor­retes, a colour­ful colo­nial town founded in 1733 by Je­suits and which pros­pered on the trade of yerba maté tea and su­gar cane. There are white­washed churches right across town, some that served the slave­owner and oth­ers that wel­comed slaves. On a Sun­day evening, these are the only build­ings with lights on. There are som­bre hymns from the Catholic church and catchy rhythms from the Evan­ge­lists.

From here I headed to the coast and Brazil’s largest stretch of At­lantic rain­for­est. Su­per­agüi Na­tional Park is a Unesco World Her­itage Site and one of the con­ti­nent’s bio­di­ver­sity hotspots, home to the en­dan­gered black-faced lion tamarin and the red­tailed Ama­zon par­rot.

The park is split between the Val­ley of the Rio dos Patos on the main­land and four is­lands off the coast ringed by beaches. I ca­noed around the shore of one is­land and saw bot­tlenose dol­phins dip­ping in and out of the wa­ter as a roseate spoon­bill flapped low over the wa­ter.

I based my­self nearby on Ilha do Mel, or the Isle of Honey, a low-key surf des­ti­na­tion where the beat of maran­hão reg­gae and forró played out in the is­land’s bars. There are no cars. No roads. Lug­gage is car­ried in bar­rows along a lat­tice of forested sandy trails. There is a church for surfers, in­con­gru­ously named Bola de Neve, which trans­lates as “snow­ball”; the pas­tor wears board shorts and the al­tar is made from a surf­board.

Like many of the is­lands along this coast­line, Ilha do Mel was once a quar­an­tine sta­tion for slaves. At the western tip is a colo­nial fortress, oddly named For­taleza de Nossa Sen­hora dos Praz­eres (Our Lady of Plea­sures), where the only ac­tion was against a Bri­tish ship try­ing to en­force an end to slav­ery. The is­land’s painful his­tory is shrouded in myths and mys­ter­ies. There is the req­ui­site grotto where mer­maids were said to se­duce sailors. Af­ter dark, the lu­mi­nes­cent plank­ton in the surf was thought to be spir­its, and the seabed is al­legedly strewn with ship­wrecks.

I stayed on Praia Grande, one of the most coveted surf beaches, in a Ba­li­nese-themed pou­sada. At the other end of the beach is the hippy colony of Canto do Vó, or Grand­mother’s Cor­ner. The beach bar here could be the coolest on the planet (there is no sched­ule; “it is open when it is open”).

How to do it Red Sa­van­nah (01242 787800; red­sa­van­ of­fers 10 days ex­plor­ing south­ern Brazil from £3,995 per per­son, based

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