When my friend heard that I was going to visit the town of Paraty in Brazil, she became animated. "Paraty is where we went for our honeymoon. A friend had offered us her house on the beach, and when we reached it after driving four hours south of Rio, we opened the fridge, and saw a bottle of cobra antidote. Eventually we stopped worrying about cobras and fell in love with the fabulous heritage and the beaches."
Slumbering between the coast and the Atlantic forest of Brazil's Costa Verde or green coast, the laidback town of Paraty is a popular getaway for people from Brazil's two major cities, Rio and Sao Paulo. A short boat-ride away bask dozens of island resorts with luxury homes including the famed Angra Dos Reis archipelago.
Portuguese colonisers valued Paraty as a port in 1696, when the world's richest gold mines of Minas Gerias were discovered. The town became a part of the "gold trail" that led to Rio and onwards to Portugal. After the gold dried up, Paraty fell into decline, but a spate of restoration a few decades ago has seen it restored as a Brazilian National Monument and UNESCO site.
Cobbled streets, cosy squares
Gabriella, the guide our friends had organised for us, must have been annoyed and amused at the same time. Lured by the narrow, cobbled streets and flower-smothered balconies, we kept wandering away, catching only an occasional drift of how the streets are five metres below sea level and constructed in a way that lets the tide-water wash them clean.
With only 35,000 inhabitants, if per capita charm was a measure, this town would be a winner. Several lanes of houses from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries bore unique symbols on their facades, pennant of their freemason owners. There were captivating adornments such as bronze horns that diverted rainwater and vibrant roof tiles.
"The squares are still the centre of life; everyone gathers there in the evening, from the elderly to the young." Although the locals continue to adhere to life from a bygone era, with donkey carts toting household goods and rainforest natives selling exotic fruits and feather jewellery sprawled on a cloth, the city folks from afar have captured a piece of paradise for themselves, building their weekend homes and turning Paraty into a venue for art exhibitions, film festivals and book fairs. At Rua Dr Samuel Costa 22, we poked into Emporio de Cachaca to buy bottles of cachasa, the local spirit that goes into the famous Brazilian tipple, caipirinhas.
Five minutes from Paraty, in the thick of the Atlantic forest we landed at the family run and appropriately named hideaway restaurant, Le Gite. We walked down through the orchid-spangled forest to the waterfall where we cooled our feet. Hummingbirds flitted though the jade vine and soul stilling views of the Atlantic Ocean accompanied our delicious lunch. It was a heady experience in more ways than one.
HOW TO GET THERE: Paraty is located on the Brazilian coast. It is a four-hour drive from Rio or Sao Paolo, or one hour by helicopter. There are regular buses from both cities.
WHERE TO STAY: Pousada Arte Urquijo is a centrally located, charming boutique hotel.
HOW TO EXPLORE: Paraty is best explored on foot. Walk around the town, along the river and on the ocean-front, see the cathedrals, galleries and Freemason Homes that are open to the public.
GUIDE for Rio and Paraty: Gabriella Codazzi
SHOP AT: Tronco Tupi for native Brazilian crafts. Rua de Lapa, 245, Centro Historico.
RESTAURANT LE GITE: www.legitedindaiatiba.com.br