Brazil is dominated by its vast cities and even vaster rainforests, but lying not too far from Rio de Janeiro sit the two small, lesser-known settlements of Paraty and Ilha Grande, and it was here I really fell in love with the country.
After spending three days exploring the mesmerising natural beauty of the Iguassu waterfall complex, a short flight took us into the chaotic hub of Sao Paolo. Peering out of the window as we came into land, there was not an open space in sight; coming from the relative calm of the waterways, I could feel my adrenaline building, ready for city life.
Personally, I love big cities, and I’d read and heard how intense Sao Paolo could be. At first sight it was quite intimidating - building upon building, sleek tower blocks and slums intertwined, and that frenetic energy you often feel at major airports felt very strong once we were on the ground; a moderate police presence combined with large groups of fast talking Brazilians certainly reinforced the sense that Sao Paolo would be a turbulent experience. However, no sooner had we landed then we began the 5-hour drive away from the city, north-east towards the coast and into the State of Rio de Janeiro and the seaside resort of Paraty.
Leaving Brazil's famous cities behind
Driving around the winding mountains, with views in the distance that could rival Sugarloaf, the road descended towards the coast, and what from the road seemed like a run of the mill inhabited town soon transpired to be an idyllic beachside set up straight out of colonial times.
Paraty is a gorgeously quaint spot, steeped in history while also having an underlying buzz of activity throughout its cobbled side streets. Although our accommodation was part of a popular South American hostel chain, the town’s character is undiminished, the original architecture across Paraty untouched, and so the ways of the modern world are weaved around the authentic features, bringing a real homely feel to our stay - all bar the welcome addition of a splash pool!
Town squares surrounded by glorious restaurants and picture perfect beach bars lend themselves to a traditional Brazilian holiday destination, and for our first evening this was exactly what we opted for, enjoying the glorious sunset over the water before dinner and drinks in the town square, around which the doors to houses and stores alike are flung open, relaxed and inviting, with a local band providing the soundtrack. It was at this point that the first true holiday vibes kicked in, with a real sense of the Latino pulse beating strongly, the sounds and smells of local life filling the air. A live band provided entertainment while the classic Brazilian barbecue sizzled, leaving its smoky residue above us.
I was drawn to the opportunity to explore the multiple island spots that surround the coastline. Boarding the schooner, what lay ahead for us was an idyllic day of sailing, stopping only to enjoy cool blue water swimming and the calmness of the ocean as the line between the horizon and sky blurred into one. It was all accompanied by bottomless Caipirinhas, a Brazilian tradition if ever there was one!
Travelling to Ilha Grande
However, the road to Rio is full of variety, and so after a few blissful days, a couple of hours drive up the coast took us to the bustling port of Angra dos Reis to board the ferry - think oversized speedboat - to Ilha Grande. An isolated island accessible only by boat, there are no forms of motor transportation - something that I looked back on with happy in memories in hindsight after experiencing the unbelievable density of traffic in Rio - and it felt like another world; a step back to simpler times, with remnants of the old prison and the looming disused aqueduct standing gloomy and tall at one end of the beach in the shadows of their natural surroundings, gradually becoming overrun with vines as civilisation develops around it.
Our willing assistant led us along rugged paths away from the beachfront and commercial hub, up the gently sloping mountainside to our cabins. The town lies at the foot of the mountains, with a hive of activity at the water’s edge, but this eventually gives way to a maze of residential settlements, meandering up the mountain side, interspersed with the occasional pousada and literal in-house restaurants; in fact, I think one of the best meals I encountered in South America was here, fresh pasta on the cosy balcony of someone’s home - beautifully authentic.
It was on this particular occasion that we first heard a booming sound up in the mountains, and my group shared a look of confusion. We were advised this was completely normal, and our host regaled us with the story of the apparently harmless local living with his chickens higher up the mountain side who every night without fail lets off a few - or more – gunshots.
Discovering one of Brazil's best beaches
Ilha Grande is also the gateway to the famous Lopes Mendes beach, whether by boat or by foot, and although clouds thwarted the sunrise hike we later embarked on the hike from town, up and down the multiple peaks and across the interim beaches, dutifully followed the whole two-hour trek by a local dog – Ronaldo - who soon became one of the group.
We couldn’t blame him for joining us - once at Lopes Mendes it was clear to see why it frequently makes ‘Top 10’ lists; the beach emerges suddenly from the jungle, a stark contrast from the trees, and the white sands stretch out further than you can see, blue waters bordering its edge, nothing but a small handful of people in sight - this was our first taste of Brazilian paradise and a world away from the commonplace beach experience we found in Rio, where Copacabana and Ipanema are equally beautiful but teeming with sunbathers and salesman.
The fact that we had put so much effort into reaching the spot made it more special, as though we were sharing this little piece of beauty with only a select few who had also made the discovery.
A group decision saw us opt to catch a boat back round to the main centre of the island, and so with Ronaldo in tow, a 30-minute speedboat trip took us back to semi-civilisation, and while the day had been perfect so far, the playful dolphins swimming alongside our boat on return really capped it off.
Whilst Paraty and Ilha Grande were a complete gear shift from my time spent at Iguassu, they were the ideal source for some rest and relaxation before hitting Rio de Janeiro. While I would highly recommend both to anyone planning a South American trip, I can also appreciate the desire to keep them under the radar and preserve their hideaway charm.