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24 hour Paraty people

A former colonial boomtown that fell on hard times, Paraty has transformed itself into a hotbed of creativity — a vibrant, multicoloured, coastal speck on the corridor between Brazil’s two biggest cities

24 hour Paraty people
Image: Emma Thomson

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It’s as if a painter had trailed his brush down the cobblestone street. Each window ledge and door frame is daubed in shades of lemon, lapis, merlot and magenta. “You don’t choose Paraty; Paraty chooses you,” Brazilian master chef Yara Roberts tells me one morning when I call into her house. She has a point. This preserved colonial town, backed by forested mountains that snuggle up to the sea, has an allure that’s ensnared dozens of artists, designers and restaurateurs. Indeed, it’s so picture perfect it was chosen as the location for Edward and Bella’s honeymoon in Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 1.

Sat amid the blue curve of Ilha Grande Bay, Paraty (pronounced ‘para-chee’) belongs to the verdant Costa Verde corridor and is halfway between Brazil’s two largest cities: Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. How on Earth, you might wonder, has it escaped modernisation? The answer: pirates.

In 1696 ‘the metal that gleams’ (gold) was discovered in the Minas Gerais region, but the Portuguese — who had arrived more than a century earlier — were faced with the challenge of getting it across the mountains to the coast and onto boats bound for Rio and then home. Following an ancient trail marked out by the native Guaianás Indians, they forged the 745-mile-long Caminho do Ouro (‘Gold Trail’) that transported supplies, miners and African slaves.

Back then, Paraty “was not a city to live in, but a city to make deals in,” says town guide, Gabriel Toledo, as we stand in the main square. Portuguese ships “did the best deal ever: they sold rocks for gold. The Portuguese lined their ships with stones for balance, exchanged them for the construction of churches, and returned to Portugal with gold lining the hulls instead”. He turns his shaved head and hefty brown beard towards the Baroque Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios (First Church of Our Lady of Remedies) to make his point. Crimson drapes have been thrown from her windows in preparation for the Festa do Divino Espírito Santo and white-and-red flags are strung to the surrounding magnolia trees that drip with bromeliads and moss.

Paraty blossomed, but pirates based in the bay were attacking ships as they left for Rio and stealing the gold. “See how the streets are bowed? If you stand at one end, you can’t see the other. It was to skew the line of sight so pirate cannons and gunfire caused minimal damage,” explains Gabriel, pacing the cobblestones in his black Havaianas flip-flops.

Furious at losing money, the king of Portugal ordered the construction of a new road that bypassed Paraty and the economy collapsed. Coffee was the solution. The fertile slopes of the Paraíba Valley were ideal and, as a result, the town’s port enjoyed a new boom. “You know the saying ‘to rise up in life’?” asks Gabriel. “That comes from when merchants could afford to build a second floor on their homes!” The town prospered until the coffee lords grew greedy. Seeking faster ways to transport their beans, they financed a railway from the valley direct to Rio. As a result, Paraty was cut off from Brazil and the world for 88 years.

“But what we gained was culture,” explains Gabriel. “No one came in with new clothes, songs, food or ideas, so all the original practices were preserved. Music and recipes were unchanged.” Then in the 1970s the construction of the BR-101 highway — running the entire length of the country — reached Paraty and she entered a renaissance. “Our last treasure is you guys! We’re now 110% dependent on tourism.”

“That’s not true!” counters Yara. “Obviously tourism is important, but even outside the holidays we have plenty happening. The thing that sets Paraty apart is that the community is self-confident. Where this doesn’t exist — such as when locals think tourists are more important than them — a community loses its culture. Ours is a real village — an unsynthentic life.” It certainly feels authentic. Talent oozes from every cobblestone. Artists flocked here during the military dictatorship of the 1960s and the compact old centre brims with ateliers concealed behind coloured doors.

“Until the road was built, locals only had contact with the water, mountains, nature — and they started to create from there. It’s so bucolic! The pace of life is different and an artist needs that,” enthuses my guide, Miriam, as she ties back her riot of dyed red hair. Yara nods along. “The tripod of cultures — from the native Indians, Portuguese and Africans — creates a unique mix of foods, colours and ideas. How can one not be inspired?”

Yara runs Brazilian cookery lessons at her colonial home — one of around 400 in the old town. “My mother and father were gourmet cooks and I grew up in a traditional Brazilian house where food was the centre of life — they were always throwing lunches. But I never paid attention to cooking until Robert and I moved to Vermont. I was so cold and remembered a soup from childhood used to warm us up and from then on I cooked!”

A profile in The New York Times and a cooking show on PBS followed. She finally returned home and today uses food to explain the country’s history. “What happens at the table explains so much of our economy and behaviour. For example, the popular moqueca (fish stew) recipe was actually invented in Africa and brought over by the slaves. And did you know ingredients such as cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper were only introduced when the Portuguese court fled to Brazil to escape the invasion of Napoleon’s army? We still call it pimenta do reino (‘pepper from the kingdom’)!”

Bottles of Cachaça Maria Izabel. Image: Emma Thomson

Bottles of Cachaça Maria Izabel. Image: Emma Thomson

Local spirit

Foodie flair seems to have followed the art. Restaurateur Jane Assis gave up her life in Rio to run farm-to-table gourmet Restaurante Quintal das Letras and get creative with local staples such as manioc, tapioca, palm hearts and yucca. Meanwhile, Paulo Cesar, the owner and chef of Casa do Fogo (House of Fire), uses local spirit cachaça to flambé his camarãoes (prawns) and steaks.

Made from distilled sugarcane juice cachaça is the alcoholic base of Brazil’s favourite cocktail: the caipirinha. Indeed, the first recipe for the drink was found in Paraty. Once the region boasted 200 distilleries, now only a handful remain. Maria Izabel makes the best. This fiery clear liquid runs in her veins: in 1800, her great-great-grandfather, Francisco Lopes da Costa, was producing cachaça in Paraty. She’s turned its production into an art form by focusing on quality not quantity and does everything herself — from brewing to bottling — at her seafront pousada (hotel) a mile or so out of town. We manoeuvre the car down her winding rocky driveway.

Bird-of-paradise flowers burst like orange fireworks from the nearby bushes. Maria emerges barefoot, her three rescue dogs racing around her ankles. She’s tamed her cascade of long greying hair into a plait that trails to her waist. At the age of 66, her face hardly bears a wrinkle. Maria takes us up the hill to a small outhouse where the sugar — grown organically on her land — is pressed to extract the juice. “I then mix it with a yeast using a recipe that dates from 1900. I was given it by an old lady who’s lived on the land her whole life.”

Once fermented, it’s heated over a fire. “I lie in my hammock waiting for the first drops to drip from the condenser,” Maria says, pointing to the hooks in the wooden beams. “I use the first stuff that comes out to clean things!” The best — the Reserva Especial — is siphoned off during the peak moment of distillation and stored in the bowels of giant jequitibá rosa wood barrels for five years. She shows me a bottle. It’s as yellow as urine. Time for a tasting. “Do you drink cachaça every day, Maria?” “Only the best one nowadays,” she says, pouring me a dram. I notice she’s handwritten the production date on each of the labels. I take a nip and feel it race down my throat. A wave of warmth flushes my cheeks and brings tears to my eyes. “Potent!” I sputter, but then it mellows and leaves the tongue wrapped in a smooth heat. “People have to be like cachaça: strong and without acidity — soft,” she smiles.

Maria bathes daily in a freshwater pool she’s carved from the rock and snacks on the coconuts and passion fruit that fall from the trees in her garden. She’s certainly the least materialistic business owner I’ve ever met.

Tattooed fisherman painting the streets of Paraty. Image: Emma Thomson

Tattooed fisherman painting the streets of Paraty. Image: Emma Thomson

Happy medium

Back in town, I stumble across a life-size papier-mâché man sitting at a table sunning himself. Intrigued, I wander inside and meet Lucio Cruz. With a full head of black curls and a trim goatee, artist Lucio specialises in 3D models, molded to bring the town’s festivals, such as Festa do Divino Espírito Santo, to life. “I started with watercolours, but there are plenty of good painters in Paraty — I wanted to be different. It’s not an easy life: galleries don’t talk about or like this kind of art,” he shrugs. His seven-year-old son sits at the kitchen table working on his own papier-mâché mask and Lucio rumples his dark hair proudly. “He loves it already,” he beams.

Dusk is setting in as I step into the atelier of Sônia Moraes, a dressmaker and jewellery designer who moved to Paraty from São Paulo 18 years ago, following her daughter. “It was waiting for me; there’s such a warm welcome it’s hard to leave,” she says, ushering a glass of red wine into my hands. Her hand-painted shawls, kaftans and skirts have appeared in Vogue and been worn by famed Brazilian actress Maria Della Costa. “I live with art inside me,” she says, her Prada glasses perched on her nose. Certainly her dedication to her art form can’t be faulted: “For my daughter’s wedding dress, I asked the local fishermen to keep all the scales they scraped from the fish. I then hand-stitched each one onto the bodice of her dress — she shimmered!”

Trumpeting from the street starts to drown out her voice. “Ah, the parade,” Sônia cries, jumping up and reaching the door as a procession of flag bearers from the Festa do Divino Espírito Santo sweep past, drums pounding and candles flickering. It’s just one of a packed calendar of events — which includes the literary festival Flip — set up by the co-founder of Bloomsbury, Liz Calder, that attracts the likes of Salman Rushdie, Joanna Trollope and Michael Ondaatje.

After they’ve passed, we bid Sônia ‘tchau’ and follow the crowd to the main square, where everyone is shimmying to a local band. Something glints nearby and I’m lured into the atelier of Carina Saladino, who sits at her desk in dungarees painting tiles. She left her home in Argentina seven months ago to move here. “I visited Trindade two years ago and fell in love — the energy of the people is different.”

Trindade — a village 20 minutes down the road — is famous for its hippies, who, in a sense, were the first artists to arrive. The children of rich families from São Paulo and Rio, they rejected the move towards technology and turned to nature instead. Trindade, with its dense forest clawing at broad sandy bays, was the answer. It’s one of the few places left where locals still live on the beach. One of them is 72-year-old Jair da Anunciação Oliveira, whom I meet at a cafe overlooking the ocean. The sun lines hatched into the back of his neck are testament to a life spent fishing. Jair remembers the 1960s, when the hippies arrived, as if it were yesterday. “It was a one-day walk from Paraty back then,” he says. “They lived in our homes like family and we all shared food.” Didn’t they disrupt village life? I ask. He shakes his head. “We liked the hippies because they helped us. When Grupo Adela wanted to build a swathe of condominiums — like they did round the headland in Laranjeiras — and tried to force us off our land, the hippies wrote letters of complaint and it was stopped. Back then there were around 20; now there’s more, but they come and go.”

Today, Trindade has the feel of a holiday town. Bikinis and açaí sorbet are for sale in the shops, paddleboarders plumb the calm waters and phone signal dips in and out. I walk barefoot across the beach, passing a group of dreadlocked friends who sit on their sarongs listening as a boy strums his guitar. Up into the forest — the wet earth as cold and slippery as slugs beneath my feet — I pass an artist’s house built from mud and trees. His girlfriend shows me their handmade wind chimes, hanging from beams crafted from driftwood, shells and bird feathers found on the beach. Smoke from the fire weaves between them. It’s all rather groovy.

On my last day in Paraty, I turn a corner and come across a silver-haired man painting a doorway bedecked with boughs of pink bougainvillea. His old fisherman tattoos, smudged into his tanned arms, are just visible. Propped against a wall is a trio of his paintings. One is a view of the town as seen from the harbour; the white spire of Capela de Santa Rita framed against the shadowy mountains. “Quanto custa?” I enquire. “One-hundred-and-fifty reals [£28],” he mumbles shyly. I’m not sure if the town had ‘chosen’ me or not, but it was clear the colours of Paraty quickly stain the soul. Both the painting and I were sold.

Essentials

Getting there & around
British Airways flies nonstop to Rio and São Paulo from London, while LATAM flies nonstop from London to São Paulo.
Paraty Tours offers day trips to Trindade and can arrange 4WD jungle tours, hiking along the Gold Trail and bike tours.

Places mentioned

Margarida Café
Restaurante Refúgio
Academy of Cooking & Other Pleasures

More info
paraty.com.br

How to do it
Rainbow Tours offers five nights in Paraty from £1,550 per person, including return flights with British Airways from London to Rio, a night in Rio at the Windsor Excelsior Hotel in Copacabana, four nights at Pousada do Sandi in Paraty, and transfers with a private driver/guide. Alternatively, upgrade to Casa Turquesa or Pousada Literaria.

Published in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)