It was a piano player from Rio de Janeiro who surprised us by saying it, while clutching a frosted glass of Antarctica in a ramshackle canvas bar close to the old town of Paraty. “I love my country” he sighed, “and I know how lucky we are. We have no wars and no extremist political parties, you know? But all everyone wants to do here is party, party, party. Why can’t we just relax a bit?” Well, we weren’t expecting that. If not for the fact that we just assumed all Brazilians did indeed love a good party, then because we’d been here nigh on two weeks now and the closest we’d come to a party was a flickering lightbulb in our hostel room in Paranagua. Our experience of Brazil so far had very much been one of relaxation.
To be honest though, that could be partly down to us. Despite our relatively tender ages, our main priority for finding a place to stay these days is avoiding any hostels that even hint at offering any kind of ‘organised nights out’ or boast of having a ‘bar on site’ – the days of being woken by someone vomiting a few feet from my head are very much over. So with that in mind, when we made for Ilha de Santa Catarina, better known by the name of its main town Florianópolis, we opted for the sleepy fishing village of Praia do Pantano do Sul at the south of the island and luckily for us, our grouchy search criteria paid off. By night, we ate fresh fried fish with pirão and by day, well what else could do but hit the beach? The days were long, the air thick and hazy in the heat above the cool Atlantic ocean. Vultures and pre-historic looking Frigate birds circled above, silhouetted against a brazen blue sky, while below plump Argentines on holiday snoozed underneath umbrellas, woken only by the sound of the occasional hawker selling gelatos. When we did make a move, it was a brisk early morning climb over the hill to Lagoinha do Leste where a breathtaking sweep of isolated sand was backed by a warm water lagoon. Beyond that, we did very little.
We did even less at our next beach stop, but not through choice. The problem with many islands in the tropics is that when it rains, you’re generally left with very little to do, and for our three days on Ilha do Mel it did just that. Arriving after a torturous journey via the rubble strewn World Cup city of Curitiba, several different bus drivers – for who it seems the only prerequisite to getting the job is being an utter lunatic – and our stay in the strobe lit cockroach disco in Paranagua, we were dismayed to turn up under brooding black skies. This soon turned into brooding black everything as all power on the island went down amid ever worsening storms, and so aside from an attempted hike which almost resulted in a drowning, we sat in the dark and reorganised our bags repeatedly. It was time to leave the beach.
Heading north across the Tropic of Capricorn, we made our way onto the Costa Verde (Green Coast) and up to the time machine of Paraty. Every once in a while you come across these towns – Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic and the old town of Croatia’s Korcula are other examples that spring to mind – where it seems that while the world has evolved around them, they have kept themselves stuck in the past. I don’t mean it in the sense that they still throw suspected witches in the river, segregate people by race on buses or god forbid, have a Wimpy, but more that they’ve reached a point in history and thought “Yeah this’ll do” and stuck to it. Paraty is a micro world of impossibly picturesque cobbled streets, upon which you’ll find no cars but only horse and carts, a never ending supply of photo opportunities and as such, your fare share of camera clad tourists. Colonised by the Portuguese in 1667 the town became a pathway to and from Brazil’s interior for gold mining, the slave trade, coffee production and then Cachaça, a Brazilian rum made from sugarcane. It’s only the latter that is still prevalent these days, Cachaça has become synonymous with the town, but it’s the colonial architecture that is the real draw card here. Street after street of simple whitewashed houses are decorated by coloured windows and doors, while at high tide twice a day the sea creeps into the streets to create some wonderful reflections, a tranquil scene that has remained largely unchanged for 250 years.
We finished this leg of our journey by going green and exploring some of the native Mata Atlântica that gives the Costa Verde its name. After a morning at some waterfalls behind Paraty, where tourists and locals tackled a rock slide with varying degrees of skill, we made our way to Ilha Grande. Laying off the coast from Angra dos Reis, Ilha Grande has become something of a mecca for sun seekers and it didn’t take long to see why. Palm fringed beaches surround the island, all accessible only by boat or foot, while its interior consists of thick, tropical forest. It was via a two hour hike through this interior, including two uncomfortably close snake encounters, that we came to Lopes Mendes beach. Regularly included on those daydream inspiring lists of the worlds best beaches, this would be fourth of those we’d tick off (adding to Australia’s Whitehaven, New Zealand’s New Chums Beach and Clacton-upon-Sea in Essex), and well, it didn’t disappoint. A seeming endless curve of squeaky white sand offered us another utterly perfect scene of relaxation and closed off our first party-less two weeks in Brazil. But that was all to change, for from here we were heading to the biggest party on earth, the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, and a couple of weeks of Samba led debauchery. Let’s just hope our piano playing friend is out of town.