There is something of the forgotten tropical backwater to Paraty (pronounced Parachi in Portuguese). It is one of the best-preserved Colonial towns in Brazil with an interesting history going back to the 16th century. There is a languid quality to the place--life is not for hurrying. It reminded me of one of those towns in a Graham Greene novel, where the hero is banished to a fly-blown spot and braves hurricanes and tropical disease before he is returned to favor. There is a touch of being at the end of the world in Paraty, but every visitor to Rio de Janeiro should visit, and it makes an ideal break from the frenetic 'Cuidade Marvelosa.'
There is no denying that this, the historical highpoint of Costa Verde, is stunningly beautiful. It was founded in 1520 when silver was mined in the hinterland and brought by mule to the coast. The entire town is redolent of those times and stands on a promontory encompassed by the waters of a bay. Green jungle hills surround the town while white-walled, red-tiled houses stand on flagstone steets built in a grid fashion. The streets are a maze of right angles designed to confuse invading pirates (it worked on me) and the surrounding waters and islands in the 17th century were full of buccaneers. Paraty is dotted with pracas, churches, and old stone buildings. Doors to the buildings are higher up as high Atlantic tides wash through the city's streets in July and February. Paraty is listed on UNESCO's world heritage sites in its entirety.
Paraty has no airport and is not on a rail route so the best way to reach it for the independent traveler is bus. From Rio's central rodovaria (bus station), there are nine buses a day via Angros dos Reis. It costs about 16 reals and travels the spectacular BR101 which takes the cliff roads along the Costa Verde. Buses also arrive from Angros dos Reis taking only 1.5 hours, and Sao Paulo which is 304km away and takes 5.5 hours. The scruffy rodovaria is at Rua Foresta and upon arrival, turn right, which will take you to the main drag of Rua Roberto Silveira. The drive from Rio is very beautiful with green jungle islands sparkling in crystal blue waters and allow plenty of time to pull over and enjoy empty white sand beaches.
We were there at the beginning of spring and it was still blue skies and pleasant warm weather. In the summer it gets very muggy with temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius with high humidity. While there are no beaches in town (the harbor is a morass of black mud at low tide) but within walking distance is Praia do Forte and Praia do Jabaquara. Each is reachable by taking the bridge north out of town and heading east along the coast. More popular are the schooner trips to the islands. I spoke to several people who went on these and they said it was the highlight of Paraty. For about 50 reals (£10-11), you could hire a tall-masted schooner for five hours which will take you out to the jungle islands in the bay complete with grilled prawn lunch.
But the town is most popular with Brazilian tourists. While it was reasonably quiet in early spring when we visited, it gets busy in the high season, but then only at weekends. During the week it retains a small-town atmosphere with kids playing in the streets and people chatting to their neighbors. To cater to this trade are plenty of pousadas, restaurants, souvenir shops, and Paraty is famous for the explosive cachaca drink which is brewed nearby. Regarding orientation, take my advice and make sure you know where your hotel is before you set out as the grid-like streets which are nearly all identical. When the center of trade in this part of Brazil moved from Paraty to Rio de Janeiro in the 19th century, the town was left in a kind of time warp. The main street of Rua Roberto Silveira leads to the Centro Historico. Here the angular streets are lined with irregular stone flagstones and it is cordoned off with chains allowing no motor transportation to enter.
The Centro Historico is a maze of identical buildings, each with their own courtyard and adorned with flowers. The slabs underfoot are aligned to drain the streets of Paraty and at full moon the tides whoosh along the streets of this town washing it clean. The colonial history is best explored in the churches. The churches were for different sections of the population--aristocracy, whites, slaves, etc. The most imposing is the Igreja Senhora dos Remedios on Placa Matriz: a huge sandstone bulk and the symbol of Paraty. I think the most picturesque is the Igreja Santa Rita (see photo below) which stands on the seashore overlooking the bay. To stand in front of this in the sunshine, watching the green mountains across the water/mud, listening to the cicadas, and hearing singing from the boats is to catch a slice of Brazil.
In order to cater to many tourists, there are a number of restaurants in Paraty. I would recommend 'Cafe Paraty' which opens onto the street at Rua Maria Jelone. There is music in the evenings and you can get an outside table and nurse a capirinha. We found the service quick, courteous, and they had English language menus. I went for prawn fritters and shredded beef which was delicious. Also, the café on Placa Matriz seems to be a good gathering point; when this closes the foreign tourists head for a nearby bar.
It was my least favorite stop in Brazil due to a mistake I made on my part. As we were all meeting up in the evening we were distracted by a traveler on the previous SAE bus. He decided to take us to a bank where we could change up money and instead got us lost and not knowing where we were. When we reached the others, we were totally disorientated and after a couple of drinks on the Placa da Matriz decided to find our way back. I was staying in a different hotel from the others, but had not orientated myself due to being distracted when I first arrived. To my horror I couldn't find my pousada in the dark. The old town of Paraty at night is as black as your hand and there are no streetlamps. The only light comes from nearby shops and restaurants and these had closed for the evening. As it got later and later, I got more nervous. It doesn't do to wander around in Brazil on your own at night. In fact, I got scared and eventually stumbled back to the bar and luckily there were people there who knew where we were staying and could direct me home.
I felt like the stupidist tourist ever created. But I did get a sense of old Paraty--flickering shadows, echoing flagstones, and barking dogs. I just wish it had been in the daylight.