Ilha Grande Stories and Tips

Masters and Slaves--the Ponte Alba coffee plantation

One of our group finds a hammock Photo, Ilha Grande, Brazil

The master of the plantation stood in the doorway. He was dressed in a tight jacket, jodhpurs, and high boots. In his hand was a riding crop; his hand was outstretched. "Allo, welcome to Ponte Alba coffee farm," he said.

They are careful to stress farm rather than plantation here. It was a plantation when it housed 400 African slaves who used to grind coffee beans in its main square. If they escaped or fermented rebellion, then the master clapped them in irons or some other gruesome device. For all its beauty, Ponte Alba coffee farm is rather haunting. As if hundreds of memories--good and bad--still linger on . . .

We visited this gem on the way between Paraty and the Serra dos Orgaos NP in northern Rio de Janeiro state. It is in the heart of Brazil's coffee country and is in a region of green-covered mountains and steamy valleys. Although coffee doesn't dominate this part of the world the way it did in the 19th century, you can see traces of this great era in the fazendas that dot the hillsides. We visited as part of a tour, but it is also possible to visit on your own by taking a bus from Rio or Angros dos Reis to the town of Vassouras which is the heart of the coffee country. There is still a trace of the old coffee nobility in this town which was once the center for 100 tiny individual fiefdoms up and down the valley. One more point--driving in coffee country takes much caution. The roads are mainly dirt tracks and bend around mountain slopes; we witnessed the aftermath of a terrible accident at the side of a lake. The driver was rolling around in pain while onlookers were trying to comfort him. His vehicle was a mess and at an angle in the trees and we supposed that he had been hit by a bus going around a corner. He was lucky he did not plunge into the lake.

The Ponte Alba coffee farm has to be in one of the most beautiful settings in Rio de Janeiro state. The initial sight is dominated by a white colonial house fronted by horse stables, with more buildings behind, and all of it overlooked by green fields and mountains. Waiting at the door was the owner's husband who was dressed for the part of 19th century colonial master. The original Ponte Alba family still own the farm and live in a big house behind the plantation.

The coffee boom went bust at the end of the 19th century and nowadays they have to cater to tourists to keep the fazenda alive. We had the option of staying here--the main factory area has been turned into a beautiful lounge with wooden floor, teak ceiling, expensive ornaments, leather couches, and a bar area. Upstairs was even nicer with armoires, bookcases, and antique lamps.

After much "ooohhing" and "aaahhhing" we headed outside into the sunshine. The farm is on two levels--below us were the slave quarters, consisting of one-story porched buildings surrounding a massive lawn (see photo). The owners’ magnificent house--which was still in use--overlooked it all. In colonial times this was a plantation housing up to 400 slaves from Africa. The pretty lawn below us was where the beans were ground and was a bare expanse of rocky ground in those days. We could all imagine the plantation owner looking down from his house watching his slaves work below.

A bell announced lunch and we sat outside on the verandah eating fejoida, curried meat, and guava juice. There was something hypnotically relaxing about Ponte Alba, as if it wasn’t connected to the real world. Our guide, Marcelo, wanted us to see the small museum at the farm. Brazil did not get rid of slavery until 1888, long after everybody else and the museum housed relics from those awful days. Manacles and a whipping post were on display and lithographs showed slaves living in the quarters where we had indulgently had our lunch. They looked rather emaciated and there were terrible punishments for those who escaped--branding and maiming. There was an emancipation order hanging on the wall even though, by the time the order came through, most slaves had become institutionalized and did not want to leave the plantation.

The attractions of the fazenda were legion, but the museum sobered us all up. I still think Ponte Alba was one of the most relaxing places I have ever visited and two of our group found the ultimate in slow living: two hammocks where they smugly swayed in the heat.

For all its dark past, Ponte Alba was one of the highlights of visiting Brazil. It was another world . . .

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