Paraty (pada-chee), a town on the southeast coast of Rio state, is like a top-shelf drink — from the aged, distilled waterfront of Brazil’s colonial history, to the calm, primal ecological beauty of the coastal rainforest, to a grand aquamarine bay — all so smooth, so hypnotic…
We nearly forgot we were there during the most frenzied, harrying, euphoric week in Brazil: Carnaval.
The town was designed as a port to which fine stones and gold were transferred along the caminho do ouro (roughly translated: yellow brick road). When L. Frank Baum wrote The Wizard of Oz, he may have been embellishing (only slightly) on the nearly mystic beauty of this historical eco-getaway.
A jeep tour offers a trip into the Parque Nacional da Serra da Bocaina, a well-preserved sugar cane valley between two subtropical peaks in the eastern Brazilian crystalline basin (the geographical system that gives Rio de Janeiro its geo-urban splendor).
The tour offers stops at crystal clear waterfalls and natural pools, clod-hopping through cloud forests, and — believe it — a trip to a local booze distillery. Cachaça, a cane alcohol and the official liquor of Brazil, is made and distilled in the park. A tour of the facility includes a tasting of the (forty!) varieties of cachaça made on location.
The Paraty bay, which includes 65 islands and some 300 beaches, is inhabited by a subculture of fishermen. The Caiçana pescadores work and thrive in paradise, still half-removed from modern culture. Our bus driver Marcelo told us it was shrimp season.
I was impressed with their process for “harvesting” the camarões: Like a baleen whale, they drop a net-screen 300 meters below the surface and troll. The screen filters out the deep ocean scrum and brings in the crustaceans.
I think the folks in the ivory towers call this baleen grazing “bio-mimickry,” but the Caiçana just call it resourceful maritime hunting.
A schooner trip with a company like Paraty Tours costs R$35 (around US $20) and “serves music, fruit and ambience.” The boat makes five stops, two of which are on remote island beaches.
While I didn’t get to witness a harvest, we found a shrimp version of everything. At a jungle-chic restaurant, Thai Brasil, we tried a shrimp curry in a hollowed-out pineapple. For lunch I had a cauldron of shrimp strongonoff-like stew, called a moqueca, served over rice (a popular meal throughout coastal Brazil).
The idyllic beaches, the rich local subculture, the colonial churches of the historical district, the mythology of the Mata Atlantica and the golden road — the gemstones, the fishermen and the dreamers — Paraty makes a journeyman of any tongue or tribe or nation feel like he “ain’t in Kansas (or San Diego) anymore” and has joined Dorothy and the Oz-seeking, foolhardy nomads.
Oh, and by the way, we mostly ignored Carnaval and the festivities. It would have been Brazilophilia overload.