Story by; Jon Haggins
Photos: Jon Haggins & David Fasano
Rio de Janeiro may be one of the smallest states in Brazil, but it is arguably the most well-known and is surprisingly attractive despite its lack of size.
The state of Rio de Janeiro is located within the Brazilian geo-political region classified as the Southeast. It is bound on the east and south by the Atlantic Ocean. Rio de Janeiro has an area of 10.8 million acres.
The state’s largest cities are Rio de Janeiro, São Gonçalo, Duque de Caxias, Nova Iguaçu, Niterói, Campos dos Goytacazes, Belford Roxo, São João de Meriti, Petrópolis, Volta Redonda, Magé, Macaé, Itaboraí, Cabo Frio, Angra dos Reis, Nova Friburgo, Barra Mansa, Teresópolis, Mesquita and Nilópolis.
Rio de Janeiro is the smallest state in the Southeast macro region and one of the smallest in Brazil. It is, however, the third most populous Brazilian state, with a population of 16 million of people, making it the most densely populated state in Brazil and the third longest coastline in the country after those of the states of Bahia and Maranhão.
When most think of Rio, they think of Rio de Janeiro City and its most beautiful beaches. However, Rio is a State with lots of culture, great cuisine, adventure etc. Paraty is one of the most charming colonial towns on the Brazilian southeast Green Coast located within Angra dos Reis bay. The bay has 365 islands, one for every day of the year.
Paraty is a gateway to the past with its colorful buildings and cobblestone streets. The cobblestones were brought over by the Portuguese as ballast to balance their boats and left behind after they ravaged Brazil of its precious gold. The historic section was declared a national monument (UNESCO Heritage Site) in 1966.
With nearly 140 million of its citizens adhering to Roman Catholicism, Brazil lays claim to the largest Catholic population on the planet. Paraty buildings are a colonial style dominated by several solemn, yet architecturally elaborate houses of worship. Interestingly, for most of Paraty’s history, church congregations were divided by skin color and class. There are four main churches in the historic part of town that were built by slaves.
The largest church in Paraty, the Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, took 86 years to build, coming into service in 1873, though some of the flourishes and design elements remain incomplete. Serving working class “whites” and built in place of the original church, which dated back to 1646, the Igreja Matriz is styled neo-classically, with intricate, embedded stone columns and cornices breaking up the austerity of the whitewashed facade. Notably, the church’s bell towers were never completed, leaving a modest pediment crowned by a cross as the structure’s defining embellishment.
The lovely Igreja de Santa Rita de Cássia is the oldest church still standing in Paraty, opening to the public in 1722. Free black people financed the Capela de Santa Rita church. Yes, there were free black people in Brazil. It was built along the shores of the bay and served as the official house of worship for “free mulattoes” (a term used to describe people of obviously mixed black and white heritage who were also not enslaved). The baroque Santa Rita features a gracefully curved pediment and a single bell tower topped by a rooster weathervane. The Museu de Arte Sacra is located in the rear of the church.
The simple, yet formidable Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário e São Benedito served the town’s large population of enslaved black Brazilians. Built over three decades and completed in 1757, the church houses a sturdy stone pulpit, with a surprisingly detailed gold-filigreed altar, notable in light of the exterior’s lack of embellishment.
Nearby, with almost as simple a façade, but built in the Brazilian imperial style, the elegant Igreja de Nossa Senhora das Dores opened in 1820 for the use of the “white elite.” Shuttered shortly thereafter because of disuse, the church reopened at the beginning of the 20th century, with a much less discriminating door policy.
The Colonial buildings, in the historic district, have been renovated and spruced up with tropical colors and charm. A great pastime is browsing boutiques and art galleries that are filled with art from local artists. Horse and carriage is the only mode of transportation through the old town and it reflects a time in history when it was fashionable. The Prince of Brazil also has a home in Paraty, the only home facing the bay.
The Cultural and Historical Center offers an opportunity to learn about the history of Paraty. A set of embroidered curtains hang along the wall with an image of Paraty as a small fishing village and there are pull down fixtures that reflect more of its history. There are also photographs of Guaiana Indians who were the first to populate Paraty before the Portuguese colonized it. Paraty comes from an Indian word, parati, which is a fish of the mullet family.
The Portuguese people originally arrived looking for gold and found it. They transported the gold to Rio and then back to Portugal. Later coffee became the popular crop. At one time the town had as many as 250 sugar farms and distilleries.
Paraty is also known for cachaca, a traditional Brazilian alcoholic beverage made from sugar cane, it’s the Brazilian Rum. Caipirinha is a local drink with a combination of sugar, limes and ice. Engenho D’Ouro, a farm produces the best cachaca the old fashion way. Their cachaca is very special because they produce small quantities distributed locally.
Across the road from Engenho D’Ouro’s Brewery and farm is a small white church that sits on a hill. Just beyond the church and down a steep hill is Cachoeira do Toboga, a streaming waterfall where young athletic boys and girls glide over the drenched rocks then splash into a pond. It certainly looked like a lot of fun.
Pousada Porto Imperial hotel is within walking distance of almost everything in the area. It’s the largest pousada in Paraty and it has a large garden with a swimming pool. The staff is helpful and the rooms are very comfortable. Pousada Porto Imperial is the largest pousada in Paraty and has a lovely outdoor pool and cabana. The Imperial sits in the heart of the town next to the canal where colorful boats are docked waiting to take guests out to tour the bay. The harbor is lined with fishing boats where one can find the freshest catch of the day. The docks are lined with colorful boats to take guests out into the bay.
There are also a number of great restaurants in this Colonial town. At Paraty 33 Restaurant the chef showed off his skills in the kitchen for a guest. The restaurant is located in the heart of Paraty. The building is simply painted white with large forest green colored shutters that open onto the cobblestone street allowing a refreshing breeze. Another great dining experience was had at Benditas Restaurante. A lone singer smoothly sang romantic Bosa Nova songs while simply strumming his guitar. Let’s not forget Casa do Fogo’s brilliant flambé dishes that lite up the night. The restaurant walls are lined with colorful paintings from friends and the table tops are also painted.
At a certain time of day the tide rises and floods the streets near the harbor. The colorful buildings are reflected in the water; it’s called the Venice of Brazil. They say that’s how the Portuguese washed the streets many years ago. Paraty is a destination that has to be visited at least once in a lifetime.
Portobello Resort and Safari in Frade is also located on the Green Coast overlooking the waters of Angra dos Reis bay. This large complex includes a hotel, private villas, condominiums, a marina, golf courses and a safari. The safari includes a variety of animals such as Macaco and Tucano Toco birds, monkeys, ostrich, bulls, deer, ducks, turtles, cows, lama, camels, zebra and wild geese, from as far away as Africa. It was a true back to nature experience. Somewhere lost in this peaceful savanna is a lake and a waterfall where one can swim and relax your mind. It’s a peaceful oasis where you can lay back and hear the whispers of life.
A small church sits on the edge of the golf course where several weddings have taken place. Portobello also owns a fashionable marina with private bungalows.
There are a variety of sports to participate in such as diving, boating, horseback riding, biking or just relaxing around the large outdoor pool. The large oceanfront offers a cool breeze from the swaying palm trees.
Portobello Hotel & Resort is all-inclusive and serves a fine cuisine; even the owner dines there. The resort also has a shopping mall with several restaurants. A ferryboat shuttles guests from one side of the canal to the other.
One of the special offerings of the resort is a trek to the hearts of palm farm. I boarded a four-wheel drive to a large palm farm where hearts of palm are cultivated for consumption. After a short walk in the field, our tour guide chopped into a palm and allowed me to taste. Then we stopped at a palapa where hearts of palm were grilled before my eyes. Then I poured a little olive oil on it and it was the best.
Before returning to the resort, I visited the factory where they were preparing fresh palm heart for the restaurant. It reminded me of my first visit to Rio many years ago when I ate fresh hearts of palm for the first time and it was unbelievably delicious.
Frade is a wonderful place to relax and take in its tranquil environment. I spent a day sailing on the Novo Frade, an enormous catamaran. There were many amazing isolated islands with dream homes perched along the shoreline of the bay. When I think of privacy, it’s like what Garbo once said, “I vont to be alone.” It was a perfect day for sailing because the water was lusciously translucent. I couldn’t resist diving in to refresh myself and taste the warm, salty water of the Bay of Frade.
Portobello Hotel is embraced with rolling mountains in the background and surf in the foreground. The swells are like the roar of a lion and it whets my appetite to return again and again. This is a place to come to relax.
Pestana Angra Hotel is an upscale beachfront property that’s also located on the Green Coast in Angra dos Reis. It’s a complex of villas that are designed within an eco friendly environment surrounded by plants and tropical trees along the side of a cliff with an uninterrupted view of the bay. The rooms are very spacious with large verandas that include a hammock and hot tub where one can relax and take it all in. The spa overlooks the bay making it a perfect spot to forget your troubles. The restaurant is located at the bottom of a long winding walkway that leads to a dock. We boarded a private boat that Captain Bruno cruised the warm inviting waters. Our first stop was the Blue Lagoon where I dived in the shallow water and snorkeled with a school of grouper, batfish, angelfish and other colorful varieties.
After boarding the boat again we visited Ilha Grande where there are a number of restaurants, shops, small hotels and a national park. We shared lunch at Lonier Restaurant, which sits directly on Abraao beach facing clusters of fishing and touring boats. The dish of the day was a large pot of moqueca, a seafood stew.
Geno’s Pousada Arco Baleno is a boutique hotel with eight chalets. Each chalet is a color of the rainbow from blue, yellow, to red and green. If you’re looking for a different experience, this is the place. Plus, Geno is a terrific host.
Toca do Renan Restaurant in Angra dos Reis is a family-owned restaurant where they served a fabulous assortment of homemade dishes fresh for the kitchen.
Standing high on top of Morro do California Mountain was an epic experience of observing the town below. The mountain was covered with lush green grass and just below was a heliport.
Teresópolis is a Brazilian municipality located in the state of Rio de Janeiro, in a mountainous region known as Região Serrana. The Serra dos Órgãos, National Park lies partly within the city limits. The Finger Mountain is the signature landmark of the region. The city is known as the home of the Brazilian national football team, since it hosts CBF’s training ground at Granja Comary.
German migrants inhabit the town of Teresopolis. Villa St. Gallen is a micro-beer brewery designed as a miniature gastronomic complex, which is inspired by the architecture of southern Germany. The waitresses dress as German beer maids. The complex is a combination of several restaurants, a church and shops. They also offer beer-pairing lessons, mixing different cheese with different beers. Their French Restaurant also offers beer pairing as a dining experience.
Refugio dos Falcoes Hotel in Nova Friburgo is a small hotel that sits high on Morro do Calfornia Mountain with the panaramic views of the valley. I felt as if I were in Germany. The hotel offers an outdoor pool and hot tub under the shaded tree.
Nova Friburgo is also a new boutique beer-making region in Rio State. IPA is a new trendy restaurant and brewery that serves some of the famous local beers. Braun & Braun is a German restaurant with all the fixings and offerings of German cuisine. The restaurant hosts 35 different beers including its very own brand.
The Jardim do Nêgo is one of the most creative sites to visit in Nova Friburgo. “Nego” Sculpture Garden is spectacular. Geraldo Simplício, nicknamed “Nêgo” has been carving huge sculptures of women into the slopes of his garden since 1969. There are nearly 20 sculptures made of clay scattered throughout the garden – giant mermaids, a Potira Indian giving birth, a shepherdess. You’ll usually find him working in the garden and more than delighted to talk to visitors about his work. Nego is a uniquely talented gentleman and a master with the guitar.
The Ranz Restaurant in Ninho de Guaxo is a fantastic outdoor dining experience offering beer pairing. They brew their own beers as well. The restaurant faces a lovely square where locals set up stand selling local arts and craft.
So remember when you visit Rio de Janeiro, you must explore the State, because Rio is more than a beach, it’s a state with an abundant variety of offerings.