Some say Paraty is a side trip from Rio. A distraction. A “do-it-if-you’ve-already-done-Rio” kinda place. Well, please don’t say that to the locals who firmly believe that their little beauty spot is a destination worthy of a holiday in its own right. And so it is, even though it’s a mere 100 miles from Rio and 125 miles from Sao Paulo.
A World Heritage Site
You ask why this tiny beachfront town is worthy of such a lofty title given to them by UNESCO in 1966? It all goes back to the early days when gold was discovered in 1696 in the then world’s richest mines in Minas Gerais. It seemed initially that the production was small enough it could easily be transported to Paraty along a well-worn Guaiana Indian footpath through the nearby Serra do Mar mountain range. The road was called the “Caminho do Ouro” or the “Gold Route” and measured 700 miles.
Everything changed in the 1800s when gold seemed to flow out of the hills and shipments of this lusted-after treasure filled the creaking holds of countless sailing ships plying the rough seas between Paraty, Rio, and Portugal’s royal coffers. The port of Paraty grew to a population of approximately 16,000 at this time, prospered, and became home to those who profited from this enterprise.
Businessmen built sizeable mansions, called sobrados, and filled them with the trappings of success. One such home is today the Casa da Cultura on Rua Dona Geralda. Early residents celebrated their faith in churches built for the people, yet in a style in keeping with the modest standards of the community. And they covered the sandy streets with a type of cobblestone referred to as pes-de-moleque, which translates into English as “street kids’ feet.” This rugged underfooting wreaks havoc today on spindly spikey heels, challenging Brazil’s babelicious beauties to flip-flop down the streets instead.
Boom Then Bust. Sound Familiar?
In time, the mines played out. The road between Ouro Preto and the port grew quiet. Plus, a new road was carved out of the harsh environment toward a new port – Rio. It had to be because unpleasant pirates and bandits forced shippers to search for a safer alternative to Paraty. So, Rio then enjoyed the spoils. Fewer than 1000 residents remained in Paraty. Desperate entrepreneurs switched their efforts to the cultivation of vast coffee plantations, though their days were numbered as well. Once the country’s leaders ended the evil practice of slavery, the coffee industry failed due to the lack of free labor. All this added up to seal the fate of Paraty, which fell silent, trapped in the dusty cloak of time.
The jungle reclaimed the footpaths and roads leaving Paraty virtually cut off from the outside world, save for the little boats that came and went as they wished. This lasted till the mid-1900s when engineered and laborers constructed a highway between the capital city of Sao Paulo and the coastal cosmopolitan centerpiece Rio.
Thankfully, within a decade, Paraty was declared a national monument and the central area was protected from major development. That’s why this town today offers some of the nation’s finest examples of colonial architecture and design. Brazilian and foreign visionaries preserved yet transformed old and abandoned houses into galleries and eateries, inns and boutiques. Two examples of traditional architecture are Sobrado dos Abacaxis and Sobrado do Principe.
What To Do? What To Do?
It’s fun to wander about the centro historico, which is the turf of pedestrians rather than cars. You must time your journey with precision as, in some sections of town, the high tide washes in to splash across the roadways then back out to sea leaving behind a clean clean clean street that can also be slippery.
From the pier area at Rua da Lapa, you’ll be able to get your bearings. First, find Santa Rita Church directly adjacent to the town jail. Called “Capela de Santa Rita”, it was built by “freemen” or former slaves in 1722.
African slaves built a church for themselves and all members of their community in 1725 called Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosario e Sao Benedito, the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary and St. Benedict.
The Igreja Matriz Nossa Senhora do Remedios, the First Church of Our Lady of the Remedies, dates back to 1646 though it was expanded to its take on its current design in 1873. Maria Jacome de Melo gifted land to build this church and asked in return that no harm come to the indigenous peoples in the area.
Remember, there are also some 200 beaches in the nearby seaside and offshore islands that add up to 60 or more. If you can’t find a sun-washed, white-sand, palm-shaded beach to suit your fancy than you may as well pack your bikini and fly home. But before you do, ask one of the locals why their town is spelled “P-a-r-a-t-y” and “P-a-r-a-t-I” and pronounced “Pa-ra-CHEE”. You might have to delay your departure because the conversation could take a while if he begins by saying the name is a Guaianas Indian word in the Tupi language that means “river of fish.” Pull up a chair.
And consider ordering something concocted with the local sugar-cane spirit known as Cachaca. It’s also called cana, doida, garapa, parati and pinga so don’t worry if you get confused. This alcohol bomb dates back to the mid-1600s and the Portuguese settlers and was once a form of currency in the slave trade. Brazil produces some 4,000 brands and everyone has their favorite. You might, as well, by day’s end.