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Rio de Janeiro: The City and the State
Rio de Janeiro is more than just a city, it’s a state. Whilst the Cuidade Marvellosa understandably grabs the best and the worst of the region’s headlines, there are other attractions nearby that need to be seen. In fact, with the city bracing itself for the fanfare and chaos of the soccer World Cup (2014) and the Olympics (2016), seeking out calmer surrounds might just be the order of the day.
Here are the best picks for an easy escape from the city.
There are a number of coastal options east of Rio, the highlight of which is Búzios, 134km away.
The name Búzios refers to a collection of small towns and holiday ghettos scattered about a peninsular that offers a glutinous pic ‘n’ mix of beaches and coves.
Once the haunt of French pirates and slave traders (names like Tartaruga sound like a set from Pirates of the Caribbean), Búzios got itself on the map when Brigitte Bardot rocked up for a visit with her Brazilian boyfriend in 1964. Promoters of the area have used this star power to big-up Búzios as the number one escape for well heeled Cariocas (residents of Rio) and rock stars wanting out of Rio for the weekend. Consequently, it’s become something of a ‘New World’ Saint Tropez, a place to be seen spending money without the threat of being mugged.
However, it’s not all fine dining and cocktails aboard the bateux. Búzios’s beaches offer plenty of action. The north facing Praia de Manguinhos is reportedly one of the best places for windsurfing in South America. On the South side of the peninsular, Praia de Geribá and Praia de Tucuns have quality beach breaks which attract a talented crew of wave riders. Further along the beaches become smaller and the waters calmer with a number of snorkeling and diving possibilities. A personal favorite is Praia João Fernandes at the tip of the peninsular. A great place to relax and people watch.
Where to stay in the area depends on what you’re after. We spent much of our time in Geribá which, possibly due to its access to the surf, offers a decent selection of budget accommodation. Those with more sophisticated palates would be better served by staying in Armação, the dining and nightlife center of Búzios. Here the action centers on Rua das Pedras (Stone Street). Toward the end of the peninsular things get quieter and more rustic although there are some big hotel operations dotted about.
Where ever you end up staying, it’s easy enough to get around. Mini vans motor up and down the main roads and will pick up fares at any point.
There are regular buses from Rio de Janerio (3hours/R$23-25). The journey out of Rio’s Guanabara Bay offers spectacular city views.
If you’re looking for something a little less flash than Búzios a good option is Saquarema, a laid back beach town 100km from Rio. Well, laid back depending what day one visits.
We arrived on a Sunday and in true Brazilian style the beach was hopping. Vendors hawking ice cream and beer, lined the road fronting the sands. Nearby, bare chested grandads lounged on plastic chairs, sucking coconut milk through straws. On the white sands, families cooked up barbeques as groups of men posed in swim trunks that back in my native England would see them laughed off the beach. In the evening we joined a mob of post-beach diners in Praça Oscar Macedo where we tore into plates of greasy churrasco (grilled meats). Come Monday though, Saquarema was deserted. We had the beach to ourselves and dinner in town was a pretty lonely affair with just a few peckish dogs to keep us company.
It would be a mistake to come here with ideas of showing off your tan and tearing it up at night.
It’s not a showy kind of place and there isn’t much night life to speak of. What most people come here for is the surf. And rightly so. The breaks in Saquarema are world class and often host top level competitions. There are surf shops in town and options for rental and schooling. The area is also dotted with lakes for fishing and in the surrounding hills you can try your hand at fruit-picking and horse-riding.
The dominant man-made feature of Saquarema is the Igreja Nossa Senhora de Nazareth (The Church of Our Lady of Nazareth). Sitting proudly on a rocky headland that pokes out into the Atlantic, it’s a great area to catch a dusk breeze before seeking out your dinner.
Regular buses from Rio de Janerio (2 hours/R$15).
Bored of beaches? Can’t surf? Intimidated by all that tanned and toned muscle and cleavage? Then run to the hills and take shelter in the culture and finery of Petrópolis. The name might sound like it’s been ripped from the pages of a Marvel comic but what you get here is a coupling of Portuguese Imperialism and hearty Bavaria, in a crisp alpine setting.
At an altitude of 2,400ft, Petrópolis was established as the summer home of Emperor Pedro II and his entourage of brown-nosing aristocrats. Between them they built the palaces, mansions and churches that make Petrópolis a civilized and cultured tourist spot. From here, Rio’s sex, glamor and gun-toting misery might as well be on a different planet despite being only 44km away.
Actually, much of Petrópolis was built by German immigrants hence the Bavarian feel. There’s even a good old beer festival, Bauernfest, held every year to honor this heritage.
Item number one on most cultural check lists is the Imperial Museum, housed in the former Emperor’s palace. Inside, the usual sort of Imperial kit is topped off with a 1.7kg crown studded with over 600 diamonds and 77 peals. For a more quirky experience you can also check out the home of Santos-Dumont, the Brazilian father of aviation and inventor of the wrist watch. Other crowd pleasers include the Cathedral São Pedro de Alcântara (resting place of the Imperial family) and the French built Chrystal Palace which hosts cultural events.
If it gets too stuffy for you, lace up your boots and head out of town to explore the hiking opportunities in the surrounding mountains. Be warned though, after heavy rains, the area is prone to landslides which have taken lives as recently as March this year (2013).
Eating and sleeping is bit of a budget buster in Petrópolis (it must be trying to keep out the riff-raff) so shoe-stringers may want to keep it to a day trip.
Buses from Rio de Janerio take about 90 minutes (R$12-14). Take note; the main bus terminal for Petrópolis is some distance from the heart of town. It’s too long to walk so take a taxi or the local bus.
Further afield, but more than worth the trip, is Paraty, a small coastal town settled by the Portuguese in 1667. It’s another addition to Brazil’s enviable collection of impossibly beautiful colonial jewels. Once a port used for exporting gold to Rio it now imports a steady flow of drooling tourists, artists, chefs and Eco-warriors, and one can easily understand why.
The town and its surrounds boast an embarrassment of riches both cultural and natural. In land, Paraty is watched over by mountains covered in verdant tropical forest where waterfalls and river based adventure awaits. Mountain biking is also on offer. Out on the water, ocean goers can voyage around the bay seeking out their favorite of some 300 hundred islands, dropping anchor to dive and snorkel.
Fronting the bay is the historic area of Paraty. Closed to motor vehicles, it’s wobbly cobbled streets stumble around the town’s churches, museums and other colonial show-stoppers. In this area you’ll find art studios and galleries, together with restaurants that this writer couldn’t afford to eat in! About a 20 minute walk away from the historic center is Forte Defensor Perpétuo one of Paraty’s retired defenses and now a place to come for elevated ocean and town views.
Just a quick heads up, once a month on a full moon, high tides cause some of Paraty’s historic streets to flood. There’s no need for alarm but you may find yourself teetering over some precarious make-shift bridges!
There’s loads of accommodation in Paraty. The further away from the action you get, the cheaper it is so spend thrifts will find themselves with bit of a trek into town.
Buses from Rio de Janerio take 4 hours (R$40). Paraty is about as far away from the city as you can get whilst still being in Rio de Janerio state. Try to get on the left side of the bus for the journey here to enjoy amazing Costa Verde (Green Coast) views.
Author’s note – At the time of writing 1 Brazilian Real (R$) = 0.5 U.S. Dollars.