Seeking shelter from a tropical downpour, I hide – unsuccessfully – under a sprawling jucara palm. Although it can house up to 62 species, today its feather-thin fronds do little to protect me from heavy falls.
But Brazil’s native tree champions in many other ways, biologist and guide Samiris Freire assures me during a walk through an agroforest in southwestern Brazil. Unlike single-stemmed palms, its edible inner core can be harvested multiple times, while its purple fruits contain more antioxidants than the superfood acai.
Weird and wonderful ingredients are constantly being discovered in this South American country. But now, appreciation of Brazil’s natural riches extends beyond the Amazon rainforest to focus on neighboring biomes.
In 2019, the regions of Paraty and Ilha Grande, halfway between the major cities of Rio and Sao Paulo, obtained Unesco status for their culture and biodiversity.
A 20-minute drive from Paraty, the former 17th-century sugar cane plantation Fazenda Bananal is one of many ecotourism projects aimed at opening visitors’ eyes to the beauty of the region and teaching about its protection for generations to come.
Much of the 180-hectare farm, bought and restored by billionaire Jose Roberto Marinho, vice president of media group Globo and an active philanthropist, is dedicated to agroforestry – the trending practice of bridging the gap between agriculture and forestry by growing vegetables. , fruits and trees on the same ground.
Unlike the threat of soy monoculture which is responsible for destroying large swaths of Brazil’s natural habitat, it defends biodiversity, preserves forests and provides a more affordable food source for communities.
Despite teeming with as many endemic plants and animals as the Amazon, the Atlantic Forest is woefully neglected, complains Samiris. Largely because an alarming 90% of the tree cover, which once covered eastern Brazil, has been lost since the 16th century when the Portuguese arrived.
What remains, however, is impressive and still worth saving.
Walking along a short path that winds around the back of the property, I crane my head to see dozens of bromeliads trailing from the treetops. Several times I catch sight of the Brazilian tanager as its vermilion breast feathers flash like sparks from a fire in the deep, dark canopy.
Later, I am shown camera trap images of crabeater foxes, agoutis, lesser anteaters, and even the rare jaguarundi – a thin, elusive wildcat native to the Americas.
As Samaris rightly points out: “It’s like the sea – there are still so many unknowns.”
Ironically, the sea has always played an important role in this region.
Originally inhabited by indigenous Guaiana Indians, Paraty (meaning “river of fish” in the local language) was commandeered by Portuguese explorers in 1597. It rose to prominence almost 100 years later, after to have become a focal point of the Rota do Ouro, transporting gold from Minas Gerais and shipping it to Rio and then to Europe.
Red pillars marking the route still line corkscrew mountain roads in the museum’s port city, where – despite a tumultuous past of rising and falling fortunes, with sugar, coffee and slaves traded afterwards – many many of the original pastel-hued stone buildings still exist.
Another return from the past is the intentional flooding of the city.
When I arrive at 5 p.m., a high tide has transformed Party into a mini Venice. Ornate metal pineapples decorating the facades — once a symbol of wealth — are reflected alongside towering palm trees in glassy pools, making this tropical colonial centerpiece appear to float on water.
The buildings were built slightly lower than sea level, with concave streets to allow water to drain and cleanse the city, says local guide Priscila Albernaz Maciel of Paraty Tours. Literally, it was a mega way to flush the toilet.
Although the history of the Portuguese presence is well documented, it is much more difficult to find evidence of the indigenous and African communities that played an important – and tragic – role in Paraty’s past.
But as the sun sets, leaving a whisper of mountain folds on the horizon, the town transforms into an open-air art fair, with local artisans from a nearby quilombo – an African diaspora community – selling woven baskets. Their wares are a window into a culture that tourists too often inadvertently overlook.
Paraty at night (Sarah Marshall/PA)
Once a center of trade and commerce, Paraty now nurtures more creative talent.
In the 1970s, movie stars, artists and musicians rediscovered the city, transforming the buildings into cafes, restaurants, bars and boutique hotels. But a wealthier group, who moved in more recently, have locked themselves in private homes around the bay.
Strolling past party ships moored along the pier, I board Latitude, a former fishing boat skippered by sailing veteran Andre Soares.
During our five-hour day trip along the coastline of Serra da Bocaina National Park, I explore secret bays backed by mountains choked with jungle broccoli florets and weave through islands belonging to the ever-growing number of Brazilian billionaires.
In Jurumirim, I swim in jade-green waters, watch turtles surface to breathe in the mangroves, and rest on a deserted beach dotted with pink hibiscus flowers. Atop the hills above me, where ruined forts once defended the coastline against invading gold-hungry pirates, several refined gentlemen play golf.
Before heading back to town, we drop anchor off a private island, where a wealthy philanthropist has obtained a government license to raise a population of endangered golden tamarin monkeys.
As frigatebirds soar overhead, the palm-sized, red-maned creatures that once roamed the Atlantic Forest scurry into view.
Sitting in silence, I dare not breathe for fear of scaring them away. Worth more than any precious metal, they are a poignant indication of Paraty’s future.
Located in the historic center of Paraty, the restored boutique hotel Pousada Literaria has a million stories to tell – many of which are stored in the pages of books displayed in each room. Official host of the city’s annual literary festival (usually held in July), the 25-room property is owned by Jose Roberto Marinho, who is also in charge of Fazenda Bananal.
Farm cheeses are served at breakfast, either around the heated swimming pool or in the library. Stick around for dinner at the Quintal das Letras restaurant, which serves an upscale farm-to-table menu.
An ideal base for exploring the city, the hotel can also organize boat trips to the national park. Visit pousadaliteraria.com.br
Taking advantage of ingredients grown in their agroforests, Fazenda Bananal (fazendabananal.com.br/mains from R$58/£9.50) serves a seasonal menu of intriguing dishes including charred bananas, mashed yucca and oven-baked heart of palm. It’s the perfect place for a crash course in the excellent and unusual gastronomy that earned Paraty Unesco status three years ago.
In the historic center, Pupu’s, founded by a celebrity chef, is the place to try seafood. Quirky renditions of sushi rolls, poke bowls and ceviche are served by tattooed waiters at tables scattered around around a trendy terrace dotted with plants. Rua Mal Santos Dias, 22/mains from R$65/£10.50.
Co-owned by Sandi Adamiu, one of Paraty’s most colorful characters, the equally exuberant Apothekario cocktail bar attracts a hip and creative clientele. Order a Jorge Amado – a cocktail created in honor of the great Brazilian writer, made with Gabriela, a local cinnamon and clove liqueur infused in cachaca. A gallery selling prints of 18th- and 19th-century lithographs of animals and plants found in the Atlantic Forest generates excitement for hikes in the park. Rua do Comercio, 245.
Cox & Kings (coxandkings.co.uk; 03330 603 303) offers a seven-night trip to Paraty from £2,599 pp (two sharing). Includes flights, transfers, guide and accommodation at Pousada Literária de Paraty when staying in a B&B suite.
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