Brazil: Colonial Paraty

Visiting Paraty feels like catapulting back into colonial Brazil. This former Portuguese port town is lined with cobbled streets, old churches and white casas – and no cars – all nestled between sandy beaches, remote islands and forest-covered mountains along Brazil’s lush ‘Green Coast’.

It is simply stunningly beautiful and an absolutely essential stop for travellers in Brazil, especially if you’re in Rio de Janeiro, which is around 3 hours’ drive away.

Cobbled streets and colonial buildings

One of the wonderful things about visiting Paraty (sometimes spelled Parati, meaning “river of fish” in the native Tupi language) is that it requires absolutely no effort whatsoever, while you’re trying to enjoy a relaxing holiday, to wander lazily through cobbled streets and soak up the surrounding history in your own sweet time.

Cars aren’t allowed into the historic centre, which is a fairly small area. It takes a few hours at most to explore. The winding streets often have horses and carts parading around as if it’s 1750, and they offer rides to weary tourists.

My best advice is to grab a map and just wander around. Paraty is very safe and it’s nearly impossible to get lost. But beware: the historic town, though popular and well-preserved, isn’t very well sign-posted. There is a tourist information centre opposite the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário e São Benedito, but I didn’t find them to be especially knowledgeable. TripAdvisor and your hotel are probably better options for getting reliable information. I did see historical walking tours advertised, but annoyingly just as I was leaving Paraty.

Colonial town = old churches.

There are four historic churches around the town. The Capela de Santa Rita is the oldest, built in 1722, and sits overlooking the harbour (it’s the church on all the postcards, in the photo at the very top of this page). The next two are survivors of segregated colonial society. The pretty Capela de Nossa Senhora das Dores (below) was built around 1800 for the white elite.

In contrast, the Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário e São Benedito (below) was built in 1725 by and for the use of slaves. It’s much smaller and has a more simple design, situated on one of the town’s main streets (Rua do Comércio). It was closed when I visited in August 2014.

The fourth, and by far the largest, overlooks a square next to the river. According to legend, the Igreja Matriz da Nossa Senhora dos Remédios (below) was financed by pirate treasure discovered on the nearby Praia Trinidade. We entered for R$3; it’s not exactly the Vatican but interesting to see the spread of Catholicism in the New World.

There’s also an old jail (below) next to the Capela de Santa Rita at the harbour. It’s now a
library and free to enter. A sign inside tells you the jail was built on the site of the 18th-century Patitiba Fortress barracks, and was the town’s small public jail until 1980.

Trade along the Gold Trail

Paraty’s story is all about gold. After its discovery in Minas Gerais at the end of the 17th century, gold exports began to flow rapidly from Brazil’s interior via the 1200-km “Caminho do Ouro” (Gold Trail) all the way to the coast, to be shipped to Portugal and elsewhere. Paraty’s prime Atlantic location meant it became the starting point for the original road – the Caminho Velho – which began construction at the hands of imported African slaves in 1697. Paraty then flourished as a major port town during the gold rush of the 18th century.

Some of the original Gold Trail has been excavated and is available for tourists to see; you can go hiking or take half-day guided tours there (for example with Paraty Explorer). I didn’t have time to do this, sadly.

Pirate attacks!

The gold and wealth flowing through Paraty attracted pirates, who were able to hide in the many coves and inlets. Unfortunately for Paraty, the frequent pirate attacks meant that an alternate overland route to Rio de Janeiro became preferable, and the town’s economic status fell into decline.

Of the seven forts in Paraty’s bay (most of which are now ruins), the Forte Defensor Perpétuo is the easiest to visit. It’s located on a hill on the northern side of the town, around 10 minutes’ walk from the centre. Cross the river heading towards Jabaquara, and look for a sign (pictured) with a small path uphill, which leads to the fort.

Built in 1703, today you can check out its cannons and defensive wall – as well as the fabulous views over the town and surrounding bay. It’s the perfect spot to visualise the trade ships flowing in and out of Paraty’s port, filled with gold and slaves, and to marvel at the incredible mountains, bays, and islands surrounding the town.

When I visited in August 2014 the small museum was closed, which, on the plus side, meant the visit was free of charge.

Top tips: travelling & sleeping

  • You only need one or two days to see Paraty if you’re on a rushed timetable. If you have more time, it’s a lovely place to relax on the beach, and incredibly safe compared with Brazil’s big cities.
  • Paraty is a popular stop on the tourist trail, but given Brazil’s enormous size and relatively poor infrastructure, the only way to get there is by road, which takes 3 hours from Rio de Janeiro or around 5 hours from São Paulo. I found Brazilian buses to be frequent, reliant and pretty comfortable. Note that when booking online you are usually given a voucher, to be exchanged for a ticket at the bus station. Renting a car is another option, but given what I saw in terms of signage and traffic chaos in Brazil’s big cities, I wouldn’t recommend it for first-time travellers to Brazil.
  • If you want to stay on a beach, note that the town’s beach isn’t good for swimming; it’s still mainly a port. A much better bet is staying at Jabaquara beach, around 20 minutes’ walk from the historic centre of Paraty. Jabaquara is a long sandy strip overlooking islands and jungled mountains, and filled with colourful beach bars and restaurants, and often with wild (and seemingly tame) horses roaming the area.
  • I stayed at an absolutely gorgeous “pousada” (guesthouse) called Fruta da Terra, around five minutes’ walk from Jabaquara beach. Although around 35 minutes’ walk into Paraty itself, it was worth it to wander home surrounded by chickens and wild horses, mountains and the sea.

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