I’ve a feeling we’re not in Copacabana anymore,” I remark to the stray dog strolling past me on the sand. The hulls of the wooden fishing boats may say ‘Rio de Janeiro’ but that sprawling, chaotic city – its beaches busy with volleyball players, bikini-clad poseurs and men with iceboxes hawking quejo, limonade, água – couldn’t feel further away from the tiny village of Picinguaba.
Here, my only other company on the beach is a trio of overall-clad fishermen harvesting mussels by the water’s edge. Yet Rio and São Paulo are both less than four hours’ drive away – a stone’s throw by Brazilian standards.
Like much of Brazil, this stretch of coast – the first place the Portuguese dropped anchor 500 years ago – is not exactly pretty so much as breathtakingly lush and wild. Thick jungle spills down to meet the jade sea, all that green broken only by a 3km strip of sand and a smattering of houses painted in tropical fruit shades, as if this might trick the jungle into letting them remain.There’s just one hotel in town, and fortunately it’s a brilliant one. The boutique Pousada Picinguaba has an infinity pool overlooking the beach and a hammock on the balcony of each room – both good places to chill out between boat trips to nearby islands, kayaking or caipirinha mixology workshops.
Drive half an hour up the coast and you’ll arrive in Paraty, the picturesque colonial town where cobbled lanes and brightly painted, shuttered houses leave a bittersweet taste; the state of São Paulo grew rich on sugar and slaves, plying the latter with cachaça to make them more submissive. My guide Harry points out four churches that served the different factions of a strictly divided community – “rich whites, whites, slaves and freed slaves” – and a stable-like building where arrivals off the slavers’ ships were kept. It’s a sordid past that’s hard to reconcile with the beautiful surroundings.
Thick jungle spills down to meet the jade sea, all that green broken only by a 3km strip of sand
When Brazil’s sugar economy crumbled in the late 17th century under competition from the Caribbean, attention turned instead to gold, and then to coffee. Fazenda Catuçaba is one of many former coffee plantations you’ll spot in the state’s rugged, high-altitude interior, but the only one that has been transformed into a sustainable tourism retreat.
Hotel would be the wrong word for this place – it’s a working organic farm with 450 hectares of land and the relaxed, communal feel of a homestay. Baskets of fresh fruit and vegetables sit beside antique scales and silverware on rustic wooden tables in the dining room, while mid-century seating surrounds a log-burning fire in the lounge. The 19th-century telephone on the dining room wall is indicative of Catuçaba’s take on technology: there’s no mobile phone signal and Wi-Fi is patchy.
Instead, the idea is to switch off and enjoy simpler pleasures, such as horse riding, tree planting, hiking, lake swimming, cookery classes, and tucking into epic meals.
Breakfast alone consists of banana bread, pão de queijo (a kind of cheesy dough ball that you’ll find everywhere in Brazil), jams, cheese and juices – all of it homemade – plus honey from the Fazenda’s beehives and eggs from the resident hens. They’re even set to start harvesting their own coffee crop next year.
Of course, ‘eco’ is a fashionable prefix these days, but there’s a very real need for this sort of project here: 85% of the Atlantic Forest, in which Catuçaba stands, has been destroyed in the past 500 years. Consider that it contains a similar level of biodiversity as the Amazon, despite being a fraction of the size, and the loss is even more worrying.
Across the border in Minas Gerais state, the team at Reserva do Ibitipoca is on a similar mission to undo a lot of the damage done by deforestation, hunting and urbanisation. The luxurious lakeside ranch where guests stay (think: weekend retreat of that Brazilian billionaire you happen to be mates with) is just the tip of a very big, very green iceberg; a 4,000-hectare nature reserve of waterfalls, forested valleys, lakes and quartzite quarries.
While resident conservationists are hard at work on their breeding programme for the critically endangered Muriqui monkey (no mean feat due to the Houdini-esque elusiveness of the only local female) and reintroducing regionally extinct species, I shed my urban inhibitions for a hack on a snow-white Anglo-Arabian mare, an ice-cold dip in a natural pool, and a pre-breakfast bird-watching trip. For those of us accustomed to seeing nothing more than scruffy pigeons, Ibitipoca’s hummingbirds, saffron finches and palm-sized electric blue butterflies are well worth the early start.
I shed my urban inhibitions for a hack on a snow-white Anglo-Arabian mare, an ice-cold dip in a natural pool
After a few days in this eden, drifting between yoga classes and the sunken outdoor Jacuzzi, the prospect of returning to Rio is, frankly, a bit terrifying. The brutalist jumble of terracotta and grey, the traffic and the noise – how would I handle it?
Well, one strategy is to throw yourself into the other extreme with a night at the grandest granddaddy of Rio hotels, Copacabana Palace. It’s home to the most famous Carnival party, the Magic Ball (for 2016 there’s an Olympic theme, naturally), as well as suites that dwarf my entire London flat, and the 4km beach on its doorstep will be the site of the Olympic beach volleyball arena, plus marathon swimming, triathlon and Paralympic marathon events this summer.
There’s really nothing to be done but order a caipirinha and let the madness begin.
Original Travel offers 15 nights in Brazil from £4,795 per person. This includes three nights B&B at the Belmont Copacabana Palace, a rio city tour, three nights full-board at Fazenda Catuçaba and four nights half-board at Posada Picinguaba, plus transfers. Return flights from London Heathrow to São Paulo cost from £576 with TAM Airlines. Book via Tam.com.br