Hot on the heels of our rain-soaked days on Ilha Grande, we arrived in the historic colonial town of Paraty in weather almost as sodden. It was as if mother nature refused to show us how stunning this part of Brazil really can appear. Instead, we were presented with rain clouds and muted colours in what still is an enchanting World Heritage locale.
The main part of town looks just like any other, but take one step into the cobbled tangle of streets in Centro Histórico and it transports you back a few centuries.
No traffic other than pedestrian, bike or horse-drawn carriage can enter the town centre, where you see streets set with 17th and 18th-century buildings all rendered in white plaster, colourful details and overhanging balconies.
The gold rush in mountainous Minas Gerais is what made Paraty thrive back in the late 1600’s, when it became an export port for the precious metal for Rio and Portugal. When the gold dwindled, so did Paraty, until the coffee trade came along in the early 19th century and then the production of cachaça later on.
Today the cachaça is still in production, but the town’s lifeblood is tourism.
Walk the cobbled streets in Centro Histórico and you quickly notice those gorgeous colonial buildings are home to a lot of artisanal stores geared for the tourist. Galleries, handicrafts, jewellery and many consumables like preserves, sweets and beverages.
One place that got our attention is Ervas Medicinais, a small shop that specialises in dried herbs and spices used both medicinally, and in cooking.
It can be found just outside the historic centre at a small local feira (market) that’s mainly clothing, plus a small eatery at its heart.
I’m sure the guy that owns it could explain what each dried herb, spice or flower is for, but with our lack of Portuguese and his lack of English, things were a bit of a guessing game. Still, it sure is feast for the eyes – and nose.
If you’re into your cachaça (sugarcane spirit), there are a couple of well-stocked providores in the historic centre that are well worth poking around. They’ll even let you taste some. Paraty is Brazil’s capital of cachaça, after all, so you have to try the stuff.
Not just cachaça here, either, as there are plenty of preserves, condiments, chocolates and pickled chillies in decorative bottles to be purchased.
The one with the most variety has to be Empório Santo Antonio, which takes a sizeable corner space near the large church on Praça da Matriz.
You’ll find just about anything on its many shelves laden with things like jams, chocolates, cachaça, pasta, drinks, tinned goods – even cachaça jellies. Loved those jellies!
Aside from shopping, there’s a great selection of restaurants, cafes and bars in and around Centro Histórico. Prices tend to increase as soon as you set foot on the cobblestones, so for cheaper eats, I’d say seek out something just west of the old part of town.
For a fix on either gelato or Illy espresso, Pistache has things covered. Sit inside, perch on a window stool or balance it out on the cobblestones and watch the world go by.
Great place to linger when it’s raining, as was the case with us.
More coffee can be found a couple of blocks west of Centro Histórico, served up on a small wooden paddle with carbonated water and a nice little chunk of brownie.
The menu touches on simple breakfasts in the morning, to wraps and burgers during the day. And it wouldn’t have sucos in it’s name without serving fresh juices – there’s a great selection here.
Hmm, maybe we should have tried the açaí with banana and honey, too.
They may not stand by their advertised opening times – this is Brazil, after all – but when Cafe Pingado does open its doors, the espresso is worth waiting for. There’s tea and six varieties of hot chocolate, as well. One with brandy, or cinnamon or the submarino – a glass of hot milk with a chunk of dark chocolate lurking below.
The set-up is rustic, the service is also on Brazilian time and some of those cakes and pastries on the counter sure are tempting. We didn’t get as far as the food, but expect to see sandwiches and home cooking on the menu.
Our favourite cafe in Paraty was this – Istanbul – and it wasn’t even for the coffee. Although I did try one of their Turkish coffees, which is the real deal.
Any guesses what Istanbul is all about? Yep, you got it – Turkish food. Man, what a refreshing change from two months of Brazilian food.
These guys make just about everything they serve up. From the hummus, the baba ghanoush, to the flatbread that’s made to order. That’s right, they roll out the dough and pan-fry it before your eyes. Who does that!
And it’s so cheap.
The first time we visited – yes we went a couple of times – I swooned over the Taksim (25). A shallow bowl of creamy hummus topped with grilled meat, drizzled with tahini and served up with freshly made flatbread. There’s even pul biber (Turkish red pepper) sprinkled over the top.
The Tavuk kebab (20) is a beauty, as well, loaded up with orange-marinated chicken and salad. Washed down with a mango lassi ( I know, not Turkish).
Second time ’round we had to revisit the taksim (yes, it was that good), plus the tapete voador (30) – which means flying carpet. There’s baba ghanoush, hummus, tahini, kofte, tabouli and flatbread. You can have it with falafel, rather than kofte, if you like.
Located in the same small shopping centre as Istanbul is this little joint. This was the second time I’d seen a pastelaría that specified it was Chinese – so I decided to go in for a closer look.
Turns out there are only five ‘Chinês’ pastels available, none of which were any different to the regular Brazilian varieties. That said, the one I tried was pretty tasty – freshly fried and filled with spiced shredded chicken and cheese.
Anyone wanting to escape Paraty for stretches of powdery sand and rainforest that literally plunges into the ocean from hills and mountains, then a trip down to Trindade ought to be on the agenda. There are a couple of beaches in Paraty – one by the main wharf and another one with kiosks and seating on the other side of the canal – but the best ones are out of town near Trindade.
Yes, the weather kind of sucked when we took the local bus down, but it was as beautiful as ever and you don’t even have to take a dip to appreciate it all.
Trindade is a bit of a ramshackle village with a string of accommodation and eateries lining its main thoroughfare, with not a great deal to see or do to keep you there for hours.
Praia de Fora is the main beach by the village, but take a 10 minute walk around the small headland and you reach the smaller Praia do Moro, that’s heaving with locals soaking up the experience. Take another 5 or 10 minute walk over a small steep hill and you get to the much quieter, if not deserted, Praia Cachadasso.
There’s even a guy strategically located at the bottom of the steep hill, offering cold drinks and skewers of grilled cheese from a chiller box and makeshift griller box.
Back in Trindade, we stopped into Restaurante Larica for lunch and took advantage of the cheap daily special they had featured on the sandwich board outside.
Fried squid with chips (33) and fried fish with chips (20) – both single portions as opposed to the rest of the menu that’s designed for two. Probably should have gone with the menu as the squid and fish were terribly overcooked and tough. Nice to crunch into the fresh salad, though.
Thanks to the rain clearing a little, the historic centre of Paraty showed a lot more life than the rainy night prior. People were all over the place, walking around, sitting at outdoor restaurants, bars and the praça.
One of the busiest places in town in the evenings is Praça da Matriz, a block-sized park shaded by mature trees and flanked by the church and many resto-bars with tables and chairs out on the cobbled streets.
A few vendors are out selling popcorn, fried chunks of pork and churros. For us boozers there’s a handful of portable bars that can knock together a cheap cocktail in a large plastic cup, best enjoyed on a step or park bench as you sit and take in the lively atmosphere.
Another little place we tried for drinks was Cana da Praça, a small bar that specialises in cachaça. There’s plenty of seating outside on the cobbles, but thanks to ordering the 2 for R$20 caipirinhas, we had to stand or sit inside at the bar and sip from plastic cups.
A bit of a bargain, even if they were happy to have empty tables outside while we were cooped up inside.
While we’re on the topic of cheap caipirinhas, this tiny place near our hostel did 2 x 500ml caipirinhas for $R30 between 6pm and 8pm. Unbeatable value and made with tasty cachaça that’s distilled locally up in the hills.
To soak up some of that booze, they cook up a burger/sandwich that seemed very popular with locals dropping in for a takeaway.
For those of you that like a heavy dose of rock music, then Pimenta Buteco e Gastronomia is one to visit. There’s just one decibel setting for the stereo at this place, and it isn’t on the lower end at this pub-style eatery.
The owner is impossibly friendly, speaks English and even makes his own cachaça – which he brought over for us to sample. Very nice stuff!
Appetites weren’t all that high on that particular evening, so along with a couple of beers we nibbled on pasteis pimento buteco (28.9) – a variety of pastels filled with either catupiry cheese, feijoada or shrimp.
The bolinho de feijoada (35.9) – croquettes filled with feijoada, collard greens and salted pork – were out of this world.
Head to Van Gogh on most nights of the week and you can sink back into the colourful surroundings and soak up some live music. This bar and burger restaurant gets cranking pretty late, so if a quiet night is more your thing, get in early before the crowds and before the live music sets in.
The menu is kept real simple. A handful of burgers and great choice of drinks – perfect combo for an evening of entertainment. Dinner for us – the chivito Uruguayo (26); beef fillet, cheese, bacon, egg etc and la maldita (24); beef patty, cheese, bacon, avocado & salad.
The sad part? The 5 or 6 meagre potato wedges that come with it. Quantity control is pretty tight here.
For something a little more generous, there’s a good selection of local fare at Boteco da Matriz right by the church. All the local faves are on the menu, plus pastas, seafood and a damn good caipirinha.
The whole restaurant was ours for most of the evening, maybe something to do with having dinner before 8 pm. A hefty and tasty mound of au frutos do mar (36.9) – spaghetti with seafood for me – and frango à passarinho (29.9) – Brazilian fried chicken for Dean. Very odd cuts of chicken topped with a little fried garlic. Not sure what made it Brazilian as it was literally bits of chicken deep-fried with no seasoning.
We had our first taste of them on Ilha Grande, and here we were seeing even more of them in Paraty. At least four dessert trailers were parked on different corners in the historic centre, all selling similar type cakes like traditional Brazilian cheesecake topped with passionfruit or bolo cenoura (carrot cake).
I swear, I’m adopting this concept and setting up my own dessert trailer at home in Sydney.
One final place that deserves a mention is Malagueta, located out of Centro Histórico in the main commercial part of town. There are over 30 wood-fired pizza varieties for those that like Brazilian pizza, but for us it was frango milanesa (27.9); crumbed chicken and bisteca com couve (18.9); a juicy pork chop with kale and fries.
Pretty food value, quality ingredients and a crunchy salad on the side. Win win all ’round.
It isn’t just beautiful beaches that you can see around Paraty. A lot of hotels, hostels and agencies can organise a jeep tour that takes you into the mountains to visit waterfalls and give you time to take a dip if you want to. It was a little on the chilly side when we did the tour, so no swimming for us.
First stop is at the Pedra Branca Cachaça distillery where you learn how these guys started out, how cachaça is made and what it’s all about. They also have an onsite store where you can sample the varieties of cachaça they produce, and even take home a bottle or two.
My favourite cachaça? The one distilled with cloves and cinnamon – called Gabriela. Paraty has its own unique cocktail called the Jorge Amado which mixes Gabriela with passionfruit and fresh lemon – very drinkable and a touch on the spicy side. Absolutely delicious.
Just by Cachoeira do Tobogã (Toboggan Waterfall) is the tours lunch stop – at Restaurante Poço do Tarzan – a place that’s nestled into the lush rainforest by a beautiful trickling stream.
You can sit and have a drink, chow on typical Brazilian food like seafood, grilled steak or chicken or moqueca. Lunch costs extra, but the prices aren’t exorbitant.
The final stop on the tour is at a cheese shop back in Paraty. Not the hugest selection of cheeses, but the shop is well stocked with hundreds of items like fresh bread, eggs, cakes and cookies, booze, tinned palm hearts and much, much more.
We organised our tour through our hostel – Che Lagarto – which uses Land Tour Paraty. Cost is R$70 pp. It also includes a stop at Engenho D’Ouro, a second cachaça distillery that is much the same as the first. Great if you’d like to taste even more cachaça, but the visit is basically a repeat experience of Pedra Branca. We didn’t think it was necessary.
How we got from Ilha Grande to Paraty.
We used easytransferbrazil.com which is a shuttle service that runs between Rio de Janeiro and Paraty, via Ilha Grande.
We purchased their R$145 pp ticket that includes a hotel pick-up in Rio, road and boat transfer to Ilha Grande, then boat and road transfer to Paraty.