Nearly everyone who visits Rio has a favorite place to escape from the hectic pace of city life. Whether it’s Pão de Açúcar, Floresta da Tijuca or Morro Dois Irmãos, the city is surrounded by tranquil retreats and stunning views. However, there is one day trip getaway that seems to be more of a local secret than tourist staple, the mellow island of Paquetá.
Ilha da Paquetá is just over an hour’s ferry-ride away from Praça XV in the city center; but once you step off the ferry, you might think you’ve stepped back in time. There are no cars, so visitors and locals alike traverse the island by bicycle or electric golf cart. Many of the buildings have retained their colonial facades, painted faded pastel pinks, blues, yellows and greens.
During its history, Paquetá has seen its fortunes rise and fall. Originally settled by indigenous Brazilians, it was claimed by the French in 1556. After the French abandoned their colonial interests in Brazil, rich Portuguese aristocrats and slave owners populated the island, with Emperor Dom João VI even reportedly holidaying on the island. Paquetá is now home to around 3-4000 permanent residents, with many cariocas visiting over the weekends for an almost-instant change of pace from the sprawling metropolis of Rio de Janeiro.
The island is small, around 1.2 sq km (0.46 sq miles) in size, but it has a lot to offer the curious day-tripper or weekend visitor besides its tranquil atmosphere and comparatively safe streets. The first thing to do is to get a bicycle. While tourist golf-cart taxis and other means of transport are available, the island is the perfect size for biking.
The main street directly in front of the ferry dock has excellent bike rental shops – like Paquetá Bike – that offer reasonable rentals by the hour or for the whole day. Many of the small hotels and Airbnb rentals will also offer a bike as part of your stay.
Finding the culture of Paquetá
The island may be small in size but it boasts a lively cultural scene, with a locally-printed magazine, a great website, cultural center, and regular food festivals and musical events. During Carnival, Paquetá is the destination for a special bloco (Carnival street party) while locals also throw their own parties, including one bloco just for dogs.
Casa de Artes Paquetá is well-worth a visit; the faded orange period house has been beautifully restored, and it now regularly hosts concert recitals, live Brazilian music and even a cineclube (film club). Their Arte & Gula Café is another quality locale where visitors can sample some delicious home-made food and take in the views of Guanabara bay.
Paquetá also comes to life for Festa de São Roque, held on the weekend following August 16 every year, with live music, fireworks and a religious procession through the streets. Another good date to visit is at the end of June, when the fishers of the island pay tribute to Saint Peter with a maritime procession and plenty of festivities.
Get outside and take in the view
Darke de Mattos, Paquetá’s municipal park situated on the southern tip of the island, is a perfect place to start off any visit to the island. Unlike some of the public parks in Rio de Janeiro, Darke de Mattos is well-maintained and safe, with wonderful views of the entire Guanabara Bay. There are places to picnic, short trails leading to elevated viewpoints, tunnels, caves and even a beach. Plus, it's only a quick bike ride away from the ferry terminal.
Rio de Janeiro is famous for its beaches, but unfortunately the water in the bay that surrounds Paquetá is often polluted. While it is not recommended to swim after heavy rain or near any sewage pipes, the city of Rio currently advises that Praia da Imbuca, Praia da Moreninha and Praia de José Bonifacio on Paquetá are all suitable for bathers. Visitors can always consult the website Praia Limpa, which uses up-to-date data from INEA, the local environment agency, to check the cleanliness of the water. If you'd rather not take the chance in the water, the beaches themselves are idyllic and clean.
Best places to eat
Not widely known as a culinary hotspot, Paquetá has a surprising number of excellent restaurants and cafes. Confeitaria Bodega de Paqueta, on Pinheiro Freire, serves delicious cakes and sweets in its cozy shop.
The nearby Zeca’s Restaurante on Praça Bom Jesus is often rated the best restaurant on the island, competing in the city’s culinary Comida Di Buteco competition, and serving traditional Brazilian barbecue and seafood. It also has live music from Friday to Sunday.
Perhaps the best kept secret of the island is Casa da Noca. Open from Friday to Sunday, the house doubles as a bed and breakfast, cafe and late-night live music spot. The drinks are delectable, made with artisanal ingredients, as are the snacks, such as the outstanding pizza árabe.
Where to stay
For those looking to stay the night, the previously mentioned Casa da Noca is an excellent option. Otherwise there is the charming pousada (bed and breakfast) Hospedaria Santa Bárbara, which has three boutique suites and an intimate atmosphere, or the more traditional Hotel Lido Paquetá. There are also a number of short-term rentals across the island.