Strolling through Paraty feels a little like you're revisiting a bygone era – horse-drawn-carts jolt their way along cobblestone streets, boats hover patiently on pretty shores and life centers around a cluster of white-stone houses etched with Masonic symbols. It’s about switching off and tuning out here, and with 300 beaches, acres of waterfall-laden rainforest and a network of hiking and cycling trails all within easy reach, you won’t struggle to do so.
A view of Paraty from the water © Karol Kozlowski / Getty Images
History and culture are in abundance in this colorful Brazilian port town, which was at the center of the gold rush in the 18th century. A hundred years later, it fell into a state of abandon with just 600 inhabitants, but the region found new life in the 1970s following the creation of a new highway. Today it combines its history with a culture scene home to eclectic boutiques, homey pousadas and a handful of live music bars that have an unexpected energy when darkness falls.
Outside town you’ll find an abundance of natural attractions, including remote islands and lush, emerald rainforest – read on to find out some of our highlights.
Paraty's town center is full of fascinating history © Maria Swärd / Getty Images
Wander the colonial streets
Paraty’s historic, pedestrian-only center is worthy of some exploration time, with rows upon rows of white-stone buildings lining giant cobblestone streets, each marked out with brightly colored door frames. Cars aren’t allowed here, meaning wandering along its giant, wobbly cobbles is happily serene. There’s a string of historic sites to check out, including the 17th-century Our Lady of the Remedies church, built with mustard yellow stone originally shipped over from Portugal in exchange for gold.
Most intriguing are the mysterious symbols which adorn many of the buildings, harking back to the 18th century when Masons came seeking freedom of thought in this then-isolated fishing village. Hourglasses, triangles and other messages relating to the magic number three mark out the houses that were occupied by these illustrious figures, and today the whole scene remains much unchanged, with buildings across the historical centre protected by IPHAN.
The town takes on quite a different face at high tide, though, when water rushes in from the sea and locals cross over mini bridges to get from one side of the cobbled paths to the other – you might even see the odd crab ducking in and out of the cracks.
People drink wine and play music in the streets of Paraty © Christian Heeb / Getty Images
See some live Brazilian music
Paraty is known for its creative scene, and music is the soul of the place come evening. You’ll find a number of bars and restaurants hosting bands, including Paraty 33, a cavernous, wood-bedecked spot which packs out every night. This establishment serves traditional Brazilian dishes to a backdrop of live acoustic and other genres in a cozy ambiance. Round the corner, Margarida Cafe is just as lively, hosting a busy schedule of performers with music ranging from tango and jazz to samba and bossa nova.
But you don’t even have to find a venue to hear the strum of a guitar – every evening the main square fills with passers-by dancing samba while buskers play, and if you’re not one for the dancing shoes, watching is just as entertaining.
Ride a jeep into the rainforest
If you’re looking to venture beyond the town, the forest awaits. Among the region’s most captivating sights is the Serra da Bocaina National Park, which sits within the Atlantic Rainforest and is chock-full of head-turning scenery that spans verdant, rolling hills to great, tumbling waterfalls (there are more than 80).
A number of operators in town offer jeep tours to explore it, including Paraty Adventure, who take you to the Pedra Branca (White Stone) fall, a frothing plume of white water cascading down sand-colored rocks. The falls are located alongside two traditional cachaca distilleries where the local drink speciality ‘Gabriela’ (sweet cachaca flavored with clove and cinnamon) is served with the type of warm, welcoming passion only Brazilians know how to pull off.
Explore the lush forests neighboring Paraty © Laura French / Lonely Planet
Walk the historic Gold Trail
Elsewhere in the rainforest you’ll find the Caminho do Ourho, the ‘Gold Trail,’ which first put this town on Brazil's map. Built by slaves in the 18th century, this iconic, stone-paved route was used to transport gold from mines in the south to Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, and was responsible for establishing Paraty as the region’s key commercial center (and the primary port for shipping gold over to Portugal).
Today Paraty Tours and other operators lead guided walks along sections of the trail (now a cluster of rocks peeping out from beneath wisps of tree bark and luminescent leaves), while giving insightful commentary on the fascinating, if turbulent, story behind it all.
Sail to castaway islands
More than 65 islands scatter the waters surrounding Paraty, and exploring them by schooner or speedboat is one of the most popular activities for visitors.
The Saco do Mamanguá fjords are especially enchanting, with green-carpeted hills and rippling jade waters flanking islands that look distinctly castaway-like. Paraty Tours offers a half-day speedboat trip whisking you to three of the area's highlights – Praia do Engenho, Praia Ponta do Costa and Praia do Cruzeiro – each with tropical palms bordering shallow, snorkel-friendly waters.
Take a boat tour to some of the nearby islands for an afternoon in the sun © Bertrand Gardel / Getty Images
Visit Praia do Sono
For an ultra secluded alternative, head to Praia do Sono. The beach is accessible via a 1.5-hour walking trail through the forest from Laranjeiras (accessed by bus from Paraty), but it’s well worth the effort. Picture a curved stretch of unspoiled, talcum-white sand tucked between sweeping mountains and curaçao-colored sea, nigh-on empty bar a few determined souls.
Get a massage with mountain views
Rio State isn’t averse to the odd downpour, so if you’re looking for some wet weather entertainment, try the Shambhala Spa. Set in a serene location overlooking the mountains and Jabaquara Bay, this peaceful, Balinese-style retreat offers various Asian-inspired massages in calming, fragrant surrounds, and there’s even a gazebo out in the gardens for those looking to get closer to nature.
It makes for a pretty idyllic end to an active day, and the massages are about as close to authentic Bali as you can get in, er, Brazil – with added South American suave, of course.
Laura French travelled to Paraty with support from TurisRio (Rio State Tourism Board). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.