This story originally appeared in the December 2013 edition of Lonely Planet Traveller magazine.
It is early on a Saturday morning, and Rio is heading for the beach. This is a weekly event that happens with the suddenness of a fire drill: as if thousands of people had suddenly bolted from their front doors on the spur of the moment – phones off the hook, pans still on the boil – and joined the stampede to the seafront. In the blink of an eye, towels are rolled out, parasols erected.
Rio de Janeiro’s beaches are probably the most famous bits of sediment on the planet. The Pope has preached on them; world renowned songs have been written about them; some of the greatest footballers have learned their craft on this sacred sand. Copacabana may be Rio’s most well-known beach, but Ipanema is its most beautiful – a sweep of sand with a rocky headland and the granite mountains of Dois Irmãos as bookends. It is busy with activity in the mid-morning sunshine. Pastors preach to congregations in swimwear; businessman hold melting ice creams that dribble on to their laptops; old men squint at chessboards in the shade. There are more eye-catching sights too: a surfboarding dog zips past; a diver emerges from the waves with a harpoon in one hand and a fish in the other.
‘This beach is a kind of life-portrait of the city,’ says Pedro Lehner, a surfer catching waves halfway along Ipanema. ‘You see people from favelas and you see millionaires. We are all equal here – you can’t tell who is who because we’re all wearing swimwear.’
Beaches are only one part of Rio’s magnificent jigsaw of geography. From Ipanema – where concrete towers and tree-lined promenades meet the thundering waves of the Atlantic – the city spreads inland along a series of inlets and mountain ridges. Favelas tumble down the hillsides at angles of roller-coaster steepness; jungles reach high up the mountainsides, rising through the clouds, halting only at the soapstone feet of Christ the Redeemer – the statue that is the city’s most famous landmark. It looks like Rio didn’t bother to read the manual about sensible locations for urban planning: as if it can’t definitively say whether it is a city or maybe a national park.
‘Rio de Janeiro has a kind of magic in its geography,’ explains Jorge Salomão, a poet sipping a caipirinha in a bar in the Santa Teresa neighbourhood later that same afternoon. ‘It gives people here a kind of flame within them,’ he says. ‘It makes us all very happy.’
Looking around the bar, it’s clear that a second mass migration of the day is underway – when beachgoers gravitate to the city’s bars (spreading a trail of sand behind them as they go). The sun sets, and the nightlife in the Lapa district seems to accelerate into fast-forward mode – a giddy succession of samba music, cold beer, football matches on flickering TV screens, clattering plastic chairs in local bars, waiters aggressively topping up your glass with more beer, yet more samba… It’s before dawn when the crowds disperse, stumbling home in the shadow of Christ the Redeemer, who seems to look down forgivingly on mortal hangovers.
But for some there is one time-honoured Rio cure for these hangovers. And that is to welcome in the sunrise by heading straight back to the beach.
Ilha Grande is a beautiful island with a famously grim history. Up until 20 years ago, this was Brazil’s answer to Alcatraz: the island served as a notorious penal colony (one prison was so violent that even the guards working there were known to have murdered each other).
Sailing to Ilha Grande with mental images of barbed wire and blaring sirens, the reality makes for a happy surprise: a paradise island rearing up from rolling waves. The boat draws closer to reveal coves lined with bowing palms and jungly slopes draped with mists – the sort of island where King Kong could feasibly be hiding on the other side. A side effect of Ilha Grande’s grim history was that – until recently – no-one wanted to live here. While the nearby coastline was settled, this 15-mile-long island was (and still is) largely left to nature. It means there are lagoons with exquisitely clear waters – where you can spend all day nosing into the private lives of the crabs that scuttle about the seabed. And there are rumours that after dark – when the glow from the lights of Rio can be seen on the horizon – jaguars still patrol the island’s virgin forests.
The boat from the mainland pulls into Vila do Abraão – a village of pastel-colour houses set around a broad bay. Sardine fishermen potter quietly about the shipyards and a man selling coconut sweets walks along the foreshore. It all seems a far cry from Ilha Grande’s dangerous past. Not so long ago, however, the town was a home for prison guards, and prison folklore remains part of village life. There is no better way to pass an evening here than to listen to stories of bungled escape attempts.
‘My father was a guard who had to look after 50 prisoners,’ says Vava de Brito, sitting beneath a tropical almond tree on the beach. ‘I’m not sure they knew his gun could hold only six bullets.’
A former fisherman with a face crinkled by years on deck, Vava has inherited some of the best escape anecdotes from his dad. Chuckling softly, he remembers one prisoner who tried to escape dressed in drag; the gang of escapees who locked their guard in a fridge; and a crime kingpin who was successfully airlifted out by helicopter (it was his second escape from Ilha Grande). And then there were countless others who escaped – pursued by guards with flashlights – and vanished into the forests and night-time tides around Ilha Grande, never to be seen again.
Vava’s tales end in contented silence, and the sunset scatters languid, lemony light over the bay. A warm, springtime wind catches the sails of anchored boats, and a game of football starts up on the beach – the surf carrying the ball into the goal. For a moment, it is hard to imagine why anyone could be so desperate to leave Ilha Grande.
Itatiaia National Park
Few people staying in Itatiaia National Park get to enjoy a lie-in. Morning is announced by loud bird song in the jungle – a gentle chirruping with the first glimmer of dawn – steadily rising to ASBO-worthy noisiness by breakfast time. Outside the hotel room are birds in Hitchcockian abundance: a pair of saffron toucanets pecking at a bird table, tiny hummingbirds mock-whooshing past: various unidentified species whooping, warbling and screeching up in the treetops.
The morning wake-up call is a daily fixture in Itatiaia National Park. Opened in 1937, it is Brazil’s oldest national park – a 116-square-mile reserve known for good birding, and loved all the more for its accessibility. Halfway along the busy highway linking Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo, a small road branches north for a few miles to the park entrance. Green pastures suddenly turn to thick, Tarzan-style rainforest, while bare hills rise up to rocky mountains and hanging valleys scored by swiftly flowing rivers. It is also a park known for its hiking trails: only two hours from the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, you can set off on a trail towards summits where snowfall is not uncommon.
Walking beneath the forest canopy, it seems that everything in Itatiaia is built on a super-size scale. Huge, wrinkly roots crisscross the trail, and a giant leaf snaps off from a branch high above – gliding down to the forest floor in a long, slow helix. There are spiders’ webs the size of fishing nets and creepers swinging like elephant’s trunks. Every so often hikers pass by, dwarfed by the flora around them. There are other, unseen, visitors nearby: sloths, wild cats, monkeys and 64 species of frog can all be found in the park.
Soon the muffled roar of rushing water sounds in the distance, and the canopy opens into a small glade. The path reaches the Itaporani waterfall – one of many in Itatiaia – where the river foams and splashes its way through a boulder-filled cleft in the valley. Families swim in the pools between the cataracts, and a scout troop collects litter under the supervision of Edson Teixeira – a leader with a rope slung over his shoulder, making him look a bit like a litter-collecting Rambo.
‘Look at all this,’ Edson says, gesturing at the landscape with a plastic bag full of crisp packets and crushed cans. ‘The nature, the river, the waterfalls. I am sure it is a gift from God.’
Smiling, he and his troop set off in search of more litter, hopping over stepping stones to the opposite bank in single file, waving scout flags as they go. They return into a forest still stirring with a symphony of bird song.
It is Sunday in Tiradentes, and a peal of church bells is ringing through the streets. People in their Sunday best are heading to mass. They walk along cobblestone streets that echo with the clippity-clop of horses’ hooves, passing shady gardens full of cacti and monkey puzzle trees, before quietly assembling outside Santo Antonio – a marzipan-yellow church on a hilltop above the tiny town. Seen in the slanting light of a Sunday afternoon, Tiradentes is a picture of rustic serenity – the Brazilian equivalent of the village from the Hovis adverts, perhaps.
Tiradentes wasn’t always this quiet. In the 18th century this was a gold-rush town – prospectors came from afar to pan its rivers (the superstitious ones believing they would be guided to gold seams by following meteor showers in the night sky). Gold from this corner of Brazil was exported across the world – the lion’s share finding its way into people’s pockets in England, where the Bank of England melted it down into pound coins. Gradually, however, the gold ran out. Tiradentes lapsed into obscurity – and only in recent decades was the town reinvented as an artists’ colony.
‘Whenever you need inspiration in Tiradentes you only need to step out of your front door,’ says Thi Rohmann – an artist who has spent much of his life painting and sketching Tiradentes, and who works in a tidy, whitewashed studio in the shadow of Santo Antonio church. ‘There is the blue of the sky, the white of our houses, all the colours of the flowers…’
Thi isn’t alone in his philosophy. It seems that everyone in the town is inexplicably compelled to paint or write or sing – or else simply make something in homage to their hometown. A few doors down lives João Goulart Silva, a sculptor whittling a statue of Saint Benedict out of a trunk of cedar. He explains his interest in sacred art began when he went to watch his mother sing at the local church – instead he got distracted by the timber saints beaming down at him from on high. By a smoky kiln on the edge of town, octogenarian potter Sebastião Augusto de Freitas makes ceramic whistles from local clay. He is the latest in a dynasty of Tiradentes potters stretching back five generations. He thinks of all five of them every time he spins his potter’s wheel.
‘When you are born in Tiradentes, you are born with creative spirit,’ he says. ‘I was born with a potter’s intuition. I feel a connection with the earth when I feel it between my fingers.’
Reserva Ecológica de Guapi Assu
If you ever wondered where the Rio Carnival got its colour scheme from, then take a stroll in Brazil’s Atlantic Rainforest. It is a place where Mother Nature is at her most extrovert. A swallow-tailed butterfly flashes past in a streak of brilliant yellow, and bursts of neon-pink flowers sprout among the leaf litter. High above, birds with electric-blue feathers strut about the branches; down below cicadas rattle in the heat. Like carnival, it is a spectacle to behold: noisy, colourful and diverse.
When the first Portuguese sailors set eyes on the coast near Rio in the 16th century, they would have seen the edge of a forest just like this – extending along the Atlantic for more than a thousand miles, covering an area about four times the size of the UK. Since then, this forest has suffered from cataclysmic depletion. After five centuries of logging and agricultural expansion, it is now in bits – its total area amounts to just seven per cent of its former self.
There is, fortunately, a silver lining to all this. While much of the Atlantic Rainforest is several million years old, the Reserva Ecológica de Guapi Assu is, in fact, completely new. REGUA is a project undoing five centuries of destruction over 28 square miles of rural Brazil: replanting farmland with new rainforest and digging new wetlands with excavators.
‘I often talk to the trees,’ explains Marli, a gardener tending to the saplings in REGUA’s nursery. A former cook, she is one of many workers who collectively plant as many as 50,000 trees each year. ‘I tell them I hope they will grow big and strong,’ she says. ‘I am proud of them when I see them growing up – but like a mother, I have no favourites.’
Looking at pictures, the progress of Marli’s trees has been impressive. Ten years ago there was bare grass here; five years ago there were shrubs (it looked not unlike a garden centre). In 2015, however, visitors are walking through real rainforest. As a seal of approval, animals have shuffled in of their own accord. Caiman sunbathe on the banks of the wetlands, while dozens of capybara (the world’s biggest rodent) bulldoze their way through the reeds and lilies like mini-hippopotamuses. It will be another two centuries before the forest grows to its fullest extent – quite what will arrive by then is anyone’s guess.
The sky darkens. The doleful coos of distant doves carry through the air – and with them a hushed drumming sound. It gathers pace: the noise of millions of leaves twitching under millions of droplets. Soon the clouds over the rainforest are doing what they do best: raining.
PHOTOGRAPHY: MICHAEL HEFFERNAN