Ilha Grande, Paraty, São Paulo, Iguassu Falls

How is it possible that a place such as Ilha Grande exists? It is impossibly paradisiacal with its many, many soft sandy beaches, views into the arboreal interior and easy-to-follow trails stringing it all together. The little main town of Abraao is lively and cute and easy to reach with 15-min speedboats from the mainland (or a slower, cheaper ferry).

What to do here; pick a trail, find a beach and marvel at the magnificence of it all. Return back to town by foot or, if you’re feeling lazy, easily affordable water taxi, and delve into the party atmosphere.

Lopes de Mendes beach is found on the top 10 list of beaches of the world in many publications. This is for a good reason; the sand is so fine and white it’s like walking on flour, the sea is sparkling blue, it’s huge and so never feels in any way crowded and, best of all, there are dramatically spiky hills covered in Atlantic forest everywhere you look. It was a 2.5 hour hike from Abraao and well worth the effort.

Ilha Grande perfection
Ilha Grande perfection

Ilha Grande is a stunning green hulk that has made it to my number one spot of prettiest islands I’ve ever seen. Reluctantly we departed on a slow ferry to Angra dos Reis from where we caught a bus to Paraty. A very smooth journey, but Paraty was so cold (yes, it can be cold in Brazil!). 

The town grew exponentially during Brazil’s gold rush, but pirates picked off many treasure-laden vessels and a road eventually circumvented Paraty’s port. Business picked up again following coffee and cachaca production, but declined until tourism revived it in the 70s. Now a National Historic Landmark, the cobbled streets and whitewashed buildings of the centre hark back to centuries ago.

Our first meal here was a typical Brazilian affair; find the restaurant, pick up a plate, select your meal from a buffet then pay a sum based on the weight (minus the plate) – a fun and great value way to eat which, happily, the ice cream parlours also offer.

Paraty grew off the back of the (slave-powered) gold rush then the (slave-powered) coffee exports and (slave-powered) sugar exports. Pirates sailed nearby waters to pick off gold-laden ships. They occasionally moored on Ilha Grande – clever things – might there still be treasure stashed away there? When the money stopped flowing the town declined until a road was created from São Paulo and tourism injected new life.

Paraty's cobbled streets
Paraty’s cobbled streets
On a free walking tour we learned this history and much more (the cobbles were, for example, used as ballast on ships from Portugal and replaced with goods for the return journey) then enjoyed our last bit of Brazilian beach time. A 6-hour coach journey the next morning took us to the vast city of Sao Paolo.

This city really surprised me. It feels affluent, buzzy and bursting with character. It feels very different to the rest of Brazil, perhaps due to the mix of huge skyscrapers and rich multicultural mix. The metro here is also superb (and classical music plays in the carriages), but it’s not good enough for the wealthy who zip from tower to tower in a fleet of helicopters which is larger than any other city.

Another key difference of São Paulo to other cities we’ve seen in Brazil is that it isn’t a particularly photogenic. It seems to have been plonked in a nondescript, non-strategic place which millions and millions of immigrants decided to make home. This is true of ultra-wealthy Avenista Paulista, but the older part of the city does at least have some charm, with numerous Art Deco skyscrapers reminiscent of Manhattan, and the location where the city was founded over 500 years ago.

Martinelli building, São Paulo
Martinelli building, São Paulo
When you first arrive at the Brazilian side of Iguassu Falls you will be astounded at how immense they are, but also how beautiful. Streams of water crashing down through misty forests complement the thundering curtains of falls up to 26 stories high. After turning a corner in the trail you realise that what you’ve seen is merely the entree. 

The falls are at their most impressive where the channel into which they cascade is at its narrowest. It’s deafening here, surrounded as you are by waterfalls – there is even a platform extending into the river between falls to put you right in the action. Hopefully the video below will describe what words cannot.

We had some spare time and so decided to pop in to Paraguay, which was a short walk away across a very high bridge. People from Brazil and nearby Argentina flock here to snap up duty free bargains and the Paraguayan side of the border is therefore a bustling cacophony of street markets and malls. Whilst not a particularly safe country right now, we hung around for a couple of hours to see if we could find any bargains (we could not, although it was fun speaking Spanish again).

Terrifying, tremendous, totally worth the massive cost. These were just some of the thoughts that crossed my mind as I stared into the maw of the Devils throat (or ‘Garganta funda’), where some of the largest falls meet. The Argentinian side of Iguassu Falls is like a waterfall theme park, complete with cute little train to shoo you along from one sight to the next. 

Garganta is reached by walked several hundred metres along a metal walkway above the river which tumbles into the many cataracts here. At the end you find yourself perched above where the largest falls meet to hurl their water 82 metres below. Certain death has never looked so spectacular.

But this isn’t the only viewpoint. Whereas just one of these falls would have crowds of tourists coming here from all over the world, there are dozens here, each viewable from various angles – above, from the side, up close, far away and beneath. On our second day here we truly experienced ‘beneath’.

An extremely powerful speedboat hurried us upriver over huge rapids until we were staring up at those giant falls. Then, to add even more excitement, the boat nosed up to the very base of one of the larger falls until we were showering in its powerful tumult. Ridiculous fun that thoroughly tested our waterproofs and placed wide smiles on our dripping-wet faces.

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