Wedged between the jungle-covered mountains and the brilliant blue waters of an island-studded bay, Paraty is one of the most adorable and picturesque small towns in Brazil.
Its spectacularly well-preserved historic center, its relaxed atmosphere and its position on the coastline between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo make it a popular destination for local Brazilian tourists, who well outnumber foreign visitors. By the way, if you are looking for fun things to do in either Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo, it’s always best to ask a local. Here is a list of 50 (!) things to do in Rio de Janeiro from a local’s perspective.
There are plenty of things to do in Paraty as well, from wondering the cobbled streets of the historic center to cruising the beautiful bay and hiking in the Atlantic forest. We did a little bit of each during our 4-day stay in town, and here are our top picks.
Things to do in Paraty
Explore the historic center of Paraty
The town’s glory days date back to the late 17th – 19th centuries when it was a major seaport during the Brazilian Gold Rush. When gold was discovered in Minas Gerais province, a 1200- kilometre road, the Gold Trail, was cut across the steep mountainous terrain to connected Paraty to the gold mines in Ouro Preto.
The ships from Portugal and Rio brought workers and slaves to Paraty, for the consequent march over the mountains, and carried gold back to Portugal. To get the sense of the scale of the operation, here are some numbers.
More than 400,000 Portuguese and half a million African slaves were brought to the mines, and 850 tons of gold were sent back to Portugal. And that’s only through the official channels. Such high levels of commercial activity saw Paraty transform from a little seaside village to one of the richest towns in Brazil. And amazingly most of the town’s architecture remained unchanged for 250 years.
Today it has a delightful ‘French quarter’ vibe. It’s cobbled streets, lined with whitewashed 17th and 18th-century buildings, run all the way to the water’s edge, where the local pier is studded with an armada of schooners and small but colourful fishermen’s boats.
Unlike in Ouro Preto, no cars are allowed in Paraty’s historic center, and it is not uncommon to see a horse-drawn cart used instead.
The town center is relaxed and vibrant at the same time. The colourful doors and window frames draw your eyes to the shops tucked behind them, the layback restaurants tempt you with the mouthwatering aroma of local cuisine, and the hot Brazilian sun slows down everyone’s pace to a leisurely stroll. You can spend days walking around these colonial streets, losing all sense of time and the world beyond the old city.
Flooded streets of Paraty
We were already in love with Paraty before we discovered one of the town’s coolest secrets. Once a month, on the night of the full moon the tide rises so high that the sea floods the streets of the historic center. Special openings were deliberately built into the seawalls that separate the city from the ocean, to allow the water to come in and remove all the rubbish from the city as it retreated back at low tide.
The streets are flooded for only a short time but at the highest tide, there may be as much as ten inches of water covering the streets, making Paraty look like little Venice. This time of the month is a photographer’s dream in Paraty with the old city reflecting in its flooded streets.
Take a cruise to Saco do Mamangua fjord
If there is one “must-do” thing in Paraty, it is a Saco do Mamangua fjord Cruise. Not only the fjord is stunning, but it is also the only tropical fjord on the Brazilian coastline.
There are different cruise options available, usually involving big boats with lots of people, and lasting about half a day. Give those a miss and explore the bay and the fjord with a local fisherman, Junior, in his quintessentially Brazilian little boat Barco Lula Lele.
We met Junior at the pier and started chatting, even though he spoke only Portuguese and we knew about 20 Portuguese words between the three of us. Ten minutes later we were agreeing that he would take us on a full-day cruise at the incredibly reasonable cost of BR$ 900 for the three of us. The best decision we made on the entire trip.
While often quiet and pensive, Junior is incredibly charismatic – his eyes light up when he tells stories about history and geography of the bay and dim a little when he talks about the big tourist ships causing damage to its ecosystem.
Between our semi-descent Spanish and Junior’s very animated style of storytelling, we made enough sense of his stories and learned quite a bit about the bay.
When we were passing the biggest island at the mouth of the bay, Junior explained that it was the anchoring point for the big ships during the Gold Rush era. From there, the smaller boats carried people and goods across the shallow waters of the bay.
He pointed out islands that are not on any maps of the bay because they only appear at low tide. And told us about the local tribes, their love for the bay and their sustainable lifestyle.
There were plenty of examples of a more affluent lifestyle as well, with luxurious waterfront mansions of movie stars and mafia bosses nestled along the secluded beaches.
We spend some time on a completely empty white sandy beach and had lunch at a very interesting spot. Perched along the rocky shore of the fjord the restaurant had its own pier. The tables and chairs were made from the trunks of the fallen trees.
The owners went to great pains to build the entire place from the natural materials found in the surrounding forest. It was the visual proof of Junior’s stories about the locals’ sustainable lifestyle.
On the way back, Junior used the leftover fruit to mix some wicked caipirinhas. The only thing better than a cold cocktail on a hot day was the pod of dolphins we met just before returning to the bay.
The entire day with Junior felt like a day out with a local friend. If it is something you think you’ll like, look up Junior’s phone number on his Instagram account @barcolulalele or just look him up on Paraty pier.
Go birdwatching in Paraty
Let me preface by saying that I am not a twitcher. I don’t get excited about the ‘little brown jobs’. But I love seeing colourful, unusual or rare birds.
And the birdlife around Paraty is nothing short of spectacular. To do it justice and to see the most birds in the short amount of time, we booked a 5-hr tour with Gabrielle from Birds Paraty. Gabrielle was a fantastic find – we tracked him down from the Trip Advisor reviews.
He picked us up at our Pousada in the morning and showed us a great variety of landscapes in the next five hours. We started at the old town’s waterfront, went to the fields on the town’s outskirts and spent about half of our time in the mountains, going on short hikes and visiting bird feeders at a couple of coffee shops.
Those bird feeders were the most decadent birdwatching experience we’ve had in Brazil. How often do you get to sit in a comfortable chair with a nice cup of coffee in your hand, look out to the rugged mountains covered in lush rainforest and watch spectacularly colourful birds come to you of their own accord?
By the end of the tour, we saw 71 species of birds (our Paraty bird list), and among them, some of the most stunning birds I have ever seen. Plus we spotted some White-eared marmosets in town!
Explore Paraty beaches
If lazing around on the beach is on the agenda, you will be spoilt for choice in Paraty. There are 65 islands in Paraty bay and between them, they offer 200 (!) beaches for you to choose from, depending on what you are looking for.
Jabaquara and Pontal
Right in town, there are Jabaquara and Pontal beaches. They are not the prettiest beaches for sun-bathing but they are ideal for exploring the mangroves and its inhabitants. You can rent a kayak and paddle mangroves and enjoy the views of Paraty from the ocean.
To combine a visit to the beach with a hike through the lush Atlantic forest, head to Sono beach. The two-hour hike brings you to a picturesque white sand beach that rarely gets crowded.
If you don’t fancy the hike, you can reach Sono beach by boat. And if you get hungry, there are some small restaurants that serve fresh grilled fish.
For a taste of Brazilian beach culture, check out Trinidade beach, 30 km out of town. It’s beachside bars serving fresh seafood and caipirinhas attract a young crowd of Brazilian and foreign tourists.
Praia da Lulu
Paraty’s best-secluded beaches are found on the small islands that dot the bay. One of the most popular is Lulu beach that stretches along the shore of a mostly uninhabited island.
There are plenty of beach-hopping tours available in town, or you can charter a small boat from local fisherman and spend the day exploring the hidden beaches of Paraty Bay.
Barra do Corumbe
Barra do Corumbe is a family-friendly beach that has a few more amenities than other beaches. There are posadas, bars and restaurants nearby and on the beach itself, smaller bars provide shade and beach chairs, if you need a reprieve from the sun.
Find the best places to eat in Paraty
Eating in Paraty is fun! The area has its own signature dish – prawns marinated in cachaça and the best place to sample it is Sarau restaurant in the historic center. And make sure to try their caipirinhas made with local cachaça as well. The restaurant has a great vibe, live music and the Salsa nights on Tuesdays.
Another gem we discovered was Thai Brasil restaurant. All three of us spent time living in Thailand, so we know a thing or two about Thai food, and the food at Thai Brazil was absolutely on the level. The restaurant has a great ambiance, and the mix of Thai and Brazilian cultures is very exotic.
For dessert, we usually headed to Kopenhagen chocolate cafe around the corner from Sarau restaurant. Their chocolates are to die for.
A word of warning about coffee in Brazil – a cappuccino usually comes a ton of chocolate on the bottom of the cup. So if you don’t feel like drinking liquid chocolate all the time, order black coffee.
Another fun place for dessert is Zuzu cafe – they have a mouthwatering selection of cakes. They also make a good breakfast with some nice and healthy options. Here’s one of the gems we found on Zuzu’s cake menu:
Go shopping in Paraty
You can triple your Boho-style wardrobe in the shops in and around the old centre. From beach dresses to alpaca jumpers everything is at the fraction of the prices in Australia or Canada. But keep an eye on the quality of the fabric. The cheaper stuff is usually made from polyester.
One tip though, don’t try to find Havaianas in Paraty. There aren’t any. Though there are plenty of other flip-flops if you need a pair.
Some of the most interesting shops in the historic center are the artisan stores that sell pottery, quilted bedding and a variety of quirky decorative knick-knacks.
And of course, don’t forget to pick up some cachaça – the regional special liquor that is used for making caipirinhas.
Where to stay in Paraty
Our stay in Paraty got off to a false start and the biggest disappointment of the entire trip.
Paraty was the last stop on our trip and we wanted to splurge on a nice place to stay for a few nights. Tempted by the stunning images of the pool at Pousada Kaete with the views of Paraty Bay from its clifftop location, we booked a triple room for 4 nights.
Disappointing Pousada Kaete
We arrived in Paraty from São Paulo late in the evening and were shocked to find out what passes for a triple room at Pousada Kaete. The tiny room was barely big enough to contain one queen-size bed. The second bed was a single size mattress on wheels that pulled out from under the queen bed.
Once the mattress was pulled out, there was no walking room left and whoever would sleep on the mattress would have their head right by the bathroom door. It was appalling, but the lady who let us in, did not speak English, so we had to wait for her son to return from town.
There is no restaurant at Pousada Kaete so we were not only homeless but also hungry. And since the pousada is a few kilometres out of town, we couldn’t just stroll to a nearby restaurant or a cafe.
When the lady’s son, Matheus arrived, he convinced us to stay until morning and make up our minds then. Honestly, we were too tired to keep arguing and stayed the night there.
When we went to check out the following morning and asked for a refund for the second night, that was pre-paid via booking.com, the family of owners got into a heated argument amongst themselves and in the end refused to refund us the second night.
The experience left such a bad taste, that we were keen to get out of there, even if they were going to charge us for the additional night. Which they did.
While we still could use Kaete’s WiFi we booked a triple room at Pousada Corsario and we couldn’t have been happier with our new home.
Perched on the bank of the river, 10-minute walk from the historic center, Pousada Corsario had delightfully spacious triple rooms, like elsewhere in Brazil. And while the pousada was quite large it was very tranquil. We hardly saw other guests outside of breakfast time at the restaurant.
The restaurant at Corsario was quite average, but in a town like Paraty no one eats at the pousada restaurants – the choice of restaurants in town covers all tastes and diets.
How to get to Paraty
Paraty lies along the coast approximately between Rio and São Paulo. You can either take a bus or a private transfer service from either of the cities, or you can drive yourself. It takes just under 4 hours.
The road from Rio is much easier to drive – it follows the line of the coast. But São Paulo sits in the mountains, 600 meters above the sea level, and the road to Paraty goes through a section of a very steep descent to the coast.
We opted to simplify the logistics and booked a shuttle service with GreenToad Bus from Guarulhos Airport for $66 per person each way. And while we expected a shuttle bus, we got a private ride in a brand new BMW! Both ways.
The driving time is reported as 4 hrs and the first couple of hours were completely unremarkable. Until we entered the mountains and began the arduous descent to the coast.
This massive stretch of the road is one hairpin turn after the other and the traffic flows quite quickly. We felt uncomfortable even while being driven by a professional driver who was very familiar with the road.
We were certainly happy that neither of us had to drive. Especially considering the number of cars sitting dead on the opposite side of the road with steam rising from under their hoods. Engine overheating was unnervingly common.
The last short stretch along the coast was a pleasant reprieve.
We made it in just over 4 hours, which means that the official estimated time for this road assumes covering the steep stretch at the uncomfortably high speed.
But we didn’t even know the half of it until we were caught in heavy rain and thick fog on the drive back.
The visibility was so poor that the only thing we could see through the white haze was the muted glow of the breaking lights of the car ahead. And when that car occasionally sped away we were literally travelling blind. At speed. Around hairpin turns. For hours.