“Rio de Janeiro is a magical place to be” many people told me. I remembered this as I crossed the road from the eminent Copacabana Palace Hotel and lay on the legendary shoreline, enjoying the sun and glancing up the hill towards the iconic outstretched figure of “Christ the Redeemer”.
This is a city of divergence and excitement. As I drink a Caipirinha, the delicious local cocktail, I contemplate the many things that make Rio famous: Football, extravagant fashions and of course Carnival, all of which are in startling contrast, to the 1,000 slums, or favelas as they are known here, situated halfway up the mountains, often full of people from country areas trying to make a living in the big city. Now there is the added frisson of the imminent Olympic Games, the first to be held in a South American country.
Exciting though Rio is, I know there is so much more to Brazil than its cities, and an ideal trip to the Games would be to combine it with a relaxing break in the countryside close to Rio. I am visiting three outstanding places in nearby states all accessible by car from Rio: two favelas (farms), and one seaside hotel.
Fazenda Catuçaba. Sao Paulo.
Fazenda Catuçaba is a 5 hour drive west of Rio, set in 1,100 acres in an area that was once at the heart of Brazil’s important coffee trade. The nearby small village of Catuçaba, was also once a stop on the way to the Minas Gerais region in the times of the famous gold rush, although nowadays it is at the end of a road and nice and quiet!
The main hotel consists of an 1815 colonial house while the 10 bedrooms are separate buildings in the grounds on small hills round the centre. Up one of the hills is the stable block which I visited for my day’s hike on one of the local small horses. It was great fun and perhaps the best way to see and appreciate the surrounding rivers, lakes and mountain views.
The Fazenda is an impossibly cool community, packed with art works and projects – with an artist in residence. Food is mostly grown in the surrounding gardens, or else bought from local villagers and the result is both healthy and delicious. On a more serious note, reforestation is a powerful raison d’etre for the owner, who wants to help put right the terrible drawbacks bought by past tree cutting on a huge scale, that caused both climate change and water problems and which is now acutely effecting other parts of the country.
Reserva do Ibitipoca. Minas Gerais.
Four and half hours north of Rio in is Reserva do Ibitipoca. It consists of 8,000 acres of private land and despite its size; the small hotel still manages to convey a feeling of staying with a few friends in a luxurious country farmhouse. This was accentuated by the two loved up blue parrots who live on a perch outside the kitchen window
The building dates from 1715 and comes complete with a wraparound veranda strewn with hammocks, while a number of self-contained houses in the grounds are for those who prefer to do more of their own thing. Again the food is fresh organic and tasty and the staff are fantastic; thoughtful, without being intrusive. It is possible to see the beautiful surroundings of the Reserva in a number of ways: on their own Anglo-Arabian horses, guided hikes or electric mountain bikes. Riding on a huge horse was definitely out of my comfort zone, although I began to relax after an hour of getting more used to being perched so high!
To complete the healthy ambiance there are optional Yoga classes every morning and morning walks are offered with the resident ornithologist. He soon made me realise that there were brightly coloured birds hiding around every corner, once you know where to look.
In common with Catuçaba, Reserva do Ibitipoca does everything to encourage sustainable tourism, although the proprietors are equally concerned with social and economic issues as well as environmental ones. Many of the projects are geared towards the community, protecting its local culture and history and stimulating a more diverse economy. Guests have also some wonderful surprises to look forward to all of which I am sworn to secrecy about so, no mention of them here I’m afraid!
Pousada Picinguaba. Sao Paulo.
Pousada Picinguaba is a boutique hotel, 4 ½ hour west of Rio located near to the colonial town of Paraty. The very last part of the journey has to be on foot as it is situated just above a local fishing village. The delicious food this time, includes freshly caught fish and the tone is more of a small and attractive holiday hotel, with its swimming pool surrounded by sun loungers.
Each room has a balcony looking out to the well-tended tropical gardens and beyond, the sea. Pousada Picinguaba has its own schooner to take visitors to smaller islands, and as this entire coastline is protected, it is an exhilarating and exclusive experience, as was my whole time in beautiful Rio de Janeiro and it’s nearby neighbours.
More about the Rio de Janeiro region
Lucy flew to Rio de Janeiro with Tam airlines. Round trips to Rio start at £850