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Paraty and Ilha Grande are two popular holiday destinations in Rio de Janeiro. The colonial touch in Paraty is still evident with its cobblestone streets and dinky white houses giving a whiff of southern Europe. Ilha Grande, with its white beaches and turquoise waters, is an oceanic paradise. We help you solve the tricky dilemma of where to go first: Paraty or Ilha Grande?
Put simply, Paraty is ridiculously charming and totally unique. It’s quite easy to find stunning, wild beaches in Rio de Janeiro – it is, after all, a tropical state in Brazil – but try finding a coastal colonial town that combines narrow cobblestone streets and picturesque architecture, and you’ll be faced with a challenge. Paraty was once a port during the Portuguese colonisation and played an important role during the wealthy era of the gold rush trade. Nowadays, the streets are closed to cars, making it ideal for a pleasant stroll around the tiny yet charming city centre. Small white buildings decorated with colourful window and door frames line the pedestrianised roads.
In terms of attractions, Paraty has a bounty of them. Those who are looking for a serene getaway and are content in passing lazy afternoons by aimlessly moseying around the historical town will find sanctuary in Paraty. In the summer (between November and February), the town buzzes with local and foreign holidaymakers who go to enjoy tame evenings and sun-rich days. Outside of peak season, Paraty slips back into its quiet and artistic vibe.
Visitors looking for a more adventurous agenda can explore the nearby surrounding islands – there are more than 200 of them – on regular daily boat trips that offer chances to snorkel with tropical fish, explore coral reefs and visit some of the Green Coast’s most secluded and stunning beaches. Onshore, head to the protected Atlantic Forest that grants Jeep trips through dense woods and an array of waterfalls.
Paraty is also home to local cachaça distilleries renowned for producing some of the country’s finest spirits. Cachaça, a strong spirit made from the juice of sugarcane, is Brazil’s national spirit, and visitors to the distilleries can see how it’s made and taste samples of the product. The significance of cachaça in the region is celebrated each year at the Festival da Pinga, a weekend-long festival in August that includes live music, homemade food and, of course, plenty of locally brewed cachaça.
Before it became a tourist destination, it was once the residence of a maximum-security prison that locked up some of Brazil’s most wanted and dangerous criminals. All of this changed in 1994 when the prison was closed down and the criminals were transferred to other parts of the country. In the last 20 years, tourism on the island has gradually grown, yet at a relievingly slow pace, helping the island keep its natural beauty and maintain its idyllic white beaches and wildlife-rich forests.
The main draw of Ilha Grande is the tropical beaches and promises of lazy days in the sun in between dipping into the warm ocean and snorkelling with colourful fish, coral reefs and the occasional sea turtle. There are also several great seafood restaurants at Abraão, the island’s largest town and port, in addition to casual seafront bars for evening drinks among the palm trees. The forest provides afternoons of wildlife spotting and hiking trails leading to secluded beaches. There is also the option of taking boat trips to nearby islands as well as diving in the island’s marine-rich waters.
It’s hard to choose one over the other, and a lot depends on your preferences. For culture vultures and those who love historical settings, Paraty is a great choice. On the other hand, Ilha Grande is ideal for beach days under a tropical sun and swimming in clear waters with an abundance of marine life. The two places are actually in close proximity to each other, so it’s possible to spend a couple of days at one before moseying over to spend a few days at the other.