Paraty, Brazil: The chilled-out coastal town that was once a historic and cultural epicentre

It's a good idea to ditch your shoes and wear flip-flops in Paraty, advice that might have come in handy before I arrived in the Brazilian coastal town. Stepping out from the mini-van in strappy wedges, I have to hustle to keep up with the burly driver, who has charged off ahead with my stuffed suitcase balanced on one shoulder.

The town's rocky, uneven streets appear to be flooding. By the time I catch up with the driver at the door of the B&B where I'll be staying, the water is ankle-deep and vendors are slapping down wooden beams as makeshift entrance-ways to their shops. I spot a few tiny crabs scurrying out of cracks under cobblestones.

I'm the only one who seems concerned by the rising tide. Pointing at my feet, the B&B manager "asks" my shoe size (she holds up six fingers questioningly, then seven) before handing me a pair of white Havaianas, mine to keep. Language barriers prevent me from asking her about the flood, so I consult Dr Google.

Turns out, below-sea-level Paraty floods quite often – every full-moon at high tide – and that this flooding was deliberately designed centuries ago to act as a street-cleaning strategy. Locals have seized on it as a marketing opportunity, pointing out the surreal, some would say spooky, scenes created by the reflections of colonial-era buildings off submerged stone streets.

Touted as an easy escape from Rio de Janeiro's non-stop party pace, Paraty is the historic epicentre of the Costa Verde coastline. In theory it takes about four hours to drive here from Copacabana (it took me closer to six hours in a shared mini-van, including stops).

The old town centre is off-limits to cars and trucks, though the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages can be heard throughout the day. Most visitors get around on foot, strolling from one colonial-era church to the next, before stopping for ice-cream in the town square. During the 17th century, Portuguese missionaries and gold-diggers put Paraty and the surrounding Caminho do Ouro (Gold Trail) on the map. By the late 18th century, the gold had run out, the souls had been saved and Paraty began to decline. Revivals came later with the coffee and cachaca trade, though it wasn't until the 1970s that tourists really started to take notice.

The coastal setting is dramatic, all jungly mountains, lush waterfalls and sandy islands reached by colourful boats, though Aussie travellers might find the beaches lacking when compared to our own.

Today, Paraty has been "discovered" by an international artsy set, who enjoy the chilled-out vibe, sea breeze and photography festivals. There's a citywide exhibition of portraits on display during my visit, the large-scale photographs displayed everywhere from the town square to the docks.

Backpackers make their way to Paraty too, drawn to the caipirinhas and beach parties in this destination that is located conveniently halfway between Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. For the most part, they don't need to be told to pack their flip-flops.

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TRIP NOTES

Kristie Kellahan travelled to Brazil as a guest of Collette and to Paraty at her own expense.

MORE 

traveller.com.au/brazil

paraty.com.br

FLY

LATAM Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Rio de Janeiro. Shared van transfers from Rio are the most economical way to reach Paraty and private hire car transfers are also an option. See latam.comgreentoadbus.com

STAY

There are several charming small hotels, known as pousadas, in Paraty's historic city centre. Pousada do Ouro offers stylish rooms in a restored 18th century house and the bar serves excellent caipirinhas. See pousadadoouro.com.br.

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