Of course, Rio de Janeiro has two of the most famous and beautiful beaches in the world. But while Ipanema and Copacabana are gorgeous, they are also in the center of a city of 13.6 million people with all the traffic, chaos and noise that accompanies such a location.
If you’re looking for a true, “get-away-from-it-all” Brazilian beach town paradise, that’s easy! There are three choices just a 2-3-hour luxury bus ride away, each with its own personality.
Here’s how to do it.
BUZIOS — THE TOWN MADE BY BRIGIETTE BARDO
Buzios was a simple fishing village on the dry, desert-like east coast of Brazil just two hours from Rio until the 1960s when they had a famous visitor from France. Brigitte Bardo. Brigitte’s fame has not aged well and today, most people are unfamiliar with her films and her popularity. But she was the Kardashians of the 1960s and when she discovered Buzios and compared it to the French Riviera, history was made.
In recognition of her contribution, Brigitte is honored with a statue in the center of Buzios and today, grabbing a selfie with her statue is a must. The resort, which really is like the French Riviera, is now home to 20 beaches with a trendy village pedestrian center of cobblestone streets, outdoor bars, beachside restaurants, elegant windows packed with South American fashions, live bands, and great late-evening people watching.
It’s a bit slow by day when people are out diving, snorkeling, beach relaxing, sailing or hiking, but come twilight, the town becomes as romantic as any resort in France or Spain, and a bit more exotic since like all South America, parties way into the night.
With 20 beaches, Buzios spreads out over a large area, but for simple romance, pick a posada within walking distance of the Brigitte Bardot statue and you’ll be in the center of everything. There is direct bus service of 2-3 hours depending on traffic to Rio’s International Airport, or downtown Rio, so Buzios makes a great place to unwind after a trip to Rio and you can leave directly from the beach to the airport.
ILHA GRANDE, THE PRISION COLONY OF YOUR DREAMS
It takes a bit of effort to get here, but it’s worth it. From Rio’s main bus station, book a luxury bus with restrooms on board and head due south about two hours to Concecao de Jacarei. It’s not much of a place, but at the sleepy bus stop, anyone will direct you how to walk down to the beach. Grab a couple of cold beers on the way. At the harbor, boat skippers will approach and, in a few minutes you’ll be sailing across the harbor to Vila do Abraão, the only town on Ilha Grande.
What an experience it is to sail into this harbor. It’s Pirates of the Caribbean come to life – an unspoiled village of one-and two-story buildings on a small strip of sand with jungle mountain as a backdrop. There are only a few streets and they are all made of sand, but filled with cafes and bars. Since there is not a single car on the island, you can hear birds and surf, listen to the swaying of palm trees overhead, smell the pot that hippies are smoking and hear the caps being popped off beers at the bars.
All activity focuses on the dock, where boats come and go, bringing shipments of beer and food, and unloading quickly to let the next boat sail in. The town loafers sit here all day. In the evening, the small harbor is filled a half dozen beautiful two-mast sailing ships.
At happy hour you can easily buy four local Caipirinha cocktails for $5 total US as you watch the lights of the houses and bars and small inns come on, one-by-one, along the halfmoon ring of the harbor beach, as the music of isolated guitar players and drums drift up from the village.
Strangely, this place was once hell-on-earth. In the early 1900s it was a prison colony for the most desperate criminals. You can walk on jungle trails to the ruins of the prison or to waterfalls, or even up a mountain top if you like. The small fleet of schooners, which resemble pirate ships, provide excursions to islands and beaches where there is no electricity, residents or even a dock. You simply jump off the boat and swim to shore, knowing that an ice-cold beer is always waiting back on the boat.
There is one catch. In an era of COVID, Ilha Grande also had a recent outbreak of Yellow Fever. Yikes! Get the Yellow Fever vaccine before you go and lather up with insect repellant. There’s no better selfie in today’s world than standing in front of a jungle trail that says “Do Not Enter if You Have Not Had the Yellow Fever Vaccine.”
PARATY – ILHA GRANDE’S GRANDE BROTHER
When Ilha Grande was a prison colony, Paraty was the rich colonial town nearby on the mainland that was the prison’s lifeline to the world. Paraty is not undiscovered. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is about equal distance from Rio and Sao Paulo, which means that about half of Brazil heads there on the weekend. And with good reason. It is simply marvelous.
The Old Town is a huge 40 square-block area closed off to vehicles and stuffed with stone churches, cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, and a harbor full of schooners and brightly painted boats (ten times as many boats as on Ilha Grande). It looks just like it must have looked a hundred years ago. Except that the old stone buildings now house wonderful shops with windows full of art and fashions, galleries of Brazilian handicrafts and restaurants that spill out on to the cobblestone streets with bustling waiters and brightly colored tablecloths. Old fashioned lanterns give the town a wonder glow at twilight and shops stay up until 10 pm.
A unique feature of Paraty is that at certain times of the year, a high tide comes in and washes the streets, turning the village into a small Venice. On these days, all the streets are covered with water — water that is too deep and dirty to venture into. The shops throw up little wood plank bridges to help people get around, but many streets became inaccessible. But then the tide goes out, the restaurants bring tables and chairs out on to the cobblestone streets, and party in Paraty starts again.