A sun-drenched roadtrip

  • TEXT CHRISTINE WOLLOWSKI

Five days, four nights, 600 kilometers: A roadtrip from Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo

Rio de Janeiro

On the first day of our trip from Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo, the sound of samba lures us into the narrow lanes in Rio’s harbor district and seduces us with a smile.

Rio, 40 degrees, marvelous city, purgatory of beauty and chaos,” sings Fernanda Abreu, 52. There was a time when such lyrics would not have been heard. After all, the movie Rio, 40 Degrees (1955) was subsequently censored in Brazil on the grounds that the temperature never exceeded 39.6 degrees. Now the city is experiencing its hottest summer since weather was recorded. The asphalt steams. Down on Copacabana Beach, a bearded vendor lops open a coconut for us. We dig our feet into the sand and take in the scene and its perspiring beauties. The hills on the horizon stand guard over Guanabara Bay. Christ the Redeemer spreads out his arms above us: Come hither, people, yes, it is hot – but this is Rio.

Our route from Rio to São Paulo

Our route from Rio to São Paulo: 1 Rio de Janeiro - Seduced by samba in the harbour district | 2 Ilha Grande - Relaxing on a pristine beauty between almond trees and black pebbles | 3 Paraty - A place to get married | 4 Maresias - Drinking a lemonade with surf pro Gabriel Medina | 5 São Paulo - Bright colors between the high-rises of a megacity

© Cristóbal Schmal

“The hot-blooded capital, containing the best and the worst of what Brazil has to offer,” Brazil’s radio diva continues. After sunset, the best of Rio can be heard in hip Lapa district, where the samba lyrics speak of great love and even greater pain. The samba is at home in bars such as the Rio Scenarium, the Mangue Seco and the Carioca da Gema – and one of its faces (and voices) belongs to Ana Costa.

“At first, I just listened to the music,” recalls the 44-year-old mulata with the infectious laugh, “but then it grabbed me and didn’t let go.” She has long since performed at almost all of the bars and knows practically every inch of Rua Lavradio, the area’s main artery, which is celebrating a renaissance with the samba de raiz, the original form of Brazil’s national rhythm. “Lapa is the perfect place for strangers to discover what life is like in Rio! This is where Cariocas forget the daily grind, and their enthusiasm sweeps everyone along!”

Ilha Grande: A nature reserve with a Caribbean feel

On day 2 we abandon our car after a few kilometers of lush vegetation and encounter the pristine beauty of a former outsider: Ilha Grande.

When things get too hot, the Cariocas drive into the mountains or out to Angra dos Reis on the coast, 150 kilometers southeast of Rio. After a few hours on the road, we find ourselves down beside the docks. Our flipflops are still pretty much melting away, but the water in the bay has a Caribbean glitter. Wealthy men, like cosmetic surgeon Ivo Pitanguy and TV presenter Luciano Huck, own islands here. We take the ferry across to Ilha Grande. It’s lovely there, too, with a strip of golden sandy beach separating the main town, Vila do Abraão, from the ocean, and the rainforest-covered mountains rising up behind us. We turn our backs on the souvenir shops and walk as far as the old village square, where a gentle breeze stirs the leaves of the almond trees – and the nature park office is located. It’s lunchtime, and the square lies deserted in the sun. Park ranger Leonardo Bacelar emerges from a side street and cycles over to us, a sinewy figure, who apparently isn’t suffering from the heat.

Bacelar, 34, was born on Ilha Grande – and became an environmental activist there. “I used to put on headphones if I had to walk a longer distance than usual,” he recalls. After looking around for a job, he finally signed up as a ranger in the nature reserve that covers more than half the island. “Now I’m out on the trails from dawn to dusk, checking for illegal campers and any trash people may have dumped, and listening to the birds and the howler monkeys.” What’s the best thing about his island? “I don’t need money to be happy here. The waves, the bays, the beaches with their big, black pebbles, and the trails – all these things are free!”

Paraty: Colonial backdrops

Day 3: Overawed by the beauty of colonial chapels, we meet the people of a picturesque town. The rhythm of their day is set by history.

The afternoon sun glints on the irregular cobbles and the colorful, painted facades of the colonial-style buildings in Paraty’s old town. Like in a scene from a movie, a woman in a floral-print dress steps out of the building opposite the Baroque church. Cynthia Tarrisse is an architect from Rio. As head of the heritage protection agency office, she lived for a year in the historical building, in an apartment that went with the job. “Living here, you are surrounded by history. The church bells wake you in the morning, remind you when it’s lunchtime and set the rhythm for your day,” she says.

She is overseeing a number of projects in the old town, and currently trying to reconstruct the original ground plan for one of them so that  the conversion work can be planned around it. “It’s pure detective work,” she says. Her favorite building is the white chapel Nossa Senhora das Dores at the end of the street, almost on the waterfront, where her daughter was baptized. “Many people come to Paraty to get married,” says Tarrisse, “they particularly like the chapel.” Although she no longer lives in the middle of the old town, Tarrisse spends several hours each day walking through its narrow streets, planning renovation work, chatting with a restaurant owner, giving a painter a few tips on how to improve the ventilation in his house, or taking a look at what an artisan has just finished producing in her workshop. Isn’t she even a little bit homesick for Rio? “Not at all! I don’t need to go to Rio if I’m looking for culture. There’s always something happening here, from jazz to literature festivals – at least one event a month, and nearly everything is free.”

Der Strand von Maresias
© Isabela Pacini

Maresias: Salty dreams

Day 4: Elsewhere, boys dream of a career as professional soccer players – in Maresias they want to become surf champions.

Thanks to the air conditioning, we enjoy a cooling breeze as we follow the coastline along the Rio Santos road. The scene outside our windows: trees ablaze with purple blossoms, forest-covered peaks and mountain meadows on the one side, deserted beaches on the other – so many, in fact, that it would be impossible to say which is the loveliest.

We stop in Maresias, a five-kilometer long bay with pristine white sand and perfect waves. In other parts of Brazil, young boys dream of becoming professional soccer players, but here they all want to become champion surfers. Between the red flags warning off the bathers, a young man plays with two dogs in the sand, just like a small boy – although he’s almost six feet tall and very muscular. Gabriel Medina is one of the world’s best surfers. Right now, he’s making the most of the final days of his vacation.

Medina spends every December and January with his family and the dogs. Some days he doesn’t even look at his board because he was out late the night before. “The rest of the year, I’m in the water every day,” he says, grinning, “because I’m obsessed with surfing and just can’t stay away from it.”

For another few days, he will enjoy being an almost ordinary 20-year-old, living in the beach-front house that he bought for his family, drinking his sponsor’s lemonade in front of the camera, setting off later (without the camera) to either the Morocco or Sirena club to hang out with his friends. In late February he gets back on the road, first to Australia, then to Hawaii, to finally claim the title. He was eleven years old when he announced to his father that he wanted to become world champion. “But deep down inside, I knew it long before,” says Medina.

Graffiti Künstler Tinho in der Nähe der Avenida Paulista
© Isabela Pacini

São Paulo: The capital of color

The final day takes us to the high-rises of the megacity São Paulo, where we are amazed to find lots of color between all the concrete.

With every passing kilometer, the buildings move closer together and the lush landscape thins away to just the odd tree here and there. We are nearing São Paulo. Larger, wilder, more avant-garde than any other city, the megalopolis is like a giant heart, traffic pulsating through its arteries. On tunnels, buildings, pillars, everywhere the urban signs of sprayers are in evidence – for some, they are the work of graffiti artists, for others, that of daubers.

In our Video: Sprayer work on their graffiti art

Huge, wide-open eyes follow us as we continue along the streets, giant-sized daisies and bees seem to almost diffuse their scent and buzz between the cars. Images crop up of children, cowed, apparently unnoticed by the adult world. We let ourselves drift, allowing the images to work their spell.

“My modest contribution to society is to demonstrate that no one has to do what others expect in order to survive. And today I am still painting wherever the wind blows me, whenever I want to!” His colleague Tinho has a small, sturdy build and Asian features. He talks about how it all began, back at the end of the military dictatorship, when he was a punk and a junkie and wanted to change the world. Today, Tinho is 41 years old, has a son and his own studio – and he has also changed the world a little bit: “We have the freedom to express an opinion, even though censorship still exists – but at least now there are bright flecks of color in the gray.”