Rio de Janeiro may be my favorite city. Ever. But eventually the time comes to leave the Marvelous City and set your sights somewhere else. Luckily, despite Brazil’s massive size, you don’t need to travel far to enjoy its nearly isolated and practically perfect beaches. Costa Verde is a stretch of wild coastline and tropics stretching south from Rio de Janeiro toward Sao Paulo. And if you head north, you’ll encounter a lovely lagoon and more white sand beaches. Whichever direction you choose, you can’t go wrong.
Paraty is Costa Verde’s colonial gem, a quaint and quiet town. Its cobblestoned colonial center is a car-free UNESCO World Heritage Site complete with historic white-washed houses and aged mansions.
Paraty’s history is one of rise and fall. The area boomed in 17th century thanks to a roaring gold trade, but the port town then declined in the 18th century when a better transportation route opened. In the 19th century the coffee trade rejuvenated the local economy, but Paraty remained isolated until the construction of a Rio-Paraty road in the 1970s. Although tourism has grown greatly in the past several decades, Paraty maintains an offbeat and calm atmosphere with a sprinkling of surprisingly gourmet dining options and easy access to water and land activities.
Though the in-town beach isn’t much to write home about, just offshore are 65 emerald draped islands lapped by sapphire seas. These island, some privately owned, make up a large portion of the region’s nearly 300 beaches. In addition to its colonial center and beach access, Paraty is a good base for several inland excursions. The historic Gold Trail (Trilha de Ouro) winds through the Parque Nacional da Serra da Bocaina, taking trekkers past several waterfalls, and about 6 miles from the coastline is the wondrous natural waterslide Cachoeira Tobaga.
The beautiful beach resort of Buzios, 3 hours northeast of Rio de Janeiro, is a favorite weekend retreat for Brazil’s up-and-coming (and the already there). Known for its lively and high-end nightlife, crystal clear waters, and plethora of fine dining options, if you have the time, Buzios is a great addition to a Rio vacation.
Buzios wasn’t always the coolest kid on the block. Only 50 years ago you’d be more likely to find fishing boats and, well, not much else. As the story goes, it was only after Brigitte Bardot—French supermodel, actress, and bikini-bearing 60s sex icon—visited the peninsula in 1964 with her Brazilian musician boyfriend that Buzios became the place to see and been seen.
Today, the 5-mile stretch of pristine jungle coastline maintains its small town tranquility—at least compared to neighboring Rio. Over 20 beaches offer every type of water activity imaginable: the peninsula’s southern beaches are best for surfing while the northern beaches are better for swimming and snorkeling. There is even a nude beach called Bull’s Eye (Praia Olho de Boi) for those free-spirited travelers, as well as several isolated beaches that require a short hike to reach.
Buzios is actually a municipality consisting of 4 small towns: Osso, Manguinhos, Armacao de Buzios, and Rasa. The oldest section, Osso, sits on the northern part of the peninsula and tends to be favored. The cobblestone street Rua das Pedras is the prime party, shopping, and dining spot, and if you head a bit further to Orla Bardot you’ll come to a seaside walkway that connects Osso to Armacao. Keep an eye out for several sculptures, including one of the Buzios-loving Brigitte Bardot.
A bit off the beaten path and trickier to visit is Ilha Grande, an island 110 miles off the mainland and roughly four hours south of Rio. Like most of Costa Verde, Ilha Grande’s biggest attraction is its natural beauty. The island has only one town, Vila do Abraao, which has no cars and its few roads are made out of sand. The island is large enough that you cannot walk around it (the island is 120 square miles), but small enough that given a few days, you’ll be able to explore most of its hidden coves and covered jungle treks.
Because there are no roads, the main way to get around is by foot or boat. Water taxis take travelers around the island to visit remote beaches, while those looking for adventure can hike up and over the hill that consumes the central part of the island. Of Ilha Grande’s 23 beaches, Lopes Mendes may be the most beautiful. It was once voted by Vogue Magazine as one of the best beaches in the world.