You See More if You Get Out of the City of Rio
Rio de Janeiro is probably one of the best known destinations in the world. With the Olympics this year, it’s a fair guess that almost all humans on the planet know about it. But aside from the city with its Carnival, Pão de Açúcar, Cristo Redentor Corcovado, Ipanema and Cococabana beaches with beautiful bodies, and the Olympics, Rio de Janeiro is also one of the 27 states of Brazil, with the city as its capital.
Despite being the 4th smallest state in area, it has the 3rd largest population, the 3rd longest coastline, and the 2nd largest economy in Brazil. You can find all of these facts, and more, collated on Wikipedia, or elsewhere on the internet. But we want to share with you some of the interesting places to visit in this state.
Geographically, the state of Rio de Janeiro is made up of mountains and a very long coastline. The coastline, with its inlets, peninsulas and islands, is densely populated wherever it’s possible. In places this might be just a small village or resort, nestled into the base of the mountains. Serra do Mar is a mountain chain, which runs parallel to the Atlantic Ocean, from Santa Catarina to Espirito Santo.
West of the city of Rio de Janeiro the coast is named Costa Verde. It’s where the Serra do Mar escarpment reaches down to the Atlantic Ocean, and out to the coastal islands. Atlantic Forest – Mata Atlântica – covers most of the mountains. To the east of the city we found the Costa do Sol and the lakes district.
Because we were visiting in winter, we decided to stay mostly at the coast where it’s warmer. Once we briefly left the coast, to visit Parque Nacional da Serra dos Orgãos (Organ Mountains National Park). After some cold nights there, we hurried back to the coast.
Rio’s Coast – west to east
Paraty – the most beautiful colonial city we have seen since Cartagena
This small city was our first experience of the state of Rio de Janeiro. It is delightful. Its whitewashed buildings with colourful doors, window frames and other adornments are beautiful. It has several churches, and lots of colourful boats on the water. Walking around in it was calming to the spirit, and Paraty is certainly a photographer’s paradise .
Angra dos Reis – 3 months more to explore Brazil
We came to this small city, west of Rio, for a specific purpose – to apply for a 90 day visa extension. Although we were not overly optimistic, it was a relatively seamless process getting a visa extension for us and a vehicle permit extension for Berta. The night was spent in a large parking lot that was walking distance to the offices we needed. On the way to them in the morning, we passed the fishing port and a few interesting old buildings, including a church and monastery, or maybe a convent. We were out of the city again by early afternoon.
The city of Rio – should we go to Rio?
We came back to this question, over and over again. Before we arrived in Brazil, it was mostly a definite ‘No’ – we don’t like big cities. But as we got closer to the famous city, we started to see it more as a possibility – since we’re so close, maybe we shouldn’t miss the opportunity. Our new friends from Itamambuca encouraged us to go, if we could find somewhere to park Berta. So we decided to try. Juergen has described our experiences in detail , many of which were not very pleasant.
But we ‘never say never’! For example, our first two visits to Buenos Aires in 2009 were not pleasant. After each of these experiences, we vowed we would never visit that city again. But we did return – in December 2015. We found a good place to park Berta and spend the nights. Best of all, we really enjoyed Buenos Aires .
So, just because our first experience of the city of Rio de Janeiro was less than perfect, doesn’t mean we would never consider returning. It’s not part of our current plans for Brazil, though.
Niterói – across Guanabara Bay
This smaller city has a lot to offer. The Caminho Niemeyer is a big draw . There are also historic areas including several forts that we didn’t visit. A short ferry trip to the big city makes it an attractive place to stay, particularly as an overlander with a large vehicle. If we were to return to visit Rio, I can imagine that we might stay somewhere around Niterói and take the ferry across the bay to explore the city.
Saquarema – Capela Nossa Senhora de Nazareth
As we drove along the coast one day, looking for a place to stop for the night, we could see a church in the distance. It looked like it was on an island. As we came closer it was actually a small hill on a promontory. It was a typical Brazilian church, beautiful in its simplicity. We spent a peaceful night below the church.
Interestingly, we often sleep well near churches. In the morning I walked up and went inside the church. It was also simple and beautiful, decorated with flowers, perhaps for a wedding. I wandered around outside and sat for a while, contemplating the ocean. It was very peaceful.
Armaҫão dos Búzios – international jetsetters destination
Búzios, as it is commonly called, was a small fishing village in the 60s when Brigitte Bardot came to visit, escaping the paparazzi in Rio. She praised it, and before long it became an international jetsetters destination. Today it is still a tourist destination, popular with Brazilians and Argentinians, but also attracting international travellers.
For more read the Guardian: And Bardot created Búzios
It is on a peninsula, and boasts more than 20 distinct beaches. As we drove around the hilly peninsula, we had some lovely views of the ocean and nearby islands – although it’s very difficult to find somewhere to stop.
The town centre is on a sheltered bay with a pleasant water front walk. There are restaurants; artisan, designer and beach clothing shops; nightclubs; and lots of buggies for rent to race around in.
Barra de São João – not really on the tourist radar, but…
Juergen found this spot, just by looking at the GPS maps. It was such a relaxing place to be that we stayed 3 days, returning later to spend another week. It’s a parking lot on a small promontory in the river mouth; river on one side and ocean on the other. Another simple church on the hill – Capela de São João – pleased us. Unfortunately, it’s no longer in use and suffering from lack of care.
The beach between the river and the sea is not more than 100m wide. It attracts lots of Brazilians on weekends, and local fishing enthusiasts anytime. I guess that one day the small church might be sitting on an island.
Quissamã – a well-loved town
One day, we passed through the Municipality of Quissamã. We stopped to fill our water tank at a fuel station, and to shop for bread and vegies. The guys at the fuel station were very friendly and farewelled Juergen with ‘Go with God’. I was stopped by a woman in the street who had seen me get out of Berta – she wanted to tell how beautiful the truck was and what a wonderful life I must have, then gave me directions to a bakery, all in Portuguese with the odd English word thrown in the mix.
When I returned from shopping, Juergen was nowhere to be seen. I started looking around and suddenly noticed some interesting looking buildings; I guessed rightly that he had wandered off to take photos. While searching around for the things we needed, I hadn’t noticed, but now I really looked. The town is neat and tidy, and really quite picturesque. The people were very friendly and helpful and they obviously take a lot of pride in their town.
It is often interesting to see a new place and to notice what it tells us about the people who live there.
Farol de São Tomé – helicopters and fishing boats
Like so many others along this coast, this is a fishing village. It always makes an idyllic picture, with the colourful boats on the ocean or pulled up on the sand. Right there on the beach they build big, traditional, wooden boats by hand. It was an interesting and impressive sight.
We spent the night parked next to the ocean, and the predominant sound the next morning was helicopters flying overhead, out to sea. We assumed oil platforms and later discovered we were correct. The coastline of the state of Rio de Janeiro is peppered with oil wells.
Rio’s Mountains – round trip: Barra de São João to Teresópolis
Reserva Biologica Poҫo Das Antas – Golden Lion Tamarin
We had read that this reserve, which is home to these endangered monkeys, should be somewhere between Casimiro de Abreu and Silva Jardim. So we followed the highway between to two and found nothing. In Silva Jardim we stopped at the police point to ask. The guy that finally came to the door looked half asleep and wasn’t really very helpful. We had to be content with a photo of a cast figure of one of the animals at the entrance to the town, and turned back to Casimiro de Abreu.
On the way back we saw big signs along the side of the road showing which animals were protected in this reserve. There was a compound behind a closed gate containing the administration and education centre of the AMLD – Associaҫão Mico Leão Dourado (Association of the golden lion tamarin). Since it was a Sunday, the gate was closed. A sign said – you can’t enter unless ‘authorised’. This was a 60Km round trip for pretty much nothing. If you plan ahead, and have some access to the Portuguese language, you may have better luck with finding these endangered animals here in the wild.
Nova Friburgo – not German, Swiss
In Casimiro de Abreu, we turned off towards Nova Friburgo – more from curiosity about another German sounding city, than any other reason – except perhaps to stay off the main highways. The road we followed is a very windy and up and down, but the scenery is lovely – mountains, forest, araucarias, rock monoliths.
We spent the night in a quiet parking lot – unusual for the middle of a large city. Since the town didn’t really interest us, we left towards Teresópolis early the next day.
Just outside of the city we came upon Casa Suiҫo. Actually, the sign called it a cheese making school! They also make chocolate. There is a museum about the Swiss immigration to this area. The city is not named for a German city, but for a Swiss one. We went into the museum, which was filled with old photos depicting the history of the settlement. I had hoped it would be explained in English, or at least German, but it was only in Portuguese. So we didn’t get as much information as we would have liked…
The drive continued to be quite lovely, with forest including araucaria trees once more. The area also had lots of market gardening – with vegies growing wherever there was space. We also saw more huge rock monoliths – a hint of what was to come.
Teresópolis – unusual mountains, Atlantic Forest and classic cars
Teresópolis is one point of access to the Organ Mountains National Park, which is named after huge granite outcrops. It’s a small city, only about 50 Km north-east of Rio de Janeiro, as the crow flies. We stopped at the lookout (Mirante do Soberba) from where you can see Rio, and all its familiar landmarks – the bay, sugarloaf, the Cristo – if the air is clear enough.
The lookout is also the best place in Teresópolis to see some of the granite monoliths, including the Dedo de Deus Peak (Finger of God), which is almost 1700m.
The National Park protects a large area of the Atlantic Forest. It is a pleasant environment. Had we been prepared and fitter for long walks, we could have followed walking trails in the park which lead to lookout points where you can also view the Organ Mountains.
But we were only able to manage a walk along a road to experience the forest. The road was shared with cars, but not passable with Berta. So we made the 5Km return trip on foot, the outward part almost entirely uphill. We had no energy left for taking side trails, over rough terrain, that were perhaps 2-4Km each.
At the end of the road we came to the canopy walk. Imagine our disappointment when, after walking that far uphill, we discovered that only a small part of the walkway was open and the rest was closed indefinitely for renovation – with no sign of work being carried out. Nevertheless, we enjoyed being in the forest.
Teresópolis had a surprise for us: 34a Exposição da Automóveis Antigos de Teresópolis / 34th Exhibition of Old Automobiles in Teresópolis. We stayed extra days just to experience it. If you know Juergen, you will know that he is fascinated by historic vehicles [our post] , and this proved to be the highlight of our visit.
So if Rio is on your bucket list, make sure you don’t limit yourself to the big city sights. From the mountains to the ocean, there is so much more that the state of Rio de Janeiro has to offer.