Get out of the city to explore Florianópolis
We recently stayed in Florianópolis, the capital of the Santa Catarina province in the south of Brazil, for over 2 weeks. Not in the city centre itself, but in the north of the island. We were guests of our friends Daniela and Carlos Zander, Brazilian overlanders we met over a year ago in Chile.
Before I go on, let me confuse you with some names: the island is called ‘Ilha de Santa Catarina‘ (like the province), but all of the island and São José on the mainland make up the city of Florianópolis. Locals refer to it as ‘Floripa‘. There are a number of towns and villages on the island, each with its own name. Now, would that reduce them officially to suburbs of Florianópolis?
While we stayed most of the time in Canasvieiras, we also ventured out and explored much of the island. Several times Carlos and Daniela drove us into the city centre to show us around, run some errands, or to visit their family. How lovely to be in a large city and not have to drive (or find a parking spot for Berta)!
The Centre of Florianópolis
When you approach Florianópolis from the mainland, across the wide road bridge, you get the overall impression of a very modern city. The shore is densely covered with high-rise apartment buildings. A wide promenade along the beach is used by locals for jogging, cycling, inline skating, or just a lazy stroll in the ocean breeze.
The look of a modern city continues through the suburbs, but the centre of town has a good number of old-style colonial buildings left, many of them colourfully painted. We wandered around the old market halls, which have been lovingly restored after a recent fire. One hall has a food market, with a specialised fish aisle. Another houses small shops selling all sorts of imported stuff – locals refer to this as the Chinese Market. A part of the third hall is now home to a lovely gallery selling local craft items.
From there it’s only a short walk up to Praça XV de Novembro, a beautiful park in front of the old cathedral. Shade in the park is provided by enormous old ficus trees, their thick wide branches held up by specially designed steel supports. Here we were lucky to watch a group performing a Capoeira on a Saturday.
If you want to soak up the atmosphere, visit some museums and explore some of the many retail shops and malls, you could easily spend a few days to a week in the city centre. You will find many different restaurants offering truly international fare. We noticed several Australian-themed eateries [lol] and found some excellent sushi, sold buffet-style by the kilogram.
Our regular readers might realise that this post won’t only be about the city centre, since we usually don’t spend much time in large cities. Once you get out of the confines of the capital you will soon discover that Ilha de Santa Catarina has much more to offer. The island is 424.4 km² in size – big enough to spend a short vacation!
As soon as you get out of the city centre you will see that the island is fairly mountainous for its size, and there are quite a few green open spaces left. We found paddocks with cattle grazing, market gardens, and even went four-wheel-driving through the forest (more about this later). Several regions of considerable size are protected as nature reserves.
The Beaches in the North
The north is the touristic hot spot of the island. The ocean is warmer here, the bays are more protected, and many beaches are child friendly. Where the open Atlantic on the east coast has a big swell attracting surfers, here small waves roll gently onto the sand.
Coming from Australia, the Brazilian beach culture is very foreign to us. First of all: yes, there’s lovely soft white or yellow sand, but in many places the strip is so narrow that at high tide the water comes right up to the walkways and walls enclosing beachfront properties.
Secondly, as you probably know, tiny string bikinis are the fashion on the beaches. But what you probably don’t know, if you haven’t been to Brazil, is that it is worn by all women who wish to wear it. If Yasha did this in Australia, she would feel incredibly self-conscious and people would indeed look and many would disapprove. Here she was pleased to see women old and young, fat and thin, smooth and wrinkled, completely comfortable in their bodies. We could certainly learn something from the Brazilians. It brought to mind the mix of women in the Las Llamadas parade in Montevideo .
Then, there’s the loud Latin music everywhere: from bars; from small mobile stalls selling alcoholic cocktails (unthinkable in our British influenced society, where drinking in public is strictly prohibited); from the colourful vendors of beach wear and sarongs; and from the small stalls hiring out folding chairs and umbrellas.
And finally, something we only know from remote beaches in Australia: people drive their cars right onto the beach, unpack their folding chairs and beach umbrella, and maybe their fishing gear, and relax. Thankfully on Ilha de Santa Catarina this practice is banned in most places.
We learned that during peak summer, towns like Canasvieiras are packed with mostly Argentinean tourists. When we arrived in mid-April it felt like a summer destination just about to shut down. Some of the apart-hotels were still open, but others had completely closed down; many shops were empty with windows papered up, and the few open ones attracted very little trade.
Not everything shuts down though, because Canasvieiras and neighbouring towns are also residential satellites for people working in the capital. A four-lane highway connects it with the city centre.
One day we drove up to Lagoinha on the far north tip to walk to a look-out. The promised track was rather overgrown and in bad nick due to recent heavy rains, so we didn’t make it to the end (walking sticks for extra support would have helped).
We also checked out nearby Brava, a bay densely built up with large holiday apartment blocks – not our cup of tea…
The Lake in the Centre of Ilha de Santa Catarina
Across a steep mountain, directly east of the city of Florianópolis, lies the Lagoa da Conceição, a large inland lake shaped like an upside-down number 8. This is a popular destination for several reasons: wind surfing, boating, night clubs, eateries, and accommodation (in mostly low-key family run establishments).
When we drove through, we encountered a traffic jam for kilometres caused by people coming from the city for Sunday lunch in one of the many fish restaurants by the lake. Several well-known restaurants are hidden on the other side of the lake, which can only be accessed by boat.
The East of the Island
We ended up camping at Praia Moçambique for a night. This landscape is still relatively wild. There is a large nature reserve inland, which offers walking tracks and basic camping facilities (its entrance is too low for vehicles of Berta’s size). The forest reaches right down to the shore, where a sand track winds its way between pine trees. Small pull-outs offer space for a picnic or a shaded camp by the beach. Most beaches on the east coast, from Brava down to Solidão, are popular with surfers.
We visited Joaquina, famous for its Dunas da Joaca, which stretch from the south shore of Lagoa da Conceição to here. They are a sand boarding paradise. On weekends and during holidays you can hire boards straight on the dunes and try out your sand boarding skills. There’s a second location of tall sand dunes, just south of Ingleses in the north-east of the island.
Campeche, further south on the east coast, was simply too busy for our liking – it felt like a popular resort town. So we continued all the way south, until the road ends in Solidão. Down there development is on a much lower scale, mostly small holiday houses precariously built into the steep hill sides.
The Historic Towns of Ilha de Santa Catarina
When we left Solidão, our next destination was the historic Portuguese village of Ribeirão on the west side of the island. The GPS suggested two routes: one of almost 100 kilometres, one of roughly 36 kilometres. Of course we took the shorter one, although it wasn’t on our paper map. In the beginning it was a reasonably good earth road, but half way along it became a steep dirt track winding its way up and down through mostly dense forest, interspersed with some small rural properties. That’s when we needed four-wheel-drive, since the road was really too steep to get up with two-wheel-drive only in some sections…
Ribeirão da Ilha is neat historic village with many tiny, colourful, historic houses; most date back to early Portuguese settlement. This makes for some nice photo motifs. The water on the west side of the island is extensively used for oyster and shrimp farming, and the many restaurants in town are specialised in seafood dishes. We guess the town would be very busy on Sundays for lunch.
North of Florianópolis is Santo Antônio de Lisboa, the first Portuguese settlement on the island, dating back to 1698. Whilst there aren’t as many historic houses left as in Ribeirão, the small, old church (N.Sra. das Necessiades from 1756) and the many waterfront seafood restaurants are reason enough to visit.
The Far South of the Island
The far south of Ilha de Santa Catarina is also protected as a nature reserve and is not accessible by road. The landscape is characterised by steep forested hill sides, rocky outcrops, and some small beaches. The hidden bays can be only reached by boat or along walking tracks.
Ilha de Santa Catarina as a Destination
As you can see, Ilha de Santa Catarina has a lot more to offer than just the city of Florianópolis. In a way, much of the inland of the island reminded us of Mediterranean landscapes: roads winding up and down through the hills, sometimes passing through the narrow streets of villages with colourful houses, tiled roofs and shady verandahs decorated with flowering pots. Water glimpses and small courtyard cafes or restaurants complete this picture.
Most of the beachside towns are geared towards tourists and have all facilities. You can find modern blocks of holiday apartments and more intimate family run pousadas.
What surprised us the most was evidence of creativity in so many places:
- power poles decorated with colourful mosaics lined the streets in many places
- amazing street art in the city of Florianópolis, but also inland in the smaller villages
- the large street art overpass near the airport
- some creatively designed houses
- a truly amazing, large retaining wall on one property (on the way to Brava), built with thousands of colourful recycled glass bottles and mosaics made from discarded tile off-cuts. Even a toilet bowl, a wash basin, and a couple of windshields were integrated into this riot of concrete and recycled materials…
- the open-air gallery of the artist Maia on the shore of Lagoa da Conceição in Retiro
- the quirky facade of the organic Mercado São Jorge in Florianópolis.
If you want to get a taste of Brazil’s south, Ilha de Santa Catarina would make an excellent destination for a week or two. It’s compact, has a lot to offer, accommodation everywhere, and attractions, small and large, can be found around every corner.
Probably the easiest way to see it all would be to hire a car in the capital. Outside peak season it should be uncomplicated to find suitable accommodation in every little town (now: do we call them suburbs? See my intro) on the island.
December, March and April offer good weather and less crowded conditions for a visit. Until late April, the ocean should be warm enough for pleasant swimming.
If you want to extend your stay in southern Brazil, we recommend exploring the mountains inland from Florianópolis. Either, follow the route in our amazing mountain scenery post or, venture further into the European influenced regions and visit the famous Canela and Gramado .
Additional Information for Overlanders (like us)
It’s not easy to find places to free camp on the island because most is very built up; the remainder is mostly fenced. Your best guide is probably the iOverlander app , which we used this time too. There are a number of campgrounds on the island. They can be noisy in peak season and closed out of season.