Condé Nast Traveller, March 2013
Vast, immeasurable, an overspill of cultures, climates and racial identities, Brazil, the fifth largest nation on Earth, feels more like an incomplete planet than a very big country. From Rio de Janeiro to Manaus, for example, is 2500 miles; the same journey, starting from London, would take you to Syria or Nigeria. The best way to understand the most influential nation in Latin America is to think of it as a slideshow of ever-changing views.
Take Rio. From my fifth-floor suite at the Copacabana Palace Hotel at 8 in the morning there is perhaps the world’s most spectacular urban outlook: a beachfront highway, Burle Marx’s 4-kilometre snake of mosaic pavement, a scattering of kiosk cafés and palm trees, and the stupendous curling, vanishing length of Copacabana beach. So wide is the beach that although Joseph Gire’s hotel, modelled on the Negresco in Nice, sits on its shore like some fabulous glittering beach hut, the humans at the ocean’s edge are distant silhouettes, stick people, poised where the sand and the ocean are merely different sorts of light.
Or drive to the top of the Corcovado mountain and look down on a city that is more seaside playground than purposeful conurbation. Only Christ – Paul Landowski’s 39-metre-high statue of Christ the Redeemer, arms outstretched above you – has a better view of the skyscrapers squeezed between the woods and water below.
Or cross Guanabara Bay to Niteroi and, from the 360-degree perspective of Oscar Niemeyer’s flower-shaped Museu de Arte Contemporânea, contemplate Rio’s Cubist sprawl and green Primitivist hills from across the water. Return, and climb one of those hills to a favela – one of the hundreds of slums in which 20 percent of Rio’s population lives – or go back to the beaches, to Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, and choose your view and your section of beach according to the number of the lifeguard post: Post 9 at Ipanema is where the most beautiful bodies congregate.
What is truly remarkable about Rio is that until recently such a roll-call of views would hardly have been possible to see with ease or pleasure. From the 1990s onwards the city’s flamboyant cocktail of setting, architecture and sensuality that had seduced every visitor to the city since the bossa nova was invented, was on the dive. “Underwhelming,” I was told before I left England. “Not so much the cidade maravilhosa [beautiful city] as the cidade dura [tough city].” The crime statistics – 17 murders a day – and the films of José Padilha (Elite Squad and its sequel The Enemy Within) about the city’s drug wars and police corruption confirmed Rio’s reputation. Above all, you never went anywhere near a favela, unless invited. The favelas’ historic atmosphere is caught on a flamboyant ceramic mural at the Selarón Stairs in the Lapa district: “Nobody robs, nobody hears, nothing is lost. Those who are wise obey those who give orders.”
Cariocas – Rio’s law-abiding citizens – watched floodlights go up on the big beaches and despaired. Then, decisively, eighteen months ago, the state government began sending the army and the Trupa d’Elite police into the favelas. The drug lords were driven out, with remarkably few deaths (although my guide, Marcelo, hinted delicately that to kill with a knife is “very quiet”). Marcelo insisted I should see a favela and drove me up to Roçinha, which was pacified last January. It was an extraordinary place: an up-and-down warren of alleys (population 100,000), a fumy potionof garbage, chickens and clove cigarettes, bird’s nests of illegal cabling at every corner. But crime had plummeted, Marcelo said, and with the economy growing fast, unemployment too; and something democratic has emerged at Roçinha, now that the fear is receding: in these low-rise brick and concrete labyrinths stacked up the hills, most residents have a million-dollar view.
Brazil’s economy is booming almost everywhere you care to look, from the twinkling clusters of offshore drilling platforms you see as your plane descends, to the fashion for expensive orthodontic work that is one of the first things you notice after you touch down. Brazilians are fixing their smiles; many of them have a lot to smile about. In Rio, some things still don’t work: if you want to use an ATM when you’re there, make sure you tell your bank you’re going, otherwise the city’s historic reputation for crime means they will block your cardthe first time you try to use it, assuming it has been cloned or stolen.
But the Copacabana Palace, with its bellboys in white, its 20-metre pool and perfect scrambled eggs on the terrace, obviously works. So do other things. You can now explore the beaches and centre by renting an orange Itaú bike (the name of the sponsoring bank) for 5 reais (£2) a day, and across the road from the Copacabana Palace you can sit and drink água de côco straight from the coconut and admire its art deco façade for even less. Be prepared to find a careless, last-minute spirit in the city, as though it is always being remade, always incomplete. Despite Brazil hosting the next World Cup and Rio the next Olympics, there is little sign of preparations taking place yet for either.
An hour’s drive west of the city brings you through eucalyptus woods and shaded villages to a place you should not miss: the Roberto Burle Marx gardens at Guaratiba, probably one of the most beautifully laid-outsites in Brazil. Here the landscape architect, artist and ecologist lived from 1973 until his death, on a former coffee plantation that is not only a shaded, perfume-radiating idyll (the lake of mosaic lilies is unforgettable), recalling his legacy of hundreds of gardens around the world, it also includes a 17th-century chapel, an airy studio, a superb folk-art collection, and the spirit of an almost perfect quality of life.
We returned to Rio via the Museu Casa do Pontal, which houses an even more comprehensive collection of clay folk-art figures including – if you ask, and you should – an “erotic room” behind an unmarked door, and then stopped at a beach café for homemade pasteléis filled with hot crab and prawns. “You should try a moqueca [seafood stew simmered in coconut milk and palm oil],” Marcelo said, “but we don’t have time.”
This was Rio’s constant problem. I’d promised myself visits to Santa Teresa, the city’s colonial quarter, to the neo-classical remnants of Centro and the cabaret quarter of Lapa. I made it to the first, but by the time I had drunk several coffees and admired the dishevelled Portuguese mansions that have made Santa Teresa a middle-class treasure house and the acme of bohemian aspirations – a fusion embodied in a recent award to the district’s Bar do Mineiro for being the “best place for flirting” in Rio – it was too late. The problem was magnified because I also wanted to see the legendary singer Chico Buarque. The shows were sold out, but a generous man named Mario found me a ticket and so, after caipirinhas at the Academia da Cachaça in Leblon, I ended up at Rio Vivo.
Chico, slight and modest, a less angular Samuel Beckett in appearance, was as captivating as he has been since the 1970s – and as appealing to women. I sat with a musician, Ricardo, and his beautiful girlfriend, a singer. Word-perfect, she accompanied Chico from memory, staring sparkling-eyed towards the stage, then tearing herself back to clasp Ricardo. Love must have its place, Chico was singing. But who to love?
A 1200-kilometre hop from Rio takes you to Foz do Iguaçu, whose existence depends on a single asset. It is reported that on seeing the Iguaçu Falls for the first time, Eleanor Roosevelt exclaimed, “Poor Niagara!” Formed by two earthquakes more than 150 million years ago, Iguaçu is a thundering, steaming cauldron of up to 275 falls, where the water can rise or fall by 30 metres and smashes and pounds so unremittingly that it is almost impossible not to ascribe to them some irrational human character. The Victoria Falls are higher, but Iguaçu delivers 50 percent more water: the nearby Itaipu hydro-electric plant supplies 19 percent of Brazil’s energy needs – enough for 40 million people – and 90 percent of neighbouring Paraguay’s. The Guarani and Tupi Indians first named Iguaçu, with total accuracy, from their words y and ûasú, “big water”.
Rio had been countless vistas, all more or less breathtaking and curiosity-inducing. Iguaçu was unique, grandiloquent, majestic, all possible views rolled up into one. It started a train of thought that developed during the two days I spent at the Hotel das Cataratas – the only hotel inside the Iguaçu National Park on the Brazilian side. Built in 1958 and recently reopened with its broad corridors and elegant hardwood floors intact, its proud pink fazenda-style design makes it a sybaritic retreat. From my bedroom, overlooking the head of the falls – the Devil’s Throat – I glimpsed day-trippers alighting from their buses in the morning to walk down to the observation platform and felt extremely lucky. I was able to make the walk several times, at sunrise and at dusk and nearly always alone, to watch the parakeets on the islands in the stream, basking teyu lizards, and the swifts that nested behind the torrent.
Cariocas who don’t care for Rio’s carnival come to the das Cataratas to get away, and indeed once you have walked to the falls and back you could happily idle away the day reading by the pool, which in any case is next to the rainforest and where, from a position of prone relaxation, you would probably see a cascati catching butterflies in its beak (800 species in the park), or a couple of languid black-and-white teyus, or a family of coatis – South American raccoons – raiding the poolside café when the staff are not looking. In which case you should also surrender to a deep andiroba massage in the spa wing, to an hour of the strong hands of Irma (“I make you kaputt! Tomorrow you very better!”), and in the à la carte Itaipu restaurant afterwards sample an ethereal pre-starter of barely poached quail’s eggs, a melting steak tartare prepared from grass-fed beef, and a sole meunière – though I had to ask the chef to try again with the sole (his first attempt was too dry, which at more than £30 for a main course counts as a felony).
No, the das Cataratas is an ideal resting point, the falls a phenomenal panorama midway from somewhere to somewhere else. But the panorama made me reflect that the sense of personal discovery embodied in a view is crucial – not dissimilar to the impulse you have when someone shows you their photographs: as Roland Barthes has pointed out, you immediately want not to immerse yourself in theirs, but to show them yours.
My last stop was another 1000 kilometres south-east of Iguaçu. Heading north from Florianópolis in Santa Catarina state, the straggle of a state capital’s highway lined with dusty lock-ups and shiny, featureless car dealerships gave way to glimpses of ocean again, woods and fields specked with Brahman cattle, and then a right turn to the fishing village of Governador Celso Ramos and a sudden, unmarked track up between thick woods in the middle of the village.
On this forested point, between one bay and the next, Ponta dos Ganchos (Portuguese for “point of the hooks”) lies nearly invisibly among 8 hectares of eucalyptuses, bamboos and palms. Twenty-five pink ochre bungalows are secreted among the trees and slopes. Mine is last in a line of five whose flat eco-roofs spill vegetation among tilted solar panels, and inside it has a cool interior of carefully arranged spaces and in the right angle of its L, beyond the double showers with huge Brevetto heads and sliding doors to the world outside, a sauna and Jacuzzi next to a glass wall. The view to the west from its wide deck and private lap pool, over mussel and oyster beds and an enormous bay and blue, hazy, far-distant range of hills, is indeed enchanting.
I sit on the deck for a half-hour, nibbling strawberries from the fruit bowl and thinking about this view. It is not still but animated: in the shallows, square areas of plastic floats mark mussel beds, and fishermen putt back and forth. Cormorants hunch staring on rocks like lovesick poets. High clouds steer clear of the sun.
Ponta dos Ganchos is a family-owned resort, run by Nicolas Peluffo and his sister Virginia, both of whom take great pride in its tranquillity and unostentatious luxury. Nicolas is delighted to tell me that last year Ponta dos Ganchos was awarded the rarely-given ISO 14.001 standard for sustainable development; that more than 90 percent of the employees are trained from the local neighbourhood; and that the resort is always trying to remove the traditional gap between what guests want and what suits the management. Breakfast, for instance – with an optional tasting menu – is available all day.
The resort’s designer was Nicolas and Virginia’s mother, the architect Elianne Klenner, who died in her early fifties in 2011. Her legacy is not just in the rustic-modernist design and levels of comfort in each bungalow, but in an unexpectedly homely ambience. On my first day I went fishing with Virginia and, having stayed out trying to land a large grouper (and failing), we came back, safely but ruggedly, through choppy weather. The following morning I sat idling on the deck and experienced the feeling of somehow being at home.
The organic restaurant at Ponta dos Ganchos is as excellent as any in Rio, with a remarkable cellar of Brazilian wines. To give me a full idea of the resort’s possibilities, I am invited to a dinner on the island in front of the beach, with Miguel, the general manager. One couple each night crosses a wooden walkway to spend the evening here, at a stone-and-thatched hideaway, served by waiters summoned by radio. Two middle-aged men, initially shy at being thrown together like a honeymooning couple, find that by the end of a menu of incomparable oysters – gratinées, natural, and with cucumber, mint and olive oil – lobster, and lamb loin with tapenade crust, they are old cronies contemplating the resort lights glimmering on the shore in feathered darkness.
But it is also easy to be active without moving far. I hiked a few miles to Praia de Fora, a perfect Robinson Crusoe beach sheltered from humanity by whale-like fingers of pink basalt (and was rewarded for my effort with a spa treatment in a cliff-top gazebo on my return, gazing at the sunset through a screen of bamboos). There are oyster farms, snorkelling, diving; you can visit a Portuguese fort or contemplate the exquisite Nossa Senhora da Piedade church on the shore at Praia da Armação da Piedade, built in the 18th century by slaves using mud, shell and whale oil. Florianópolis island is strewn with nuggets of early Azorean settlements, such as the old port of Santo Antônio de Lisboa, still painted in bright, peasant colours and dedicated to fishing more than tourists’ needs.
Nicolas Peluffo believes Florianópolis to be one of the great secrets of the southern hemisphere. “The best place to party, the most beautiful girls anywhere, beaches that no one outside Brazil has heard of.” He wanted to show me, in a single experience, what it had to offer.
We bobbed offshore by the dunes at the north end of the city’s beach. The tender was late, because the chef-owner of the Recanto dos Brunidores, where we were to eat, had sent it to fetch sea-urchins for us. Ashore, we sat by the water with pasteléis of prawns, oysters and ceviche, grouper tartare with local red peppercorns and bacalhau (cod) croquettes, helped down with glacial, astringent Pêra-Manca wine; followed them with a pâté of live sea-urchin, with cream and cognac; and for a main course the moqueca I had sought since Rio, simmering prawns, mussels, oysters, squid and the tenderest octopus. The chef, his passion concealed behind a peppery moustache and reserve, was abashed at my praise.
From these excursions I returned each time to sit on the deck and watch the bay. What was so eerily alluring about this particular view? Its rarity, perhaps, and its vast but balanced scale of sea and sky against an animated though minimal human presence, as the fishermen punctually checked their nets and beds and people moved in the few visible houses.
There was something else, too. The view brought to my mind what the French Riviera might have looked like in the mid-1920s, when Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald stumbled on that paradise, and before the Côte was clothed in brick and concrete from Marseille to the Italian border. Ponta dos Ganchos, with its “bright tan prayer rug of a beach”, its wooded slopes and whispered encouragement to its guests to do whatever they are tempted to do, is out of the same mould as Gausse’s Hôtel des Étrangers in Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night, poised and dazzling, as intensely romantic as it is intensely indulgent.
It is also at a similar point of balance, between the undisturbed past and the developed future. With Brazil’s economic boom, new developments are planned (though not licensed yet) along this coast, and so Ponta dos Ganchos’s fine view conveys not just a handsome prospect, not merely an enchanting view, but a quality even more precious, the outline of something that is potentially irretrievable.
HOW TO GET THERE
Luxury travel specialists, Scott Dunn can create similar tailor-made itineraries to Brazil from £3,990 per person including three nights Rio at Copacabana Palace, two nights Iguassu at Hotel Das Cataratas and three nights at Ponta dos Ganchos. Price includes return direct flights to Rio with British Airways, accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis in Rio and Iguassu and full board at Ponta dos Ganchos and private transfers. For more information call Scott Dunn’s Latin America specialists on 020 8682 5030 and visit www.scottdunn.com
Flights to Rio de Janeiro with British Airways start from £655 return including all taxes www.ba.com
Ponta dos Ganchos offers rates from £469 (BRL 1340) per bungalow per night based on two sharing, including all meals and non-alcoholic beverage. For bookings and further information please visit www.pontadosganchos.com or call +55 48 39537000.
Nightly rates at Copacabana Palace start from $943BRL (approx £325) based on two sharing a Superior City View Room, including service and tax, room only. To book call Orient-Express reservations on 0845 077 2222 or visit www.copacabanapalace.com
Nightly rates at Hotel das Cataratas start from $819BRL (approx £283) based on two people sharing a Superior Queen Room, including service and tax, with breakfast. To book call Orient-Express reservations on 0845 077 2222 or visit www.hoteldascataratas.com