Road + Beach = Brazil
It was raining, as it had been for several days. The cramped room smelt of mosquito coils and the several pairs of poorly washed socks drying on an upturned pan in the doorway of the open oven. There was no sound except that of the water thrumming on the roof tiles and the clack of the giant green beetles gorging themselves on a clutch of rotting coconuts hanging a couple of meters from our little balcony. In front of the hotel, the right-hand front wheel of our car was imperceptibly deflating. For thousands of kilometers in most directions, nothing at all was happening. And yet, a hundred meters from where we lay, prone, watching the row of clothes on the improvised clothes line strung between the wardrobe and the television suck ever more dampness from the limpid humidity, was one of the most beautiful beaches we had ever seen. We were on holiday.
And halfway through a roadtrip of significant proportions. Three weeks to explore the three thousand kilometers of coastline that arcs up like a plant stem from the Uruguayan border and flowers spectacularly at the sun and sex Mecca that is Rio de Janeiro. It was unfortunate that we'd chosen to make the trip in January, the month of the Brasilian rainy season, but until now it hadn't meant more than the perfect sunny mornings we'd been enjoying had been followed by overcast afternoons, by which time we'd usually had enough of the beach anyway. Until now.
In Rosa, 1000 kms to the southwest and our first port of call, the odd downpour hadn't been too much of a problem. From the large terrace cantilevered off the upper floor of our jungle cabaña, we had a fine view of one of the best surfing beaches in the country, and within less than ten minutes walk (or, ahem, five minutes drive) were various surfer-dude hangouts dishing up Trivial de Frango, a carb-heavy wallet-light feast meal of grilled chicken, white rice, farofa (or maize flour, a traditional staple here); the Tigre Asiatico, a quality sushi house with an L.A. ambience; and a fun selection of bars.
Itamambuca, however, didn't boast too much in the way of culinary diversion. We were self-catering here, though even leaving the place to drive to one of the supermarkets in nearby Ubatuba was a problem, on account of the appallingly rutted dirt road that connected us with the highway and left in an almost unnegotiable state in order to discourage casual traffic and those without SUVs – in this part of Brazil most of the more exclusive beach communities have deliberately terrible access, to keep out the hoi polloi in their standard issue city cars. The tactic hasn't worked in Rosa, which in the last ten years has grown from a twinkle in the tourist minister's eye into a bustling beach town, despite the road remaining sufficiently severe to do irrevocable damage to the suspension of our Peugeot (which I supposed served us right for being lazy and taking the car to all of those restaurants).
The disaster wasn't immediately apparent. We didn't even realise that anything was wrong till we were some way north of Florianopolis, an enormous and apparently purpose-designed peninsula, shaped like a giant thumbtack, smothered in tourist resorts and resembling nothing so much as a section of J.G. Ballard's frontal lobe. But by the time we reached Santos, the port which serves the São Paolo megatropolis, there was a rattle of indisputable novelty coming from somewhere under the car. Not the kind of rattle, unfortunately, that we later bought off some tourist-savvy indigineous peoples while driving through their reservation in the state of Eastern Parana on the return journey home, but the kind that builds gradually, hour by hour, day by day, until you can no longer carry on pretending that isn't something about to go dangerously askew in your vehicle's vital intestines.
By happy chance Santos boasts not just a repair shop but an entire district of brand-name garages, and before we took the ferry across the harbour mouth and thereby committed ourselves to the northern leg of our journey we decided to swing by House of Peugeot and get a quick diagnosis.
Good thing we did. Bouncing around around on Rosa's unruly dirt roads had all but worn through the bearing casings on the front wheels – another couple of hundred kilometers and they would have given out completely, allowing the axle to spin free of its housing and thus create breakdown of catastrophically expensive (and highly dangerous) proportions.
Less fortunately, this part of Santos wasn't the kind of place you wanted to stop for the night. Even finding lunch was something of an adventure, given that while friendly to cars the area was extremely hostile to people.The local bank, café and supermarket all had metal detectors built at their entrances, and I wasn't able to get through the revolving doors of the former (which automatically held you hostage if you if you had anything more substantial than a belt buckle on your person) until I had unloaded mobile phone, palm pilot, MP3 player, digital camera, torch, keyring and my various other items of techno-traveller detritus for the benefit of the security guard peering suspiciously down on me from the other side of the bulletproof glass.
But the repair guys did us proud and by sundown we were back on the road with little ahead of us but two weeks of lazy beach-bummery. From here-on our route divided into three distinct phases. The stretch from Santos to São Sebastião – an attractive, very livable town with cool modern suburbs and a colonial centre – was full of small but perfectly formed beaches most of which have long-since been annexed in by the rich. You can't buy the sand in Brazil, but you can certainly buy up the jungle right next to it, and that's just what has happened here, where villas and gated communities of condominiums and time-shares effectively block access to much of the best bits of the coast.
Next up is the other extreme: except for where the jungle-covered morros (hump-backed hills) form natural breaks between settlements, a sort of linear city stretches all the way from São Sebastian to Ubatuba, a town we initially found alienating and over-polluted but which we eventually came to realise, after circumstance forced us to spend more time there than we bargained for, was actually quite a funky little place. The beaches here tended to be long, open, and heavily populated – fun if you're a teenager or need somewhere to dump your family for a couple of weeks, but less so if you're a young couple exhibiting the sociopathic tendencies concomitant with t he incipient nesting instinct, and accordingly we quickly moved on to the bit of coast that stretches from Ubatuba to Rio.
This section is well served by the BR101, a road which, if you sit on it and press the accelerator for long enough, will deliver you all the way up to the US of A (though it won't, of course, guarantee that the Americans will let you cross over the border), and it was our favourite bit of the trip. Here, exploitation has yet to get a firm grip and there are still places that remain relatively undiscovered. Which is all the more reason for me not to write them down here – if I tell you our favourite spots then you'll all be there hogging the deckchairs by the time I get to go back in a couple years. But they're not too hard to find, given that they're all within two or three hours drive of Rio, and if you want a good place to use as a base then you could do worse that choose Parati, a picturesque and heavily-restored colonial port of the kind that travel writers inevitable refer to as ‘charming' that is home both to a flotilla of tourist boats only too happy to tour you around the idyllic selection of islands clustered just off the coast, and a packed calendar of festivals of all species and breeds, including an Anglo-Brazilian Literary beano that kicked off last year and promises to become a favourite in the diaries of those who can rustle up the airfare or, failing that, blag their way onto the programme (definitely my preferred option, if anyone's listening).
Talking of Rio, it wasn't quite the party town I'd expected. My chief impression was of a city of retirees, populated (at least in the more salubrious parts) by people who bought property here at its peak in the 60s and 70s and are now seeing out their calmer years in sun- and memory-drenched comfort. Our hotel, for example, boasted emergency buttons by the bed, safety rails in every possible position, and an on-call cardiac team. Outside, the famous esplanades of Ipanema and Copacobana throb less with good-time-girls and gigolos than vigorous 60 and 70 year olds pounding heartily up and down Burle Marx's pop-art pavements, weighed down by electronic pulse meters and the bellies confered by a lifetime of corporate lunches, and stopping only to have their blood pressure checked at the many nursing stations that punctuate the seafront. Still we did manage to blag our way into a high octane carnival rehearsal party in a block from the famous aqueduct in the district of Lapa, which helped quell my longing for the more romantic Rio of my imagination.
As for the journey home, highlights included an enforced stay in a sex hotel with a five-metre plunge pool in the bathroom; driving at speed in the pouring rain into a pothole so wide and so deep that it didn't just blow out the tire, it dented the wheel; getting stuck behind a nuclear waste truck that had blown out its brakes on a mountain pass and nearly come off the road; and trying (and failing) to out-race a hurricane. But if you want to hear those stories you'll have to invite me round for tea and sit quietly while I deluge you with holiday snaps. I've got about five hundred. It's a very photogenic place, Brazil.
- The Observer, August 2004