From Curitiba to the Atlantic coast, this trip represents a small sample of Brazil’s environmental diversity in an off the beaten path tourist region.
It would be unfair to the rest of the world to coin Brazil the Land of Diversity, but I feel almost constrained to do it. Being born in the southern part of the country gave me two different perspectives of its vast magnificence. The first one was of a Southerner whose perception of the well-known tropical paradise below the equator was blurred and distant. I grew up in a Brazil unrecognized by the rest of the world for being too different from their expectations: cold, European, gray.
The other perspective came when, as a traveler, I had set feet and senses upon this idealized image. Upon arrival in Rio de Janeiro for the first time, I could relate to it as the Cariocas (the Rio Natives) did. I was 16. From then on, even Brazil’s south looked more familiar, sunnier, happier. I realized how much I had been missing because of the incomplete image of my homeland. The South is very rich in scenery too, and its mountains and beaches are genuinely Brazilian.
Southern Brazil is one of the world’s greatest regions of biodiversity, found in the colorful wilderness of the Atlantic Forest and along the sea coast, as well as on the so-called western coast of Paraná State, which is, in fact, a river estuary coast where the Iguaçu Falls and National Park stand.
Curitiba, the capital of Paraná State (the northernmost state of the Southern Region) has long been visited by people on their way to Foz do Iguaçu who are so eager to reach the Falls that they miss a unique Brazilian city with an excellent tourism infrastructure and a character of its own. Not to mention the neighboring stretch of the Atlantic Forest, which is the biggest in the south, from the mountain ranges (Serra do Mar) to the coast. Curitibanos like myself know better and never miss the opportunity to drive the Road of Graciosa down the mountains, as views of the lush forest and sea coast reveal themselves, passing through historic cities, before reaching the nearby coast and its islands. Nothing that different from the idyllic image of Brazil’s tropical paradise we all know so well, but if you did add Curitiba, the image will be a fuller one.
Jean Aimes is a French engineer who lives in Curitiba. Like many of his countrymen, he came to the city to work in a French car company. And like most of them, he has only one complaint: the temperature.
Curitiba is the coldest capital in Brazil, with lows reaching negative Celsius figures during the winter – a rare event by Brazilian standards. According to Jean, the problem is not the cold itself, but that Brazilian buildings are designed for hot weather. Building materials such as ceramic tile and brick can’t keep the warmth in, and central heating is an foreign concept.
That doesn’t stop Jean when he wants to ride his bike through the city and its most treasured element: the parks. Being an enthusiast of outdoor sports and aware of environmental issues, he was happy to discover when he arrived in 1995 that Curitiba is big, but still has one of the highest “green-area per capita” rates in the world.
Its population is estimated at about 1.5 million inhabitants, nearly one fifth of Paraná’s. It is highly regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in Brazil and is famous for its environmental-safe policies on recycling, well-planned urban system, efficient mass transportation system and high air quality.
Standing at 3,000 feet above sea level, the city was founded in the second half of the 17th century. Since the 1800’s, Curitiba has attracted immigrants of Slav, German, Italian and Japanese origins. During the 20th century, it became a prosperous capital, but that didn’t change the comfortable life style commonly found in small towns. Curitiba prospered from its role as commercial and processing center for the expanding agricultural and ranch areas in the interior of the state. That’s hardly what the city is known for today. The arts found a progressive ground to flourish there, and the green is everywhere.
From the Park João Paulo II, where traditional Polish buildings are surrounded by tall Araucaria pine trees, and the nearby Pedreira Paulo Leminski, a quarry turned into a park and auditorium of picturesque architecture, to more remote places such as Passauna, a natural park crisscrossed by trails, the city has a variety of outdoor attractions that can be visited throughout the year.
Curitibia’s Family Attractions
There is a public bus line that connects all the parks in the metropolitan area (Jardineira), and families are often seen riding bicycles together from park to park through a well-maintained Bicycle Lane system. You can visit virtually all of Curitiba’s landmarks using these lanes (Ciclovia).
The Ciclovia passes through the Passeio Público. Located in the heart of the city, this park is a meeting point for local children and adults of all ages. Kids will be happy to discover a mini-zoo and playgrounds standing side by side. If you are hungry, try the excellent Restaurante Pasqualle.
Recently, I had been away from the city for a long time, and on my return, wanted to have a great view of it. Jean advised me to go up the Telepar Tower.
From the top I spotted Santa Felicidade, an Italian neighborhood famous for its many restaurants (most bus excursions passing by Curitiba on their way to Iguaçu Falls stop at Santa Felicidade for lunch) and wines. But the element that caught my attention was the mountains, 15 miles away. The next day I headed to the Serra do Mar.
Logging and farming have reduced the Atlantic Forest to 1% of its original size, but in the Paraná section of the Serra do Mar, between Curitiba and the coast, it remains fairly unspoiled.
The sinuous Road of Graciosa (Estrada da Graciosa) crosses the mountain ranges of the Serra do Mar, linking Curitiba to the colonial cities of Antonina and Morretes. It was originally a trail used by Indians from the high planes who often descended to the coast in search of shellfish, or ascended to Curitiba for Pinhão, the seed of the Araucária pine tree(one of the symbols of Paraná.)
When I was a kid, whenever my parents drove along this colorful road, I imagined the sight of a parade of pines passing by. Stop at one of the many recreation areas and viewpoints along the way and ask the kids how many different birds they can hear. Nine hundred bird species, of which 180 are endemic, live in this forest. They may be lucky to spot the same animals those Indians used to see, even the ones who are endangered today, such as the howler monkey and the golden-lion tamarin.
In the 17th century Jesuit priests coming from the Port of Paranaguá used this road to reach the interior and founded churches and villages on the way. Today traces of the Jesuit presence are still found, often close to recreation areas strategically built on viewpoints. The Itupava Way is one of them. It is a narrow stone trail that begins on the high planes near Curitiba and goes through the forest, all the way down to Antonina, many times crossing the Road of Graciosa.
The colorful Atlantic forest is inviting and at Graciosa, its most notable feature is the flowers. On that visit, I was impressed by the different scents that invaded my car, and the vibrant colors around me.
Many times I traveled through this “gracious” route (that’s what Graciosa means), and it still astonishes me. At one point I heard the sound of the train and remembered a sunny Sunday when my parents took my brothers and I to ride the train from Litorina to Paranaguá.
Traveling By Train
The 110-kilometer-long railway that stretches between Curitiba and Paranaguá and crosses 14 tunnels, viaducts, and 30 trestle bridges, and is considered to be an engineering marvel of Imperial Brazil. As a kid, the Carvalho Viaduct impressed me. It is held in place against the almost vertical mountainside by five concrete columns. While crossing this structure, with nothing beyond the outside rail but a sheer drop off, the train seems to hang in space before it shoots headlong into the Rochedo Tunnel.
Taking the train trip is the best way to see my all-time favorite: the 1539-meter-high Marumbi Peak, and the 1564-meter-high Mount Lion. Marumbi State Park is a paradise for climbers and hikers, with trails and climbing routes ranging from easy to very difficult. But you don’t have to climb the mountain to enjoy it. Stop at stations Véu da Noiva or Marumbi and have spectacular views of the mountain range, the seacoast and the waterfall of Véu da Noiva.
Take a look at this video of the Pantanal route. For information on train fares and more contact The Serra Verde Express ( 041/323- 4007).
Arriving in Morretes I could still sense floral fragrances coming from all directions, along with a very distinct one: the smell of Barreado. It is a traditional dish made of beef stew, eaten with rice, banana and manioc flour. With so many choices of restaurants, the scenery can make the difference, so I stopped by Restaurante Nhundiaquara, on a bank of the river that has the same name.
Morretes has astonishing colonial architecture: it remains a Portuguese village frozen in time despite all the tourist buzz around it.
From Morretes, I drove to Paranaguá, the oldest city of Paraná, colonial town and port of great importance since the 17th century. Already at the coast, the temperatures rise and the scenery is closer to that idyllic Brazilian tropical image I have referred. I get on the boat that will take me to Ilha do Mel.
That’s a good way to see Paranaguá Bay, where islands such as Ilha do Mel guard the entrance while Serra do Mar’s mountains crown the horizon. Dolphins swim near the boat and birds of different species fly overhead.
Beaches of Ilha do Mel
Ilha do Mel completes my short travel from Curitiba. Its beauty is legendary. The island has many beaches, some of them completely deserted. The huge Fort of Nossa Senhora dos Prazeres overlooks the entrance of the bay, as a reminder of unwelcome visitors of the past, like the pirate ships once seen from these shores.
Green hills meet the sea on some parts of the island, protecting small sandy beaches between them. On one of those hills stands the Lighthouse. From its top, the view is incredible, as your eyes can see as far as the island of Superagui, a tropical national park and biologically diverse sanctuary.
One can hardly believe this scenery is found so close to the high planes’ temperate climate. Some 60 miles from Curitiba, even the people from the coast appear to be slightly different in their traditions and backgrounds. Still, there’s unity between Curitibanos and the Caiçaras (the coast inhabitants of mixed indigenous and Portuguese backgrounds). For me, that’s another reminder of Brazilian diversity.
The route I took from Curitiba to the Ilha do Mel is very popular among locals, and it’s increasingly explored by outsiders, who are happy to discover a small example of what Brazil really is in a virtually unknown part of the country. Rediscovering my homeland, it made me feel more Brazilian than ever.
For more information (in English), visit the Official State of Paraná Tourism Site at Visit Brazil.
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