The Brazilian metropolis of Rio de Janeiro can make even an experienced traveller’s head spin, so for a little timeout from the madness we’ve found the best day trips out of Rio. By Fran Bryson.
Armacao dos Buzios
A visit by Brigitte Bardot put Búzios – historically home to fishermen, slave-traders and pirates – on the map in the 1960s. It’s two-and-a-half hours east of Rio and a daytrip to this sunny peninsula is best done by car.
Make for Rua das Pedras, where clothing and souvenir stores rub shoulders with dining options ranging from Brazil’s ubiquitous burger chain, Bob’s, to restaurants with white tablecloths, international menus, beach views and prices to match.
Orla Bardot Boardwalk follows the shoreline past bronze tributes to the region’s fishermen, the former Brazilian president known as “JK” and Bardot, who is captured casually seated.
For a different experience go to Praia de João Fernandinho (by taxi or Kombi van). On this beach waiters court you, offering menus. You might accept Raphael’s invitation (or another’s – the menus are almost identical) to recline on his restaurant’s sun lounges “for free”. Order a bottle of almost-frozen beer (you need to order something) and a platter of fried fish or grilled meat with beans and rice. Tying your bags to the lounge solves the dual problem of thieves and the encroaching tide so you can turn your attention to the vendors parading along the sand and children jumping the low waves.
A voice murmuring “Camarões?” is accompanied by a tray of skewered prawns. If a slip of paper holding half-a-dozen peanuts appears on your table, know that by eating them you must buy a bag or two. You’re also offered jewellery, skewers of charcoal-grilled cheese, buttery corn on the cob, hammocks, the world’s briefest bikinis… and another slip of paper with peanuts.
Two men lope down the beach, an embroidered tablecloth stretched between them like a bride’s train. Others sport maps carved into leather, shucked oysters, baby bibs with teddy bear motifs and trays of carved fruit. “Tattoo?” The electric tool in the man’s hand looks as innocent as a nose-hair trimmer. And the peanut papers pile up.
Arraial do Cabo
Three hours by bus from Rio (less by car), Arraial do Cabo offers a quieter and safer beach experience than Copacabana, although on public holidays Cariocas flock to its attractions.
The town’s centre doesn’t hold much interest but the “things to do nearby” list could keep you going for some time. Get onto the cool, clear water with a boat tour around the peninsula’s beaches, caves and islands or into it by diving into the waters near HMS Thetis, which was wrecked in 1830.
From the Mirante do Pontal do Atalaia lookout, a half-hour walk from the town’s centre, admire the majestic sweep of Praia Grande’s alabaster sands. If you crave a quiet place (well, quiet by Brazilian standards) with sugar-fine sand in which to scrunch your toes and luminous water for snorkelling or paddling, try Praia do Forno. This beach is inaccessible by car so stroll for 15 minutes from the town’s centre to the northern end of Praia dos Anjos. From there you can catch a water taxi if you don’t much care for the short hike up and then down the path through a low grove of cacti and seagrasses.
Thatch-umbrella kiosks such as the Oasis do Arraial present a basic Brazilian beach menu that includes calamari, prawns, grilled meats and fried snacks. Some rent out kayaks and snorkelling equipment. If you order a Caipirinha – the national cocktail – limes, cachaça and sugar will be freshly pounded by mortar and pestle and delivered to your table. Stop to enjoy the view. You might see a couple, bent with age, trundling along the beach with their tiny dogs, collecting their lunch from a kiosk.
The road to Petrópolis wraps tightly around forest-green mountains north of Rio. An hour-and-a-half bus ride sees you in the town to which the Brazilian imperial family repaired when the city heat challenged their olfactory nerves.
Brazil’s famous inventor, the flamboyant Alberto Santos-Dumont, made Petrópolis his home after his triumphant return from Paris as champion aviator in the early 20th century. To find Casa de Santos Dumont at 22 Rua do Encanto (Enchanted Street), look up. He was obsessed with being aloft. The house, now a museum, perches above the street and is filled with evidence of the aviator’s remarkable life. In the bathroom is Brazil’s first hot-water shower. Nearby, on Praça 14 Bis, sits a replica of an aeroplane built by the “Father of Flight”, as Brazilians call him.
Lunch at Majórica Churrascaria (754 Rua do Imperador) features waistcoated staff delivering platters of Brazilian barbecue. Continue to the former imperial palace, now the Imperial Museum (220 Rua da Imperatriz), to see relics such as the imperial office, family music room, chamber-pots, porcelain spittoons and the gold pen used to sign the Golden Law that outlawed slavery in 1888. Slippers that protect the shiny floors from scuff marks are included in the entry fee.
Petrópolis is also home to imperial bones. An artificial canal encircles the historic centre like a corset attempting to stave off the encroaching unruliness of the Atlantic Forest. Follow the canal to the tombs inside Catedral de Petrópolis (60 Rua São Pedro de Alcântara). The last emperor, Pedro II, and his wife died in exile but their remains were returned to Brazil, as were those of daughter Isabel. Behind bars that would be respectable in a prison, under spooky death masks, the family rests in marble sarcophagi.
Ilha de Paqueta
More scenic cruise than commuter ferry, the boat from Praça (Square) XV de Novembro in downtown Rio to Ilha (Island) de Paquetá (about 70 minutes) takes passengers under the belly of the Southern Hemisphere’s longest bridge and to the middle of Guanabara Bay. Families of Cariocas (locals) jostle at the rails, pointing at the giant statue of Christ that watches over their seductive city, the aircraft rising from Santos Dumont Airport and the twin peaks of Sugarloaf Mountain.
At first, Paquetá Island resembles a lock of hair escaped from a smoothly capped head. Gradually, the canopy of palm trees, vines and church belltowers comes into focus.
Outside Paquetá ferry station, horse-drawn wagons and pedal rickshaws vie to show you history twinned with legend. Take in the views from scenic lookouts and see stone churches bright with whitewash and trees so old they’re protected by state decree. Facing away from Lovers’ Rock, throw three stones over one shoulder, hit the rock and win everlasting love. Spy marmoset monkeys, visit the bird cemetery and go to the well that contains water said to cure ulcers.
For lunch the fried calamari at Alcid’s, in Praça Bom Jesus, is recommended by regulars. In this plaza you can pay your respects at the monument to Guanabara Bay’s dolphins, endangered by now-polluted waters, or rent a bicycle and go touring under your own steam.
Returning to Rio as the sun goes down can act as a bonus sunset cruise. Ilha Fiscal, the venue of the last imperial ball, shines purple and green and Christ glows in the twilight.
Ferries and schooners depart the mainland for beautiful, verdant Ilha Grande, a two-and-a-half-hour drive south west of Rio. The island’s protected Atlantic rainforest offers an enticing range of options; you can go beachcombing, hike, spot dolphins (or monkeys or sloths), snorkel, explore ruins, admire historical buildings, party or just mooch around. A daytrip takes about 13 hours.
Brazilians love to party so boat tours will likely feature samba music, swimming and a well-stocked bar. Skipping the ferry and the town, the tours take you to picturesque – if sometimes crowded – swimming spots such as Blue Lagoon, where the water changes suddenly from navy to turquoise and may be dappled with the pink, green and yellow of foam noodles and snorkels.
If you’re not one for raucous groups, choose a private tour or a transfer to the “capital”, Vila do Abraão. Lua e Mar restaurant offers a more-ish moqueca (fish stew) and fruit Caipirinhas.
Hike to pristine Praia de Lopes Mendes through rainforest inhabited by sloths and monkeys and past three scenic beaches (two hours), or take a picturesque ride by schooner (an hour) or a taxi boat (20 minutes). All three options get you to palm-studded Praia do Pouso and from there it’s a 20-minute walk. On Praia de Lopes Mendes, order beers and sandwiches from the vendors who tread the hot, white sand.
“Tall and tan and young and lovely” – The Girl from Ipanema lyrics could have been written for this beach that’s among the best in Brazil. ￼
SEE ALSO: The Reinvention of Rio