Parati, Ihla Grande, and the Importance of Planning Ahead
My first backpacking trip was to India, where the best deals on guesthouses were obtained by arriving in a city and being greeted by a swarm of people trying to outdo each others’ prices. My next trip was to West Africa, where buses ran to no particular schedule and cars departed whenever they were full.
And so, I stopped trying to plan ahead, and my attitude towards travel was shaped into a plan-on-the-spot mentality. As I went on to travel to more and more places, this mentality stuck with me. Often, it suited me quite nicely, but, as I was learning in Brazil, sometimes it didn’t.
I had spent a week in Rio, hearing stories about how beautiful the surrounding area was, so I had picked two nearby destinations, the colonial town of Parati and the island of Ihla Grande, for a weekend trip.
I woke up early, groggy after spending the night at a street party in Lapa. Checking out of the hostel, I asked the friendly clerk, Juan, about getting to the bus station. He asked if I had a ticket already, and I shrugged it off, saying I’d buy one on arrival. I should have payed more attention his doubtful raised eyebrow, as, when I got to the station, after missing the eight o clock bus by mere minutes, I was told that the buses were booked out until eleven. Wishing I had slept in instead, I sat at a diner, feeling sorry for myself, as the hours slowly ticked by.
After finally arriving in Parati, after a four hour bus journey, I spotted a nearby tourist office, and walked in to see about hostels in the town. The operator seemed incredulous that I hadn’t booked any accommodation, but made a call to a hostel. Thankfully they had an available bed, but unfortunately it was three times the price of my hostel in Rio.
Following the map I was given, I walked through the town, so far unimpressed by what was described as a gorgeous pedestrian town, but looked like just a collection of shops and roads. Stopping at a large hostel that I passed, just to check if they had a cheaper dorm, I was told that, as it was a national holiday weekend, they were booked out, and I had been lucky to get a bed anywhere in town. With a new perspective on my pricey dorm, I arrived at my hostel, checked in, and, with only a few hours left in the day, I set out to explore Parati.
It turned out a few hours were more than enough. The historic centre was a nice place to stroll around, but seemed less like a protected piece of history and more like a movie set. The buildings were painted pristine white, and the pedestrian-only streets were clean and paved with cobblestones. The green squares were less quaint leafy parks and more perfectly manicured gardens.
I walked by the riverside, alongside colourful houseboats, then turned away from the centre to find the other side to Parati. As with all of Brazil, the poverty divide in the town was wide and instantly noticeable. While the centre had been all pretty facades and expensive restaurants, the outskirts were full of local diners and hastily constructed buildings.
Learning from my mistake, I booked accommodation online for the following two nights in Ihla Grande. Leaving early, I caught a local bus to the pier, then a boat to the island. A little queasy after a bumpy journey, I stepped off the boat and straight onto Abraão Beach.
The first impression really was that of an island paradise. The shoreline was dotted with moored boats, along a sunny strip of yellow sand and sunbathers, beyond which lay a small town backed by green mountains. Pulling off my hiking boots, I walked along the sand to my pretty beachfront hostel, which overlooked this gorgeous scene.
After ridding myself of my backpack, I headed back along the beach and into the small town. I walked barefoot over the cobblestones, through winding streets of open front bars and leafy gardens, soaking up the calm atmosphere, before sitting on the warm sand, enjoying an pot of iced Açai berry and gazing out over the view of the still water.
That night, the calm was shattered by the intoxicating sounds of samba, as my entire hostel took to the deck and danced to a live band. Surrounded by a group of voluptuous women rhythmically gyrating their hips, I attempted to move in a way that wasn’t completely awkward and self conscious, before giving up and grabbing myself a beer and a deck chair.
The following morning I awoke to the gloomy sound of rain. I sat down to breakfast and looked out over a now sodden deck and an empty beach covered by a grey sky. The hostel staff cheerily assured everyone that the bad weather was only due to last a day, which did little to cheer me up as I had already booked tomorrow’s transfer back to Rio. I mentally added ‘the weather’ to the growing list of things I now resolved to check in advance when planning a trip.
The rain eventually cleared, and I set out on one of the many treks mapped out on the island. I picked a popular one, to Dois Rios beach. Following a signpost out of town, I headed uphill along a road through the forest and up a mountainside. After a short distance, I came to a break in the trees, and looked back over the town and beach, a view that would have been far more picturesque on a sunnier day. Unfortunately, that was to be my only worthwhile view on the entire three hour trek. I had expected a hiking trail with mountain views, but what I had gotten was a paved road surrounded by trees.
The view didn’t improve when I arrived at my destination either. Dois Rios beach, named for the two rivers that entire the sea here, was deserted, and looked remarkably similar to the deserted beach I had left three hours ago. Blaming my bleak outlook on the bleak weather, I sat on the damp sand to rest my feet. I was soon joined by a British family who had just completed the same trek, and were equally unimpressed.
After enquiring about a boat taxi back, and finding it to be extortionately expensive, I headed back the way I came, and passed what was left of the day reading on the now empty deck. The following day, the weather forecast had come true. The sun shone and the sky was blue as I moodily packed my bags and caught the boat and bus transfer back to Rio. I’d like to say I learned my lesson, that I will now plan ahead, check the weather forecast, book my tickets and research treks all well in advance. I’d like to say that, but something tells me that my romantic notion of going where the wind takes me will prevail, however impractical it may be.