THERE'S a lot more to Brazil than the carnival and party-central hedonism of Rio and So Paulo. Away from the cities, out towards the coast, are the picturesque fishing villages and long, deserted beaches with sand lapped by warm waters where dolphins and turtles splash. The hillsides are alive with monkeys and toucans, hummingbirds dart from flower to flower, and the indigenous people cling to the traditions of generations: these are Brazil's secret hideaway places and stopping-off points on my road trip from So Paulo to Rio de Janeiro.
Leaving the hustle and bustle of the country's largest city behind, I head north towards the quaint fishing village of Picinguaba, on the quiet stretch of beaches to the north of the city. One of the few villages that pepper this coastline between So Paulo and Rio, it lies in a less well-known region rich in history, local customs and natural resources.
After a three-hour drive along the Ayrton Senna freeway, then along the Estrada Oswaldo Cruz highway and over mountains covered in rainforest, the road ends at the heart of Picinguaba. Fishermen sit around fixing their nets, colourful fishing boats bob about on the water and children play football in the sand.
Picinguaba means 'fish shelter' in the local Indian language, and the village is aptly named '“ the bay is packed with marine creatures attracted by the warm, shallow water. Descendants of a mix of the indigenous tribes, Portuguese colonisers and African slaves, the Caiara people who inhabit this part of Brazil have a long tradition of living in harmony with nature, and fishing remains a strong part of their culture.
I park the car, grab my bag and ask for directions to the Pousada Picinguaba, my hotel. Owner Emmanuel Renegade '“ or Manu, as he prefers '“ a Frenchman, discovered the pretty whitewashed colonial house after turning off the main highway on a road trip of his own several years ago. "I wanted to stay somewhere for the night, but there was nothing. I was shown this abandoned house and spent the night sleeping on an old mattress on the floor. In the morning I had an instant vision to turn it into a hotel," he says. He tracked down the owners in So Paulo and bought the property. Nine years on, the ruin is a thriving inn completely in harmony with its surroundings.
Enveloped by untouched primary rainforest, which is protected by Unesco world heritage status, the inn has a pool with views over a small bay dotted with little islands. In the distance is Fazenda Beach, a 3.5km stretch of pristine white sand that is easily reached by kayak or on foot.
Colonial decor makes the 20-year-old pousada look older than it is, and the ten rustic guest rooms '“ with their whitewashed walls, local artwork and hammock-strewn terrace '“ blend in seamlessly with the surroundings. Strict regulations mean the bedrooms aren't huge, but that's a small price to pay for this lush, natural, away-from-it-all luxury.
With no TVs, internet or air-conditioning, if the weather is bad guests can retreat to the lounge to read from a rich collection of books, have a massage, relax in the sauna or learn how to create the perfect caipirinha, Brazil's national cocktail. There are plenty of outdoor activities to be enjoyed in the area: fishing, hiking, sailing, surfing, kayaking and exploring the local villages.
I decide on a short drive to visit a palm plantation, where Cirilo, its 48-year-old owner, has just returned from hospital after a poisonous snake bite three days earlier. "I was cutting up a palm tree and didn't see the snake hiding in a pile of leaves. It's the fourth time I've been bitten," he says, showing me the puncture marks on his swollen hand. Treading carefully, we walk through the plantation, where Cirilo takes out his large knife, cuts down a small palm and gives me the heart.
I leave the plantation gingerly, tiptoeing carefully along the leafy pathway, and with relief return to the safety of Picinguaba. There I hand the local delicacy over to the cook, and that evening we dine on a delicious palm heart salad washed down with the best-tasting caipirinha I've ever had.
Next day, it is back behind the wheel for a half-hour's dawdle north along the stunning coastal road, where wave-washed coves and dreamy mountain views lead to Paraty (pronounced para-chee), the south-westernmost city in Rio de Janeiro state.
Dating back to the 17th century, it was considered paradise on Earth by early explorers, while local tribes had already named it after the white fish '“ or paratii '“ that live in the surrounding waters of the Bay of Ilha Grande. Sitting under the Serra do Mar (mountain range of the sea), where 1,300-metre high peaks are thick with tropical forest dissected by waterfalls and creepers strangle the trees, the only noise comes from buzzing insects and the breeze blowing the leaves.
But it wasn't always this quiet. About 300 years ago, gold was discovered in the nearby hills and Paraty became the most important port in Brazil. Portuguese explorers transported the metal along the Guianas Indian trail that hugged the mountains and traversed the states of Minas, So Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, winding up in Paraty. By the 1720s, the boom had died, while the introduction of a more efficient road cut 15 days off the dangerous journey to Rio, and so Paraty soon became an isolated village once more.
Then in the 1950s, Brazil launched a road-building programme to connect its towns and cities, and the former gold port was re-connected to the outside world, leading to its latest rebirth as a holiday destination. Today, tourism underpins its livelihood, and the town is a popular weekend retreat for the well-heeled of Rio and So Paulo as it straddles the old and the new, preserving the colonial colour and character that won it designation as a world heritage site.
Brazilian travellers trickled, then flocked, to the town, and when celebrities such as Mick Jagger started to visit, its reputation as an exotic escape destination was sealed. No sooner had the stamp of his Jumping Jack Flash heels died away from the cobbles when along came Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan, attracted by the annual literary festival run by Bloomsbury founder Liz Calder.
If books aren't your thing, there are numerous marine activities on offer. Skippered sailing charters and motor yacht charters are available through several companies, and Paraty is also one of Brazil's scuba-diving meccas. Horse-drawn carriages are the only vehicles allowed in the town's historic cobbled streets, and the whitewashed colonial buildings and vibrant coloured doorways shimmer in the sun, making it a pure pleasure to stroll through the old part of town, with its churches, restaurants, galleries and shops.
As elderly men gather in the small squares of the old town recall washing in the fountain as youngsters, a Harley Davidson gang cruises past and breaks the peace. It's a perfect illustration of past meeting present, and what makes this such a timeless destination '“ whether you're here to stay or just passing through.
FACT FILE: BRAZIL
Return flights from Edinburgh to So Paulo or Rio de Janeiro start from 693 with British Airways (www.britishairways.com), including all taxes and surcharges.
A four-night stay at Pousada Picinguaba (www.picinguaba.com) with half board accommodation and round-trip transfers starts from 665 per person, based on two sharing a double room.
A three-night stay in a deluxe room with a beach view at the Copacabana Hotel (www.copacabanariohotel.com.br) in Rio de Janeiro start from 550 per person.
A seven-night tailor-made package '“ including flights, three nights in Rio de Janeiro and four in Picinguaba '“ starts from 1,995 per person, based on two people sharing, through Bailey Robinson (01488 689 700, www.baileyrobinson.com).
Check out the website for details on the Paraty literary festival (www.flip.otg).