Travel: Take in the view from the top of southern Brazil

Hiking in Catucaba
Hiking in Catucaba
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The spectacular landscapes of southern Brazil are matched by charming colonial style fazendas and pousadas waiting to welcome the weary traveller, writes Neil Geraghty

If you’re ever suffering from motion sickness on a Brazilian bus, ask the driver to play a DVD of a Brazilian pop concert. I was sitting in the back of a minibus as it rattled along the B roads of Minas Gerais in southern Brazil. As the mountains grew higher, the pot holes grew deeper and at times, the Tarmac disappeared altogether. Tossed around like rag dolls, many of the passengers, me included, looked distinctly green.

The courtyard at the Reserva do Ibitipoca

The courtyard at the Reserva do Ibitipoca

To take our minds off the journey, the driver popped a DVD into the dashboard and Gusttavo Lima, heart throb of Brazilian pop appeared on the screen. With a blinding white smile worthy of a Colgate ad, he launched into his biggest hit Balada and grabbing the hands of his screaming fans, promised to “Tche Tchere Tche” with them all night long. A string of catchy ballads followed in which the entire audience sang their hearts out and waved their arms above their heads in unison. The atmosphere was so infectiously happy I quickly forgot about feeling car sick and arrived at our destination, the remote Ibitipoca Wildlife Reserve, in a fantastic mood with Tche Tchere Tche firmly established as an earworm.

Ibitipoca is home to one of the last remaining pockets of Atlantic rainforest that once stretched over 580,000 square miles of southern Brazil and rivalled the Amazon in biodiversity. During the Portuguese colonial era, the forest was quickly decimated by logging, coffee and sugarcane industries and today less than 15 per cent survives. Brazil’s recent economic expansion has left its mega cities Sao Paolo and Rio suffocating under choking traffic fumes and the tranquil mountains and forests of the nearby mountains have become increasingly popular as weekend escapes.

Arriving in Sao Paolo early on a Sunday morning I could sense the frantic scramble to leave the city. A six lane highway slices through the sprawling suburbs which remarkably includes a cycle lane. This was busy with early bird cyclists peddling furiously to reach the countryside. After half an hour, the bus turned off the highway and the pace of life immediately shifted down several gears. In ramshackle villages strewn with ragged banana trees, women were arranging homemade cakes on road side stalls while on dusty lanes, gauchos in cowboy hats trotted along on horseback behind herds of lazy, silver coloured cows. Today, the verdant countryside of Sao Paolo State is prime cattle country but it was once home to the most extensive coffee plantations in the world. Tucked away on mountain slopes lie dozens of elegant fazendas, graceful mansions where Brazil’s wealthy coffee barons used to live.

At the end of a tortuous dirt track I arrived at Catucaba, where a lovingly restored 19th century fazenda has been converted into a charming country retreat. The smiling staff, all recruited locally, were laying out breakfast on a large antique trestle table.

Breakfasts in Brazil are a Bake Off fan’s dream come true and usually involve tempting selections of freshly baked sponges and flans. The highlight of breakfast is always pao de queijo, tangy cheese balls that are crispy on the outside and delightfully squidgy in the middle. When a basket arrived fresh from the oven I dived in. Accompanied by several cups of smooth velvety Brazilian coffee, the long journey quickly melted away.

After an easy day spent pottering around the fazenda’s delightful organic farm, tasting some homemade cachaca and dozing in a hammock by a bubbling stream, I was ready for some more strenuous activity and the following morning, I wandered over to the stables to join a group horse trek into the mountains. My horse, a sweet natured grey Lusitano mare called Princesa, patiently endured my inexperience as we clambered up some hair raising slippery inclines. Once we reached the gently sloping mountain meadows, my confidence quickly returned and cantering on the grass surrounded by the spectacular mountain scenery, the hubbub of Sao Paolo seemed a world away.

From Catucaba, I headed down to the Costa Verde, a beautiful stretch of coastline that lies between Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro. Although it lies in close proximity to both cities, the coast is surprisingly underdeveloped and is dotted with tiny fishing villages that seem frozen in time. At Pincinguaba I checked into the delightful Pousada Pincinguaba, a small colonial style guesthouse set in lush tropical gardens overlooking the ocean. Before embarking on a schooner trip, I paused on the beach to watch a group of fishermen harvest a crop of mussels, scraping them from wooden poles kept in the lagoon. The scenery around Pincinguaba is straight out of a James Bond film. Magnificent granite mountains covered in rainforest plunge down into the sea and re-emerge offshore in a string of idyllic islands. Dropping anchor, we swam ashore to a golden beach strewn with giant granite boulders. At high tide, these act as havens for fish and while snorkelling in the warm shallow water, I spotted shoals of iridescent pink and green parrot fish streaming around the rocks.

From Pincinguaba, I travelled five hours north westwards to the Reserva do Ibiticipoca where a gorgeously renovated 18th century fazenda lies amidst 4,000 hectares of lovingly maintained mountain trails. The reserve has embarked on an extensive reforestation programme which has encouraged the return of indigenous wildlife including pumas. The forest is especially rich in birdlife and early the next morning I joined a local wildlife ranger for a dawn chorus hike. Twitching has firmly entered the 21st century and armed with a smart phone he stealthily played mating calls that attracted a huge selection of colourful birds including the beautifully named violet-capped wood nymph, and the extraordinary dancing streamer tailed tyrant that obligingly performed a little jig for us in the treetops.

Following an afternoon horse ride, I jumped into a four wheel drive to join a sunset trip up the mountains. Half way up, we stopped near some farmers’ cottages where Felipe, one of the charming waiters from the fazenda pressed some sugar cane juice for us in an antique press. The sweet and earthy bubbling juice was absolutely delicious. After dark, feeling stiff from the horse ride, I made my way up to the spa where an outdoor Jacuzzi lay bubbling on the terrace. Gazing upwards, a flashing light suddenly zig zagged across the sky and, convinced I was seeing a UFO, my heart skipped a beat. A second and third light quickly followed suit but this time settled in a nearby tree. Feeling both disappointed and thrilled, I realised that they were fireflies and soon the whole tree was twinkling in the darkness.

After a few days enjoying the mellow country pursuits of fazenda life, it was a shock returning to the city. At Sao Paolo’s bustling airport, I took refuge in the new TAM airline lounge. At the buffet I noticed a hot plate with some freshly baked pao de queijo. I surreptitiously slipped a handful into my bag determined to enjoy one last delicious Brazilian breakfast after I arrived back in Britain.

• Rainbow Tours ( 7666 1266) offers a 12-night trip to Brazil from £3,735 per person. The price includes three nights at Fazenda Catucuba half-board; three nights at Pousada Picinguaba half-board; three nights at Reserva do Ibitipoca full board; and three nights at the Belmond Copacabana Palace in a superior room on a B&B basis. The price also includes transfersandflights with TAM Airlines which, together with LAN Airlines forms LATAM Airlines Group offering the widest network of flights in South America. Returns from Heathrow to Sao Paulo with TAM Airlines, start from £576.56 per person in economy class, £1,892.56 in business class.