Rio de Janeiro, one of the most achingly beautiful cities in the world, is also considered to be one of the most precarious for tourists.
Like an overgrown seaside resort with all the worst characteristics of a big city, it tends to stir up fear and apprehension even before the visitor arrives. Therefore, as the appeal of the Amazon grows, more and more visitors are using Rio as a port of entry, moving on swiftly after a few days.What few tourists realize, however, is that they need not move far. Within a 150-mile radius of Rio there are spectacular, clean beaches, exhilarating mountain drives, tropical forest and an immaculately preserved 17th century colonial village.
Arraial do Cabo: Thomas More's "Utopia" is said to have been based on fantastic reports about the first European community to settle on this square corner of land in 1503. Today, Arraial's immense white beaches, 90 miles east of Rio, attract Brazilian tourists in season, but, as yet, few foreigners. Some of the clearest water in southern Brazil has made it a particularly popular area for scuba diving and spear fishing. But beware strong currents and fishing nets.
Waking up at the Pousada Restaurante dos Navegantes can be memorable. Only yards from the hotel, the shimmering white beaches of Praia Grande and Praia Macambaba, dotted only with local fishing boats, stretch for 24 miles.
Buzios: Once a tranquil fishing village, Buzios is now a tasteful jet-set beach resort only 110 miles from Rio. Set in rolling hills, beautiful beaches hide away and luxurious tropical pousadas and private homes blend into the skyline.
Buildings of over two storys are not allowed here. The direct translation of "pousada" is inn, but it does not give an accurate description of this typical and agreeable style of accommodation. Beautiful open areas awash with tropical plants mix tastefully with the bedrooms, living areas and small discreet swimming pool.
The Argentines were some of the first to "discover" Buzios and many stayed. One of the oldest and fanciest pousadas in town, Casas Brancas, is owned by an Argentine, Armalia de la Maria, and overlooks the village and bay where the fishing boats still come in.
Together with the owner of Pousada Savara, Jose Luis Vasquez, also an Argentine, she plans to open a restaurant serving aphrodisiac food. Sun, sea, sex and food is the staple diet of Buzios.
Petropolis: This mountain resort, 40 miles from Rio, was the home of Brazil's 19th century Imperial court moved in the hot, humid summer months. Today the summer palace, now known as the Imperial museum, stands in the center of a plain town, brimming with too many cars. The palace, built by Emperor Dom Pedro, is worth a visit, but otherwise the best thing about Petropolis is the magnificent drive up to it from Rio. The road winds through stunning mountain scenery and climbs 3,000 feet during a 90-minute drive.
Terespolis: From Petropolis, drive the 33 miles to Teresopolis for more clean air and breathtaking scenery. Again a bland town, but, if you can find them - we could not - there is said to be guided hiking and horse-trekking in the area. We did, however, find a gem of a simple hotel, the Phillip, set on a hill overlooking the city and facing mountain peaks.
Parati: Until 1954, the only access to Parati was by sea, an amazing achievement for a village located almost equidistant from Brazil's two largest cities - Sao Paulo and Rio. Founded in 1660, the village became an important gold mining port and today is one of Brazil's best-kept secrets.
Declared an historic monument in 1966, Parati's perfectly preserved 18th century houses and churches give the impression of permanently walking through an historical film set. It is a place for total relaxation. No cars are allowed in the cobbled center where pousadas with courtyards are havens of tranquillity.
The Pousada do Ouro and Hotel Coxixo are two of the most luxurious, but the smaller pousadas can be better value for money. Good fish restaurants are plentiful and a trip to some of the region's 50 or so islands, on either an organized schooner trip or a local fishing boat, give a wonderful feel of what it must have been like to arrive by sea.