The colonial town of Paraty (or, as locals spell it, Paratí, with the accent on the last syllable), has been my secret Brazilian embarrassment. It is only now, on my sixth trip to Brazil, that I managed to visit it. As it is the first tourist stopover outside Rio, everyone assumed this Brazil expert who’d seen it all and done it all had obviously been there. Not so: maybe it is because it has a reputation of being touristy, or maybe because I thought it may disappoint me after the Mineiro Baroque of Ouro Preto, my favourite Portuguese colonial city.
No fear of that: I’m glad to report that Paraty is as enchanting and as mysterious as any, despite the plethora of backpackers reading Hermann Hesse. In fact, it scores more hits than Ouro Preto. It has some fantastic beaches nearby and it is the start of some terrific hikes in the National Park of Serra da Bocaina, most notably the Caminho do Ouro, the old donkey trail used to carry the gold from Ouro Preto to Paraty and then ship it to Rio de Janeiro in the 18th century. Expect more traffic now that it was used to film the honeymoon of Edward and Bella in Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 1. I mean it even has six beaches on foursquare…
I opted for these beaches. With Sonia and Simon, a couple of German backpackers, we headed off to the edge of the state limits to swim in a naturally occurring rock pool where we crumbled biscuits for the tropical Sergeant Major Damselfish that surrounded us and surveyed the resulting piscean melee. I actually fed some with my hands, occasionally having my fingertips bitten as a result — never mind, the fish never drew blood.
Pirate lore is still vivid on Paraty: the stunning, sugar-fine beach of Caixa D’aço means Steel Chest, a reminder of a treasure found there in living memory. For the aspiring Jack Sparrows among you, ask the locals about the strange petroglyphs on the rocks beyond Trindade — not far from the place where we swam with the Germans — that apparently reveal the site of a hidden Inca treasure. No one has found it yet, so it’s all yours to try and locate.
Yet the major fascination in Paraty lies in its Masonic past. The town was built by Masons who fled persecution from Europe, and there are subtle symbols and signs of early, pre-Grand Lodge images and traditions. Although the first modern lodge was established there in 1833, there are Masonic signs everywhere. Buildings used to be painted only in blue and white, the ancient Masonic colours; even today the Paraty Cultural Society is called the Blue House Association. Strange, un-Brazilian and certainly non-native geometric ciphers abound in the streets. The Masonic symbol of plenty, a pine cone, has metamorphosed into a very Brazilian pineapple. The chilling tale of the Men With Black Gloves who met in the Toco do Caçununga, a nearby grotto and whose purpose was to punish errant Brothers (we’ve all heard the rumours how) has survived for two hundred years to our Internet Age and is told in several Brazilian Masonic websites. Finally, the town’s council was composed of 33 citizens and there were 33 town blocks in total, this being a sacred number to the Brotherhood.
But I will leave you with an image that you can capture only with an underground camera. A giant Masonic square and compasses submerged in the seas around Paraty, photographed by Carlos Martins of São Paulo. There are more images in his blog here.
What do you say to that?