From a boutique beach stay on the Costa Verde to a wildlife reserve in Minas Gerais, some of the most tranquil eco-retreats imaginable are hidden just a few hours’ drive from Rio and Sao Paolo. Estella Shardlow goes beyond the city in Brazil…
The waiter is disconcerted. A couple of guests, myself included, have stormed the kitchen and taken up knives. He tries to offer a few words of advice but it is swiftly batted away and can only watch as his limes are chopped and muddled, the ice bucket raided and a cocktail shaker enthusiastically rattled. The process continues until the fruit bowl is emptied.
When we were told upon arrival at Reserva do Ibitipoca that we should treat it as our own home and ‘pop into’ the kitchen if we needed anything, they may not have been expecting us to take it quite so literally. But this is no ordinary hotel; a lavish lakeside ranch with just eight suites, kitchens modelled after those in Disney’s Ratatouille and a hammock-strewn veranda, it has the feel of staying at a friend’s holiday home. At least, if one’s friends happen to be Brazilian billionaires with a passion for antiques and interior design… And situated as it is in a 3000-hectare private wildlife reserve, come nightfall there is little to do after dinner, in the best possible way, but curl up beneath the light of one of the pineapple-shaped lamps with a caipirinha in hand and read a book from the house’s extensive library (Assouline art tomes or celebrity memoirs, there’s something for everyone).
Around 380,000 tourists are expected to descend on Rio de Janeiro next August for the Olympics. But how many of these visitors will venture outside the carnival capital? The Amazon may be on many of their bucket lists, but it turns out paradise can be found a lot closer to the city – in Ibitipoca’s case, a mere three-hour drive away.
The house itself looks ready for a World of Interiors shoot, filled with curious objets d’art (a full-size Catholic altar crops up beside a wooden toad), copper fixtures nodding to the area’s mining heritage, and a traditional wood-burning stove, which at mealtimes is decked with dozens of bowls of organic vegetables grown on-site, homemade cakes and a pot of aromatic Brazilian coffee. But this dream pad is just a small part of the retreat’s appeal.
On horse rides or jeep trips around the reserve, a eye-wateringly beautiful world unfolds: slopes of powdery bone-white quartz, dense forests where electric blue butterflies and hummingbirds flit between the trees, olive and lime groves, waterfalls and natural lagoons, remote cabins (for those craving simpler, more solitary accommodation) beside heart-shaped lakes, and towering hilltop sculptures throwing their arms towards the skies. The managers have been working hard to conserve this staggering biodiversity for the past three decades, from reforesting degraded farmland to community education to reintroducing regionally extinct species, so the tourism element is part of a much wider vision.
It’s a similar story at Fazenda do Catuçaba, a former coffee plantation, which was intended to be a fully sustainable organic farm. It certainly is that today – growing all manner of fruit and vegetables, rearing livestock, making its own honey and cheese, even growing coffee and sugar cane – but the owners realised it also had a big appeal for a certain type of tourist looking to ditch the stresses of modern urban life for complete tranquility.
Sao Paolo is just two hours away by car – a fact I am finding increasingly hard to believe when nosing around the herb garden or watching chickens sprint past my hammock – so the city’s high-fliers escape here for the weekend to hike, horse-ride, gorge on nutritious organic meals, and sample the homemade cachaça. As at Ibitipoca, there’s space for a helicopter to land on the estate those of you with deep wallets, but I took the perfectly comfortable overland option in the Fazenda’s air-conditioned minibus after flying to Sao Paolo with TAM airlines, which has the widest network of flights in South America.
Catuçaba’s 19th century farmhouse acts as a hub for dining, cooking and socialising, though I also enjoyed lunches at one of its lakeside cottages and beneath the palm trees in the gardens. Ten rustic yet luxurious guest rooms are to be found in two nearby ‘new’ builds, dead ringers for the original structure right down to using the same centuries-old construction techniques and timber from the estate.
Sister hotel Pousada Picinguaba offers a similar brand of relaxed, sustainable luxury and food directly from Catuçaba’s farm, this time in a seaside setting on the Costa Verde. Its infinity pool and decked sun terrace overlook a tiny fishing village, a quiet cove that connects to a 3km stretch of golden sand where you can surf, kayak or paddleboard. Then there are boat trips around the neighbouring islands or excursions to colonial towns such as Paraty (half an hour by car). Oh, and caipirinha-making classes, which is what prompted the storming of Ibitipoca’s kitchen a couple of nights later.
As much fun as all Rio’s beach volleyball, samba dancing and street partying is, you’d be missing a trick to fly all this way and not add a few nights at one (or all, if you’ve got a week to spare) of these peaceful retreats. You don’t have to be an athlete with aching limbs to soothe to feel the benefit of all the gorgeous scenery, organic food, tree-planting, yoga and wholesome outdoorsy living. But just in case that line-up might leave guests in danger of feeling a little too virtuous, there’s always the cachaça to lead you astray.
Return flights from London Heathrow to Sao Paulo with TAM Airlines start from £576.56 in economy class (£1892.56 in business class), and from £449.86 to Rio de Janeiro (£1965.86 in business class). Visit www.tam.com.br or call 0800 026 0728.
Latin America specialist* Rainbow Tours* (www.rainbowtours.co.uk / 020 7666 1266) offers a 12-night trip to Brazil based on this itinerary from £3,735 per person. This price includes three nights at Fazenda Catucuba on a half-board basis; three nights at Pousada Picinguaba in a classic room on a half-board basis; three nights at Reserva do Ibitipoca in a standard room on a full board basis; and three nights at the Belmond Copacabana Palace in a superior lateral sea view room on a bed and breakfast basis. The price also includes transfers between each property. Includes international flights to Sao Paulo (return flight departs from Rio de Janeiro, via Sao Paulo) with TAM Airlines who, together with LAN Airlines forms LATAM Airlines Group.