Rio is one of the most exciting, enthralling and beautiful cities in the world. The iconic images of Christ the Redeemer (Cristo Redentor) and the unusually shaped sugar loaf mountain are famous worldwide, as well as the renowned beach resorts of Copacabana and Ipanema. Surrounded by tropical rainforest with overcrowded favelas spreading out into the hills, ramshackle housing communities and upscale neighbourhoods lie pretty much side by side. With arty, bohemian neighbourhoods, cool street art, great restaurants, entertaining beaches, pulsating nightlife, samba, carnival and a distinct ‘Carioca’ personality – you’d be mad to miss this, one of the world’s greatest cities off your Brazil travel list.
However, if the pace of the city gets a bit too much, and you’re needing a break from the heat and the crowds, don’t worry – the state of Rio de Janeiro is a nature lover’s paradise, and many incredible destinations are easily accessible within a few hours of the metropolis. With cleaner air, a more relaxed attitude and less to worry about in terms of personal safety, these nearby destinations are what makes the state of Rio de Janeiro one of the most diverse and interesting places to backpack!
Just 4-5 hours from Rio, you’ll find the beautiful colonial city of Paraty with its 17th and 18th century Portuguese architecture, whitewashed churches and cobbled, traffic-free streets. Once a strategic port for sending the gold mined in Minas Gerais to the empire base in Lisbon, Paraty was rediscovered in the 1970s as a touristic destination after being declared part of the Brazilian historic heritage in 1966. Although Paraty itself can get crowded during high season and weekends, the city itself is surrounded by national parks, unspoiled secluded beaches, waterfalls and jungle-clad mountains, perfect for those wanting to immerse themselves in Brazil’s glorious nature. Explore nearby sugar plantations, take a boat trip to nearby islands and coves or hike in the ancient ‘Mata Atlantica’ or Atlantic Forest, a place of extraordinary biodiversity, of which only 15% of original forest remains.
2. Ilha Grande
By no means a secret, Ilha Grande (Big Island) is a paradisiacal retreat just 150km (2-3 hours) fro Rio. Throughout it’s colourful history, the island has been a pirate’s hideout, a leper colony and an island prison. There are no roads, nor cars on the island and the biggest town (village) is the settlement of Vila do Abraão, home to around 3,000 people and a concentration of guesthouses, restaurants and bars. It’s easy to escape the throng of tourists in Abraão’s small dirt streets, as hiking trails head out into the hills on all directions leading into the rainforest to waterfalls, blue lagoons, and tropical, secluded beaches. If you have a week to spare, you can hike around the whole island in 4-5 days. Ilha Grande is perfect for snorkelling, diving, trekking or just relaxing amidst nature’s treasures.
3. Angra Dos Reis
Around 2-3 hours south along the coast from Rio, you will come across the town of Angra Dos Reis (meaning King’s Creek or Bay). Mainly a jumping off point for the island of Ihla Grande, the port town is a rather ugly industrial affair, but not so far away there are lots of beautiful beaches to explore, over 2,000 of them to be exact! The archipelago of Angra Dos Reis consists of 365 islands, (including Ihla Grande) making up part of the Fluminense Green Coast, which is a popular destination for holidaying Cariocas. Diving, boat trips, snorkelling and water sports are all possible here in this beach bummers paradise. If you’re feeling adventurous, canoe out to the secluded and peaceful island of Juruba where floating bars serve drinks and snacks to the visiting boats.
Less than two hours north of Rio, Búzios is a peninsula surrounded by beautiful beaches on all sides. Weekending ‘Cariocas’ (people from Rio) head to Búzios for fishing, kite surfing, sailing, golfing and scuba diving. Growing from a sleepy fishing village to upscale seaside resort during the 1960s, some refer to Búzios as the St Tropez of Brazil. Consisting of three separate settlements – Ossos, Manguinhos and Armação de Búzios – Ossos is the oldest and prettiest, Manguinhos is the most commercial and Armação is famous for it’s lively nightlife. With fine restaurants, posh bars and luxury pousadas lining the picturesque seaside promenade, a backpacker could feel out of place here.
5. Arraial do Cabo
Much more low-key and less touristy than Búzios, Arraial do Cabo is a more affordable and backpacker-friendly ‘beachy’ escape from Rio. Surrounded by glistening white sand dunes, amazing beaches and crystal clear turquoise waters, Arraial is famous for diving (rumoured to be the best in Rio state) and humpback whale watching. The working fishing port of Porto do Forno is a refreshing slice of authentic Brazilian seaside life.
6. Serra de Bocaina National Park
Situated in-between the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, this national park comprises of mountain 200,000 hectares of jungle, coast and mountain range, with peaks higher than 2,000 metres and gushing waterfalls. Trekkers will delight and the historic cobbled paths of ‘Trilha do Ouro’ (the gold trail), the main path through the park, built by slaves in the early 18th century to bring gold from Minas Gerais to the coast. The most famous, best-preserved stretch of the trail is the 100km over the Serra do Mar to the coast at Mambucaba. On this route, you’ll pass through virgin rainforest, high waterfalls, old farms along an undulating path that offers incredible views over the Atlantic Ocean down to Paraty.
About one hour from Rio, you’ll find this historical city nestled in the mountain range of Serra dos Órgãos (the Range of Organs) named for the way the peaks resemble the pipes of a church organ pointing into the sky . With a cooler climate than Rio and streets less crowded and pressured than Rio, Petrópolis, also known as the ‘Imperial City’ offers a more chilled out experience of a Brazilian city and is often missed by backpackers and international tourist, yet treasured by nature loving Brazilians. With original cobbled-stone streets in the centre, colonial mansions and neo-gothic cathedrals, days can be spent ambling around the city breathing in the fresh mountain air, popping into museums, drinking wine and listening to traditional Brazilian music and eating at retro restaurants. Just outside the city are spectacular opportunities for hiking to fresh mountain springs, trekking to waterfalls or rock climbing the interesting rock formations of the Serra dos Órgãos.
6. Ilha de Paquetà
An easy escape from Rio’s hustle and bustle, the quaint Ilha de Paquetà in Guanabara Bay is just over an hour’s ferry ride from the city, costing only 10 reals to get there. Instead of cars, the transport consists of horse-drawn carts, which adds a certain old-fashioned charm to the colonial streets, or bicycle, which you can rent by the hour for only 5 reals. Due to it’s close proximity to the city, the island gets crowded at weekends, so it is best to visit during the week. Measuring only 1.2km X 8km, the island is tiny with only four hotels, but rich in history and nature. Paquetá is one of only two places in Brazil where you can find the African Baobab tree, of which there are 20 on the island, the most famos being ‘Maria Gorda’ or Fat Mary. Kiss her and you’ll be granted years of good luck!
9. Parque Nacional do Itatiaia
Located on the border or Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais states, Brazil’s oldest national park is ruggedly beautiful and home to a unique array of flora and fauna, as well as rivers, lakes, lagoons, waterfalls and Atlantic rainforest. Reaching to an altitude of 2,800 metres, temperatures in the park can be cold, particularly in winter (June), snowfall is not unusual in the highest parts. The road that runs through the park, the BR-485, climbing to 2460 metres is considered the highest road in Brazil, although it is now closed to cars. Visited by very few international tourists, you can go a full day hiking without passing another person on the trails in this wild and beautiful national Park. 3-4 hours by bus from Rio.
10. Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais
The colonial old town of Ouro Preto (meaning Black Gold) in the nearby state of Minas Gerais, used to be one of the biggest cities in the Americas during the gold rush of the early-mid 18th century, since then it has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its extremely well-preserved Baroque and colonial architecture. 6-7 by bus hours from Rio de Janeiro, this escape requires an overnight stop. With it’s hilly, narrow cobblestone streets and picturesque houses, the town is a photographers’ paradise with many interesting museums and beautiful churches spread out across the rugged, hilly landscape. The town, once the catalyst of Brazil’s first independence movement enjoys a vibrant art and culture scene.