SANTOS, BRAZIL - For a coffee town, Santos really proves to be a tourist’s cup of tea. Not as well known as some of Brazil’s other major cities, this sleepy town offers vacationers beaches that rival anything in Rio and some of the most unusual attractions in South America.
"I never get tired of going up there," said Rodrassis as we boarded the Tram do Corcovado (at a cost of about $12 each) for the 20 minute white-knuckle ride to the summit.
Like the world’s tallest cemetery. That’s right, in Santos you get closer to God thanks to a high-rise cemetery that stretches 10 storys into the always present azure sky. The unique cemetery, known as Memorial Necropole Ecumenica and located in the dead center of Santos – naturally – is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the globe’s tallest burial place and also qualifies as one of the most unique tourist stops in the world.
It was built in 1983 and the first burial took place in 1984. Coffins are placed in an upright position and odors from decaying bodies are funneled through a series of pipes out the top of the building. But the cemetery is not Santos’ only weird attraction.
The city also boasts a series of slanted apartment buildings that make the Leaning Tower of Pisa look straight. A local guide told me the buildings are the result of some “bad engineering” – no kidding – but are being repaired and can be bought for as little as $30,000. Not even the breathtaking beach scene that comes with each of these buildings could make you buy one.
Santos is better known for being the country’s coffee exporting capital and home of Pele, the legendary Brazilian soccer star who played most of his career here. The 100,000-plus seat stadium that dominates Santos’ skyline is regarded as much a shrine as the city’s historic Coffee Exchange, now a museum, where farmers once haggled with barons over the price of their crop.
The museum is located near the city’s weathered dock area, where coffee destined for export sits in rows of drab-looking warehouses. Ironically, coffee is not grown in Santos.
The museum is more cathedral than coffee exchange. Its walls are lined with handsome murals depicting different chapters of the city's history. A beautiful stained glass canopy hangs over the centre of the circular interior, where the coffee barons once sat, perched like judges, and set prices for the liquid gold. You can still buy coffee at the former exchange- vendors will give you a free sample and you can purchase bags to take home.
Santos was first discovered by the Portuguese in the mid-1500s. It was later settled by the French and English who left behind a legacy of handsome colonial buildings that are now being restored to their former glory. It’s located on the Island of St. Vincente and is 50 miles away from Brazil’s largest city, Sao Paulo.
Left: Santos' steep funicular. Right: The buildings on top of Monte Serrat date back to the city’s colonial days.
The harbor area, where poor fishermen cast their nets between the fleet of cruise ships that make regular stops in Santos, is known as Old Town and its cobbled streets are lined with historic buildings, small art shops and some quaint outdoor cafes. It looks more European than South American.
Santos’ 400,000 citizens enjoy over 300 days of sunshine annually and one of the finest beaches in the world. People from polluted and overcrowded Sao Paulo use Santos as a weekend retreat.
In the centre of Santos, behind the pristine beach, is the city’s famed botanical gardens, itself a Guinness entry as the world’s longest garden at over 5 miles. The gardens are jammed packed with rare tropical plants and a few remaining Brasil trees. The delicate tree for which the country is named, once flourished here before being devastated by European settlers.
One section of the amazing gardens is devoted to rare orchids. They are absolutely beautiful. The gardens double as a zoo and during a lazy stroll – it’s too hot and humid here most days to walk fast – you can engage in conversation with colorful macaws and parrots, watch playful spider monkeys entertain, and take photographs of the stunning peacocks who roam freely here.
The mood in Santos is relaxed so most people walk around barefoot and in skimpy bathing suits. With this setting, who can blame them?
The people are friendly and don’t be surprised to be approached by local children wanting to practice their English. Street vendors will tempt you with a sweet treat called churros, a long sugar-coated donut that melts in your mouth and can be purchased for about 50 cents. Why fight temptation?
The best vantage point of this lovely city and its alluring sea vista is from Monte Serrat, which allows 360-drgree views of sprawling Santos. To reach the summit, you must take an enchanting funicular. Or, for the physically fit, you have the option of climbing a 460 step staircase. Most people elect to take the funicular.
The top of Monte Serrat features a beautiful little chapel constructed by the Portuguese in the 17th century. The landmark church is highlighted with delicately hand-painted European ceramic tiles.
The chapel is a favorite with wedding parties – gowns used during ceremonies line the structure’s weathered walls, put there by brides who were happy their marriage wishes were granted here. The chapel has also been credited with many miracles so hundreds of crutches and canes hang alongside the wedding gowns. So does lots of national and city soccer jerseys, put there by rabid Brazilian fans thankful for their country’s success in international play.
A series of 19 drainage ditches – used when the sea water overflows into the city on occasion – also makes Santos the Venice of South America.
People should be dying to get to this heavenly Brazilian paradise, and not just because of the world’s tallest cemetery.
- Silversea cruise line makes Santos a regular stop on their South American cruise from Buenos Aires to Rio. Go towww.silversea.com.