Paquetá, BRAZIL — The port drifts into the horizon and the city centre’s office blocks are replaced by a skyline of distant mountain ranges framing the steel-blue sea. I’d joined the weekday commuters on the one-hour boat trip from Rio de Janeiro’s downtown harbour to the island of Paquetá. What seems like a world of its own, Paquetá is, in fact, a neighbourhood in Rio located in a far-away point in Guanabara Bay. It’s a pocket of peace and calm against the complex and bustling metropolis it’s a part of.
Once the home of the Indigenous Tamoios tribe, Paquetá was discovered by the Europeans in the mid 1500s and was made an official neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro in the early 1800s after the Portuguese King Dom João VI fell in love with the island. It’s little wonder why Paquetá was a favourite with the former king; the island is encircled with palm tree-lined white beaches where the calm water quietly laps against the shores and granite boulders cut through the bay’s surface.
Above: Not far from the chaos that is Rio de Janeiro is the peaceful island of Paqueta and its calm scenery.
Even before Paquetá was made a part of Rio, the Portuguese had already left their mark with traditional architecture found around every corner, lending the island its distinct decadent charm. Cars are prohibited on the island; instead, the 4,500 island residents get around on bikes or tricycles that shakily bounce over the cobbled streets and dirt tracks.
On a sunny Tuesday, I arrive at Paquetá’s small port and hire a fittingly vintage bike to go exploring. It’s an ordinary weekday, so I find myself cycling along beachside paths without a soul around. White egrets stalk through the water, patiently searching for their next meal. A local fiddles with the engine of his small boat down on the shore as nearby fishermen leisurely check their lines for a bite. Two sunbathers enjoy an empty beach, soaking up the sun in peace. A group of elderly men gather around a table drinking cold beer from a local bar, their animated chatter and laughter providing a pleasant din in the quiet air.
I pass a couple of well-preserved colonial churches, including the São Roque chapel, which dates back to 1697 and was the first chapel on the island, and the Senhor Bom Jesus do Monte church, both brightly painted in brilliant white and warm shades of blue. Just 10-minutes cycling from there is the unusual yet touching bird cemetery, a small final resting ground for hundreds of pet birds.
Above: The island's bird cemetery and its lovely colonial church are big draws with locals and tourists alike.
From the cemetery, I cycle down the cobbled paths, passing the swan boats lined up for the weekend crowds of families, loved-up couples, and tourists who come for peaceful beach days. I stop at the Darke de Mattos park, a light and spacious natural park filled with tall trees sagging under the weight of vines that drape from their long branches. In the park is the entrance to the Augusto Ruschi hike, an easy-going 15-minute trail to the top of a hill with a panoramic viewpoint at the summit. From up there, the trees from the park bristle below and the Guanabara Bay stretches back, dotted with small sailing boats and dark grey boulders. On the horizon is the Serra das Orgãos mountain range where the Dedo de Deus (God’s Finger) — a famous peak shaped like a curled fist with the index finger pointing up — can be seen on a clear day. The view takes my breath away as I pause to take dozens of photos to try and capture this picture-perfect landscape.
As the sun begins to dip behind the horizon, I leave my bike at the rental shop of João Bosco, a local of Paquetá who makes a living renting and mending bikes. He says that the weekends fill up during the day with Rio de Janeiro locals, but generally they come and go on the same day, spending the sunny afternoons sunbathing on the beaches before dipping into a local eatery for cold beers and fresh, local seafood.
Above: Dontt let the island's sleepy nature fool you. When the time if right, the locals know how to party.
Then, the nights are calm again. It may be quiet during the year but it still gets infected by Carnival fever when hundreds of people fill the streets, bringing with them their fancy dress costumes, plenty of glitter, and cool boxes brimming with beers. Don’t let the island’s sleepy nature deceive you — when the time is right, the locals know how to party. The Carnival street festivities in Paquetá are considered among the best in Rio, yet are lesser-known than the mainland shenanigans.
I head back to the port and board the boat back to Rio. The skyline’s rolling hills turn to towering skyscrapers and the silence of the island becomes filled with the distant buzz of a city going about its day-to-day working life. From the sanctuary of Paquetá and its embracing calm, it’s time to slip back into the bustling reality.
JUST THE FACTS
How to get there: The only way to get to the island is by boat, which operates every day. The boat leaves from Praça XV in Rio de Janeiro’s city centre and costs R$6.10 (CA$1.60) one way. A one-way trip takes between 60 and 70 minutes.
Boat timetable: http://www.grupoccr.com.br/barcas/linhas-horarios-tarifas
Getting around: There are no roads on Paquetá so the only way to get around is walking, cycling or using public transport, which consists of an electric buggy that takes you anywhere on the island. Bike rental shops are found by the port and there are plenty of options to choose from. I went to Bosco on Rua Furquim Werneck, 21. Prices vary but average around R$5 (CA$1.76) per hour.
Need to know: There is only one ATM on the island which belongs to Brazilian bank Itau and may not be compatible with all cash or credit cards. To avoid any issues, it’s best to take cash to the island.
Where to eat: Restaurante Lido: A low-key beachside restaurant that serves typical Brazilian platters, ideal for sharing. Try the battered sardines served with a cold beer and enjoy the sea views.
Zeca’s: The food is centered around traditional Brazilian dishes such as dried meat and fresh seafood.
Vira Canto: Like all the restaurants on the island, Vira Canto serves tasty, no-frills Brazilian dishes in generous portions.
Tourist information: http://visit.rio/en/welcome/