The Town That Floods on Purpose
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this place built innovation into its own streets.
By Shannon Sims
The OZY Top 25: Each week we share an irresistible vacation hideaway, chosen by OZY staff.
It’s a windless night on the Green Coast of Brazil. Only the occasional scream of a monkey from the surrounding jungle disturbs the silence. Gas lamps flicker beneath a full moon over the empty colonial streets. And then suddenly, eerily, it happens: Dark water begins to cover the streets, creeping up church steps, rising a foot deep. Within minutes, the town will be flooded.
We are knee-deep in the quaint hideaway of Paraty. Brazil is full of gorgeous preserved towns — Ouro Preto, Pirenopolis, Olinda, Tiradentes — but Paraty is special. There’s the flooding, but more on that later. On this trip, we are enchanted by the morning sounds. The drip-drop of rain collecting in Jurassic flowers. The trills of birds alighting from the forested mountains. The clatter of hooves on slick cobblestones. The dull chimes of old church bells. What year is it again?
Paraty is a place that’ll take you back. And yet it’s a short drive from the two megalopolises of Brazil. Located on the Costa Verde between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Paraty — pronounced para-chee — is “a place that offers everything,” declares Teresa “Tete” Etrusco, the owner of one of the town’s most popular pousadas (hotels), Casa Turquesa. Lush mountains, a dramatic topography, clear waters and a local cachaça distillery — what more do you need? She came on a holiday 25 years ago and never left. The town of 35,000 is a maze of fat stones beneath whitewashed buildings brightened by colorful, arching doors — the perfect setting for artistic gatherings, art and photography festivals and Brazil’s largest literary festival, FLIP.
The sidewalks are elevated a foot above the cobblestones, and during high tides and full moons, ocean water fills in the streets.
Paraty has a history of attracting those with sophisticated tastes. First, the discovery of gold in Brazil’s interior in the 1800s made Paraty the second most important port in the country, as the riches made their way down a cobblestoned forest path called the Gold Trail (which still exists) to the coast. Next, the coffee industry boomed, and then years later, the sugarcane industry, which led to those distilleries. In 1973, a freeway connecting Rio to São Paulo brought a modern version of the gold boom: tourism. But despite the tourist expansion, what Etrusco loves about Paraty is that “[it] still retains a soul.” People still walk their dogs in the colonial center, greet the baker in the morning and shout playfully to neighbors. “There is life here,” she says. “It’s not just a pretty setting.”
However, Paraty’s divine location also creates its biggest drawback: rain. Just a few hours away from Rio de Janeiro, it gets double the precipitation. It rains for about a quarter of the year. The town acts as a siphon for the moisture between the ocean and the mountains, and often ends up capped by gray clouds and drizzle, which can put a drippy damper on the boat and beach excursions that draw tourists here. Miserable if you’re wanting to get a tan, but delightful if you wish to meditate on a hummingbird’s buzz from your hammock.
Which brings us back to the most unique aspect of the town. Paraty floods quite regularly, and intentionally — it’s an old street-cleaning strategy. Indeed, it dates back centuries, to when the city was designed: Since it is below sea level, sidewalks are elevated about a foot above the cobblestones, and during full-moons at high tides, ocean water fills the streets in a timeless ebb and flow. (Many pousadas offer their guests white flip-flops to encourage them to remove their damp shoes when they come in.) It stirs an unforgettable, surreal scene, of colonial buildings reflecting in the flooded streets — a kind of mirrored French Quarter, a photographer’s dream. A scene that will take you back to how it always was.