Why you should care
With dirt roads and no cars, this Brazilian island is truly a colonial time capsule.
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Rio de Janeiro is a lot of things — bustling, crowded, complex, chock-full of crazy parties — but “pure tranquility” is not how you’d typically describe Brazil’s cultural capital. Yet that’s how Pacífico Cavalcante, a 65-year-old street vendor, describes his home in Paquetá, an out-of-the-way island neighborhood far up into Rio’s Guanabara Bay. “I lived most of my life in the city; it’s chaotic, noisy, dangerous,” says Cavalcante, who’s lived on the island for two years. “This place is like a mellow countryside smack in Rio de Janeiro — everyone knows each other, there’s no crime, kids roam free and play in the streets.”
Past the glamorous beaches of Rio’s South Zone, past downtown, even past the far-flung international airport, Paquetá Island is technically the northernmost part of the municipality of Rio. But Paquetá could not be any more different from the metropolis to which it belongs. With dirt roads and no cars, the island is truly a time capsule to colonial Rio, with traditional Portuguese architecture and even some horse-drawn carriages. Today, the island is home to 4,500 residents along with parks, fabulous seafood restaurants and churches and public buildings dating back to the 1700s. A day trip to this little-known neighborhood in this mega-famous city is well worth the hourlong ferry ride from Rio’s downtown.
White-sand beaches and coves, often dotted with huge granite boulders, surround the island.
Inhabited first by the Tamoio indigenous people, then by French and Portuguese colonizers in the mid-1500s, the narrow, 1.4-mile-long island has kept its indigenous name, which means “many pacas,” referring to the small rodents that once lived there. Paquetá became a personal favorite of the Portuguese king Dom João VI, who annexed the island in the early 1800s to make it part of Rio, despite its latitude being far above the city’s mainland limit.
White-sand beaches and coves, often dotted with huge granite boulders, surround the island. While the polluted waters are not recommended for swimming, locals offer kayak and paddleboat rentals for enjoying the water and the views. From the shores of Paquetá, visitors can see a sampling of the stunning natural beauty of the Rio region — to the north are the jagged peaks of the Serra Fluminense mountain range; to the south, in the distance there’s the Rio skyline, the Christ statue and Sugarloaf Mountain at the entrance to the Atlantic Ocean.
On a recent Sunday during Rio’s steamy summer, cicadas buzzed in the bushes as I looped around the dirt road along the water’s edge. Locals cast fishing rods off the shores, and sat back and cracked open beers in the shade. A couple slouched in lounge chairs on their porch, listening to bossa nova from a record player. On the island’s main beaches, locals set up big family picnics with background music from a nearby bar, where an acoustic guitarist played Brazilian folk music and the occasional Beatles cover. A local man made his rounds selling homemade ice pops for 75 cents.
It may be the mellowest neighborhood in Rio and far from the central city’s famous celebrations, but Paquetá Island still knows how to throw a party. In addition to regular live music at the local bars and restaurants, during Carnival the island hosts one of the wildest, most traditional street parties in the city — complete with live music, tons of glitter and performers on stilts.
As I’m about to board the ferry back to downtown Rio, Cavalcante, the street vendor, asks me how long I’ve lived in Rio. Five years, I respond. “Just wait,” he says, “you’ll be living here on Paquetá in no time.”
GO THERE: PAQUETA ISLAND
- Getting there: Take the Paquetá Island ferry leaving from Praça XV in downtown Rio.
- Cost: The ferry is R$6.10 (about $2) each way.
- Places to hang: Darke de Mattos Park, José Bonifácio Beach, Bom Jesus do Monte church.
- Pro tip: Bring some drinks and snacks for a picnic on José Bonifácio Beach alongside the locals, or walk to the south end of the island and find a grassy patch or strip of sand for a secluded lunch spot.