There are many ways to go to the Rio Olympics if you want to soak up the atmosphere. Run really fast and represent your country. Fly there and have a lazy week between catching the track events and catching some rays. Watch the TV for two months with a chilled coconut on the arm of your favourite chair.
Or drive in, on one of the most beautiful roads in South America: the 600-kilometre coast road from Santos to Rio de Janeiro. It’s officially the BR101, but is best known for the lush landscape it passes through the Costa Verde, or Green Coast.
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King Pele’s Palace
I picked up a car at São Paulo airport and, without so much as a glance at the megacity, made for the coast. Santos is best known as Brazil’s main port, but the city was far lovelier than I expected, with a long beach and palm-fringed promenade.
I made a sporting pitstop here, dropping in on the stadium of Santos FC, site of Brazil’s Museu do Futebol. A guide showed me the changing rooms where “prince” Neymar used to keep his kit and talked me through strips, cups, history, and fandom. But then he pointed at a large photograph of a beaming famous face: “Pelé,” he said. “The only king of the club”. Pelé scored more than 1,000 goals for Santos and guided the club to an impressive six Brazilian championships. The guide took me on to the pitch and pointed to the great man’s private box “the throne.”
After paying due homage, I drove out of Santos and down to a small harbour to catch the ferry to the island of Santo Amaro and the resort town of Guarujá. At a beachfront hotel, I enjoyed some grilled sea bass and a glass of Brazilian Casa Valduca cabernet sauvignon – not bad, for a tropical wine.
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The Green Coast
When I woke the following morning, I had my first sight of the ecosystem that makes Brazil’s southern Costa so stunningly Verde. Behind and at either end of the beach was the dense, bottle-green forest of the Mata Atlântica, an ancient habitat rich in flora and also home to more than 1,000 bird species eagles, toucans, hummingbirds, and parrots. It tumbled here, sprawled there, glistened at the top, clinging to the rocks around the bay; this was the Brazil of legend – wild and impenetrable, all the way to the sea.
Only eight percent of the forest on the Costa Verde remains virgin, and most of it is down here in the south. Ever since Brazil was settled by Europeans in the 16th century, and coffee planted on every available hillside, there has been severe degradation of the Atlantic forest. It is still threatened – by fires, housing, land grabs, and farming – but with the focus of tourism and the environmental lobby high on the national agenda, there is a chance this gorgeous remnant of the vast forest might be safe now.
It was time to hit the road. With the verdant wilderness on my left and beach after beach on my right, I wasn’t sure where to look. The forest climbed up steep hills (as did the highway), following the sharp ridges and then plunging down to the coast again. The beaches were varied – many long with pounding surf, ideal for surfers; others quieter, wider strands dotted with food shacks. There were helipads and gated estates, too, development ever encroaching on this slender coastal paradise.
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A guidebook said there were 33 beaches in all. After ten I lost count and as I was arriving at my own –Toque Toque Grande, which was anything but grand, with just a bar, a small church and a few houses that didn’t amount to a hamlet.
I stayed in bungalow in a small boutique resort tucked into the cliffs above the beach. Lunch was ceviche and tropical fruit, with little brightly coloured tanager birds coming and going to pick at their own plate of mango skins and papaya.
Afterwards, I walked down to the beach using some steep, mossy steps. For company, I had only an angler casting into the steady surf for croaker fish, and two young boys playing in the waves on their boogie boards.
Another half-day’s drive took me to Ilhabela. As it was a Saturday the island was full of monied São Paulo escapists, posing, sipping Skol beers, and showing off on their stand-up paddle boards. The women were in standard-issue otiose bikinis, the men in skin-tight trunks called tangas. The beautiful people? Sure. Yet, from what I could see, no one really cared. I had a swim, ate some seafood, drank a mango caipirinha, and slipped into siesta mode.
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Into The Tropics
The following day, I drove past the sign marking the Tropic of Capricorn. Beached out, I decided to study the left-hand view a little more. The Costa Verde is dizzyingly exuberant, with palms hanging off the vertical cliff walls, white mists drifting over steep valleys in the morning hours, rose and pach blooms bursting out of the undergrowth on the roadside. There were occasional fields, parks, public spaces, but the jungle was pressing down on them all – spilling over as if ready to reclaim lost territory.
Paraty, my next stop, didn’t like my being in a car. Its streets are paved with big, uneven cobblestones, and tourists hog them, wandering from romantic bar to candlelit restaurant to pastel-painted church. Still, when I finally found a parking space, I had to admit the beauty of the town – it’s the Costa Verde’s colonial gem, and a final smalltown hideaway before the final leg to Rio.
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Oh Rio, Rio
I arrived on a hazy, sultry afternoon at Rio de Janeiro.
Suburbs began to gather around me long before the centre, including the new-looking high-rise district of Barra da Tijuca – site of the Olympic park. But then the BR101 weaved a few times round vare cliffs, and sucked me into a dark tunnel before spiting me out on to beautiful Leblon beach – I was blown away – then iconic Ipanema – I was breathless – and then the sensual curve of Copacabana’s Avenida Atlântica. I was here! What a way to arrive!
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There’s something about taking a city in a car that makes you feel you belong, are part of the heave-to and the hoopla. It was almost rush hour, too, bit all my rushing was over.
I had been planning to drop the hire car off but then spotted a tempting coconut stand at the far end of the three famous beaches. I found a parking space, pulled over and stood overlooking the golden sand. It looked like the Olympic city was rehearsing: joggers and speed walkers slipped past capoeira dancers and bodybuilders, and a swimming school was doing a fierce front crawl in a high, broiling surf.
I was ready for a stretch myself, after four days on the road and all that tiring study of nature’s handiwork. I put out my arm and grabbed the chilled green coconut, lifted it, and took a long, slow sip. I toasted the drive, all those sporting locals – and legends to come – and Rio, too, for being perhaps the best finishing line of any drive on earth.