Searching for paradise down a long, bumpy and muddy road
Getting to Trancoso — touted as a rustic and charming fishing village where billionaires beach comb with the locals — is a pilgrimage. For us, the journey takes two days, first driving to the central city of Belo Horizonte, where we spend the night in an airport hotel, then flying the next day to steamy Porto Seguro, where were met by a taxi, ferried across a muddy river, then driven two more hours to Trancoso. We would like to say the trek is worth it, but it is not.
We discover that Trancoso, reached only by dirt road until just a few years ago, is already just another overcrowded beach town. But the fault is not Trancoso's. The whole country is on vacation and almost every accessible stretch of sand along Brazil's almost 9,000-kilometer coast is swarming. We mistakenly assumed that because Trancoso is so hard to get to, it might be an exception. But we arrive on a Friday, the beginning of the weekend, and find out too late that this once well-kept secret has mushroomed into a magnet for day trippers from Porto Seguro. On top of that, the strange summer of 2009 produces more clouds than sun, and a wind that roils the surf, making the otherwise vodka crisp water look more like coffee with cream.
As if that weren't enough, the old town is perched on a cliff, about a mile by dirt road from the beach, and so is our pousada, a pretentious boutique hotel, El Gordo (the Fat One), that takes its hipness way too seriously and charges way too much. With renewed thoughts of escape, we hike down to the beach, then another mile or so north to check out Vilas da Trancoso, the only other game in town, a pricey, gated collection of bungalows, only to find that it is nothing like the pictures in the brochures or on the Internet.
Exhausted by the travails of a long couple of days, we make our way back to the Fat One and spend the next three hours plotting our breakout. It's been almost three weeks since our arrival in Brazil. For years we have dreamed of splashing day after day in Brazil's fabled tropical waters, but for lots of reasons, including weather, travel delays, poor local water quality, and the constant challenge of just trying to make things happen, we've been in the ocean just twice.
We are beginning to wonder — does the Brazil that we are trying so desperately to find even exist?
The following morning, we are on the road again, coughing up a hefty fee to a driver to take us four hours farther down the coast to our last hope, a tiny eco resort in the middle of nowhere called Vila Naia da Corumbao.
It's been three days now since Tiradentes and we are still bouncing around in a frustrating quest for exactly what we are not sure. Finally, we roll into Vila Naia — but only after a bone-jarring plunge down 45 miles of rutted, gutted mud road that loosens our teeth and almost destroys the car. But we can see right away that our odyssey may be over and our reward just beginning.
The sudden tranquility, solitude and unspoiled beauty all around sweep over us like a magic wind, sucking away all the accumulated edge and druck.
Brazil Lesson No. 6: Sun, sand, sea and palm trees are a commodity, and can be had for a song in the world of mass travel. But if you want all the above plus unspoiled natural beauty, tranquility and privacy, you have to pay for it.
Vila Naia sits on an empty, palm-fringed half-moon beach, largely hidden inside a nature preserve. Bungalows are set in a grove of coconut trees. The only sounds for miles around are the sweet, hypnotic whisper of the surf, the rustle of palms, skittering lizards, and cooing doves.
Just one generation ago, this kind of magnificent isolation might be taken almost for granted. But in a more crowded world, they come at a price. Sometimes a steep price. A reflection of that unhappy development lies in the fact that Vila Naia has a helicopter pad, sequestered discreetly in a corner of the property.
But something may be amiss. There's not a helicopter in sight, and it turns out we are the only guests. Could it be that the economic meltdown has finally washed up on the shores of Brazil? Could it be that even the well-to-do have disappeared into bunkers? Or could it simply be that it's so hard to get to — even by helicopter?
We have no business partaking of this kind of extravagance. But we may have finally found the holy grail. At this point, we have run out of options, and energy, and we are not going anywhere.
Dinner under the stars is odd, because it is just us, but all the more enchanting for it. In the morning, we walk the deserted beach at sunrise and marvel at the emptiness, the flat sea, and the silken warmth of the early light.
Corumbao is an Indian community, the Pataxo and Coca tribes. They have been quietly fishing these waters by dugout canoe and living off the abundant fruits of the land since long before the Portugese, in fact before there was even a Portugal.
We are delighted to find that Vila Naia produces all its own food, so what's on your plate is either picked or caught right before you eat it. Eggs, for example, go straight from the coop to the skillet. The people who work here are from the local tribes, as is the family, including kids, that sits in the shade of a sea grape tree making bracelets and necklaces for the infrequent visitor.
The tropical wonders of the lazy days here are matched only by the glories of the night, which, because of pollution-free air and much less ambient light in these nether regions, are like no skies we have ever seen.
To step onto a beach here on a cloudless night before the moon bejewels the horizon is to witness God's work firsthand. The stars are brighter, bolder, and far more numerous than anything we can ever hope to contemplate even on a good night back in Connecticut. We are struck dumb by a Milky Way we have never seen before: a diamond-studded bridge of stunning luminescence against the sobering blackness of deep space that stretches from one horizon to the other. Even more wondrous are the distinct clusters of galaxies hundreds of millions of light years away, translucent balls of faint silver light that we can see for the first time ever with the naked eye.
What a mystery this great display must have presented to the native peoples who stood on these very shores thousands of years ago.
For a moment, the epic struggles of man seem but the faintest signs of life in a Lilliputian petri dish.
We stand and gape in awed silence for what seems like a very long time, hoping for the meteor than never appears.
In the morning, we head toward the same horizon under a hot sky in a small wooden fishing boat with a sheet for a sun tarp. Three miles out on the reef, we slip under the waves only to find a very sad landscape: bleached coral and no fish. Another dead reef, and a sign of the times.
What has killed the reef fish? Pollution? Global warming? Where have the fish gone? Fled from the dead reef or victims of generations of overfishing?
Where does the fresh fish come that we find on our table? It comes from the sapphire depths far offshore, where today's pesqueros have to venture a little further every year in their tiny sailing canoes to make a living and feed their families.
In the afternoon, we sputter up the coast in our one-cylinder trawler to a string of remote pristine beaches, where we swim ashore and walk the sands in luxurious isolation. Extrusions of rock the color of drying blood forged long ago in volcanic convulsions thrust out into the sand from eroded escarpments. The day passes like a dream.
Later after dinner, warmed by wine, we are lured back to the beach, where we listen to the surf purr and gaze once again at the starry spectacle in the sky.
The next day, spurred by curiosity, we venture further down this untamed coast, swim ashore, and walk ten miles along one deserted beach after another. All the while, I can't stop thinking that when they finally get around to paving that long dirt road, which surely they will, all this will be gone. In its place, almost overnight will rise hotels, condos, apartments, restaurants, parking lots, bars and tourist shops — exactly what happened after they finally paved the road to Trancoso.
The only hope that this all-too-common nightmare will not visit Corumbao are the occasional glimpses we catch every couple of miles of the summer homes of some of Brazil's very rich (in Brazil you are either very rich — less than one percent — very poor, about 95 percent — or middle class, about 5 percent). These houses are embedded in all the abundant raw nature of the region so discretely that they are practically invisible. In this country, the super-wealthy have disproportionate influence. More importantly, they also have helicopters and private planes, which are a distinct advantage in a place like this. They no doubt enjoy their almost complete privacy, exclusivity and invisibility, and don't mind having all this beauty to themselves. So I suspect that if they have any say in the matter, the dirt road — which acts as kind of a moat — may never get paved.
• • •
At dawn in the village, fishing families return at first light to haul their platinum catch onto the beach, where they load it into baskets and transfer it to a pickup truck. Kids are already splashing in the bronze-glazed quiet water and a small dog barks at nothing in particular.
We ride bikes up and down the beach, swim, nap, eat, read and simply melt. Time drifts away. Layers shed. We slip quietly, almost without realizing it, into a kind of tropical meditation more relaxing than anything I have experienced before.
Five days of dreamy stillness and tranquility pass before we are off again on a trek that even a road warrior would dread to our next destination, the magic island of Fernando da Noronha.
In next week's final installment: Granville Toogood finally finds paradise at the end of the road in Brazil .
Mr. Toogood of Darien is an author and former television journalist. His latest book is "The Articulate Executive in Action — How The Best Leaders Get Things Done."