The thrill of Brazil: Rio buzzes – but there’s so much more to discover in this vast and beautiful country, including the country’s answer to St Tropez

At Rio de Janeiro̵7;s airport we are picked up in a bullet-proof car.

‘Someone who took a wrong turn was shot near the end of my road a couple of nights ago,’ says our driver.

It is not the most reassuring start to a holiday. Our nerves intensify as we near the stylish Fasano hotel, our Ipanema beachfront abode, and see two tourists exiting in panic from a neighbouring favela (Portuguese for ‘slum’). Have they witnessed one of the 300 monthly shootings in Rio that give the city such a bad reputation? We never find out.

But, happily, it is the only time we are alarmed in our entire two-week, four-location stay.

Although the exorbitant price of an ordinary steak – £50 – in Leblon’s Guiseppe Grill was a bit of a shock.

The popular beaches of Rio de Janeiro have long been a hub for tourists. Pictured: The city’s Copacabana Beach

Eating out just about everywhere in Brazil is unexpectedly expensive. My partner, Emma, and I were drawn to Brazil by its energy, diversity, recent repositioning as an environmental trailblazer, exotic image and liberated body-culture. That was immediately evident from the breakfast room of our next lodgings, the chic Janeiro hotel opposite Leblon beach offering a panorama of mixed beach-volleyball games.

The beach volleyball players, who use both their hands and feet to keep the ball up, are all shapes and sizes and wedged into minuscule outfits. And that is just the men.

Watching the range of activities on a Brazilian beach is inspiring: the joggers, cyclists, swimmers and surfers. Triathletes finish runs and leap into the waves. Impromptu HIIT (high-intensity interval training) exercise classes are in full swing. Body-builders pump iron at apparatus set up almost every 50 yards.

It is all a far cry from my last visit to Brazil many years ago.

Back then I had been playing beach football with friends on Copacabana Beach – a brilliant cure for a hangover induced by one or two too many Caipirinhas, the country’s national cocktail – when some barefoot local lads jogged up enthusiastically and asked for a game. The sea breeze was refreshing and the soft sand was forgiving for diving headers. Our backpacks were the goals. There were six of them and ten of us.

We were thrashed 12-nil. And, for good measure, when we were done, they ran off without a handshake – as well as some of our bags. We were too tired, shocked and slow to give chase.

The beachfront at Buzios, above, has been described as the St Tropez of Brazil, writes Simon

The beachfront at Buzios, above, has been described as the St Tropez of Brazil, writes Simon

But returning this summer it felt like Rio had moved on.

After a few days, though, it is time to escape the city and we venture three hours north-west to the chi-chi resort of Buzios. The bullet-proof car is reassuring, I have to admit, as we pass the teeming favelas clinging precariously to the steep hills on Rio’s outskirts.

A former Portuguese fishing village, Buzios was put on the map in the mid- 1960s by Brigitte Bardot, who hid here with her Brazilian boyfriend. There’s a bronze bust of her on the promenade (no pun intended).

Predictably, Buzios is dubbed Brazil’s St Tropez. Or was.

It lacks the superyachts, the luxurious boutiques and the swanky restaurants – plus it’s inhabited more now by wealthy Argentines than Brazilians.

The main attractions are the array of small, sandy coves dotted around the peninsula, most within walking distance and each with a beached wooden schooner converted into a jaunty cocktail bar.

The comfortable Vila da Santa hotel opens directly on to a quiet, sandy bay populated by small fishing vessels, writes Simon. But an even more peaceful and enticing setting comes next: the bohemian village of Trancoso in Bahia state. Pictured: An empty beach in Trancoso

The comfortable Vila da Santa hotel opens directly on to a quiet, sandy bay populated by small fishing vessels, writes Simon. But an even more peaceful and enticing setting comes next: the bohemian village of Trancoso in Bahia state. Pictured: An empty beach in Trancoso

The comfortable Vila da Santa hotel, where we are staying, opens directly on to a quiet, sandy bay populated by small fishing vessels. But an even more peaceful and enticing setting comes next: the bohemian village of Trancoso in Bahia state.

An 80-minute flight from Rio followed by a 90-minute drive takes us to this tranquil retreat. Emerging from endless fields of soy, cocoa and palm, we pass along a dusty main high street to arrive at the village green/ square, complete with whitewashed colonial church and wonky goalposts by the ocean.

This traffic-free space, known as the Quadrado, with its barefoot football, artisan stalls and a roving fish-vendor, converts at night into a lantern-lit concoction of boutiques, craft shops and restaurants housed both in and around the brightly coloured fishermen’s cottages.

Simon stays in the 'chic' Janeiro hotel (above) opposite Leblon beach

Simon stays in the ‘chic’ Janeiro hotel (above) opposite Leblon beach

One of these dwellings is the entry to our accommodation, an assemblage of three timber villas beneath a canopy of tropical trees with a divine private pool.

Our bedroom is in Casa Anderson, a treehouse-style pavilion on stilts. This is part of the rustic-chic Uxua Casa hotel, which attracts fashionistas – Beyoncé shot part of a recent music video in the square. It is the antithesis of Rio: calm, natural, understated and crime-free.

A short walk down a path beyond a mangrove swamp takes us to a strip of pristine sand and the thatched-roofed Uxua beach club, with its day-beds and fusion snacks. The sea temperature is the same as the air: a balmy 27C (81F).

Simon flies back to Rio and takes 'the cliff-hugging four-hour drive south to Paraty', above. 'The town was founded in 1597 when the Portuguese arrived and flourished 100 years later, when its port was used to move gold mined in the country on to Europe,' he adds

Simon flies back to Rio and takes ‘the cliff-hugging four-hour drive south to Paraty’, above. ‘The town was founded in 1597 when the Portuguese arrived and flourished 100 years later, when its port was used to move gold mined in the country on to Europe,’ he adds

Simon says the 'prosperous appearance' of Paraty (pictured) is 'a legacy of the gold rush'

Simon says the ‘prosperous appearance’ of Paraty (pictured) is ‘a legacy of the gold rush’

But the best bit of Casa Anderson is the breakfast, lovingly prepared by Jaynie. The meal is a microcosm of Brazil’s bio-diversity: mango, watermelon, pineapple, papaya, fried plantain, lime pie, coconut macaroons, red pepper and cheese quiche, sliced chorizo and ham, tapioca omelette, banana cake and a huge creme caramel. What a feast.

After four days we fly back to Rio and take the cliff-hugging four-hour drive south to Paraty. The town was founded in 1597 when the Portuguese arrived and flourished 100 years later, when its port was used to move gold mined in the country on to Europe.

Made up of fine 18th Century mansions and cobbled streets that regularly flood at high tide, its prosperous appearance is a legacy of the gold rush. There are boat trips, which weave in and out of nearby islands, stopping for lunches at remote beaches.

We stay at the Pousada Literaria hotel, set in a lovely colonial-style building, but the highlight of our visit is an afternoon at its sister property, Fazenda Bananal (banana farm), set in the Atlantic Forest above Paraty.

After an outstanding lunch with organic ingredients from the farm, we climb a hill and follow a trail weaving through dense rainforest. It provides a glimpse of the severe challenge faced by the first settlers trying to reach the fertile, minerally enriched lands beyond.

'There is an extraordinary vitality about Brazil,' writes Simon. 'Its people are bubbly and warm-hearted. In a word, it's intoxicating - a bit like those Caipirinhas.' Pictured: Copacabana Beach

‘There is an extraordinary vitality about Brazil,’ writes Simon. ‘Its people are bubbly and warm-hearted. In a word, it’s intoxicating – a bit like those Caipirinhas.’ Pictured: Copacabana Beach

Perhaps that encapsulates Brazil and its people. Day-to-day living for many is tough. There is vast inequality and 50 million of the 208million population still live in the favelas. Until recently almost half the nation didn’t have a bank account.

‘The country is a mess,’ said Leticia Setembro, a prominent Brazilian futures strategist whom we meet in a Paraty restaurant.

She goes on to talk about families living below the poverty line, the lack of fresh drinking water in many homes and poor environmental practices. Yet she is hopeful that the return to power of president Lula, after the leadership of Jair Bolsonaro – known as the ‘Tropical Trump’ – offers hope. We shall see.

Yet, for all that, there is an extraordinary vitality about Brazil, its people are bubbly and warm-hearted. In a word, it’s intoxicating – a bit like those Caipirinhas.

TRAVEL FACTS 

Red Savannah offers a 12-night tour of Brazil, with three nights in Rio, two in Buzios, three in Trancoso and three in Paraty – all B&B – costing from £4,794 per person, including flights and private transfers (redsavannah.com, 01242 787 800). For more information about Brazil visit www.redsavannah.com/latin-america/brazil.