“A hotel room is more than just a place to sleep and shower. It is a threshold to an unfamiliar place and culture.” I wrote that in Cheap Hotels, a book inspired by more than 1,001 nights on the road as a newspaper travel columnist. For over six years, hotels were my home, my travel companions, my obsessions. My favorites weren’t superluxurious; some weren’t even hotels. One of my most transcendent overnights was spent on a tatami mat in a Buddhist monastery near Osaka, Japan. I listened to monks chant at dawn. Good hotels have a strong sense of place, letting you know you are somewhere – even if that somewhere isn’t always an easy place to settle into at first. South America is a terrific place to find these hotels. Through their owners (often eccentrics) and staff (usually local), through thoughtful design and fluency in local ways, they help you settle in – and more. These properties are cultural engines – moving you into the heart of where you want to be.
Our 2011 Stay List South America reveals how much the hotel scene has evolved on this continent. With rising economies, incomes, and tourism, many hotels are catering to savvy travelers, connecting them to traditions and the environment. Our selections are outstanding not because they stand out, but because they blend in. I wanted to explore hotels in three categories: in town, outside of town, and in the wilds. Could I find them in one easy-to-reach area? Yes, it turns out. In Parati, Brazil.
A town of about 33,000 on Brazil’s Costa Verde (“green coast”), Parati sits halfway between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo and can be considered a laboratory for the new eco-conscious Latin American hotel scene. The 17th-century city fell into decline but was rediscovered by artists and creative entrepreneurs about a decade ago. It’s become a crucible of sustainable tourism development, short-listed for UNESCO World Heritage recognition
not just because of its handsome blocks of Portuguese colonial buildings but for its surroundings. Here, I’d experience the indigenous landscape of Brazil: white sand beaches, a turquoise bay sprinkled with tiny islands, walls of mountains lush with rain forest.
Brazil prides itself on its sustainable credentials; it is said to have one of the greenest of the world’s major economies. Not surprisingly, it’s the rare property that doesn’t liberally inject the prefix “eco” into its literature. But I wanted more than a label. So I turned on my hotel radar to find three unique places.
IN TOWN: CASA TURQUESA
How do you know you’ve found a perfect place to stay? Sometimes it only takes a single e-mail: “What good news that you can come! I’ll be happy to receive you in my home.” Even before I landed in Brazil, Tetê Etrusco, who owns the Casa Turquesa guesthouse in Parati’s old colonial town, was treating me like an old friend.
“Welcome, Daisann,” she says as I arrive around noon. Etrusco is petite, slim, with curly brown hair and the coiled intensity of a dancer. She whips into action, pulling out a map to guide me to a favorite haunt, just across the colonial town square, for lunch.
“You want to go to Refúgio,” she says. “Sit outside – you can watch the boats. Don’t bother ordering a big plate, too much food, too expensive. Just ask for the appetizer version of the prawns stuffed with farofa, you know it? Brazilian toasted manioc?”
Casa Turquesa is a meticulously restored 18th-century house with hardwood floors and candy-colored paintings by local artists.