Curitiba is billed as a user-friendly and sustainable city, but its location also makes it a great base from which to make day excursions. Revisit colonial era train routes through the mountains, retrace indigenous trails to the sea, or go back even further to the scapes carved by wind and water millions of years ago.
The Litorina Train: Brochures promise breathtaking views of lush mountain valleys, ominous precipices, perilous bridges and menacing tunnels, all along a winding, 110-kilometre, 3.5-hour ride.
The Litorina train chugs its cargo of tourists, restless with anticipation, out of the station, past depressed, suburban back yards of rubble and debris, and hobbles and wobbles up to a leisurely, steady speed. The guide speaks into a microphone about the history of the line:
"...officially opened in 1880... five years to complete... 14 tunnels and 41 bridges... said it couldn't be done... 5,000 men died... insect bites, disease, accidents... slave and immigrant labour... And on the right we can see–" everyone jostles to the right side to peer out the window at a reservoir. "Six people at a time may join the engineer at the front for a view-" eight people scurry up to the front before he's finished his sentence.
The scenery becomes green and mountainous, as promised. The train stops at key points with direful names like Devil's Gorge. Cameras snap at waterfalls, rivers, ranges and ruins. Century-old structures, now roofless and graffiti-adorned, provide refuge for campers and transients happy to wave and have their photos taken. Bridges peek out of the foliage periodically, genuine proof of this 19th-century feat of engineering. The rolling mountains seem endless.
Next stop is at Sanctuary of Nossa Senhora do Cadeado, which the brochure describes as one of the railroad's most scenic viewpoints. Perhaps it used to be. Right now, it does not effect gasps. Neither does its backpackers, rucksacks and litter. Undaunted, the ride continues with picturesque views of the Atlantic Rain Forest, bridges and tunnels until Paranaguá, the end of the line.
The quaint port town of Paranaguá played an important role for Paraná in bygone days. The Portuguese first discovered gold in 1578 along its coast. Paranaguá not only provided the main port for the area, but a smelter as well, which brought it even greater importance and wealth. Now in the process of restoration and development, the cobblestone waterfront is lined with 17th-century houses. Nearby is the Museum of Archaelogy and Ethnology, formerly a school built by the Jesuits in the 18th century. Wandering through historical buildings and streets completes a day of nostalgia and the atmosphere of another era picked up on the Litorina passage.
The Graciosa Trail:
Because they would leave the mountain range in summer for clam picking at sea, Indigenous people cut a trail to ease the long and difficult journey. They used the same trail in winter when treading back towards Curitiba for the pine nut season. That was in the mid-1600s. Once the gold along the coast of Paraná was exhausted, gold prospectors forging into the interior began to use the crude trail as well. In 1721, the first attempts at turning it into a road were resisted by residents of Morretes and Paranaguá, who were afraid it would encourage cattle drivers and travellers to detour into other towns. Nevertheless, the road construction was eventually pushed through and the Graciosa Trail was completed in 1872.
Today's charming, cobblestone Graciosa Trail still contains parts of the original road, which twists and turns through the mountain region for 30 kilometres. The mountain side of the road is embellished with a thick mosaic of colourful flowers, contrasting to the steep cliff side lined by treetops and bushes. Throughout the scenic drive are lookout points and rest stations with picnic areas and vendors.
The trail ends in Morretes, a small, colonial town on the river Nhundiaguara. The streets of the historical centre are lined with colourful gardens and genial old houses displaying placards relating the significance of the building, such as the night Dom Pedro II spend here and Princess Isabella there.
Along the river are several restaurants serving the local traditional specialty, barreado, among other things. Barreado is beef cooked under the earth in mud-sealed clay pots for several hours, and is served with salad, rice, fish, prawn and bananas. The meal is very popular – avoid weekend line ups at restaurants by lunching early. After the feast, while lingering over a cachaça de banana (a rum specialty of Morretes), the river traffic provides further amusement. Youths high-dive off the bridge, tubers floating downriver on truck tire inner tubes drift into town amidst other small boats, and locals swim off the banks.
Vila Velha State Park: Reminiscent of scenes from dinosaur movies, Vila Velha State Park is filled with sandstone sculptures, caves and patches of flora. The curious formations of the so-called "Stone City" have spent the past 300 million years being carved out by rainwater and shaped by wind. Some have been formed into recognisable shapes like a giant boot, a beer bottle and a man's profile. Others are just simply awesome.
A pathway guides visitors in and around the sculptures, through the forest and into caves, which takes at least an hour. Restaurants by the entrance to the trail provide ample refreshment afterwards. For those who decide to eat alfresco, various quatis (a common rodent in Paraná) and birds are happy to hop onto your table and help themselves to your lunch right off your plate. Brazilians seem to be ok with this for some reason.
Also in the park are three natural, cylindrical craters. One of them, over 100 metres deep, has an elevator that descends 50 metres below ground level. A platform at the bottom permits visitors to exit the elevator and absorb the atmosphere. The cool, damp air, the hollow echo of the dripping water spouting out from high in the rock wall, the vastness of the crater, all add to the wonder of the formation.
Just a few interesting ways to spend a day when staying in Curitiba.
© Elizabeth Willoughby 2001
This article was originally published by Sunday News, São Paulo.