This weekend, Tom and I drove to Paranapiacaba, a town founded in the 1800s by the British-owned Sao Paulo Railway Company. It sits in the Atlantic rainforest of the Serra do Mar, about 40km (26 mi) from Sao Paulo.
Even on a Sunday, getting there took 1.5 hours, as we first went west, then south, then east, then west, then north…in a mind-boggling frenzy of twists and turns trying to get out of town. Yes, we were even using the GPS!
But once we’d gone through the ABC cities (named after the three smaller cities of Santo Andre, Sao Bernardo do Campo, and Sao Caetano do Sul) on the outskirts of greater Sao Paulo, we hit the countryside, blessedly green, moist, and reinvigorating.
Half an hour later, we approached Paranapiacaba, which was the headquarters for the Brits as they laid the train tracks that by 1867 would carry Sao Paulo’s coffee to the port of Santos on the coastline some 50 miles away, through sheer mountainsides and rapid elevation drops from 2,500 ft. to sea level. The Brits retained control of the railroad until 1947.
Because of its remoteness, the city has remained remarkably well preserved, with a neat grid of streets (most unusual, esp. in huge cities such as Sao Paulo) and English-style homes of wood and brick.
Vila de Paranapiacaba was established during the middle of the 19th century, designed by Jeremy Bentham according to a prison model style. The construction of this zig-zag railway line in the hilly local terrain was considered a feat by the British engineers and workers at the time. The village prospered for 30 years, until automated machinery replaced the funicular, which was labor-intensive. The village’s population suddenly declined and many of its buildings were abandoned. At one time, there were 4,000 workers, most of them British citizens. The last steam train in Paranapiacaba was deactivated for labor work in 1982.
We arrived and parked at the entrance to the town, since the only cars allowed into town are for locals. There’s simply no place to park in town, and the town is split by railroad tracks, which can only be crossed over the footbridge spanning the tracks.
Passing through the Good Jesus cemetery, we walked by the town church which is built at the highest point in the town (pretty common in those days), where a baptism was in progress, and continued into the center of the town.
From on high, we looked over the abandoned train tracks that bisect the town. How odd it is to see a replica of Big Ben in the town square amid the jungle foliage of the rainforest!
You walk across the mostly-abandoned tracks to get into the other side of town via a footbridge.
Several times a day, tourists load into a decrepit train car at the “station” and head into the hills under the power of steam. They start so slowly that we had a renewed appreciation for the expression, “building a head of steam.” I’m not sure it’s worth spending the money for the ride, since they returned (backing up) within twenty minutes, if not sooner.
The home of the railway’s chief engineer sits atop the highest hill in town, affording the engineer a view of all that went on in the construction of the the train depot, and later the loading of the crops onto the trains. Today, the house is the Museo do Castelo, a small museum with period furnishings and a great view.
You can walk up the street to get to the museum, or hike up through a damp, folding path through the dripping foliage. We walked up the street and down the path.
In town, we wandered among the old, abandoned warehouses, and dined al fresco at one of the numerous launchonettes along the cobblestoned streets, greeted by the dogs who roam the streets at will, and serenaded by the free-roaming chickens.
We walked in the hills of the town, enjoying the incredible bromeliads and orchids we saw growing wild, as well as the numerous flowing bushes. So lush. So verdant. So refreshing.
Apparently, Paranapiacaba is a great starting point for day hikes into the forest, though trails aren’t marked and it’s best to arrange for a guide in the town before heading out. We also saw numerous bicyclists and motorcyclists, so there must be a road leading in from the other side of town.
The best thing about sitting in town and having lunch was the people watching. Particularly when a gathering of Goths crossed the bridge and headed for the Castelo. I suppose Goths like to sightsee as well as we do. Somehow, though, I didn’t expect to see them in the daytime. Though, it was rainy and misty, so perhaps that didn’t burn their skin as sunshine might.
We were in Paranapiacaba for almost two hours, and that seemed the right amount of time. Time enough to relax, enjoy the fresh air, and get the heck out of Dodge.
For an interesting history of Paranapiacaba, read here.