While Brazil’s mega-cities gear up for heavy tourist influx during this year’s FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, other cities remain largely unaffected, even those with strong historic and cultural qualities. This is exactly the case for Petrópolis, a city seemingly hidden in the mountains where adventures and eye-catching delights await thrill seekers and history buffs.
Lacking the aggressive tourism practices found in Rio de Janeiro, Petrópolis is delightfully free of pressure. Visitors here find a more wholesome and native Brazilian experience, whether it involves walking the same cobblestone streets that the Brazilian imperial family once did or gazing out at the Atlantic Rainforest from the top of a mountain.
The Imperial City
Only an hour’s drive from the city of Rio along a scenic road through the Atlantic Rainforest, Petrópolis is a popular destination for adventurous Brazilian nature lovers, but often missed by international visitors. Named after Dom Pedro II, the second Emperor of Brazil, Petrópolis proudly displays its historical charm. The original cobblestone streets still wind through the city center, lined by colonial-era mansions and Neo-Gothic cathedrals. The most iconic of the latter is the Cathedral of Saint Peter of Alcantara, which dates back to 1884 and is recognizable at night by its blue-lit steeple. Guarded by its vaulted ceiling is the final resting place of Dom Pedro II; his wife, Dona Teresa; and their children – the last reining imperial family of Brazil.
Just down the road, precisely in the center of the city, is the royal family’s Imperial Palace, now a museum. On weekend nights, the museum features a special som-e-luz (sound-and-light) program, a display of light projections and music that tells the history of the Brazilian royal family. Though the program is only presented in Portuguese, a spontaneous tourist would enjoy it anyway.
A more peculiar museum is the house of Alberto Santos Dumont, Brazil’s father of aviation and the first man to design and fly a plane completely solo. A brilliant aeronautical engineer, Dumont was also highly superstitious and his Petrópolis home has a number of charming eccentricities. After visiting this small museum, a traveler can walk around the corner to the Cervejaria Bohemia, a brewery, for a chopp (beer on tap) and tour the newly renovated facility. On weekends there is live samba or other traditional Brazilian music at the outdoor bar.
Petrópolis is a refreshing and quiet retreat from the heat and fast-paced rhythm of Rio de Janeiro. For this reason, the mountain city does not boast many nightclubs or fancy discos, preferring charming, retrofitted restaurants for eating and drinking wine while enjoying the fresh evenings.
Trekking and Hiking
A short drive from Petrópolis are glorious places for hiking and adventuring, such as one of Brazil’s most beautiful natural wonders: the Serra dos Órgãos (Range of Organs), named for the way the mountains resemble the pipes of a cathedral organ rising into the sky. The most famous of these, though far from the tallest, is the Dedo de Deus, or “Finger of God,” the trip to which follows a combined trekking and rock-climbing trail that rises to 1,651 meters above sea level.
The Serra dos Orgãos mountains are located within the appropriately named Serra dos Orgãos National Park, which covers 118 square kilometers of mountain terrain. A plethora of fantastic adventures await here, including easy hikes to cold mountain springs, day-long treks that pass waterfall after waterfall, and a famous multi-day trip that traverses this park of rolling tropical mountains all the way to Teresópolis, Petrópolis’ sister city.
The best time of year for multi-day mountain excursions in Serra dos Orgãos National Park is between April and September, according to trekking expert and guide Waldyr Neto. Neto, who has published two trail books (only sold in Portuguese), prefers these months as the “mountain season” because of the low humidity, low risk of rain and cool temperatures. Day hikes to popular waterfalls (like the Veu da Noiva aka Bride’s Veil) are also excellent from October to March, the hot and rainy season during which adventurers can enjoy the cold mountain water.
Getting to the national park from Petrópolis is fairly simple, even without a car. The Bonfim bus line from the Correas Terminal passes the park entrance (ask the driver to stop there). A trail map can be purchased at the entrance, but tourists are encouraged to hire a guide for overnight backpacking trips, as some of the trails on top of the mountain are unmarked and not easily discerned on the map.
Staying in Petrópolis
Accommodation in Petrópolis is becoming more diverse by the year. Many Brazilians choose to stay in “pousadas,” quaint and historic bed-and-breakfasts that are often secluded and have an attached spa or restaurant. While pousadas are relaxing and beautiful, the prices can be high for backpackers. A more economical option – itself an historical landmark – is Hostel Samambaia, an environmental institute and brand-new hostel in Petrópolis.
Samambaia was constructed in the 1700s as a post for drovers traveling on the Royal Road, making it one of the oldest landmarks in the area. With high ceilings, tall windows, large wooden beams and rustic stone floors, it is easy to imagine the colonial period during which it was constructed. Visitors can take in the historical chapel and walk through the botanical gardens, both part of the educational environmental institute facilities. New amenities include a swimming pool and the first mountain biking course built in Petrópolis, making this hostel perfect for outdoors lovers in need of a quiet break from the city. The hostel is also located along the route to the Petrópolis entrance of the Serra dos Órgãos National Park.
International tourists are attracted to Rio for the nightlife and famous beaches, but tourists more interested in local travel know that Petrópolis, rich in both cultural and natural history, is an affordable destination for the adventurers and nature lovers.