For most of us, commuting by train is unpleasant. Not in the Brazilian state of Parana: the three-hour trip from Curitiba to Morretes just happens to snake through the breathtaking Atlantic rainforest
The Atlantic rainforest used to cover 30 per cent of Brazil – but over the past 500 years, 93 per cent of that rainforest has gone. It's a far, far worse situation than that faced by its more famous sister, the Amazon rainforest. But patches of this 60-million-year-old forest still exist in many states of this enormous country. ‘Patches’ perhaps isn’t the word, as areas of the forest easily rival the size of Wales. It is dense and tall rainforest, home to a startling number of endangered species. Unusual, beautiful and diverse species of trees stretch out to become a blue blanket of forest beyond the mind’s ability to measure. And the best way to see it? By train.
The Serra Verde Express winds 100 kilometres through the Atlantic Rainforest. The line was built in the 1880s by 9,000 men, half of whom died during its five-year construction. It has 14 tunnels and 30 bridges, some of which defy all engineering reason. Whilst the tracks are still in use for cargo and industry, tourists now convey its legend beyond the borders of Brazil.
The easiest way to do the journey is to buy a return ticket from Curitiba to Morretes. If it seems dull to do the same journey twice, think again: it isn't. Don’t pay too much attention to the different classes of ticket - for the best part of the journey, your head will be sticking out of the window. It’s an early start, as the train departs Curitiba at 8.15am, arriving in Morretes at 11.15am. This is designed to give tourists a four-hour lunch break in Morretes, as the train then departs again at 3pm to make its return journey. Frustratingly, it tends to require an overnight in Curitiba, not a city that is particularly engaging unless you know someone who lives there. For the best experience, it’s actually Morretes that is worth an overnight, or longer if your itinerary can accommodate it. For Morretes is a tiny colonial gem of a town.
Not far from the coast of Parana, Morretes was founded in 1721 and now has a population of about 15,000. It is a breath of fresh air. Encircled by the mountains, which bestow on the town a sense of shelter and remoteness, it is a perfect place to relax and exhale deeply.
Morretes has a surprising choice of accommodation. In the town itself, is the Dona Laura Pousada, a beautiful and colourful small hotel. But if you head just two or three kilometres out of the town, you will find unexpectedly luxurious eco-lodges such as the Santuario Nhundiaquara and Pousada Hakuna Matata. Also worth looking at (and a little cheaper) are Pousada Graciosa and Pousada Ilha do Rio. There are also the simple, budget chalets of the Itupava Lodge, located just opposite the Rio Nhundiaquara, which has a rather wonderful (though elderly) host. It is also the place to go to “boia cross” - essentially, float downriver on a large rubber ring – although the Rio has its rapids, so it’s not all smooth sailing. Most of the accommodations outside the town are on the banks of the Rio Nhundiaquara, which serves as a refreshingly cold dipping pool.
The best way to get around Morretes (that is, if you don’t fancy boia cross-ing downriver to dinner) is by bicycle, which is how most of the locals travel. Though surrounded by mountains, the town itself and immediate area are flat, so it’s easy cycling – but with a stunning backdrop. You can hire bikes at the train station or at Itupava. The town takes about 10 minutes to cycle round, so take the road towards Porto de Cima and then towards Pousada Graciosa and Itupava, where you can go off road for a kilometre or so to find beautiful hidden river spots, where the sunlight filters through the forest with Eden-like effect.
The one thing, other than the Serra Verde, you must do in Morretes is eat barreado, a dish that is made only in this region. It’s a thick meat stew, served with rice and tropical fruit – it’s filling, but delicious, and some of the best, most tender meat you’ll find in Brazil. There are a few restaurants facing the river, such as the Ponte Velha (www.morretespontevelha.com.br), Madalozo (www.madalozo.com.br), Casarao (www.barreado.com.br), and in town there is the excellent Terra Nossa (www.morretes.com.br/terranossa) and the fancier Armazem Romanus (+55 (41) 3462-1500). All serve barreado.
The other thing to highlight about Morretes is the bird-watching. A few months ago, Luciano Breves fixed a webcam on his balcony in Morretes, to record the bird life. Now over 130,000 people from around the world visit his site (which has logged 49 bird species), making it one of the most visited websites in Brazil. Hummingbirds make particularly frequent, if fast, appearances.
The people of Morretes are quiet and friendly, and happy to help direct you to the good spots, whether its for swimming, eating, walking or bird-watching. Brush up on your Portuguese – the same goes for most of Brazil, but in these small towns you’ll miss out on the gentleness of the locals, and the gems of the area, if you can’t communicate.
The train journey itself is an extraordinary experience. It is three hours, but almost too quick for the mind to fully grasp what the eyes are seeing. It is a perpetual camera moment, but try to ignore your camera, if just for a while - simply sit and stare. It is both an astonishing feat of engineering that a train track exists here, and an astonishing feat of Mother Nature that this rainforest exists at all. If you’re lucky with the weather, your evening approach to Curitiba will involve a sunset that’s hard to rival. The silhouttes of araucaria trees against a sky of fire is an image that will stay with you long after your camera does.