Beached at Pantano du Sul

At dawn the big, yellow double-decker wound and burrowed its groggy way from the Pampas of Uruguay to the dark green coastal mountains of southern Brazil. Passing palms and paineira trees recharged its droopy-eyed cargo, suddenly mesmerized by the brilliant morning sun. By mid-morning the blue lapping Atlantic, having given up Spanish, is now speaking Portuguese.

The pristine Solidao Beach, a short hike from town

The pristine Solidao Beach, a short hike from town

Only two more bus rides from the city of Florianopolis, clammily clogged in the traffic of a slow summer samba, and finally a siesta on the beach in Pantano del Sul, a pretty fishing town on the southern tip of Isla Santa Catarina. Running fifty miles north to south this diverse island, about six hours south of Sao Paulo, is comprised of sub-tropical Atlantic forests, 42 distinct beaches, countless waterfalls and lagoons. The island gets crowded in January but tranquil Pantano makes a particularly good place to immerse with the gulls and the iguanas. Its’ ramshackle restaurant row, brightly painted houses and colorful fishing boats pop out like foam from a sweet yet salty dream.

The residents, originally from the Azores, settled the three-street village in the 1870s. Most can’t make a lot of sense of the tourists that started coming here only in recent years. Mandatory gear: flip-flops, a beach chair and a swim suit…the summer masquerade from December to April…hiking boots, sun screen, rain gear and a hat for the nearby mountains. A few  obrigados (thank yous) mixed in with an occasional Tudo bem? (How are things?), a little respect and a big smile easily uncork the natural friendliness of the natives.

Remembering the initial efforts to preserve the jungles and beaches that surround the town, one resident told me that the local populace was at first cold to the greening of the south end of the island until they realized that the environment-friendly designation, established in 2000, not only slowed the mindless march of progress but it brought needed dollars into the economy.

“It kept their lives on the slow cycle. Fish are not a solid commodity,” laughed Nana, who has lived here since 1993. “Some years the local catch all but disappears, but tourists looking for the natural experience can be counted on more and more to drop a few reals in town, at least in the six-month summer.”

Originally from Puerto Alegre, some 400 kilometers south, she told me that the best time to visit the island was either October or April when the summer people thinned and the place was super serene.

“It’s not the tropics, but the summer stays around well into June when things cool off substantially in Uruguay and Argentina,” she said from the deck of her striking wood frame house blessed with a commanding view of the bay.

Pantano du Sul, at the southern tip of Isla Santa Catarina

Pantano du Sul, at the southern tip of Isla Santa Catarina

Then it’s just you and a few fishermen. Peace is a tranquil morning hiking to Praia Solidao (Solitude Beach) or a stroll through the figueira or sinamomo trees to rocky points that stretched out into the open Atlantic like abyssal fingers on the steady hand of a sharp-eyed sea dog.

Down on the water there are no high rise hotels like up north at Praia Dos Ingleses or  Rio Vermelho where noisy, perfumed Argentine visitors rev their engines and turn up the bass. Instead of most of the local families gather in the middle of town on the church steps at dark.

Gossip runs from fishing to family matters usually covering Carnival and futbal, which are hot topics the year round. First its the older folk watching the world creep by, then later in the evening it’s the teenagers flirting within the ancient, often awkward, ritual of boy meets girl. All are simply engaging in soaldades(feeling souls touch) while small seafood restaurants serve up Tainha, Amehouges and Espada along with tender Calamari. If one has a craving for shrimp it is the local custom to order the crustaceans by the name Lula (referring to Lula de Silva, the popular President of Brazil).

At the Arante Bar, just feet from the sea, I sit sipping caipirinhas(little peasant girls), made from aguardente (cane liquor) fresh limes, sugar and lots of ice. At our large table in the window sit an international contingent: a technical writer from Paris, two pro futbal/soccer players from Moldavia, a local theater director, a teacher from Florianopolis, a local hotel owner and an Austrian accordion player. The hot sun and the cold drinks cut through the language barrier as naturally as crabs and sandpipers whispering to the patient surf. Most of these folks speak at least five languages and tolerate my castillano and gringo Portuguese.

Many of the residents live in houses perched on cliffs above the sea accessed by steep, narrow paths that wind through the jungle, challenging by day, treacherous by night. It is humid, the samba hangs in the branches of the trees. The air is sweet, the moon is full. After negotiating the knotty, breakneck footway in sloppy sandals I finally make it back to town and my breezy bungalow. It’s 3:30 am and the crowded cafes are still inviting but tomorrow’s plan for an early morning hike dictates restraint.

Eight well-marked trailheads of various length and difficulty promise to deposit the explorer on a stunning beach or deliver the surfer to crashing waves just a few short miles from town. The trails are better in the morning before the rain. Necessary companions include a bottle of water and this morning’s sand in one’s ears under the jungle canopy.

One can hike to Naufragados (the Shipwrecked) along the beach for about a hot four hours or take a local bus to a trailhead and climb over the mountain (3.5 kilometers) descending on a piece of sandy paradise complete with two restaurants and a small hotel. There were never more than 20 people on the beach during each of my three jaunts to that magic beach. The soft early morning here is nothing short of magnificent, unless one compares it to the shady afternoons or perhaps the blazing sunset. The fish is delicious and the beer is ice-cold.

Another trail directly from Patano lifts hikers along cobblestone hills into the jungle via a small mountain pass to Lagoinha do Este. This pristine beach which takes on the full force of the Atlantic face to face. It features incredible vistas, seasonal waterfalls and a giant fresh-water lagoon perfect for a swim after the sweltering ramble through the  forests.

– Kevin Haley


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