Ayrton was the first to mention the festival. A brawny Brazilian sailor with a laid-back lifestyle and infectious grin, he had fast become my closest contact in Brazil. It was Ayrton who persuaded me to stay in Parati, a pretty port midway between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Now, his enthusiasm for the Feast of St Peter, a joyously unruly day of music, dance and laughter, persuaded me to stick around a little bit longer.
It would be an unlucky traveller who passed through Brazil without experiencing at least one traditional festa. Millions flock to Rio each year for its famous carnaval but the Brazilian calendar is replete with lesser-known feiras, festivals and saints’ days, each promising its own distinctive permutation on the Brazilian party theme. Rio may pull bigger crowds and Salvador more Afro-Brazilian bands but Parati throws a party that begins at sea.
Moreover, the town’s natural setting is simply dazzling. Nestling under the thickly wooded ridges of the Serra do Mar, Parati sits at the head of two craggy peninsulas that embrace a bay of perennially calm, turquoise water. Scattered liberally throughout the bay are dozens of tiny islands, each chequered with the emerald of Atlantic rainforest that protects deserted beaches of golden sand.
Tourism underpins Parati’s livelihood these days but the town originally grew rich from gold. In the early 18th century, shortly after the discovery of vast gold reserves inland at Minas Gerais, Portuguese merchants figured out that Parati guarded the only access through the imposing Serra do Mar to the sea. Using an army of Angolan slaves, they widened an old Guianas indian trail that wound up the steep escarpment and Parati became the sole point of shipment from Brazil to Europe.
Unsurprisingly, the town prospered and its residents erected richly decorated houses and churches to celebrate their good fortune. Many survive today, still laid out handsomely along irregular cobblestoned streets, fastidiously preserved and complemented by lush gardens.
These days, Ayrton told me, Parati marks the Feast of St Peter each June with a maritime procession in which a statue representing the saint is taken from the town to Ilha do Araújo, an island lying 6km offshore in the Baía da Ilha Grande. Parati’s entire population, he said, met at the dock to tussle for a place aboard any available boat.
I arrived early but thousands were there before me. The narrow wooden jetty was groaning under the weight as the crowd struggled to board a crush of vessels of every vintage and design. My ears rang with the blasting of horns and the tooting of whistles. “Order and Progress”, Ayrton shouted, pointing at the words on the national flag draped over someone’s shoulders. “Not much sign of that here!”
I joined Ayrton’s family aboard his six-metre launch, the Pilar, and we headed out to sea. Ayrton was in his element: shirtless, bare feet controlling the throttle lever, elbows on the tiller, cracking corny jokes and hooting with laughter. We joined the colourful flotilla of vessels and scudded through the waves towards Ilha do Araújo, the salty air mingling with the reek of diesel and the sweat of bodies glistening in the Brazilian sun. Music, blasting from a dozen on-board sound systems, merged in a happy cacophony. Within the hour, the flotilla had reached Araújo and a barrage of fireworks whooshed into the sky in a crackling, smoky salvo of welcome.
The saint was the first to land, ferried ashore by a cluster of trusted elders and swathed in garlands of pink chrysanthemums. The town’s population followed, some waiting patiently, others simply plunging overboard and wading ashore. Beyond the narrow beach, the forest looked almost menacing: brazilwood, cedar, and ironwood, intertwined with stately palms, formed a dense canopy. The air was hot and moist, the jungle vibrating with the low hum of insects and the repeated tuk-tuk calls of semi-tropical birds. But this was quickly interrupted by the sound of samba as the crowd broke into a heaving, swaying dance. Everywhere I looked, I saw smiles and laughter or eyebrows raised in friendly greeting.
I wandered over to Araújo’s tiny church and glimpsed the saint’s statue standing before the altar. A dozen choristers, clad in smocks of purple and gold, led a vigorous hymn, enlivened by guitar and percussion and supported by a gaggle of tuneful priests. Young boys scrambled around the open doors of the church, eager for a better view.
As the day wore on, many sought relief in the cooling waves before heading back into the maelstrom of shaking limbs and swaying torsos. Others feasted at tables piled with prawns, shrimp empanadas and grilled badejos (pollock), all washed down with icy Antarctica lager.
By 6pm, the sun had shifted behind the Serra do Mar, its dying rays framing the bay in a halo of gold, and the crowd edged reluctantly back to the boats. The flotilla headed back, silent now after the day’s exertion, until the lights of Parati came into view.
As I wandered back into town, Ayrton called a last goodbye, and I struggled to catch his words. “Until next year,” he seemed to be saying, “Until next year.”
Months of fun days
Brazil is the land of festas, so chances are you will stumble across one on your travels. Here is just a small selection.
Réveillon (Rio de Janeiro)
Live music, fireworks and religious ceremonies, in which worshippers place offerings in the sea in honour of Iemanjá, the water goddess.
The epitome of indulgence: fantastically clad dancers, booming samba beat, garish parades and non-stop partying for five solid days.
The Passion Play (Nova Jerusalem, near Recife)
Five hundred actors perform the life of Christ on nine stages.
Micareta (Feira de Santana, Bahia)
A Bahian version of Carnaval, bringing together the best musical and dance performers in the region.
Festa do Divino Espírito Santo (national)
House-to-house musical celebrations.
Boi-Bumbá (Paratins, Amazonas)
Folk celebration honouring the racial mix of Indians and white immigrants.
Regata de Jangadas (Fortaleza, Ceará)
Maritime procession of small wooden sailboats.
Folclore Nordestino (Olinda, Pernambuco)
Dance, music and folklore from many parts of the north-east.
Festa do Çairé (Alter do Chão, Pará)
Folk festival, with dancing, processions and music.
Círio de Nazaré (Belém)
Hymns, fireworks and processions.
Festa do Padre Cícero (Juazeiro do Norte, Ceará)
Pilgrimage in honour of Padre Cícero, a local saint.
Carnatal (Natal, Rio Grande do Norte)
Just plain partying.