What only a few years ago were clearly identifiable small towns or villages are today part of Greater São Paulo. Despite the traffic, however, escaping from the city centre is surprisingly easy, and there are even some points on the coast that can make for good excursions (see Santos).
For most of its history, communications from São Paulo to the outside world were slow and difficult. In 1856 the British-owned São Paulo Railway Company was awarded the concession to operate a rail line between Santos and Jundaí, 70km north of São Paulo city, in what was then a developing coffee-growing region. The 139-kilometre line was completed in 1867, remaining under British control until 1947. Overcoming the near-vertical incline of the Serra do Mar that separates the interior of the state from the coast, the line was an engineering miracle and is gradually being restored.
Paranapiacaba, 40km southeast of São Paulo and the last station before the rack railway plunges down the coastal escarpment, was the administrative and engineering centre for the rail line and at one time home to four thousand workers, many of them British. Neatly laid out in the 1890s in a grid pattern, the village has remained largely unchanged over the years. All that remains of the original train station is the clock tower, said to be a replica of London’s Big Ben, but the workers’ cottages, locomotive sheds (which house old British-built carriages and steam engines) and funicular cable station are in an excellent state of preservation; some are even open to the public. On a hilltop overlooking the village you’ll find the wooden Victorian-style Castelinho; once the residence of the chief engineer, today the building houses the Centro Preservação da História de Paranapiacaba, which displays old maps and photographs of the rail line’s early years.
You don’t have to be a railway buff to appreciate Paranapiacaba, however. The village is set amidst one of the best preserved areas of Mata Atlântica in the country and most visitors use it as a starting place for fairly serious hikes into the thickly forested Parque Estadual da Serra do Mar, notable for its amazing orchids and bromeliads. Employing a guide is strongly advised as trails are unmarked, often very narrow and generally hard going, and poisonous snakes are common. There’s an office of the association of licensed guides as you enter the settlement from the station; expect to pay around R$60 for a day and bring food, drink and sturdy footwear. The weather in this region is particularly unreliable but, as a general rule, if it’s cloudy in São Paulo you can count on there being rain in Paranapiacaba.
Getting to Paranapiacaba is easy. Take a train from São Paulo’s Luz station to Rio Grande da Serra (every 15min; 45min; R$2.50), where, if you’re lucky, there’ll be a connecting service continuing the two stops to Paranapiacaba. If there’s no train, take a bus from outside the station (R$2.40), or a taxi (about R$15). Most visitors return to São Paulo the same day, but guides can point you towards villagers who charge around R$25 per person for simple bed-and-breakfast accommodation.