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Paraná, immediately to the south of São Paulo, has become one of Brazil’s wealthiest and most dynamic states. Its agricultural economy is based on a mix of efficient family farms and highly capitalized, larger land holdings, while its modern industries, unlike those of so many other parts of the country, have been subject to at least limited planning and environmental controls. The state’s population is ethnically extremely diverse, and largely comprised of the descendants of immigrants. All of this combines to give Paraná something of the feel of an American Midwestern state transplanted to the subtropics.
For several decades after breaking away from São Paulo in 1853, Paraná’s economy remained based on pig-raising, timber extraction and erva maté (a bush whose leaves are used to make a tea-like beverage), and in its early years the province was only linked to the rest of Brazil by a network of trails along which cattle and mules passed between Rio Grande do Sul’s grasslands and the mines and plantations of the northern provinces. Paraná was sparsely populated by Indians, Portuguese and mixed-race caboclos, who worked on the latifúndios, scratched a living as semi-nomadic subsistence farmers or, on the coast, fished.
Then, the provincial government turned to immigration as a means to expand Paraná’s economy and open up land for settlement. The first immigrant colonies of British, French, Swiss and Icelanders were utter failures, but from the 1880s onwards, others did rather better. As mixed farmers, coffee or soya producers, Germans moved northwards from Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina; Poles and Italians settled near the capital, Curitiba; Ukrainians centred themselves in the south, especially around Prudentópolis; Japanese spread south from São Paulo, settling around Londrina and Maringá; and a host of smaller groups, including Dutch, Mennonites, Koreans, Russian “Old Believers” and Danube-Swabians established colonies elsewhere with varying success rates. Thanks to their isolation, the immigrants’ descendants have retained many of their cultural traditions, traditions that are only gradually being eroded by the influences of television and radio, the education system and economic pressures that force migration to the cities or to new land in distant parts of Brazil. Nevertheless, this multi-ethnic blend still lends Paraná its distinct character and a special fascination.
Unless you’re heading straight for the Iguaçu waterfalls, Curitiba makes a good base from which to start exploring the region. Transport services fan out in all directions from the state capital and there’s plenty to keep you occupied in the city between excursions. Paranaguá Bay can be visited as a day-trip from Curitiba, but its islands and colonial towns could also easily take up a week or more of your time. Inland, the strange geological formations of Vila Velha are usually visited from Curitiba – by changing buses in Ponta Grossa, you can stop off here before heading west to the Ukrainian-dominated region around the towns of Prudentópolis and Irati, and from there head yet further west to Foz do Iguaçu.
If you have limited time in Curitiba, an excellent way to view the city’s main attractions is to take a bus tour. Buses of the Linha Turismo depart from Praça Tiradentes every half-hour year-round (Tues–Sun; first bus leaves here at 9am, last bus 5.30pm; R$16) and stop at 25 attractions around the city centre and suburbs. The bus takes just over two hours to complete the itinerary, but tickets allow passengers to get off at five of the stops and rejoin the tour on a later bus.
Curitiba is easy to reach from all parts of Brazil and, once here, you’ll find yourself in a Brazilian city at its most efficient. Flights from most major Brazilian cities as well as Argentina and Paraguay arrive at the modern airport (t 41/3381-1515), about 45 minutes southeast of the city centre. The airport features a good range of shops (including several excellent local handicraft shops), car rental desks, a post office, banks and ATMs. Taxis from the airport to the centre charge R$60, or take a minibus (R$8; every half-hour) marked “Aeroporto” (in the centre, minibuses stop at Shopping Estação, Rua 24 Horas, the Teatro Guaíra and outside the rodoferroviária – the combined name for the adjacent bus and train stations).
The rodoferroviária (t 41/3320-3000) is about ten blocks southeast of the city centre. The only remaining passenger trains to Curitiba run along the line from Morretes and Paranaguá, which has become a major tourist attraction. From the rodoferroviária, it takes about twenty minutes to walk to the centre, or there’s a minibus from almost in front of the station: catch it at the intersection of Avenida Presidente Afonso Camargo and Avenida Sete de Setembro, to the left of the entrance to the station’s drive.
SETUR, the state tourist information organization, has its headquarters near the Palácio Iguaçu at Rua Deputado Mário de Barros 1290, on the third floor of Edifício Caetano Munhoz da Rocha (Mon–Fri 9am–6pm; t 41/3254-6933). They keep up-to-date information on changes to rail and boat schedules and provide useful maps of trails in state parks; many of the employees speak English. For information specifically on Curitiba, go to the well-organized municipal tourist office in the historic centre on Rua da Glória 362 (Mon–Fri 8am–midnight, Sat & Sun 8am–10pm; t 41/3352-8000); there are other branches in the rodoferroviária (Mon–Fri 8am–noon & 2–6pm, Sat 8am–2pm) and in Rua 24 Horas (daily 8am–midnight), though they can keep rather erratic hours.
Curitiba is small enough to be able to walk to most places within the city centre. For exploring outlying areas, there’s an extremely efficient municipal bus network that’s considered the envy of all other Brazilian cities. In the city centre, the two main bus terminals are at Praça Tiradentes and Praça Rui Barbosa, from where buses (R$1.80) head out into the suburbs as well as to neighbouring municípios. Taxis are easy to come by and, as distances are generally small, they’re not too expensive.
If your sole reason for being in Curitiba is to catch the dawn train to the coast, you’re best off staying at the youth hostel or at one of the numerous cheap and mid-range hotels within a few minutes’ walk of the rodoferroviária. Otherwise, places in the centre are widely scattered but within walking distance of most downtown attractions and generally remarkable value.
Given Curitiba’s prosperity and its inhabitants’ diverse ethnic origins, it’s not surprising that there’s a huge range of restaurants here, with the historic centre and Batel, an upscale inner-city suburb, being particular areas of concentration. There’s an excellent selection of produce available at the Mercado Municipal at Av. Sete de Setembro 1865. For superb cakes, it’s well worth the trek out to the Bosque João Paulo II where there’s an excellent Polish tearoom, the Kawiarnia Krakowiak. For superb Italian-style ice cream as well as delicious sandwiches, cakes and coffee, try Marcolini, Alameda Dr Carlos de Carvalho 1181, near Praça Espanha in Batel or, a few doors away at no. 1175, Freddo Gelateria has equally good ice cream; both are open Sunday and Monday until 9pm and Tuesday to Saturday until 11pm.
During the late afternoon and early evening locals congregate in the pavement cafés at the Praça Osório end of Rua das Flores, but as the evening progresses the historic centre comes to life, its bars, restaurants and theatres attracting a mainly young and well-heeled crowd. On Praça Garibaldi, and the streets extending off it, there are numerous bars, many with live music – typically Brazilian rock music, jazz and what seem to be parodies of country and western. Also in the historic centre, several small bars popular with students dot Rua Mateus, just off the Largo da Ordem.
The wealthy inner-city suburb of Batel also has a considerable number of bars, with a particular concentration on Alameda Presidente Taunay at the intersection of Alameda Dr Carlos de Carvalho. Especially worth checking out are Bar Curityba with live jazz most evenings, Slánte Irish Pub for live rock and the Kaffee Bar for more mellow piano and guitar sounds.
During the winter, the Teatro Guaíra at Praça Santos Andrade, across from the Federal University, has a varied schedule of theatre, ballet and classical music. With three excellent auditoriums, the Guaíra is justified in its claim to be one of the finest theatres in Latin America and is often host to companies from the rest of Brazil, and even international tours.
The ethnic group most often associated with Paraná is the Poles, who settled in tightly knit farming communities around Curitiba in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Poles migrated to Brazil in three main waves: the smallest number between 1869 and 1889, the largest during the period of so-called “Brazil fever” that swept Poland and the Ukraine between about 1890 and 1898, and the next-largest contribution in the years just before World War I. Most of the Poles settling in the vicinity of Curitiba arrived in the 1880s with subsequent immigrants settling further afield in south-central Paraná.
Well into the twentieth century, the Polish community was culturally isolated, but as Curitiba expanded, absorbing many of the old farming settlements, assimilation accelerated. Today the lives of most of the approximately one million paranaenses of Polish origin are indistinguishable from those of their non-Polish neighbours. In recent years, however, there has been a revival of interest in people’s Polish heritage, and, wherever there are large concentrations of Poles, Polish language classes, folk dance and music groups are being established to preserve or revive folk traditions.
Sweeping down from the plateau upon which Curitiba lies, the dramatic mountain range known as the Serra do Mar has long been a formidable barrier separating the coast of Paraná from the interior. Until 1885 only a narrow cobblestone road connected Curitiba to the coast and Paranaguá Bay, and it took two days for mules and carts to cover the 75km from what was, at the time, the main port, Antonina. In 1880, work began on the construction of a rail line between Curitiba and Paranaguá, a port capable of taking much larger vessels than Antonina could. Completed in 1885, this remains a marvel of late nineteenth-century engineering and the source of much local pride, as it is one of the country’s few significant rail lines developed with Brazilian finance and technology. Sufferers of vertigo be warned: the line grips narrow mountain ridges, traverses 67 bridges and viaducts and passes through fourteen tunnels as the trains gradually wind their way down to sea level (see Paranaguá Bay). Passing through the Parque Estadual de Marumbi on a clear day the views are absolutely spectacular, and the towering Paraná pines at the higher altitudes and the subtropical foliage at lower levels are unforgettable. The charming colonial town of Morretes, near the foot of the mountain range, is a good base for exploring the surrounding area.
In Paraná’s coastal towns (in particular Morretes, Antonina and Paranaguá), Barreado, the region’s equivalent of feijoada, appears on most restaurants’ menus. This speciality, a convenience dish that can provide food for several days and requires little attention while cooking, used only to be eaten by the poor during Carnaval, but is now enjoyed throughout the year. Traditionally, barreado is made of beef, bacon, tomatoes, onion, cumin and other spices, placed in successive layers in a large clay urn, covered and then barreada (sealed) with a paste of ash and farinha (manioc flour), and then slowly cooked in a wood-fired oven for twelve to fifteen hours. Today pressure cookers are sometimes used (though not by the better restaurants), and gas or electric ovens almost always substitute for wood-fired ones. Barreado is served with farinha, which you spread on a plate; place some meat and gravy on top and eat with banana and orange slices. Though tasty enough, barreado is very heavy and a rather more appropriate dish for a chilly winter evening than for summer and Carnaval, as originally intended.
Propelled since the 1980s into the position of Brazil’s third most important port for exports, PARANAGUÁ has now lost most of its former character. Founded in 1585, it is one of Brazil’s oldest cities, but only recently have measures been undertaken to preserve its colonial buildings. While both Antonina and Morretes boast less of interest than Paranaguá, they have at least remained largely intact and retain instantly accessible charm. Paranaguá doesn’t, though the parts worth seeing are conveniently concentrated in quite a small area, which means you can spend a few diverting hours here between boats, trains or buses.
Just beyond the market, Paranaguá’s most imposing building, the fortress-like Colégio dos Jesuítas, overlooks the waterfront. Construction of the college began in 1698, sixteen years after the Jesuits were invited by Paranaguá’s citizens to establish a school for their sons. Because it lacked a royal permit, however, the authorities promptly halted work on the college until 1738, when one was at last granted and building recommenced. In 1755 the college finally opened, only to close four years later with the Jesuits’ expulsion from Brazil. The building was then used as the headquarters of the local militia, then as a customs house, and today is home to the Museu de Arqueologia e Etnología. The stone-built college has three floors and is divided into 28 rooms and a yard where the chapel stood, until it was destroyed by a fire in 1896. None of the museum’s exhibits relate to the Jesuits, concentrating instead on prehistoric archeology, Indian culture and popular art. The displays of local artefacts are of greatest interest, and there are some fine examples of early agricultural implements and of the basketry, lace-making and fishing skills of the Tupi-Guaraní Indians, early settlers and caboclos.
To the east of Paranaguá are Paraná’s main beach resorts, principally attracting visitors from Curitiba seeking open sea and all the familiar comforts of home. The surrounding countryside is relentlessly flat and the beaches can’t really compare with those of Santa Catarina or, for that matter, most other parts of Brazil. There is, however, one notable exception, the Ilha do Mel, which, despite being Paraná’s most beautiful island, has been protected from tourism’s worst effects by being classified as an ecological protection zone – the number of visitors to the island is limited to five thousand per day, building is strictly regulated and the sale of land to outsiders is carefully controlled.
The hilly – and in places almost mountainous – region of south-central Paraná makes a good stopover between Curitiba and the Iguaçu Falls for anyone interested in European, especially Ukrainian, immigration. As none of the towns in the region are especially distinctive, it’s better to use them more as bases from which to visit nearby villages and hamlets where the pioneering spirit of the inhabitants’ immigrant forebears remains. The houses, made of wood and sometimes featuring intricately carved details, are typically painted in bright colours and are usually surrounded by flower-filled gardens. Because of the ethnic mix, even small villages contain churches of several denominations; most hamlets have at least a chapel with someone on hand to open it up to the rare visitor.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European and North American companies were contracted to construct a rail line linking the state of São Paulo to Rio Grande do Sul. As part payment, large tracts of land were given to the companies and, as in the United States and the Canadian West, they subdivided their new properties for sale to land-hungry immigrants who, it was hoped, would generate traffic for the rail line. Some of the largest land grants were in south-central Paraná, which the companies quickly cleared of the valuable Paraná pine trees that dominated the territory. Settlers came from many parts of Europe, but the companies were especially successful in recruiting Ukrainians, and between 1895 and 1898, and 1908 and 1914, over 35,000 immigrants arrived in the Ukraine’s “other America”. Today, there are some 300,000 Brazilians of Ukrainian extraction, of whom eighty percent live in Paraná, largely concentrated in the southern centre of the state.
As most of the immigrants came from the western Ukraine, it’s the Ukrainian Catholic rather than the Orthodox Church that dominates; throughout the areas where Ukrainians and their descendants are gathered, onion-domed churches and chapels abound. While the Roman Catholic hierarchy, in general, is gradually becoming sensitive to the need to concentrate resources on social projects rather than in the building of more churches, new Ukrainian Catholic churches are proliferating in ever more lavish proportions, sometimes even replacing beautiful wooden churches built by the early immigrants. In Brazil, the Ukrainian Catholic Church is extremely wealthy, and its massive landholdings contrast greatly with the tiny properties from which the vast majority of the poverty-stricken local population eke out a living. Priests are often accused of attempting to block measures that will improve conditions: they are said to fear that educational attainment, modernization and increased prosperity will lessen the populace’s dependence on the Church for material and spiritual comfort, so reducing their own influence.
The Ukrainians’ neighbours (caboclos, Poles, Germans, and a few Italians and Dutch) frequently accuse them and their priests of maintaining a cultural exclusiveness. While intercommunal tensions certainly exist, the few non-Brazilian visitors to this part of Paraná are treated with the utmost civility, and if your Portuguese (or Ukrainian – the language is still universally spoken, in rural areas at least, by people of all ages) is up to it, you should have no problem finding people in the region’s towns and hamlets who will be happy to talk about their traditions and way of life.
Without any doubt, the most interesting and most eye-catching Ukrainian church in Paraná is in SERRA DO TIGRE, a small settlement south of Mallet that still retains much of its Ukrainian character. Built in 1904, Igreja de São Miguel Arcanjo, spectacularly positioned high upon a mountain top near the heart of the village, is the oldest Ukrainian Catholic church in Paraná. In traditional fashion, the church was constructed totally of wood – including, even, the roof tiles – and both the exterior and the elaborately painted interior frescoes are carefully maintained as a state monument.
The Iguaçu Falls are, unquestionably, one of the world’s great natural phenomena. To describe their beauty and power is a tall order, but for starters cast out any ideas that Iguaçu is some kind of Niagara Falls transplanted south of the equator – compared to Iguaçu, with its total of 275 falls that cascade over a precipice 3km wide, Niagara is a ripple. But it’s not the falls alone that make Iguaçu so special: the vast surrounding subtropical nature reserve – in Brazil the Parque Nacional do Iguaçu (w www.cataratasdoiguacu.com.br), in Argentina the Parque Nacional Iguazú (w www.iguazuargentina.com) – is a timeless haunt that even the hordes of tourists fail to destroy.