For many people the state of Rio Grande do Sul, bordering Argentina and Uruguay, is their first or last experience of Brazil. More than most parts of the country, it has an extremely strong regional identity – to the extent that it’s the only state where the possibility of independence has been discussed. Central government’s authority over Brazil’s southernmost state has often been weak: in the colonial era, the territory was virtually a no-man’s-land separating the Spanish and Portuguese empires. Out of this emerged a strongly independent people, mostly pioneer farmers and the descendants of European immigrants, isolated fishing communities and, best known, the gaúchos, the cowboys of southern South America whose name is now used for all inhabitants of the state, whatever their origins.
There’s hardly an airport in southern Brazil that doesn’t serve Porto Alegre, and there are international services to Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Santiago, too. The airport (t 51/3358-2048) is linked by metrô to the Mercado Público, in the city centre just 6km away, or take the #L.05 bus, which links the airport with Praça Parobe (next to the Mercado Público). Taxis into the city cost about R$25.
Buses from throughout Brazil and neighbouring countries stop at Porto Alegre’s rodoviária (t 51/3210-0101), which is within walking distance of the centre; however, because the rodoviária is virtually ringed by a mesh of highways and overpasses, it’s far less confusing, and safer, to use the metrô from here. Porto Alegre used to be a major rail hub but only suburban passenger routes still run, otherwise services are limited to hauling freight. Trains depart from the ferroviária, just outside the city centre in the direction of the airport, also accessible by metrô.
The metrô (daily 5am–11.20pm; R$70) has its city-centre terminal at the Mercado Público, but as the system is very limited in extent it’s only really of use when you arrive in and leave Porto Alegre.
The city’s tourist office (t 0800/517-686) has very helpful branches at the airport (daily 7am–midnight), at the rodoviária (7am–10pm), the Centro Cultural Usina do Gasômetro (daily Tues–Sun 10am–6pm) and at the Mercado Público (Mon–Sat 9am–6pm). For up-to-date listings, consult the events listings in the newspaper Zero Hora.
There’s a good range of hotels scattered around the city centre, and as distances are small it’s possible to walk to most places, although great care should be taken at night when the area tends to be eerily quiet. There are a couple of upscale options in the residential and business suburb of Moinhos de Vento, a good spot to stay in that allows for evening walks and offers a choice of bars and restaurants. Hotels are geared towards business travellers and as a consequence most offer substantial discounts at weekends. Porto Alegre can get quite cold in the winter and very hot and humid in the summer, but fortunately most hotels have central heating and air conditioning.
As you’d expect, meat dominates menus here and churrascarias abound. However, the city centre has only a limited selection of restaurants of any sort, with the best located in the suburbs – which are usually at least a R$15 taxi fare away.
Although during the daytime you can walk around most places in the city in safety, take care after dark, as Porto Alegre is developing a reputation for street crime to rival the worst of Brazilian cities. Nevertheless, it’s a lively place with plenty going on until late into the evening.
Bars, some with live music and most with a predominantly young and arty clientele, are spread out along, and just off, Avenida Osvaldo Aranha, alongside the Parque Farroupilha and near the Federal University. Favourites change constantly, but the Ocidente, on Avenida Osvaldo Aranha itself, is usually lively and good for dancing as well. Also try the upscale suburb of Moinhos de Vento, especially along Rua Padre Chagas and Rua Fernando Gomes, near the Moinhos de Vento shopping mall. On Rua Fernando Gomes, there’s excellent beer at Dado Pub and good music at the Jazz Café, though things don’t get going until around 11pm.
Porto Alegre boasts a good popular music scene and a considerable theatrical tradition. Foreign performers of all kinds usually include Porto Alegre on any Brazilian or wider South American tour. The Sala Jazz Tom Jobim at Rua Santo Antônio 421 (t 51/3225-1229) features the city’s best jazz, and there are live afternoon sessions at the Café Concerto within the Casa de Cultura. These days the place to go dancing is the huge Dado Bier complex in the eastern suburb of Chácara das Pedras (take a taxi). Inauspiciously located in the Bourbon Country shopping mall, the club features top bands from all over Rio Grande do Sul.
There’s a good art-house cinema in the Casa de Cultura, and three more screens at Espaço Unibanco, Rua dos Andradas 736 (t 51/3221-7147), also showing art-house films. The Centro Cultural Usina do Gasômetro, a converted 1920s power station on the banks of the river just west of the centre is well worth a visit; there’s always something going on in its cinema, theatre and galleries, and it also has a café and a good bookshop. Finally, throughout the year, Porto Alegre’s numerous Centros de Tradição Gaúcha organize traditional meals, and also music and dance performances that are hugely popular with locals; for full details, contact the Movimento Tradicionalisto Gaúcho, Rua Guilherme Schell 60 (t 51/3223-5194, w www.mtg.org.br).
The coast of Rio Grande do Sul, or the Litoral Gaúcho, is a virtually unbroken 500-kilometre-long beach, dotted with a series of resorts popular with Argentines, Uruguayans and visitors from Porto Alegre and elsewhere in the state. In winter the beaches are deserted and most of the hotels closed, but between mid-November and March it’s easy to believe that the state’s entire population has migrated to the resorts. The attraction of this stretch of coast is essentially one of convenience: from Porto Alegre many of the resorts can be reached within two or three hours, making even day-trips possible. These resorts tend to be crowded, while – due to the influence of the powerful Rio Plate – the water is usually murky, and even in summer Antarctic currents often make for chilly bathing. Of the resorts, the only one really worth visiting is Torres, featuring impressive cliffs and rock formations. Further south, birdwatchers are drawn to the Parque Nacional da Lagoa do Peixe, while towards the Uruguayan border are the ports of Pelotas and Rio Grande, their grand nineteenth-century buildings testimony to the cities’ former prosperity.
The northernmost point on the Litoral Gaúcho, 197km from Porto Alegre, TORRES is the state’s one beach resort that is actually worth going out of your way for. It’s considered Rio Grande do Sul’s most sophisticated coastal resort, and the beaches behind which the town huddles, Praia Grande and Prainha, are packed solid in the summer with gaúcho and Uruguayan holidaymakers. However, by walking across the Morro do Farol (a hill, identifiable by its lighthouse) and along the almost equally crowded Praia da Cal, you come to the Parque da Guarita, one of the most beautiful stretches of the southern Brazilian coast. The development of the park was supervised by the landscaper Roberto Burle Marx together with Brazil’s pioneer environmentalist, José Lutzenberger.
RIO GRANDE was founded on the entrance to the Lagoa dos Patos in 1737, at the very southern fringe of the Portuguese Empire. With the growth of the charque and chilled-beef economy, Rio Grande’s port took on an increasing importance from the mid-nineteenth century. Rather more spread out than Pelotas, it does not share that city’s instant charm. However, you’ll find some distinguished-looking nineteenth-century buildings in the area around Rua Floriano Peixoto and Praça Tamandaré (the main square), which is almost next to Largo Dr Pio and the much-renovated eighteenth-century Catedral de São Pedro. Among the city’s museums, you’ll want to visit the Museu Oceanográfico at Rua Reito Perdigão 10 (daily 9–11am & 1.30–5.30pm; R$5), perhaps the most important of its kind in Latin America and stuffed with fossils and preserved sea creatures. Also worthwhile is the Museu Histórico da Cidade do Rio Grande on Rua Riachuelo (Tues–Sun 9–11.30am & 2–5.30pm), whose photographic archive and objects trace the city’s history. The museum is housed in the old customs house (alfândega), a Neoclassical building built in 1879.
For much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Guaraní Indians of what is now northeastern Argentina, southeastern Paraguay and northwestern Rio Grande do Sul were only nominally within the domain of the Spanish and Portuguese empires, and instead were ruled – or protected – by the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. The first redução – a self-governing Indian settlement based around a Jesuit mission – was established in 1610 and, within a hundred years, thirty such places were in existence. With a total population of 150,000, these mini-cities became centres of some importance, with erva maté and cattle the mainstay of economic activity, though spinning, weaving and metallurgical cottage industries were also pursued. As the seventeenth century progressed, Spain and Portugal grew increasingly concerned over the Jesuits’ power, and Rome feared that the religious order was becoming too independent of papal authority. Finally, in 1756, Spanish and Portuguese forces attacked the missions, the Jesuits were expelled and many Indians killed. The missions themselves were dissolved, either razed to the ground or abandoned to nature, surviving only as ruins. Of the thirty former Guaraní mission towns, sixteen were in present-day Argentina, seven in Paraguay and seven were situated in what is now Brazil.
The one mission site in Brazil that was not completely levelled is SÃO MIGUEL, not to be compared in extent and significance to San Ignacio Miní in neighbouring Argentina, but still of considerable visual interest, particularly for its dramatic location on a treeless fertile plain. Despite vandalism and centuries of neglect, São Miguel’s ruins offer ample evidence of the sophistication of Guaraní Baroque architecture, and of redução life generally. Founded in 1632, to the west of the Rio Uruguai, São Miguel moved only a few years later to escape paulista slavers, and then a few years after that it was destroyed by a violent windstorm. After being rebuilt, its population increased rapidly and in 1687 it was relocated across the river to its present site.
During the colonial era and well into the nineteenth century, Rio Grande do Sul’s southern and western frontiers were ill-defined, with Portugal and Spain, and then independent Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, maintaining garrisons to assert their claims to the region. Frontier clashes were frequent, with central government presence weak or nonexistent. If anyone could maintain some measure of control over these border territories it was the gaúchos, the fabled horsemen of southern South America. The product of miscegenation between Spanish, Portuguese, Indians and escaped slaves, the gaúchos wandered the region on horseback, either individually or in small bands, making a living by hunting wild cattle for their hides. Alliances were formed in support of local caudilhos (chiefs), who fought for control of the territory on behalf of the flag of one or other competing power. With a reputation for being tough and fearless, the gaúcho was also said to be supremely callous – displaying the same indifference in slitting a human or a bullock’s throat.
As the nineteenth century ended, so too did the gaúcho’s traditional way of life. International boundaries were accepted, and landowners were better able to exert control over their properties. Finally, as fencing was introduced and rail lines arrived, cattle turned into an industry, with the animals raised rather than hunted. Gradually gaúchos were made redundant, reduced to the status of mere peões or cattle hands.
Still, more in Rio Grande do Sul than in Argentina, some gaúcho traditions persist, though for a visitor to get much of a picture of the present-day way of life is difficult. In general, the cities and towns of the state’s interior are fairly characterless, though travelling between towns still brings echoes of former times, especially if you get off the beaten track. Here, in the small villages, horses are not only a tool used to herd cattle, but remain an essential means of transport. While women are no differently dressed than in the rest of Brazil, men appear in much the same way as their gaúcho predecessors: in bombachas (baggy trousers), linen shirt, kerchief, poncho and felt-rimmed hat, shod in pleated boots and fancy spurs. Also associated with the interior of Rio Grande do Sul is chimarrão (sugarless maté tea), which is sipped through a bomba (a silver straw) from a cuia (a gourd). In the towns themselves, cattlemen are always to be seen, purchasing supplies or hanging out in bars. But undoubtedly your best chance of getting a feel of the interior is to attend a rodeio, held regularly in towns and villages throughout gaúcho country. Branches of the state tourist office, CRTur, will have information about when and where rodeios are due to take place.