Santa Catarina shares a similar pattern of settlement with other parts of southern Brazil, the indigenous Indians having been rapidly displaced by outsiders. In the eighteenth century the state received immigrants from the Azores who settled along the coast; cattle herders from Rio Grande do Sul spread into the higher reaches of the mountainous interior around Lages and São Joaquim; and European immigrants and their descendants made new homes for themselves in the fertile river valleys. Even today, small communities on the island of Santa Catarina, and elsewhere on the coast, continue a way of life that has not changed markedly over the generations. Incidentally, to prevent confusion with the name of the state (though barely succeeding at times), most people call the island of Santa Catarina Florianópolis, which is actually the name of the state capital – also situated on the island. Elsewhere, cities such as Blumenau and Joinville, established by German immigrants, have become totally Brazilianized, but in the surrounding villages and farms many people still speak the language of their forebears in preference to Portuguese.
On the coast, tourism has become very important and facilities are excellent, though the considerable natural beauty is in danger of being eroded by the uncontrolled development that has been taking place in recent years. Inland, though, visitors rarely venture, despite the good roads and widely available hotels. Here, with the minimum of discomfort, it’s possible to get a sense of the pioneering spirit that brought immigrants into the interior in the first place – and keeps their descendants there.
The island of Santa Catarina is noted throughout Brazil for its Mediterranean-like scenery, attractive fishing villages and the city of Florianópolis, the state’s small and prosperous capital. The island has a subtropical climate, rarely cold in winter and with a summer heat tempered by refreshing South Atlantic breezes; the vegetation is much softer than that further north. Joined to the mainland by two suspension bridges (the longest, British-designed, has been closed for several decades to all but cyclists and pedestrians), the island is served by frequent bus services connecting it with the rest of the state, other parts of Brazil, Buenos Aires, Asunción and Santiago. During January and February the island is extremely popular with Argentine, Uruguayan and Paraguayan tourists who can usually enjoy a summer holiday here for much less than the cost of one at home.
Although the northeast of Santa Catarina is populated by people of many ethnic origins, it’s an area most associated with Germans, who so obviously dominate both culturally and economically. Joinville and Blumenau vie with each other to be not only the economic powerhouse of the region, but also the cultural capital. However, both cities lose out in terms of tourist interest to the small towns and villages of the interior, where old dialects are still spoken. One such community is Pomerode, which is set in a picturesque area and does much to promote its German heritage.
In the nineteenth century, as it became more difficult to enter the United States, land-hungry European immigrants sought new destinations, many choosing Brazil as their alternative America. Thousands made their way into the forested wilderness of Santa Catarina, attempting to become independent farmers, and of all of them, it was the Germans who most successfully fended off assimilationist pressures. Concentrated in areas where few non-Germans lived, there was little reason for them to learn Portuguese, and, as merchants, teachers, Catholic priests and Protestant pastors arrived with the immigrants, complete communities evolved, with flourishing German cultural organizations and a varied German-language press. After Brazil’s entry into World War II, restrictions on the use of German were introduced and many German organizations were proscribed, accused of being Nazi fronts. Certainly, “National Socialism” found some of its most enthusiastic followers among overseas Germans and, though the extent of Nazi activity in Santa Catarina is a matter of debate, for years after the collapse of the Third Reich ex-Nazis attracted sympathy in even the most isolated forest homesteads.
Later, due to the compulsory use of Portuguese in schools, the influence of radio and television and an influx of migrants from other parts of the state to work in the region’s rapidly expanding industries, the German language appeared to be dying in Santa Catarina. As a result, in Joinville and Blumenau – the region’s largest cities – German is now rarely heard. However, in outlying villages and farming communities such as Pomerode, near Blumenau, German remains very much alive, spoken everywhere but in government offices. Recently, too, the German language and Teuto-Brazilian culture have undergone a renaissance for which the German government has provided financial support. Property developers are encouraged to heed supposedly traditional German architectural styles, resulting in a plethora of buildings that may be appropriate for alpine conditions, but look plain silly in the Brazilian subtropics. A more positive development has been the move to protect and restore the houses of the early settlers, especially those built in the most characteristic local building style, that of enxaimel (“Fachwerk” in German) – exposed bricks within an exposed timber frame. These houses are seen throughout the region, concentrated most heavily in the area around Pomerode. Keen to reap benefits from the new ethnic awareness, local authorities have also initiated pseudo-German festivals, such as Blumenau’s Munich-inspired “Oktoberfest” and Pomerode’s more authentic “Festa Pomerana”, both of which have rapidly become major tourist draws.
Thirty kilometres to the north of Blumenau, POMERODE is probably the most German “city” in Brazil. Not only are ninety percent of its 25,000 widely dispersed inhabitants descended from German immigrants, but eighty percent of the município’s population continue to speak the language. Unlike in Blumenau, in Pomerode German continues to thrive and is spoken just about everywhere, although in schools it takes second place to Portuguese. There are several reasons for this: almost all the immigrants – who arrived in the 1860s – came from Pomerania, and therefore did not face the problem of mixing with other immigrants speaking often mutually unintelligible dialects; as ninety percent of the population are Lutheran, German was retained for the act of worship; and, until recently, Pomerode was isolated by poor roads and communication links. This isolation has all but ended, though. The road to Blumenau is now excellent, buses are frequent, car ownership is common and televisions are universal. However, despite the changes, German looks more entrenched than ever. The language has been reintroduced into the local school curriculum, cultural groups thrive and, where the government has exerted pressure, it has been to encourage the language’s survival.
Pomerode is renowned for its festivals, the chief of which is the Festa Pomerana, a celebration of local industry and culture held annually for ten days, usually from around January 7. Most of the events take place on the outskirts of town, on Rua XV de Novembro, about 1km from the tourist office, and during the day thousands of people from neighbouring cities descend on Pomerode to sample the local food, attend the song and dance performances and visit the commercial fair. By late afternoon, though, the day-trippers leave and the Festa Pomerana comes alive as the colonos from the surrounding areas transform the festivities into a truly popular event. Local and visiting bands play German and Brazilian music, and dancing continues long into the night. In July, Pomerode organizes the smaller, though similar, Winterfest.
There are more regular festivities too, as every Saturday the local hunting clubs take turns to host dances. Visitors are always made to feel welcome, and details of the week’s venue are displayed on posters around town, or ask at the tourist office. As many of the clubs are located in the município’s outlying reaches, a bus is laid on, leaving from outside the post office on Rua XV de Novembro.
The main activity for visitors, other than attending the town’s famous festivals and dances, is walking. Pomerode has Santa Catarina’s greatest concentration of proudly preserved nineteenth- and early twentieth-century enxaimel farm buildings, the largest number found in the município’s Wunderwald district. To reach them, cross the bridge near the Lutheran church, turn left and continue walking along the road for about twenty minutes, then turn right just before a bridge across a small stream. If you’re feeling energetic, return to the main road and cross the bridge, walk on another hundred metres or so and turn left along the Testo Alto road; about 3km up the steep valley, you’ll arrive at the Cascata Cristalina, where you’ll be able to cool off under the tiny waterfall or use the swimming pool.
The rodoviária (t 48/3644-0208) is at Rua Arcângelo Bianchini, a couple of minutes’ walk from the waterfront and the old town. Located at the official entrance to town, 3km from central Laguna on Avenida Calistralo Muller Salles is the tourist office (Mon–Sat 8am–6pm, Sun 8am–1pm; t 48/3644-2441), which provides excellent maps of Laguna and the surrounding area.
Most of Laguna’s hotels and restaurants are in the new town, alongside and parallel to the Praia do Mar Grosso, the city’s main beach. Hotels here tend to be large and fairly expensive, but moderately priced exceptions are the Mar Grosso, Av. Senador Galotti 644 (t 48/3644-0298; R$41-70), the Hammerse, Av. João Pinho 492 (t 48/3647-0598; R$71-120), and the Monte Líbano, Av. João Pinho 198 (t 48/3647-0671; R$41-70). There’s also a youth hostel at Rua Aurélio Rótolo 497; reservations are essential from Christmas to February and in July (t 48/3647-0675, e email@example.com; R$41-70). The clutch of seafood restaurants in the middle of Avenida Senador Galotti is good, though there’s little to distinguish one from another.
Apart from during Carnaval, rooms in the old town are easy to find. The Hotel Farol Palace (t 48/3644-0596; R$71-120), on the waterfront opposite the market, is a good choice. There are also a couple of extremely cheap dormitórios behind the hotel. Restaurants in this part of town are uninspiring, the best being two pizzerias on Praça Juliana.
Until the road-building programme of the 1970s, mountainous central and western Santa Catarina was pretty much isolated from the rest of the state. Largely settled by migrants from neighbouring states, this territory has inhabitants of diverse origins including Germans and Italians in the extreme west, Austrians, Italians and Ukrainians in the central Rio do Peixe valley, and gaúchos – and even Japanese – in the highlands of the Serra Geral. In the more isolated areas, dominated by a single ethnic group, traditions and languages have been preserved but, as elsewhere in southern Brazil, they are under threat.
Any route taken to reach the Serra Geral is spectacular, but if you enter the region directly from the coast the contrasts of landscape, vegetation and climate unfold most dramatically. From the subtropical lowlands, roads have been cut into the steep escarpment and, as they slowly wind their way up into the serra, dense foliage emerges – protected from human destruction by its ability to cling to the most precipitous of slopes. Waterfalls can be seen in every direction until suddenly you reach the planalto. The graceful Paraná pine trees are fewer in number on the plateau but are much larger, their branches fanning upwards in a determined attempt to re-form the canopy that existed before the arrival of cattle and lumber interests.
The rodoviária (t 49/3222-6710) is a half-hour walk southeast of the centre, or you can take a bus marked “Dom Pedro”. The tourist office (Mon–Fri 8am–noon & 2–6pm; t 49/3223-6206) is in the centre of town at Rua Hercílio Luz 573, and distributes a good map of Lages.
Reasonable, modestly priced hotels are easy to come by. The Hotel Presidente, Av. Presidente Vargas 106 (t 49/3224-0014; R$41-70), is quite good and only a few minutes’ walk from the cathedral and main square, Praça Waldo da Costa Avila. If you want a bit more luxury, try the Grande Hotel Lages, Rua João de Castro 23 (t 49/3222-3522; R$71-120). However, to really experience serra life you should arrange to stay on a cattle fazenda, all located some distance from town. A full list and advice is available from the tourist office and if you don’t have your own transport you can arrange with the fazenda to be picked up in town. Especially recommended are the rustic Seriema (t 49/9986-0051; R$121-180 full board); Nossa Senhora de Lourdes (t 49/3222-0798 or t 9983-0809; R$181-260 full board), a mid-nineteenth-century fazenda house with period furnishings and a pool (children not accepted); and the more hotel-like Barreiro (t 49/3222-3031, w www.fazendadobarreiro.com.br; R$261-350 full board), which traces its origins to the late eighteenth century, though its buildings are all of recent construction. Reservations are essential for all three. While the landscape of the serra is extremely rugged and the life of the highland gaúcho is often harsh, the fazendas provide comfortable accommodation, and excellent food and facilities.