To many people, coffee and Rio de Janeiro are synonymous, a legacy of the nineteenth century when Brazil completely dominated the trade. But Rio’s coffee boom was actually short-lived, getting under way in the 1820s and collapsing suddenly in 1888 as a consequence of the abolition of slavery, on which plantation owners were completely dependent. Many of the more resourceful farmers migrated south to São Paulo to take advantage of Italian and other immigrant labour and the availability of fertile, well-watered land. Furthermore, single-crop farming on the hilly terrain of the Paraiba Valley had resulted in serious levels of soil erosion, while the felling of the forest to plant coffee bushes altered the climate, causing draught. The “coffee barons” either abandoned their fazendas (plantations) or looked for other uses of their land. Dairy farming was eventually found to work, and today almost all the land is given over to cattle grazing – the area, some 200km west of Petrópolis, is a peaceful backwater, with the evidence of the coffee boom most clearly apparent in the fazenda houses that are left standing in various states of repair.
With a few days and, ideally, a car, a visit to the Paraiba Valley can be fascinating. The area can be reached in two hours from Rio, and is a convenient stop-off if travelling between Petrópolis and Paraty, or other points on the coast. A particularly attractive place to make for is Rio das Flores, a sleepy little place dotted with grand fazenda houses, some right alongside the approach road to town, others hidden from view off side-roads. The tourist information office at Rua Cesar Nillares 120 can usually help with visiting these houses, and you can even stay in one, the Fazenda Santo Antônio, set amidst beautiful gardens some 22km southeast of town. The six guest rooms are either in the impeccably preserved casa grande, or plantation house, that dates back to 1842, or in the former senzala, or slave quarters, and there’s a pool and horses to ride. The helpful English-speaking owner and his wife can make arrangements for visits to neighbouring properties: the slightly run-down look of Fazenda Campos Eliseos, established in 1847, contrasts greatly with the beautifully preserved Fazenda Santa Justa, the detail of the period decor of the casa grande seemingly leaping from the pages of a coffee-table book.