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.

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