Far from the Equator and the humid jungles of northern Brazil lies Parana Province. While many tourists only venture this far south to take in a single, monolithic site – the towering Iguazu Falls – there’s more to see in this hilly, forest-covered province that borders the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and Argentina and Paraguay to the west.
And while Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro can make for breathtaking, if spendy, South American retreats, Parana’s capital city, Curitiba, and the surrounding areas, are easy on both the eyes and the wallet. After you see the famous waterfall (It only takes a day), head back east for a less touristy look at Parana with its charming colonial towns, blazing sunsets, and one death-defying train ride.
A far cry from the $500-per-night design properties in the big cities, Curitiba offers some practical, comfortable options that rarely go above $200 per night, even in the highest of high season (which falls roughly between the end of December and March). The Four Points Sheraton was designed with business travelers in mind and offers practical comfort for around $189 per night. For great value, Curitiba offers a line of centrally-located Ibis hotels that often fall below $100 per night.
With bright, expansive plazas , open-air shopping, and restaurants that run the gamut from molecular gastronomy to down-home pizza joints, Curitiba offers urban sophistication without all the big-city bustle. The city’s postcard-worthy botanical garden, with its elegant wrought-iron greenhouse, is free to enter. At the Museu Oscar Niemeyer, which was designed by the Brazilian architect and is dedicated to his work, the building itself is the main attraction. It looks like a giant eye balanced on a yellow pillar. It costs 6 Real (about $2.75 USD). And don’t miss the city’s pint-sized mobile library, which is set up on the city’s pedestrian-only XV de Novembro Street in a vintage city street car. It’s a delight to browse – even if you can’t read Portuguese.
The Train RideThe city of Curitiba makes a perfect base for discovering the lesser-known colonial towns to the east, toward the Atlantic coast. But why drive out to them when you can take a scenic train ride? A three-hour trip takes you through dense forest, and around cliff-hugging stretches that offer incredible views of the green country side. The Serra Verde Express departs daily and one-way tickets range from 65 Real (about $30 USD) for a coach seat, to 270 Real (about $65) for a spot in the luxury cabin – a great deal unto itself. Most visitors take the train one-way and drive, or take reasonably-priced buses back to Curitiba.
The Colonial TownsThe last stop on most train itineraries is the pastel-hued town of Morretes, which was founded in 1733 and retrains its cobblestone streets and low stucco buildings. Dinner at Armazem Romanus in town includes local dishes like barreado, a slow-baked pork dish that’s topped with bananas. It also offers an enormous back window that lets you spy on flocks of neon-colored parakeets darting through the trees. But the attraction here is the town itself: Stroll into the heart of downtown and have a seat by the riverside vista, complete with benches and umbrellas in summer. Possibly even lovelier than Morretes is the nearby town of Antonina. Situated on the Paranagua Bay, it was founded by colonists from the Azores, who thought its bayside locale reminded them of home. The shipping port that built the town has now moved further out into the bay, leaving sleepy Antonina for its 18,000 residents and the tourists that pass through. Don’t leave without trying Bala de Banana, a chewy banana candy made in the area.