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Paraty Glitters Again.

Brazilian village finds new riches in old treasures.

"WHAT'S THE NAME OF THIS STORE?" asks a customer at a local shop.

So it is in the small seaside hamlet of Paraty, where a revival has come so quickly that some entrepreneurs rushed to open stores before they even had time to name them. The colonial town's success has sneaked up on it, in much the same way the first Europeans did centuries ago, when they arrived to usurp the land and its resources.

The shop clerk frowns for a second, then replies with a smile: "We have not thought of a name yet."

About 300 years ago, Paraty reigned as one of the region's most important ports, thanks to gold found in the hills of what is now called Minas Gerais, the state just west of Paraty. The Portuguese explorers moved the gold using a Guianas Indian trail that hugged the serra (mountains) and passed through the states of Minas, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro en route to Paraty. Soon, miners scurried along the trails like an army of ants, spurring burros hauling heavy saddlebags. A thousand tons of the precious metal moved through the port during Paraty's heyday.

Paraty's boom died in the 1720s, when a more efficient roadway the Caminho de Garcia-Pais, opened. That trail went directly to Rio, cutting 15 days off the dangerous journey With the old gold trail abandoned, Paraty--accessible only by sea or the tricky trek through the serra--became just another isolated fishing village, one of many that pepper the coast.

A five-hour bus ride from Rio de Janeiro takes travelers past wave-washed coves and stunning mountain views into Paraty, which Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci likened to paradise on earth. Local tribes long ago named the village for its white fish, or paratii.

Highway to riches. Tobacco sparked a revival in the 1800s, hut the success was short-lived. Then, in the 1950s, Brazil launched a road building program to connect towns and cities throughout the country-linking the former gold port to the outside world again and leading to its latest rebirth.

Brazilian travelers first trickled, then flocked, to the town again. Celebrities like Mick Jagger and Sonia Braga started vacationing there, adding to its reputation as an exotic escape destination.

The town is in a state of transition between old and new It has managed to preserve the colonial color and character that won it designation as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Pousada do Principe is for example the property of Joao de Orleans e Braganca, in line for the throne if Brazil ever ditches its democracy and returns to a monarchy. The hotel is painted in the yellow and green of the imperial flag of Emperor Pedro II, the owner's great grandfather, and its public areas are decorated with photos of the royal family.

Jose Milton runs MW Trekking, an adventure-tour company that offers a three-day hiking trek along the Indian trail. The price tag is about US$100 a person and, Milton says, the expedition has become popular.

"Many make the trek and we have been getting more and more queries," he says of the journey that steps off in Sao Paulo and ends in Paraty winding along its way through the Serra da Bocaina, where hillsides are alive with monkeys, toucans and other wildlife.

The trek is just one way the area is cashing in on its past glory. Now, if the shopkeepers could just find the time to name their stores.
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Publication:Latin Trade
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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