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Cariocas are doubly lucky. They live in a city bursting with natural beauty even in its concrete corners, where wide red and waxy abricó-de-macaco flowers grow in crowded plazas and you’re liable to have an overly ripe and spikey jacá fruit fall on your head as you rush to an appointment. For many, Rio is vacation, beaches, forests and samba clubs – enough to satisfy the craving for a life more exotic.

But as if that’s not enough, there are plenty of lush, sun-drenched destinations for a weekend getaway. Some like Paraty, the colonial-era beach town with an annual literary festival and perennial cachaça drinking. Others like Teresópolis, a breezy hill station with cool beer and peaks to climb that we are told are actually legitimately cold in the Rio winter.

We’ve developed a little love affair with Barra de Guaratiba. Tell your local friends you’re going to Barra de Guaratiba and they just may scrunch their noses and say, but wouldn’t you like to go somewhere a little… nicer? It’s a misunderstood neighborhood in some cases, and – let’s be straightforward –  is the object of thinly veiled class prejudice here for being one of the favorite beaches of residents of Santa Cruz and Campo Grande, two large working-class neighborhoods in Rio’s far west zone that are closer to Barra de Guaratiba than they are to Ipanema. There are neither upscale bikini stores nor craft beer here. That could change, though: Hotel rooms at $100 a pop are popping up. Still, it’s a largely residential hillside fronting a delightful beach. To one side are brisk hiking trails that will take you onward to beaches accessible only by foot and to the Pedra da Guaratiba rock, where athletes set up early on weekend mornings to rappel its convex exterior while admiring the turquoise waters splashing below. To the southern side of the neighborhood is the Marambaia military reserve, where stand-up paddlers wander in and out of the calm estuary.

Tia Palmira, photo by Nadia SussmanMany locals come here for the trails and water, but some hop over just for a seafood banquet in this active fishing village. Here are a few of our favorite spots:

Polo Gastronômico de Guaratiba
This road takes you from the Avenida das Americas thoroughfare toward the beach, called the Avenida Burle Marx, and is where you’ll find mom-and-pop shops. A series of seafood restaurants with outdoor seating and illuminated by fluorescent bulbs, like Tropicana, Cabana do Índio and Sobre as Ondas, are packed on the weekend. This is where Brazilian families make a weekend outing to get heaping plates of mexilhão (mussel), siri and carangueijo (two types of crab, one orange and one blue) and goiamum, a local specialty blue-gray crab with a sweeter flesh. Most important is to stop at the roadside vendors who will serve you raw oysters from the shell with a squirt of lime juice.

Cafe Marambaia, photo by Nadia SussmanMarambaia Café
This is the place to be on a weekend night – which is to say, it’s also the only place to be. (A few beach kiosks do stay open for grubby snacks, but other than that, it’s a sleepy neighborhood that believes in the maxim “early to bed, early to rise.”) It’s almost incongruently trendy compared to the flip-flop ethos of the neighborhood around, and you can sip an orange, apple and pineapple-packed white sangria while bump-and-grind house (pronounced: HOWseey) music plays around you. We were impressed when the staff made a special trip to buy us potatoes to make their Spanish omelet. The overwhelming caldeirada, which no man could eat alone, is a tomato-based stew chock full of fish, shrimp, squid, crawfish, mussels, oysters and octopus. Lie back on the cushy deck chairs and appreciate how the café embodies that most carioca of places, where adults smoke and make out while small children play board games.

Tia Palmira in Barra de Guaratiba, photo by Nadia SussmanTia Palmira
The upscale Bira de Guaratiba, voted by Newsweek in 2012 as one of the world’s best restaurants, had such a long wait on a recent Sunday that we had to turn around. We were very pleased to have made it here instead. A five-minute, somewhat arduous walk up a steep residential street takes you to the sloping thatched roof and shaded veranda of Tia Palmeira.

The playful, relaxed ambiance says, “Take your time here” – and that you will need to do, since the restaurant serves a multi-course fixed-price menu. Our appetizer alone came with six items, including a breaded shrimp dish that reminded us of shortbread, mussel soup and shrimp spread with whole shrimp in it. The main dish similarly came in six iterations. The fried anchovy with tomatoes, onion and parsley was refreshingly non-fishy, and the vatapá, a thick soup dish made with bread, coconut milk, shrimp, peanuts and palm oil, was nicely peppery. The shrimp bobó, with its strong coconut flavor and creamy manioc base, was our dining companion’s favorite. We also loved the series of fruit desserts: green papaya, which comes out in a texture reminiscent of applesauce, stewed sweetened bananas, creamy pumpkin, a gooey passion fruit bowl and a banana caramelized in liquor.

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Nadia Sussman

Published on September 08, 2015

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