Weekend Break in Guarujá

By Arnout Nuijt

guarujahotelWhen you are visiting São Paulo for business you will inevitably get tired of your many meetings and not to mention the heavy traffic in this city of 11 million. Even when business goes well, you may need to unwind and relax. So, where to go when you are in an endless megacity like São Paulo? With a little effort you can get to the coast, where you have many options. But to get to Ubatuba or Ilha Bela, two of São Paulo state’s most wanted resort towns, just takes too long for a weekend. Driving down there costs at least four hours each way. As you will leave the city at the earliest on Friday afternoon and you will have to be back for your next week’s round of meetings by Sunday night, this is not a good option. So, in order to have maximum profit of your weekend, cut down on the travel time and head for Guarujá!

Guarujá is a relatively large resort town on Santos Bay, built to accommodate Paulistana holidaymakers and rich folk who want to enjoy living on the beach. Depending on traffic, it’s a one to one and a half hour drive from São Paulo. A taxi will set you back between 250-350 Reais each way, but the money is worth it. Not only will it save you from headaches getting out of São Paulo’s traffic nightmares when driving yourself, it will also give you the chance to focus on the landscape.

There are also many buses from Jabaquara terminal in São Paulo and it’s definitely a cheaper option. The trip takes at least 90 minutes, depending on the traffic. But you’ll have to get to the terminal first with your luggage by taxi and you’ll have to transfer in Guarujá to a taxi to take you to your hotel. Quite a hassle. Conveniently, direct buses operate between both Congonhas and Guarulhos airports and Santos and Guraujá, though there are still too few of them. The good news is that Guarujá will have a commercial airport from 2014 (converted from a military base in the port area), which will be a great boost to the whole Santos metropolitan region. No doubt it will attract companies such as Azul with their small Embraer jets to cover the city from other areas of the country.

But for now, just take a cab, sit back and enjoy the ride. An impressive system of highways connects São Paulo to Santos and Guarujá. Most people prefer to drive down the Imigrantes highway, that cuts through spectacular scenery. You will be awed by its many bridges and huge tunnels. It’s a  well maintained highway and you can check traffic before you go on the website of the company running it, the Spanish Ecovias.  You will get more than a glimpse of the Atlantic rainforest on the way and the road drops around 800 metres down to sea level. During the last stretch, the road cuts through extensive swamps and you will pass some hellish looking industrial sites. Once down on the coast, a good highway leads straight into Guarujá. In peak times during summer or during harvest time, when thousands of trucks may congest the road, you could take an alternative route through Santos. You will have to drive through most of Santos city though, either along the unattractive port area or along its beach boulevard (clearly the best option), towards the ferry connecting Santos to Guarujá.

If there is some time left, do stop in Santos downtown and visit the Coffee Museum (housed in the former Coffee Exchange), a must for visitors to the region. Stock up with some excellent freshly grinded coffees and continue towards the ferry. In summer you might have to wait a long time to get on board, but the ferry quay is well organised. The crossing itself is no big deal and takes just five minutes, barely enough to get out of your vehicle and take a peek across the Santos channel.

Guarujá has around 291.000 inhabitants by the latest count and is situated on Santo Amaro Island.  The area was never really populated by Native-Americans nor by Portuguese settlers during colonial times, due to its many swamps and forests. Some agricultural activities took place later, as well as the production of whale oil. But in 1893 the town finally started off as a summer resort, when a hotel complex was built on present day Pitangueiras Beach. A small railroad brought rich Paulista families from the shore, the engine of which is still on show in the town centre. This laid the foundation of a great future for Guarujá as a beach resort and the city boomed during the 1970s when mass tourism took off in Brazil.

Guarujá, due to its proximity to the port of Santos, also received some terminals and industrial facilities, like the one owned by Dow Chemical. Workers started flowing in from other Brazilian states. The most famous example is that of former President Lula, who grew up in Guarujá after arriving from Pernambuco. At the moment the port area is undergoing some notable expansion and investment. A huge tunnel is planned that will connect Santos and Guarujá.

Though Guarujá is very much a playground for Brazil’s rich and famous, still 40% of its population lives in favela’s and lacks good education. Nevertheless, times are changing in Brazil. Take a look at the Vicente de Carvalho working class neighbourhood, now boasting shopping streets that symbolize the rise of the C-class. You will find the same shops there now as in shopping malls elsewhere. Some of the founders of Lula’s PT still live in Guarujá. The simultaneous presence of high numbers of superrich as well as from the far left in one city, makes Guarujá an intriguing place to visit and a microcosm of Brazilian society and politics.

But you will come here mainly for the beach and you have come to the right place indeed. As a gringo, you might take note of the fact that 99,9% of tourists in the town are Brazilians, so you will stand out. This might actually be an opportunity for you to get to know Brazil even better. There are dozens of beaches on Santo Amaro Island, but we’ll discuss but a few. Tombo Beach is one of the best. It’s intimate, though situated near the city centre, and it has good amenities. The more urban beaches,  like Asturias and Pitangueiras, are good, but you’ll be in the shade for much of the afternoon due to their high rise towers (among which by the way many fine and well kept examples of Brazilian modernism).

Then there is huge Enseada Beach, stretching for miles along a mighty bay, and bordered by low rise buildings. The next beach is gorgeous Pernambuco Beach. The rich and famous have invaded it and built mansions and villa’s close to the beach (some of them illegally), separated from each other by unpaved roads. Here you can walk at low tide to the Mar Casado Island just off the coast. It’s still covered in rainforest. Next is Perequê beach, a former fisherman’s town, where you can get a good fish to eat.

Guarujá boasts two four star resort hotels, the Sofitel Jequitimar on Pernambuco Beach and the Casa Grande on Enseada Beach. But there are more good ones, like the Strand Hotel on Tombo Beach and The Falls Hotel, also on Enseada. Check it out for yourself at Brazil Weekly’s dedicated Guarujá-page on booking.com

For eating you have many options as well. The hotels mentioned above have good restaurants, and there are many others, like Il Faro, Bistro St Malo, etc.  If you don’t want to splash out every day, there are also plenty of more economical options. Bambuzal is one of those more informal eateries (per kilo) downtown.

Besides hopping over to Santos to buy some good coffee at the Coffee Museum, there are a couple of other things to do in Guarujá, like visiting some of the fortresses on the bay for sweeping  views. There is however one thing we’d like to share with you and that’s the phenomenon of the catraia. The catraia is a system of independent small boats that ferry workers across between Vicente de Carvalho and Santos. Take a cab to the Vicente de Carvalho end of the catraia and buy a ticket. Climb on the sloop as it approaches the quay and take a seat. Once aboard you will not be protected against the elements, so dress accordingly. The skippers will sail under any circumstances. On the Santos side, the boat disappears in what looks like a tunnel and you will feel the need to keep your head down. Inside the tunnel the smell of soya and sugar being loaded above your head on the quay is hard to miss. Trucks and trains roll over your head, while your boat steers through the tunnel in the dark, occasionally passing other boats. This is not a trip for the fainthearted. Once the boat emerges in a small dock near the centre of Santos, you get out and take the next boat back (this part of Santos centre is not the best). You can pay your return ticket after disembarking on the Guarujá side. Taking the catraia is an unforgettable experience. You will follow the footsteps of Lula and thousands of anonymous workers in the port of Santos.

March 10th, 2013. All rights reserved by Brazil Weekly/Rotterdam Week

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1 Comment

  1. Stay away from Guarujá! It is infested by burglars/criminals. The local police advised me to stay away – as every tourist should do – from Guarujá while I was registering (robbed at gunpoint) the occurrence (number 211, on the 7th of January 2011; average of 30 per day!!!) at the Police Station. It is one huge favela with many posh condominiums in it (I was staying in one of those, but sometime one has to move out of there… becoming a “sitting duck” for the criminals).

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