The popular but mistaken belief is that Brazil’s São Paulo state has no beaches. Though the city of São Paulo itself may not sprawl languidly along the ocean like certain other Brazilian cities or towns, São Paulo state boasts almost 400 miles of tropical Atlantic coastline, which beckons beachcombers from inside and outside Brazil for swimming, surfing and sunbathing.
Al Ferreira, Wikimedia Commons
Situated barely 50 miles from the eponymous state capital of São Paulo, the port town of Santos has much more to offer than its reputation as the largest shipping terminal in South America. The world’s longest landscaped oceanfront garden runs parallel to the 4-mile-long beach. The crowd on this beach usually consists of young families, boisterous teenagers, older couples and singles on the prowl. The wall of high-rise condos and hotels gives central Santos an air of Rio’s Copacabana without that famous strand’s seamy (and sometimes dangerous) nighttime atmosphere. Attractions such as an aquarium and the Brazilian Coffee Museum allow for an indoor escape in case the rain rolls in.
Flavio Jota de Paula, flickr
Farther up the shore, on the far eastern outskirts of Santos, in São Paulo state, the municipality of Guarujá pulls in scores of townies from the state capital on the weekends, which means increased crowds but grade-A people-watching along its chain of 23 beaches. Pitangueiras and Astúrias are 2 of the more popular stretches of beach; their wide, flat sands mean lots of room for frolicking among the breakers. Insiders know that Pernambuco beach -- named for a state in Brazil’s tropical northeast and punctuated with large black rocks that peak above the waterline like baby seals -- has arguably the highest concentration of tall and tan and young and lovely locals on this stretch of coastline.
Featuring one of the few beaches along the entire Brazilian coast that actually faces west -- the better to snap mountain-framed sunset photos -- Maresias holds court as the Litoral Norte’s oceanfront party capital. All-afternoon surfing and splashing in the restless waters off this curved stretch of sand -- located 110 miles east of the city of São Paulo -- turns into all-night raving at a clutch of luxe nightclubs like Sirena, with its lineup of imported electronic DJs, poolside bar and high-priced cocktails.
Accommodations can be found at inns and “surf chalets,” as well as swanky beachfront properties like the Beach Hotel Maresias and Coconut's Maresias Hotel, but book ahead -- the party scene runs unabated from just before Christmas through Carnival, and major surfing events such as the Stand Up World Tour make the pickings slim.
With a name as unimaginative as it is absolutely appropriate, Ilhabela, which means “beautiful isle,” --sits just off the mainland, almost taunting the rest of Brazil with its near-flawless coastline of powdery sands and dramatic promontories. At 216 square miles, Ilhabela is Brazil’s largest island, rising out of the ocean like a tortoise, with a thick, dark green layer of protected Atlantic coastal forest; the island is also home to tropical fauna such as playful capuchin monkeys and portly blue manakins, a tropical bird species.. Hiking trails throughout the preserve let visitors trek around the island’s peaks -- the highest being 4,500-foot Pico de São Sebastião.
Explore some of the 360 registered waterfalls, including a few dozen where swimming is permitted. Private homes and inns, such as the upscale but intimate Barra do Piuva Porto and the trendy DPNY Beach Hotel, dot the edges of Ilhabela island, whose placid bays and inlets entice visitors and residents alike to take to the water in their sailboats and yachts. Large crowds converge on the island, especially during summer weekends (November to February), because it’s only 128 miles away from the city of Sao Paulo.
Easier to pronounce than it may seem at first, Caraguatatuba (that’s ca-ra-gwa-ta-TOO-ba, or simply Caraguá to the in-crowd) is a collection of 17 beaches, each with its own unique ambience. Many also sport indigenous names that can be traced back to the original Tupi and Guarani peoples, who inhabited the area at the time of Portuguese colonization.
Go kayaking at Tabatinga, try jet skiing off Mocóca, play beach volleyball at Indaiá or marvel at Ilhabela from a distance on Massaguaçu. Close-in beaches, such as the main strand at Centro, the nightclub-centric Martin de Sá and tiny Prainha with its pointy outcropping of Pedra do Jacaré (Alligator Rock), attract the well-heeled crowds, many of whom spend Brazilian summers in luxury high-rises fronting the ocean. To swim or surf in solitude, head to the quieter beaches of Praia Brava or Praia do Romance.
Heitor Carvalho Jorge, Wikimedia Commons
Straddling the Tropic of Capricorn 140 miles away from the state capital, Ubatuba holds the title of “Surf Capital of São Paulo,” made official by the state legislature in 2007 and backed up by at least 10 international surfing events held off its coast each year, including biggies such as the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) World Tour. The town of 78,000 people features over 80 beaches, offering an ample selection of surfing, diving, swimming and sunbathing venues.
Sete Fontes, with its pink sand and impressive phalanx of boulders, and Praia do Sul, peeking out from under a canopy of oceanfront foliage are examples of more intimate beaches. Beachgoers can only access to these beaches by boat or footpath. Hiking trails of varying intensity thread up through the coastal highlands and down into the Atlantic forest, making Ubatuba a major draw for adventure-seeking travelers.