Published On: October 18, 2018

No Recession in Gramado

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Caracol Falls

 

In case you didn’t know, the rich have it all figured out. I’ve just returned from Gramado, one of the richest cities in Brazil and possibly the safest tourist spot in the country. Gramado and Canela are so secure that they reminded me of tourist locations in the US like Lake Tahoe. For Brazilians who are accustomed to constant menace and staying alert for hidden threats, Gramado/Canela is a unique experience in calm and sheltered travel.

Gramado was originally settled by Portuguese immigrants in 1875, but later it became known as a summer resort for the rich. Nearly a hundred years ago, Brazil’s wealthy began building homes in the majestic quiet of Brazil’s most southern state, Rio Grande do Sul, which borders Uruguay. Today, Gramado attracts tourists from all over Brazil, particularly for Christmas. In the winter months, if weather reports suggest the least possibility of snow, Brazilians jump in their cars for a rare chance to watch the snow falling.

Not everything in the lives of the wealthy comes easily. They may drink better wines than the rest of us, but with greater wealth comes added responsibilities. The CEO of a company probably has more on his mind than the mailman. As a result, the rich retreat to second homes to escape the stress and clear their minds. While many build second homes at the beach, others shun the crowds at the ocean and desire the serenity of a mountain retreat.

Typical Gramado hotel

Typical Gramado hotel

Gramado/Canela is a two-hour drive from Porto Alegre, the state’s capital. The distance from Porto Alegre to Gramado is only one hundred kilometers, but the winding road that traverses the lush, rolling hills will not bring you here any faster than two hours unless you’re driving a Ferrari. My wife and I enjoyed a comfortable ride in an executivo bus that traveled directly to Gramado from the Porto Alegre airport. We relished the leisurely escape from busy schedules as our bus snaked along the serpentine road.

Despite its history as a mecca for the super rich, Gramado and Canela maintain their stately and welcoming presence. There are no all-night nightclubs blasting gyrating music like many tourist destinations in the US and Europe. It’s placid and sedate, and the permanent residents total only 35 thousand. Of course, visitors get loud sometimes, but young people looking for big club parties are not coming to Gramado. It’s a family-oriented town, and there is plenty of space to accommodate families with the small city hosting 14 thousand available beds in hotels and pousadas, which is more tourist beds than in Porto Alegre, a city of 1.4 million.

Our condominium rental

Our condominium rental

Not yet having joined the super rich, my wife and I traveled less expensively, taking the bus roundtrip from Porto Alegre airport and using Uber services between Gramado and Canela. We also chose to rent an apartment in Gramado rather than stay in a hotel. Many Brazilians are discovering that apartment rentals average about half the price of hotel rooms, especially if you are traveling with family who won’t be happy squeezing into one hotel room.

The apartment we rented was conveniently located only 200 meters from a large supermarket. Our apartment was in a condominium complex with a 24-hour porteiro and offered access to the garage if we’d needed it as well as a large, indoor heated swimming pool. The entire glass-roofed pool area was heated to a temperature suitable for bikini lounging even when the weather outside dropped to eight degrees. There were multiple wooden lounge chairs surrounding the pool, and the lovely, warm experience featured two jacuzzis and two saunas, wet and dry.

There are two reliable websites offering condominium rentals for Gramado/Canela. We used one called Home Away, which is only available in English (www.vrbo.com), but there is another website that has listings in Portuguese (www.airbnb.com.br).

Chic shopping in Canela

Chic shopping in Canela

There is no question the big attraction in Gramado and Canela is shopping. The towns are set up for tourists who love to shop. Despite the city’s small size, there are hundreds of clothing stores, particularly those specializing in leather goods – purses, backpacks, briefcases, leather pants and coats. German and Italian restaurants are the most prevalent, but there are also at least 20 or 30 places offering the famous southern fondue, which has a distinctly different flavor from the fondue restaurants in Curitiba.

Any trip to Gramado/Canela wouldn’t be complete without a stop in a chocolate shop. In fact, it seemed there were more chocolate stores than anything else, and some of them were as big as clothing stores. On our first morning in Gramado, the first shop we passed after leaving our apartment was a chocolate store. We took that as a sign it would be impossible to escape the inevitable, and we surrendered. In 15 minutes, we’d purchased enough chocolate to last us the entire trip plus extra for gifts.

Decorative traffic circle at the main intersection

Decorative traffic circle at the main intersection

This being my first visit to Rio Grande do Sul, I was expecting to see local gaúchos riding horseback down the main street chasing sheep. Instead, I found the main street so extravagant the telephone lines are buried underground. Unfortunately, I don’t think the gaúchos who are sheep farming can afford to live in Gramado these days, but there were plenty of sheepskin rugs for sale, and the tourist restaurants had sheepskins covering their chairs for winter warmth.

While you can expect the inflated prices in restaurants and coffee shops typical of tourist cities, we enjoyed some unique dining experiences not available in Curitiba. One lunch restaurant in Canela offered several large tables of food as a bufê por kilo that featured rabbit (coelho), quail (codorna), and several varieties of pork whose large sections the owner was eager to slice for us.

For another lunch, we ate in a churrascaria in Gramado. I generally avoid churrascarias and rodizio pizza because it encourages gluttony, but in this establishment, they offered a roasting grill of meat that sat right on the table. The meats were sizzling and ready to eat as the waiter lit a burner underneath to keep the food hot. Not only was the meat succulent and tender and more than we could eat, but for no additional charge, we were given the leftovers to bring home and microwave for dinner. Even more impressive, all the meat on the grill in the El Cordero restaurant consisted of various cuts of lamb (cordeiro).

Igreja de Pedra in Canela

Igreja de Pedra in Canela

If you want proof that the rich have it all figured out, besides the sightings of Mercedes and Audi convertibles and one or two Ferraris, try to find litter on the streets here. Gramado is as clean as Curitiba minus the orange men who work so hard cleaning the sidewalks of Curitiba. Gramado is equally as clean without any street sweepers. The residents are educated not to drop litter on the street, and the tourists willingly comply to keep the city looking beautiful.

One remarkable and welcome difference between Gramado/Canela and Curitiba is cars stop for pedestrians. People do not cross streets in the middle of the block, but wisely walk to the corner and use the crosswalks of painted striped lines. Even without stop signs or stoplights, the cars stop in the crosswalks for pedestrians.

Needless to say, I never spotted any homeless people in Gramado, and safety at any time of the day or night is not an issue. I felt completely comfortable with my professional camera dangling around my neck. In the bus station, which from the outside seems like a restaurant, the people sitting around looked clean and healthy, and there were so many attendants in the ticket windows that there were no lines to buy bus tickets. Even in wealthy New York or Rio, the bus stations are to be avoided. However in Gramado, it was as pristine as the rest of the town with no litter or visible telephone wires.

Speaking of waiting on lines, I was prepared for the worst when I discovered that we had accidentally scheduled our trip to Gramado during the October 7 election. I imagined facing endless bureaucracy trying to explain to the election officials on Sunday why my wife couldn’t vote in Curitiba. Instead, the Gramado City Hall had organized four or five locations specifically for tourists who needed to justify their voting rights away from home. We found an election location half a kilometer from our condominium, and they had the form for voting justification along with helpful officials for assistance. The line moved very quickly because no one was voting, only registering as present. My wife’s information was entered into the voting computer, and we were finished with no stress, no hassle.

Gramado bus station

Gramado bus station

Along with a well-organized City Hall, Gramado obviously has a well-funded municipal government, thanks to the part-time residents like the owners of the apartment we rented. These are tens of thousands of people who are paying property taxes to the city but not using services because they don’t live there. The condominium where we stayed had two towers totaling hundreds of apartments, but I never saw more than a dozen cars in the garage that was big enough for both towers.

The City Hall makes honest use of their abundant tax money with ample street signage, well-lit and well-paved roads and a Municipal Sports Center that features indoor football, volleyball, tennis, a fitness center and outdoor pool – free for Gramado residents. It’s a marvelous venue typical of a rich US town and perfect for teens looking to participate in team sports, not video games.

Certainly, the most intriguing and popular tourist spot in Gramado is centrally located downtown – Mini Mundo. It’s a miniature recreation of numerous real sites around the world like the presidential palace in Monaco. Mini Mundo has been in operation for decades and continues to expand its miniature worlds.

Mini Mundo

Mini Mundo

My wife and I also took a one-hour tour around Gramado in an open-air bus that stopped at Lago Negro. It’s an artificial lake near the center of town created by Leopoldo Rosenfeld in 1953. Leopoldo imported pine trees from the Black Forest in Germany to surround the lake, and the pine trees flourished in the cooler temperatures of Rio Grande do Sul. This species of evergreen tree, often called Christmas trees, is not seen elsewhere in Brazil, even in other southern locations like Curitiba. This, too, reminded me of the US.

The short bus tour is worthwhile for the chance to view some of the palatial estates in Gramado, such as one pink palace with at least 25 rooms that serves as a weekend home for a corporate CEO. According to our tour guide, numerous CEOs have taken up residence in Gramado over the years, and the guide quoted prices for some of the homes that were for sale. I don’t recall hearing any numbers of less than one million reais, even for a small wooden home that was supposedly the oldest in the city.

Typical German architecture

Typical German architecture

Without a doubt, the biggest and most prosperous business in Gramado/Canela is real estate. There are real estate offices on every corner, and the recession that has gripped Brazil for the past few years is nowhere in sight here. If you think there are lots of new buildings going up in Curitiba, you will be shocked at the number of condominiums under construction in Gramado, many featuring the typical German architecture style of the region. It seemed that the entire city’s population was either selling real estate or building it.

Cable Car in Caracol Park

Cable Car in Caracol Park

My favorite spot was the Parque Estadual do Caracol in Canela. Caracol State Park, situated in the Serra Gaúcha hills, comprises 25 hectares (62 acres) and features Caracol Falls with a free fall of 131 meters (430 feet). This magnificent waterfall can be seen from a viewing deck, an observation tower, or a cable car. My wife and I arrived early at the park on a Saturday morning, and we were nearly alone as we strolled along the well-tended pathways and contemplated the sweeping panoramic views.

B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba. All photos are by the author.

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