By Rafe Stone
Santa Catarina is an all-time favourite summer holiday destination for Brazilians and other South Americans, but it's now starting to be discovered by the "outside world". In the past, most visitors to Brazil, from overseas, would head to Rio to see "that big statue of Christ" or go to the "Amazon" rainforest, but as travel interests become more diverse people are now starting to explore other areas of this huge country, and are liking what they find. If you head south instead of north after leaving Rio then a visit to Santa Catarina should definitely figure in your plans. A few good reasons to visit are: its glorious beaches, beautiful lagoons, a thick, lush carpet of Atlantic Rainforest, dramatic mountain scenery and charming colonial architecture... so, it's no small wonder that the locals are relaxed and friendly with all this on their doorsteps!
Despite its many attractions it is still the beaches that draw the crowds and as there are so many of them (in Florianopolis, the Capital of the State, some people say there are more than a hundred!), you wont have any problem finding one that suits your taste or mood. On the north coast, an hour away from the Capital, you will find Ponta dos Ganchos, one of the most exclusive beach resorts in Brazil. On the south coast you will find even more beautiful beaches (Praia do Rosa being the most famous and a new member of the "Most Beautiful Bays of the World Club"), with the added bonus of being an area of outstanding natural beauty. If you want to visit the whale sanctuary to see Southern Right Whales nurturing their young then plan to visit between July and October.
A great day trip is a visit to one of the smaller, rainforest-covered islands dotted around Florianopolis. Campeche Island is a great place for snorkeling with its emerald-green waters. It is also a National Heritage Site as it contains innumerous rock inscriptions that date from around 5,000 years ago. Arvoredo Island is part of a marine national park. Here, currents from the North and South meet, resulting in a great variety of sea life and making it the best place for diving in the South of Brazil.
As well as the diving and the lying on the beach, Santa Catarina is a major center for active adventures and radical sports. Surfing, naturally, is massive. International competitions come to town every year and surf schools are everyday more popular (and affordable). The wind and waves draw in the kite and windsurfers, and Para gliders as well. Rafting, abseiling, diving, trekking... in fact most things sporty can be done in this land of outdoors lovers.
If you are more of a culture vulture, you will be interested in the legacy of the Azorian immigration. Its architecture is represented in the local churches (Mid-late 18th Century), and typical houses still found in the Capital in the early settlements of Santo Antonio de Lisboa e Ribeirão da Ilha. Outside Florianopolis, São Francisco do Sul, the third oldest city in Brazil, and Laguna are also interesting colonial towns.
Only two hours away from "Floripa", you will be in the heart of Santa Catarina's Serra Geral Mountain Range. Peaks rise to over 1800m, and overlook high plateaus covered in Araucaria forest, lush canyons, pristine rivers and cascading waterfalls. You can easily spend a few days here. The activities are as varied as they are at sea level .You can trek through mountain landscapes rich in flora and fauna or horse ride through cattle ranches in true gaucho style. The rivers are perfect for fly fishing or, if you just want to get even further away from it all just relax in a cozy mountain lodge for a few days.
When to come? Busiest time is during Brazilian Summer (from Christmas to end of Carnival). This is the hottest and the wettest time of the year as well. Spring (Mar-Jun) and Autumn (Sep-Dec) are much quieter but still sunny and warm enough to enjoy the beach. These are the best times for visiting the mountains and for all active adventures, as the days are clear and you have wild flowers and migrating birds making a show. Winter, the season for whale watching, is mild: even in the coldest months (Jul and Aug) temperatures dont usually go below 12°C at night on the coast and quite often reach mid-20s during the day. With an open mind, you can certainly enjoy Santa Catarina all year around.