The smallest of Brazil’s southern states, Santa Catarina is famed for its beautiful coastline, which draws sun-and-surf seeking tourists from neighboring Argentina and Uruguay as well as Paulistanos and even Cariocas. Since the latter are hardly lacking in beach discernment, you know that Santa Catarina’s praias have to be something special indeed.
Wild and windswept—although increasingly developed due to the rise in tourism—the sugary sands are invariably backed by rolling hills covered in native Atlantic forest. Rough open seas lure surfers from all around the world, but there are also plenty of sheltered coves for soakers and floaters.
Some of the best beaches in the South surround the pretty island capital of Florianópolis, a vibrant, youthful, and prosperous city on the Ilha de Santa Catarina, whose umpteen beaches range from highly developed to practically deserted. Base yourself in “Floripa” and then spend two or three days (or even more) beachcombing.
On the mainland, highlights north of Florianópolis include the clear turquoise waters of Porto Belo and Bombinhas, whose Reserva Biológica Marinha da Ilha do Arvoredo offers excellent deep-sea diving.
Farther on, the pretty little town of Laguna also offers some fine beaches as well as the best-preserved ensemble of colonial architecture in the state.
Every year, between June and November, the southern coast of Santa Catarina is transformed into a giant open-air aquarium for watching humpback whales swim north from Patagonia in search of (relatively) warmer waters in which to reproduce and nurture their offspring. For centuries one of the major economic activities along Santa Catarina’s coast, whale hunting was finally banned in 1973, and 140 kilometers (85 miles) of coastline was declared an Environmental Protection Area.
The ocean off the coast of Garopaba and Praia do Rosa is one of the best places for viewing whales up close. They sometimes come within 50 meters (164 feet) of the beach. However, for surefire sightings, take an organized boat excursion.
For information, contact the Instituto Baleia Franca (Estrada Geral da Praia do Rosa, Ibirapuera, tel. 48/3355-6111, www.baleiafranca.org.br, R$90 pp Mon.–Fri., R$140 pp Sat.–Sun.), which offers trips accompanied by biologists.
During colonial times, Santa Catarina marked the frontier between Portuguese and Spanish territories. As a buffer zone without any apparent riches, the region remained undeveloped, with the exception of small villages inhabited by fishermen from the Azores. Having realized the region’s strategic importance, in the 1820s Dom Pedro II enticed immigrants from Germany, and later Italy, to settle the fertile hills and valleys of the interior.
In contrast to the vast slave-operated plantations of the Northeast, these European immigrants planted small, family-run farms that set the standard for an ethos of efficiency and egalitarianism that has lasted until today. The very visible results of this legacy are an abundance of (real) blonds as well as a general prosperity (in Brazilian terms) that is unknown in the rest of the country.
Indeed, Santa Catarina boasts one of the narrowest disparities between rich and poor in Brazil, and Florianópolis’s quality of life seduces harried middle-class Brazilians fed up with the stress and crime of cities such as Rio and São Paulo.
Coastal Santa Catarina has a subtropical Mediterranean-like climate that translates into hot humid summers and cool (as in 15°C/60°F) winters. The mountainous interior, however, is a different story, with snow being quite common in the highest areas during June and July. One word of caution: Beware of the southern winds (from down Antarctica way), which make the air temperature seem 10°C cooler.
If you’re looking for crowds and a party atmosphere (as well as high prices and temperatures), January and February are the best times to enjoy Santa Catarina’s beaches. Otherwise, try to visit during the months of November, December, March or April, when prices and temperatures decrease and you’ll have the beaches to yourself.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition