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Best day trips from Rio

By Joe Robinson, for CNN
May 22, 2014 -- Updated 0540 GMT (1340 HKT)
Famous for its colorful and splendidly preserved colonial architecture, the town of Paraty is a flashback to 17th-century Brazil. Famous for its colorful and splendidly preserved colonial architecture, the town of Paraty is a flashback to 17th-century Brazil.
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Paraty
No cars allowed
Festival central
Ilha Grande
Atlantic Forest
Buzios
Beach playground
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • No cars are allowed on the tropical island of Ilha Grande
  • Colonial town of Paraty is famous for colorful and well preserved colonial architecture
  • Buzios offers a bevy of choice beaches and nightlife options

(CNN) -- From waterfalls in a forest to the beach haunts of movie stars, a number of scenic day trips are just a few hours' journey from Rio de Janeiro.

Introducing three of the most popular day trips from the city: the tropical island of Ilha Grande, the splendidly preserved 17th-century colonial town of Paraty and the fishing-village-turned-beach-hotspot of Buzios.

Ilha Grande

With its hiking trails and isolated beaches, this tropical island and former pirate roost makes for a perfect downshift from the buzz of Rio.

Its dense forests have changed little since it served as a base for smugglers and adventurers a few centuries ago.

A two-and-a-half hour trip from Rio, the tiny hamlet's business these days is ecotourism.

Prior to that it was a fishing port and the site of a prison torn down in the 1950s.

Cars are banned on the island and the focus is on human-powered transit -- hiking, kayaking, swimming.

Boats and schooners can be rented for trips to several superb beaches on the island.

Trails spanning 150 kilometers wend through forests that are home to a number of endangered species, from the maned sloth to the brown howler monkey.

The trail to one of the peaks on the island, Pico do Papagaio, offers a rare, close look at what remains of an Atlantic Forest.

The island's most popular beach, Lopes Mendes, turns up regularly on roundups of top Brazilian beaches. Getting there requires a taking a boat or schooner to a 20-minute trail through the jungle.

Other beautiful beaches to check out include Lagoa Azul and Lagoa Verde.

The official Ilha Grande website has information on transportation, accommodations, tours and services.

READ: Insider Guide: Best of Rio

Paraty is known for its well preserved colonial architecture.
Paraty is known for its well preserved colonial architecture.

Paraty

A four-hour trip west from Rio on the scenic Costa Verde, Paraty is a time capsule of colonial-era Brazil, with cobblestone streets and wood-beamed architecture.

A former distribution center for the gold mines of nearby Minas Gerais, the town was shaped by the gold trade, which died out in the late 1800s.

The town's well-preserved past and fine restaurants, cafes, music and festivals have made it a tourist attraction and cultural hub.

Its vibrant festival season runs late spring to early summer.

The medieval Festa do Divino Espirito Santo is held around May 30 (50 days after Easter).

The cowboy country-style Sao Joao Festival, celebrated throughout Brazil, kicks off festivities June 24. The San Antonio Festival is on June 13 and San Pedro is on June 29.

Located near 300 beaches and 65 islands, the town is a great base camp for exploring neighboring areas.

The official Paraty website has information on transportation, accommodations, tours and services.

READ: Powerful flavor: Rio's incredible juice bars

Buzios

A resort getaway a few hours east of Rio, Buzios is one of Brazil's top beach playgrounds.

It became popular with the jet set thanks to Brigitte Bardot in the 1960s, when the French actress became a regular at what was then just a small fishing village.

In recognition of her role in putting the place on the map, one of the streets is named for her -- Orla Bardot -- as well as a movie theater.

Since those days, the village has grown to become a major beach destination for travelers around the world.

The cosmopolitan resort now attracts a wide range of visitors, from surfers to honeymooners to the St. Tropez set.

READ: World's 12 sexiest accents

The town's cobblestone main drag, Rua das Pedras, has a roaring nightlife scene, with restaurants, bars and clubs lining the road.

The main attractions in Buzios are the beaches -- the resort is situated on a peninsula that has 23 of them.

Windsurfers frequent the windy eastern side, while tranquil coves for snorkeling and diving can be found on the calmer western side, especially the languid waters of Azeda beach..

The most popular surf spot is Geriba, home of wind-blown surf and flanked by bars, cafes and partyers.

Kite surfers and windsurfers head to Ferradura and Ferradinho.

Lessons are available for everything from surfing to diving.

READ: Samba central: Moving to the rhythms of Rio's Lapa district

Accommodations range from high end Casas Brancas (typically reached by private transfer from Rio de Janeiro; +55 22 2623 1458; $450 per night) to budget pousadas such as Vila Pitanga (Rua G4 no. 6, Praia da Ferradura, Búzios; +55 22 2623 7512; $77 per night).

All three destinations are within easy reach of Rio de Janeiro by car or bus from Rio via BR 101.

The bus station for Paraty, Ilha Grande and Buzios is the Novo Rio station.

For Buzios, the route runs across the bay to Niteroi and from there on BR 101 to BR 124 at Rio Bonita and then BR 106.

Author of the book "Work to Live," Joe Robinson has written for numerous publications including the Los Angeles Times. He's traveled extensively in Brazil.

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