Experience Small-Town Brazil in Cunha,
A Colorful Village In The Paraíba Valley
Experience Small-Town Brazil in Cunha, A Colorful Village In The Paraíba Valley
Published August 6, 2020
I’m of the opinion that we travelers haven’t fully experienced a country, state, or province until we’ve seen both its urban centers and its rural districts. This is especially true of São Paulo, Brazil: the city itself and the surrounding countryside are two completely separate worlds. If you’re interested in visiting South America’s largest metropolitan area and you plan on staying more than a week, I highly recommend spending some time outside city limits.
Although there are dozens of interesting towns and cities within a three-hour driving radius of São Paulo, Cunha (pronounced “Kun-ya” or “Cuña”) is perhaps my favorite I’ve been to so far. This little village of only 22,000 residents is surrounded by rolling hills on all sides, and its best feature is undoubtedly its jaw-dropping landscape. Another interesting thing about this region is its similarity to the American West, complete with locals wearing cowboy hats and the occasional person going about their business on horseback.
In this post, I’ll feature some of the highlights of Cunha’s town center. Many of the nearby attractions require an afternoon or day trip further into the countryside, so I’ll dedicate another post to those activities, which you can check out here! Otherwise, read on to learn about the town of Cunha’s points of interest!
If your idea of a perfect vacation is spending hours a day exploring on foot and taking pictures, then Cunha is the destination for you! As you can probably tell already, the town is very hilly, so keep that in mind. However, the valleys make for some amazing panoramic views and many vantage points offer miles of visibility.
One of the main reasons Cunha is so beautiful is because it’s surrounded by hills on all sides. There is an incredible variety in the topography, with some sections being covered by forests and others with wide open fields. Since logging appears to be a major industry here, I can’t claim that the landscapes are completely “natural,” but they are still breathtaking regardless.
Although the mountains surrounding Cunha are incredible, the other piece of the puzzle is the town’s traditional architecture. Specifically, the houses have an almost-European style to them, and many of them have beautiful pastel colors and iconic red tile rooftops. From a distance, a cluster of houses on a hillside come together to form a burst of yellows, blues, pinks, and reds that stand out against the duller browns and greens of the terrain.
Where to see the best views
In my opinion, some of the best views can be seen from this little section of Road 459 (on the southern end of town looking north), from the northern end of Rua Alcides Barbeta that turns into Rua Sete, and from Alameda Francisco da Cunha Menezes (a view of the ranches directly to the north and northeast of town). However, this is definitely not an exhaustive list!
Old VW Beetles
A blog post about Cunha wouldn’t be complete without a mention of arguably the city’s most unique cultural icon: old-school Volkswagen beetles! According to one article, there are about 1,300 VW vehicles in the city (one for every 17 residents).
You can’t really walk for more than a few minutes without crossing paths with one, and in the vast majority of cases, they look pretty old (on the order of decades). The article mentioned above claims that there is no verifiable reason this particular car is so popular here, but it suggests that perhaps the car’s durability makes it ideal for the steep inclines in the city as well as the dirt roads surrounding the town.
You’ll also notice that Cunha has dozens if not hundreds of small auto repair shops. Given how old all the cars seem to be here, it makes sense that they would all need constant maintenance!
Cunha has three prominent churches: the Igreja do Rosário e São Benedito, the Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Conceição, and the Igreja Metodista Central em Cunha. They are all pretty standard as far as Brazilian churches go. Nonetheless, I always like checking out churches when I’m traveling, especially in small towns.
Igreja do Rosário e São Benedito
Luckily, all three churches in town are within just a ten or fifteen minute walk of each other. This one, located furthest north, is clearly the oldest. I would’ve loved to see its interior, but it was never open to visitors whenever I walked by.
Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Conceição
This church located in the main town square serves as a center point for Cunha. It is usually open for visitors during the day, but unfortunately the altar had a bunch of scaffolding on it, so my pictures of the inside aren’t great.
Also known as the “Mother Church,” this memorable yellow, blue, and white structure is surrounded by restaurants, cafes, and shops on all sides. It’s basically impossible to miss.
Igreja Metodista Central em Cunha
Only a short walk south of the main town square, this church doesn’t appear to be nearly as old as the two mentioned above, but I still enjoy its simple yet elegant architecture.
The Town Market
While you’re in the center of town, be sure to visit the Mercado Municipal de Cunha. They offer fresh produce, honey, cachaça (a Brazilian spirit used to make caipirinhas), souvenirs, and fresh fish. I’m willing to bet that you won’t leave empty-handed even if you only go in to browse!
Restaurants in Cunha offer excellent home-style traditional Brazilian fare. It is hard to go wrong, but here are some of the places I liked most.
This was one of my favorite places because it offered Brazilian dishes like rice and beans, roast chicken, and other treats. Casarão also has a huge salad bar, so I would always go whenever I felt like I needed a big serving of veggies.
Restaurante Dona Dita
This restaurant offered a combo lunch for a great price of only 15 BRL (approx. 3 USD as of August 2020). Dona Dita is both delicious and budget-friendly.
Restaurante Jeca Grill
At a price of only 12 BRL for a full plate of food, Jeca Grill offers even more bang for your buck than Dona Dita. If you choose to dine in, there is a semi-outdoor seating area in the back that was well-ventilated and well-lit.
Quintal da Cau
Unlike the three restaurants mentioned above, Quintal da Cau is a few blocks away from the main square. It also offers a lunch combo for a similar price (15 BRL), and the chicken I got there was so tender and juicy! This eatery is located at the bottom of a hill, but the delicious food and good service are worth the short leg workout.
On the southern edge of town is Veríssima, which has a very classy ambiance and a semi-outdoor dining room. I decided to try a passion fruit cocktail, appetizer of locally-grown mushrooms, and a portafoglio de mignon with brie cheese, which was two thinly sliced pieces of beef with cheese inside, lightly fried. Everything was excellent; if you want to splurge a bit (approx. 25 USD per person), this is the place to go.
This bar is associated with a brewery in town of the same name. Housed in the same location as another restaurant called Il Pumo, Bar Reale has a unique vibe as well as a very friendly owner. It’s a bit pricey, but definitely one of the higher-end places near the main square.
Bethlehem Cozinha Artesanal
I have to admit, I was intrigued by this restaurant’s unique name (Bethlehem Artisanal Kitchen). Located on the western edge of town, Bethlehem is also a bit of a splurge (approx. 20 to 25 USD per person), but everything I ordered was excellent. I decided to try a cold vegetable soup appetizer that was very refreshing followed by a filet mignon smothered in house sauce served with risotto de alho poró. The sauce had just a hint of sweetness to it that balanced all the flavors of this rich meal perfectly.
The other interesting thing about Bethlehem Artisanal Kitchen is its beautiful main dining room overlooking Cunha in the valley to the east. The sky roof, which was built to accommodate a tree growing through it, makes this dining space especially bright and memorable.
Even if perishable items might not make the best gifts to bring back home, don’t let that stop you from trying some for yourself! The farmer’s market mentioned above is a great place to browse, but many stores offer local products like honey, pickled peppers, spices, coffee, and local beer and spirits. If nothing else, they’re great to just have at home as snack options!
Final notes on restaurants
Cunha doesn’t really have anything resembling international cuisine. Restaurant hours also seem to be a bit scattershot, so I’d recommend being flexible and checking beforehand if there’s a place you really want to try. Most diners (and stores) are closed on Sundays; I’d recommend picking up groceries on Saturday afternoon just to be safe. Finally, Cunha is not home to any fast food chains (as far as I can tell). Embrace it and support one of the many small businesses here instead!
Cunha is home to a number of different industries, including car maintenance (to keep all those old VWs on the road, I assume), lumber, farming, and ranching.
However, the industry that translates most readily into gifts and souvenirs is pottery. A lot of ceramic artists are based in Cunha, and many of them produce small pieces that make great gifts. I highly recommend checking out Casa do Artesão (Craftsman House), a huge gift shop that sells dozens of artists’ work for good prices.
There also appear to be a lot of smaller boutique shops along Rua Alcides Barbeta on the western edge of town.
As mentioned at the beginning of this post, a lot of the attractions near Cunha are far enough away that you’re going to need to hire a taxi to get to them. During my time here, I visited a couple of waterfalls, a lavender farm, and a nearby city, which you can read about here. Don’t forget about these options when planning a trip!
So... Is There Anything to Actually Do in Cunha?
If you’ve read this far and are thinking to yourself that Cunha doesn’t seem to have very much to do, I’d actually agree. This quiet yet picturesque village is not probably not the place to go if you’re looking for a very exhilarating vacation. With that said, Cunha is very atmospheric, and in my opinion, the landscapes more than make up for any lack of activities to do.
Since I’ve accidentally stumbled into the life of a digital nomad this year thanks in part to COVID-19, I’ll mention that Cunha is the perfect place for an extended stay for travelers working remotely. My Airbnb host warned that the WiFi here can be spotty, but I had a good connection almost the entire time I was there (for about a month). Just to be safe, I can always use a mobile hotspot in a pinch (and cell service is good where I stayed, although it cuts out completely once you leave town). To browse Airbnb listings in Cunha (or anywhere else), feel free to use the widget below!
Cunha is basically halfway between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro: about three or four hours to both cities by car. Although it’s not the closest or most convenient town to either major city, the views here are definitely worth the drive. Would you dedicate three days of a two-week trip to Brazil to check it out? Have you ever been to Cunha? Let me know in the comments below! Thanks for reading, stay safe and healthy, and have a great day, guys!
This post was published on Aug 6, 2020