Three fantastic hotels are luring travelers away from the beach and into the mountains.

By Catesby Holmes
February 08, 2017
A lounge at Botanique includes a telescope for stargazing.
| Credit: André Klotz

Though last year’s Olympic Games prompted a wave of interest in Brazil, most travelers still stick to a fairly standard itinerary. But there’s more to the country than its famous coastline and cosmopolitan cities. Those willing to venture just a few hours (and many winding miles) inland from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo will discover a whole other side to this oft-pigeonholed South American nation—a lush, mountainous region of cloud-obscured peaks, cow-dotted pastureland, and pockets of the ancient Atlantic Forest.

In this scenic setting, three quietly ambitious hotels are cultivating a stylish new vision of Brazilian turismo rural—going beyond the dude-ranch-style experience with high-end amenities, farm-to-table dining, and luxury-minded nature excursions. Sylvan charm is a common factor, but delve a little deeper and each property has a distinct personality, so travelers of every stripe can find what they’re after. With the dollar going further than ever here, escaping the beaten path is remarkably affordable. And bucolic as they are, inland Brazil’s hotels aren’t just detours—check in and you’ll find they’re worthy destinations all on their own.

Reserva do Ibitipoca

Reserva do Ibitipoca’s resident parrot.
| Credit: André Klotz

Even intrepid drivers will have to white-knuckle it down the rutted, 15-mile dirt-and-brick road from Lima Duarte, but it’s worth it to reach Reserva do Ibitipoca, which sits in a valley on a nature reserve four hours northwest of Rio. Modeled after an 18th-century mansão de fazenda, or farm manor, the 12-room eco-retreat strikes a balance between historic charm and modern luxury. The hallways and public spaces are adorned with works commissioned from local artists—replicas of old maps and watercolors of indigenous flora—while rooms feature Egyptian-cotton linens, claw-foot tubs on heated bathroom floors, and iPads preloaded with the spa menu and pictures of the endangered monkeys that live nearby.

Here, sustainability is more than just a buzzword: solar panels heat the water, and much of the food is grown on site. But the hotel’s cofounder, philanthropist Renato Machado, has a larger mission. He bought the first parcel of the farmstead—now 10,000 acres—35 years ago to reforest the Ibitipoca hills and preserve wildlife corridors linking the terrain to the neighboring Ibitipoca State Park. In 2008, he opened the hotel to showcase the region’s beauty. Machado is invested in the social and economic health of the community, too: three longtime staffers are now co-owners of the property.

The state of Minas Gerais is a rural one known for its hospitality and hearty food—the Brazilian analogue of the American South. Ibitipoca exemplifies this spirit with group outings on horseback and morning yoga classes that cultivate a sense of community among guests. Dinner is also convivial, served at a communal table in the wood-clad dining room or by candlelight outdoors. Musical performances fill weekend evenings. Even António, the resident parrot, is friendly, greeting new arrivals with an outstretched wing. Still, there’s plenty of time and impetus for solo reverie—I got lost in thought while reading to a soundtrack of crickets on the wraparound porch. Guests seeking true solitude can stay a night at the hotel’s mountain-top cabin. Doubles from $500.

Fazenda Catuçaba

Left: The patio at Fazenda Catuçaba. Right: Harvesting vegetables from the property’s garden.
| Credit: André Klotz

Rusticity is its own sort of luxury at Fazenda Catuçaba, which dispenses with traditional service and modern conveniences (say goodbye to Internet, TV, and cell reception) in favor of more soul-satisfying immersion in nature.

Arriving at this mid-19th-century farmstead just over 100 miles from São Paulo, I was treated as an old friend who’d come to stay awhile: warmly welcomed (with fresh-squeezed juice), escorted to one of five simple but elegant blue-and-white cottages (some with fireplaces, all with mountain views), provided a menu of activities (hiking, rock climbing, rain-forest tours, milking the cows), informed of dinnertime (8:30 p.m.), and then left to my own devices. The food, much of which comes from the Fazenda’s organic gardens, is unpretentious, flavorful, vegetable-centric, and delivered without fanfare, accompanied by French wines. The staff is local, and they’ll happily help you if you need them—sometimes the service is downright exceptional, like when they whipped up and served me a lavish mid-hike picnic in the woods.

The reading room at Fazenda Catuçaba, in the Brazilian state of São Paulo.
| Credit: André Klotz

This level of serenity and independence may not be for everyone, but it’s a true escape for, say, honeymooners or anyone who could use some forced relaxation and time unplugged. The real world has rarely felt so far away as it does in the rhythms of life here: a steamy hike followed by a dip in a cool lake, a trek on horseback through magnificent mountain terrain, a cold glass of Alsatian white at sunset, and, at the end of the day, retiring to a spacious, minimalist room with a king-size bed and soaking tub. Catuçaba is about connecting—with nature, with friends, with yourself. Eventually, sans smartphone and Netflix, in your wooden chaise longue encircled by emerald hills and crowing roosters, that’s exactly what you’ll do. Doubles from $940.

Botanique Hotel & Spa

Left: A woodstove in Reserva do Ibitipoca’s main dining room. Right: Botanique’s library.
| Credit: André Klotz

When it opened a few years back, Botanique quickly became a high-fashion destination, drawing socialites and celebrities to the Mantiqueira Mountains with promises of relaxation, anonymity, and haute cuisine.

These days, the vibe is intentionally lower-key (though many well-heeled São Paulo residents still arrive by helicopter—otherwise it’s a two-hour drive). The service, however, remains as superb as ever, with a staff who pride themselves on predicting guests’ every whim. Local spirits were arranged on the bureau before I’d even thought to reach for a drink. Breakfast in bed was by design rather than special request. The modern glass-and-stone building’s 17 guest rooms are expansive and luminous, with floor-to-ceiling windows, white cowhide rugs on reclaimed-wood floors, and accent walls of rough-hewn boulders. Bathrooms are decked out with Brazilian chocolate slate and claw-foot tubs, and clever design details—like the one-way screens that allow guests to have both privacy and uninterrupted views—are a signature.

The real centerpiece, though, is the 9,700- square-foot spa, where a glass-walled sauna overlooks the valley floor almost a mile below. A saltwater hot tub mimics the effects of a soak in the Dead Sea, and many treatments incorporate native ingredients, like the mineral-rich mud from neighboring Minas Gerais that’s used in a full-body exfoliating scrub.

A wellness focus too often implies skimpy spa cuisine, but the food here rivals many São Paulo restaurants. That’s thanks to chef Gabriel Broide, who lights up talking about foraging in the jungle for new plants and pushing local cheese makers to experiment. His enthusiasm comes through in dishes like a velvety sous vide brook trout or Black Angus ribs served with roasted hearts of palm and fresh-banana vinaigrette. Word has it there are horses, a hiking trail, and a waterfall you can pedal to on one of the hotel’s mountain bikes. But with pampering like this, you’d be forgiven for never going outside. Doubles from $460.