Brazil may have wide beaches and narrow bikinis that engorge the popular imagination, but reducing the country to the sandy and the sunny does a disservice to the verdant, diverse nation. Brazil is as much its farms and galleries as it is Rio or sleepy Itacare. This is the realization that drove French-born, London-made banker Emmanuel Rengade to turn an old farmhouse near the colonial town of Luiz do Paraitinga into a soulful small hotel surrounded by a Storm King-style art park.
Fazenda Catuçaba squats in the remote, rural farmlands about two hours from São Paulo. The straight-faced structure celebrates the best of rustic Brazil, a place where luxury is – as Rengade puts it – "about keeping it as simple as possible; about peace, tranquility, space, preserved nature, and an authentic smile."
He bought the property as a farm (fazenda is Portuguese for "farm") to supply the restaurant at Pousada Picinguaba in 2008, but Rengade saw the potential the 1850s house and its attendant 19th-century workers' cottages had as a getaway. He promptly turned them into a 10-room hotel with a low-fi, high-end model: stripped-down decor, homemade cakes in the sitting room, and no internet or cell service. Outside, acres of quiet, untouched land wait to be strolled or explored on horseback. The fecund Parque Estadual da Serra do Mar sprawls just across the property line so more active guests can spend the day rafting or ziplining with local outfitters like Cia De Rafting.
During our stay, guests included wealthy Paulistas up for a long weekend, German grad students on a gap year, and a glamorous French couple celebrating an anniversary. Rengade's high-level connections figure in as well; New York-based installation artist Pasha Radetzki was so smitten that he became a sometime artist in residence and unofficial ambassador. The vibe is stubbornly unpretentious, despite the fabulous guests.
Still, the artists have left their mark. Radetzki created a series of geometric pieces of land art, designed to resemble doors, opening to reveal Brazil's heartland. One, near the top of the 450-hectare property, is so stunning that the hotel ferries guests up rutted roads – along with a fair amount of cheese and rosé from Provence – to watch the sunset nearby. Brazil's Cantana brothers recently created a 700-square-foot "bamboo cathedral," ideal for capoeira practice, to the collection and architect Marcio Kogan expanded the property by designing several self-sustaining eco-villas.
Despite the art world flash, Fazenda Catuçaba is designed to be a small operation: The new villas won't be publicly listed, just sold to Rengade's like-minded friends. The idea is that the farm will become a community where guests, homeowners, and artists can dispense with pre-existing notions about both each other and Brazil.
More information: The drive from Sao Paulo northeast along Via Dutra leads through thick forest. Take the turn toward Sao Luiz de Paraitinga and linger in the town to take in the lovely architecture before heading into the hills.