Guarujá, on Santo Amaro Island, has a decades-long history in intense tourism. The city with a population of about 291,000 receives about 2 million tourists a year.
With 23 kilometers (about 14 miles) of beaches, preserved patches of rainforest, good spots for surfing and paragliding, a great aquarium - the Acqua Mundo - and busy nightlife, the city is a favorite day and weekend getaway for São Paulo residents: less than 60 miles separate the two cities. Many paulistanos own vacation houses in condos in Guarujá and keep them available for rentals during part of the year, which helps make the city a top family travel destination in São Paulo State.
A Top Beach Destination Near São Paulo
The island occupied by Guarujá resembles the shape of a dragon; the city's administration has departed from that trait to organize the Dragon Routes (Rotas do Dragao), in a partnership with the Guarujá Convention & Visitors Bureau, Guarujá Tourism Council and the Santos and Region Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The routes including attractions "from the dragon's head to tail" can be covered in a time range from three to nine hours. The official Dragon Routes website, though only available in Portuguese as of this writing, has a great downloadable map with easy-to-understand icons.
Where to Stay
Following the locals' example and going to Guarujá for the weekend has become a more attractive option for international travelers in São Paulo since the opening of the Sofitel Jequitimar Guarujá, a destination in itself on Pernambuco, one of the city's most attractive beaches.
Take a break from the demands of business travel at this seafront getaway with a fantastic spa.
Another top choice is the Casa Grande Hotel Resort & Spa on Enseada (photo), the beach with the highest number of hotels and restaurants. Though Guarujá hasn't kept up with other Brazil beach towns in the growth of charming pousadas and boutique hotels, you can find nice accommodations in a wide range of prices.
Where to Eat
The finest restaurant is Les Épices at the Sofitel Jequitimar Guarujá. Thai, at the Casa Grande Hotel Resort & Spa; Monte Carlo (varied food, Astúrias) and Rufino's (seafood, Enseada) are other good options.
Look for the local specialty, marisco lambe-lambe, shellfish in a wine and tomato sauce, at Dalmo Bárbaro (Av. Miguel Stefano 4751, Enseada) and Joca (Road to Bertioga, km 12).
The holidays - New Year's Eve and, to a lesser extent, Christmas - are peak moments in the high season. The city has great fireworks shows for Réveillon and extends the celebrations with Verão Show, a summer festival with shows on New Year's Eve and more concerts in January.
In mid-July 2011, the city hosted the 2nd Winter Festival, with free music on Pitangueiras Beach and at the La Plage mall, and the 4th Pizza Festival. Guarujá and Santos had their first Restaurant Week in April/May 2011 and every spring (usually September or October) there is also a local culinary festival.
Santo Amaro Island, then called Guaibê by the indigenous inhabitants, received a colonizing expedition in 1502, two years after Brazil was discovered by the Portuguese. The colonizers founded São Vicente, across the water, but it took a long time till the island became more densely populated.
In 1892, pre-built structures in Georgia pine were purchased from the United States for a starter village: one hotel, one church, one casino and 46 homes. Barges transported passengers between the island and the Santos-Jundiaí Railway in Santos.
The city's first hotel was destroyed by a fire; a new one built in its place lasted until the early 1910s.
The opening of Via Anchieta in the 1940s and of Imigrantes in 1976; and an improperly planned real estate boom in the 1970s and 1980s, which the city has been trying to counteract with sustainable actions, are important moments in the city's history as a major tourist destination.
How to Get to Guarujá
Plan your trip so that you can avoid monster traffic jams on Anchieta and Imigrantes. If traveling for the holidays, consider extending your stay.
By Bus: From S. Paulo, daily direct buses to Guarujá run all day from the Jabaquara Station, at the southern end of the subway's Blue Line. Ultra and Rápido Brasil are some of the companies operating the route.
By Ferry Boat from Santos: The Santos-Guarujá ferry boat carries about 40 cars and the crossing lasts about 10 minutes. Take it at Praça Almirante Gago Coutinho in Santos and at Av. Ademar de Barros 3300 in Guarujá.
By Ferry Boat from Bertioga: At the opposite end of the island. As on the Santos ferry boat, pedestrians, bikes, motorbikes, cars and pickup trucks are allowed.
By Car: Though generally well-kept, Imigrantes and Anchieta pose challenges such as reckless drivers and heavy trucks (some of the worst risks of driving in Brazil), and some specific aggravating factors - many curves and frequent fog.
The Anchieta-Imigrantes system is managed by Ecovias. The company has emergency telephones at 1-kilometer intervals along the roads, from which drivers can call for roadside assistance and medical help (ambulances and one mobile IC unit are available).
Best Time to Visit
Fall, especially April-June, is less rainy, less crowded and yet likely to be warm enough for pleasant, sweatshirt-free beach going.
Secretaria de Turismo e Central de Informações Turísticas Pitangueiras
Avenida Marechal Deodoro da Fonseca 723 - Centro - Guarujá
Guarujá Convention & Visitors Bureau
Guarujá Beaches: Pitangueiras
Pitangueiras, about 1.8-kilometer (1.1-mile) long, with Astúrias to the west and Enseada to the east, is Guarujá's central beach. It has a boulevard and lifeguard stations with showers.
Residential buildings dominate the landscape; however, you can find a couple of hotels here - the Ferraretto and Casarão Pitangueiras.
Some of the best places to eat are in the city's mall - Shopping La Plage, which has several snack bars and fast food (McDonald's, Burger King) as well as branches of fine stores such as Arezzo. The mall usually has special activities for kids, especially in the high season.
Guarujá Beaches: Pernambuco
Pernambuco has especially attractive features in its sandbar separating it from lush Mar Casado ("Married Sea") Beach, its clean sands, the view of islands (including Arvoredo Island, a nature preserve) and the gardens belonging to the Sofitel Jequitimar Guarujá. When the tide rises, the shoal is covered and the two neighboring beaches become one sublime stretch of coast.
Opened in 2006, the hotel dominates the hospitality scene with its comforts and events, including special dinners and festivals at Les Épices - the finest place to eat in the region. It is also a top choice for romantic getaways.
The beach is good for surfing and bodyboarding.
Guarujá Beaches: Praia do Tombo
Less than a kilometer long, Praia do Tombo (the name indicates its sudden drop-off) is one of the best in Guarujá for surfing. The area has some casual pousadas, such as Bella Mare and Praia do Tombo.
In the 2012/2013, for the third consecutive season, Praia do Tombo was certified by Denmark-based Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) with the Blue Flag, a symbol of the beach's alignment with the foundation's parameters for water and coastal quality, environmental education and information, safety, services, and infrastructure.
The beach scored 32 of the Foundation's 33 criteria, which means it aced them since the 33rd parameter, related to the presence of coral reefs, doesn't apply to Tombo.
The blue flag was flown between the Andradas Fort and the Morro da Caixa D’Água Lookout Point.
Other Beaches in Guarujá
Though Guarujá is highly touristic, it's possible to get away from the crowds and find beaches where nature is still untouched. Timing, of course, has everything to do with your chances of finding peace and solitude - waking up early and traveling in the low season help. Avoid being completely alone; ask for receptive tour tips at the Tourist Information Center in Pitangueiras (Avenida Marechal Deodoro da Fonseca 723 - phone: 55-13-33444600).
Bring mosquito repellent - as on all Southeast Brazil beaches near tropical forest, you are likely to run into borrachudos, small and voracious.
Praia Branca, at the end of the trail starting near the Bertioga ferry boat; Eden (reached via 100-plus steps down a steep little hill) and Sorocotuba; São Pedro, Iporanga, Pinheiro, all with high-end houses and restricted access to cars; and Camburi, with access by trail from Preta, are good local beaches for surfing, bodyboarding and enjoying nature.
São Pedro, Iporanga, and Pinheiro are aligned with Estrada Parque da Serra do Guararu, or the Guararu Range Park Road. This ecological preserve spreads from Kilometer 8 to Kilometer 22 of SP-61, the road from central Guarujá to the Bertioga ferry boat, and shelters a remnant of Atlantic Rain Forest. Protection of the area is a partnership between Sociedade Amigos da Prainha Branca, a local NGO, and the SOS Mata Atlântica Foundation.
Things to Do in Guarujá
Sequence of Beaches in Guarujá
From Santos to Bertioga, here's a summary of the main beaches to visit on the island.
Surrounded by lush hills, near the town center, and a good place for kids with its calm waters, Guaiúba does get crowded in the summer, but it's a peaceful getaway in the off-season.
One of the best beaches for surfing and bodyboarding. In the high season, beware of surf injuries and crowd control.
The tall residential buildings and the fishermen's boats create a photogenic effect; you can see Pitangueiras and Enseada from here.
Central, with good infrastructure, Pitangueiras is therefore one of the most crowded beaches in Guarujá.
The seven-kilometer-long beach has most of the city's hotels, restaurants, bars, kiosks, New Year's Eve fireworks, a cycling lane, lifeguard stations with showers - and lots and lots of fellow beach goers to keep you company in the holidays and the high season. At one end, Morro do Maluf (Maluf Hill), with paragliders, is one of the best lookout points on the island.
This tiny, precious prize at the bottom of a steep hill with 110 steps has clear waters and a beautiful pile of boulders at one end.
Beautiful and clean enough to hold the visitor's attention and home to the Sofitel's top comforts, Pernambuco is about five miles from central Guarujá.
Perequê is a common tupi-guarani toponym meaning "place where the fish come in". The beach is still one of the best places in Guarujá to experience a bit of the daily routine of authentic caiçaras, native fishermen of the southeastern and upper southern coast.
- São Pedro
What a place to own real estate - as of this writing, a five-bedroom, seven-bathroom house with an infinity-edge pool in the gated community at São Pedro Beach is selling for nearly R$5 million. The waves are good for surfing, the native vegetation is preserved, the sands are fluffy and clean at this beach located at KM 16.8 of the Guarujá-Bertioga. The parking lot for non-residents has a capacity for about 90 cars and stays open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. only.
Lined with trees which partially hide mansions, Iporanga has clean, dark sands, calm waters, and a small waterfall. Access, available to non-residents of the namesake community only from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., is at KM 17.5 of the Guarujá-Bertioga. Iporanga and a few other attractive beaches on the island can be reached by motorboat from Enseada with Aquilla Maris.
A deserted surfing point, Camburi, about 29 kilometers from central Guarujá, can be reached by a trail from neighboring Praia Preta.
Pristine, with rough waves, Preta lures surfers and beach lovers willing to walk about 30 minutes across the woods from the road to Bertioga. The sand is dark - hence the name - but very, very clean.
The trail (about a 20-minute walk) leads into Branca, with its light-colored sand and surfing.
Other Fun Things to Do in Guarujá
You've gone to the beach, what next? Acqua Mundo, said to be the largest aquarium in South America, has about 8,000 animals. The penguin area and an 800,000-liter saltwater exhibit with sharks are top attractions.
Fortaleza de Santo Amaro da Barra Grande, built in the 16th century, was used to defend the coast from Dutch and French attacks. The fortress can be visited by appointment. The tourism program is managed by NECOM, which prepares local youth to work as fort tour guides. Call for more information.
One of the best trails on the island is the one from the Bertioga ferry boat pier to Praia Branca, a 20-minute walk.
When the temperature rises, so does the night vibe. Vive La Vie, Target at the Delphin Hotel and the seasonal club at the Casa Grande Hotel Resort & Spa are some of the options for the alta temporada (high season).