“Open your mind and your heart to hear the transcendental spirits,” the voice says. “The spirits know everything you need to complete your mission here.”
I’m in a log-cabin temple on a dirt road in central Brazil—one that’s decorated with massive electric candelabra, mirrored columns, and brightly colored portraits of celestial deities. The speaker, a divine entity named Catarina of the Waterfalls, is not physically present in the room, but we’re conversing through a medium, one of two dozen men and women channeling spirits while dressed in hooded capes and cropped vests adorned with crescent moons. It’s all part of a nighttime ritual of Vale do Amanhecer, a Brazilian sect inspired by mystical beings, extraterrestrials, and Jesus Christ.
In most parts of the world, this ceremony would appeal only to confirmed cultists, but here in the small town of Alto Paraíso, it’s one of the more conventional ways to spend a Wednesday evening. Alto Paraíso, a far-out wonderland in a lush and remote pocket of the state of Goiás, is a veritable mecca for spiritual seekers and neo-hippies; it’s also Brazil’s unlikeliest new hot spot. A fresh bunch of eco-pilgrims, many with unexpectedly glamorous pedigrees, are settling in to feel the good vibrations.
One recent arrival is Sean Gabriel Souza, the 27-year-old son of social fixtures Carlos Souza and Charlene Shorto de Ganay. You might expect that Souza, who as a child spent vacations on Valentino’s yacht, would be more of a Saint-Tropez kind of guy. But a few years ago he came to Alto Paraíso for a quick visit and ended up spending five months, captivated equally by the waterfalls and the shamanic ceremonies. “It was magnetic,” Souza says. Last year he and his friend Cristoforo Gaetani, a musician and scion of a prominent Italian aristocratic clan, bought land, where they plan to build a center for ecological land use and holistic therapy.
“We both wanted to live sustainable lives,” Gaetani says over a bowl of acai at the scruffy café next to Alto Paraíso’s bus station. “You know, to eat the food we plant, put our waste back into the soil, and harmonize with the cycles of nature.” Gaetani is a handsome 26-year-old whose open manner and loose cotton clothing lend him the air of an off-duty yoga instructor. We hop into his pickup truck so he can show me his plant nursery—actually the overgrown backyard of a man who just sold him 1,000 seedlings for an agroforestry project. “Lots of people are coming here now,” he says, “to focus on the simple, beautiful, idealistic stuff that should be normal, but isn’t.”
With a name like Alto Paraíso (High Paradise), this town has a lot to live up to, and its appeal is initially difficult to grasp. On the main street, the vibe is hippie-chic minus the chic: Stray dogs scratch themselves on muddy sidewalks in front of shops selling crystals and incense of the gypsy-fair variety. Unlike such better-known Brazilian boho retreats as Trancoso and Lençóis, Alto Paraíso is in the earliest stages of a boom, so it’s still lacking in hip hotels, atmospheric cafés, and Osklen boutiques.