Yet there’s a chilled-out wackiness that strikes a chord with a certain kind of traveler: At the first store I walk into, the sarong-clad Argentine owner invites me to a healing ritual, and during my first sit-down interview, I’m offered a joint. The main draw of this place, however, is the wildly beautiful and unspoiled surroundings. The town (population: 7,000) is in the world’s most biologically rich savannah ecosystem, with scenery that simultaneously conjures the vast plains of Africa and the rippling mountains of Kauai. Scattered about are hundreds of waterfalls, many flowing into river pools that are warm enough to swim in and clean enough to drink from. The region’s geology also comes with the requisite mystical component: Just beneath the soil is the world’s largest crystal bed, allegedly so luminous that it’s visible from outer space. “When the astronauts looked back at Earth, they saw sparkles here,” says my guide at nearby Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park.
Some of the first outsiders to settle in the area were disciples of Osho (the Indian guru previously known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh), who established an off-the-grid commune in the early Nineties. Their remote village of huts, called Lua, is now a solar-powered retreat center, but much of the group is still around, living in larger but (mostly) ecologically correct homes closer to the town center. Over the years some São Paulo style-setters also trickled into the area, including restaurateur Paulo Maluhy, who owns the town’s best vegetarian eatery, Oca Lila, and runs the ecological foundation Oca Brasil. Except for an Eames chair or two, his haute-rustic house was built and furnished with local materials. Does he ever cheat and water his massive green lawn? “Of course not,” Maluhy says. “In the dry season it turns yellow. Okay, so enjoy yellow!”
Lately, Alto Paraíso has lured a wave of Europeans like Christof Rabanus, a German who moved here four years ago and now works as a Human Design System analyst (the discipline draws on astrology and the I Ching). He also organizes trance parties when there’s a full moon. “Whatever your trip is, whatever crazy project you’re dreaming of, you can find the freedom and space here to transform it into reality,” Rabanus says. Every morning he brings his young son to Alto Paraíso’s two-year-old alternative school, Vila Verde, “a place for people who don’t want their kids learning stuff from, you know, some nuns.”
One trait shared by almost everyone here, regardless of other predilections, is an affinity for ayahuasca, the acrid-tasting potion used to induce visions during tribal ceremonies. Legal in much of South America, where shamans hail its medicinal benefits, the drink has lately been turning up at secret sessions in Manhattan yoga studios and European retreat centers. (It’s still policed as a recreational drug in the United States.) In Alto Paraíso there’s a typically eclectic range of rituals surrounding its consumption, with some groups balancing out the beverage’s less pleasant side effects (e.g., vomiting and diarrhea) with trippy music and singing. “Drinking ayahuasca is like turning on a light in the dark room that is your brain,” says local shaman Yatra. “Suddenly you see everything that’s in the corners.” The Brazilian-born Yatra was a member of the Osho commune and lives part-time in the Netherlands. On her property here is a 150-person temple surrounded by acres of plantings, including the caapi vines used to make ayahuasca and papaya trees loaded with ripe fruit.