In Alto Paraíso it’s easy to see why so many of South America’s indigenous cultures consider nature and spirituality to be essentially the same thing. With some of the cleanest air and purest water on the continent, this is the kind of place that could make a tree hugger out of Joan Rivers. It’s hard not to meditate while you’re staring at a 390-foot waterfall that you have all to yourself, and it’s hard not to want to save the planet while you’re eating a perfectly ripe mango that you’ve just found next to a stream as a wild toucan watches you from the tree’s upmost branch.
These attractions are what convinced Sahar Farmanfarmaian, a Swiss-educated descendant of Iran’s Qajar dynasty, to abandon Manhattan and Goa for Alto Paraíso, where she now lives full-time with Gaetani. Although she still loves India, she says, “It’s so dirty, I would never sit in nature, you know? I’m always like, Ick! Alto Paraíso is the place where I’ve felt closest to Mother Earth.” Farmanfarmaian recently built a large villa near town, where she often hosts dinners for 40; her mother and aunt have also bought property in the area.
Still, despite the influx of fancy foreigners, Alto Paraíso is a long way from Bridgehampton: I got stuck behind a herd of cattle on my way to lunch at the horse farm of Marcia Barata, a onetime São Paulo socialite and handbag designer who lives alone with her snake, iguana, cats, pit bulls, and flock of rescued parrots. Barata comes to the door in a floor-length tie-dyed dress and shows me around while her houseboy prepares jumbo caipiroskas. “I was never like my friends in São Paulo,” she says. “They were always like, ‘You are a hippie!’” Barata bought her place five years ago from a Brazilian army colonel and his wife, who confided that aliens had implanted a microchip in her hand after landing their spaceship near the property.
By my third day in Alto Paraíso, I no longer find it unusual when someone is introduced to me at lunch as a shaman, or when a new acquaintance greets me with “namaste” instead of “hello.” I also develop a tolerance for organic okra, first sampled at a house party where, before sitting down for lunch at 5:30 p.m., we watched a dreadlocked circus teacher named André juggle crystal balls.
As you’d guess, Alto Paraíso has its problems, some more serious than others. There is a surplus of ayurveda experts and Reiki practitioners attracted by the healing energies but still waiting for the therapist-client ratio to tilt in their favor. And there’s the predictable overload of conspiracy theorists and unwashed rebels without a cause. “In a town like this you are always going to find people who are lost,” says dancer-filmmaker-healer Kathi von Koerber, who lives here part-time with her partner, Colombian shaman Hernando Villa. “They don’t know why they’re there. They’re just there.” Brazil’s crack problem has also made its way to the town, resulting in a spike in robberies.