The other side of São Paulo: beach havens for the super-rich

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Célia Silva used to work for the super-rich of São Paulo fixing the washing machines and other appliances of their holiday homes in the Praia de Iporanga area, home to some of Brazil’s most exclusive high-end beach developments. Now her job is to help the same people sell their homes.

“I used to work with my ex-husband fixing things. Then one day, one of my clients said ‘Célia, you’re an honest person, why don’t you try to sell my home for me’,” says the real estate agent for Factual Negócios Imobiliários in Guarujá, on the coast about an hour from São Paulo. “It all went from there.”

When people outside of Brazil think of beaches, they usually imagine Rio de Janeiro or the country’s resort-filled north-east. Less well recognised is that the state of São Paulo, which contains the megacity of the same name, has some of the world’s best coastline with jungle-covered hills running down to surf beaches.

Landlocked behind steep mountains, São Paulo’s nearest beaches are in Santos, a port town about 80km from the megapolis. Yet while Santos, neighbouring Guarujá and the south coast have become overbuilt with residential towers, the beaches to the north heading towards Rio de Janeiro, known as the Litoral Norte, were saved by their relative inaccessibility 40 to 50 years ago.

Then a wild coastline of simple fishing villages surrounded by thick Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Forest) — an endangered biome that is as spectacular as the Amazon — the Litoral Norte captured the imagination first of hippy adventurers and later the country’s super-rich looking for peaceful weekend retreats.

With Brazil’s economy just emerging from its worst recession in history, high-end property has not been spared. This, together with a weakening of the country’s currency — the real has lost half its value against the dollar over the past six years — has created opportunities for foreign investors. Despite the recession, the best beachfront houses on the Litoral Norte remain highly sought after, agents say.

“On average in the cities we are seeing price falls of 10 per cent. In the beach and rural getaway markets, these discounts are bigger, reaching about 20 per cent,” says Marcello Romero, chief executive officer of Bossa Nova Sotheby’s International Realty in São Paulo. However, prices have not fallen as much in some of the more exclusive locations. “You have a beach in Iporanga, which is about an hour from São Paulo, that is home to a development of an extremely high standard with very few houses available so the discount is less and the opportunities are fewer.”

It is the Iporanga area that Célia Silva plans to show me today. Warning that she drives fast, she stops first at a home at the end of Balneário Praia do Pernambuco, one of Guarujá’s nicer beaches. Half of this R$15m beachfront property has been set aside for a helipad. Helicopter access to beach homes is considered a necessity by those who can afford it given São Paulo’s heavy traffic, which can turn a drive to the coast into a nightmare on weekends or holidays.

Next, Silva signals the entrance to the Residencial Marina Guarujá, one of São Paulo’s finest marinas, where the pricier properties that can sell for up to R$11m ($3.3m) have individual moorings for homeowners’ yachts. The road passes deceptively humble-looking seafood restaurants that feature helicopter pads for wealthy clients to drop in — “simple but very tasty food, five-star”, Silva says.

At the Condomínio Tijucopava in the Iporanga area, the car turns off on to a steep cobblestone track winding through the sloth-inhabited Serra do Guararu, a nature reserve. At the top is a stunning R$6m home mounted on giant concrete posts set against a jungle-covered near 90-degree drop.

The property’s three levels offer ocean views while the timber walls and traditional thatch ceilings give the impression of fitting into the forest that hums around the house. Each level has its own sitting room while the main bedroom has a fully equipped gym.

Farther along the road is an 800 sq metre house with an infinity pool, five bedrooms and timber fittings. It is on sale for R$15m. Down on São Pedro beach is a more traditional, R$28m offering of steel and concrete with a lift and five bedrooms, all of them with their own suites. In Brazil, bathrooms often outnumber residents.

Such homes inevitably come with a pair of housekeepers, usually a couple, to maintain them. Running costs of high-end homes can be more than R$10,000 a month including land taxes, management fees and other expenses.

While Iporanga is regarded by some agents as one of Brazil’s best areas, many of São Paulo’s richest families prefer to have a holiday home about 100km farther up the Litoral Norte on the more remote beaches surrounding the upmarket coastal hamlet of Juquehy.

Norberto Campos Junior, sales manager at Business, a real estate agent in Juquehy, says demand remains so high for the region’s scarce beachfront properties, known as pé na areia or foot-in-the-sand homes, that many are being subdivided into denser developments.

His agency is selling a R$4.6m, five-bedroom house in Condomínio Front Beach, whose crisp modern lines include an indoor churrasqueira (barbecue) and a chopeira (draught beer tap). The home is part of a development whose houses share a common beachfront area divided into a series of pools.

Farther along from Juquehy near Praia Preta, or Black Beach, Silvio Emilio de Oliveira, director of Seaport Imóveis Real Estate, explains from his office overlooking the Atlantic how this area of the Litoral Norte became a playground for Brazil’s rich.

A spearfishing enthusiast, Oliveira has met some of the businessmen who control the world’s biggest brewer AB InBev while pursuing the sport here. One of the most exclusive communities in the area, the 2.35km-long Praia da Baleia features beach homes owned by retail magnate Abilio Diniz and members of Brazil’s billionaire Safra banking family. “The place with the biggest concentration of billionaires is Praia da Baleia,” says Oliveira.

One development in Baleia in particular — the Condomínio da Baleia — has on average some of the most expensive beach houses in Brazil. Driving around its bumpy sand roads (the residents deliberately have avoided paving them) the first thing that strikes the visitor is the number of houses under construction. Although homes here cost R$14 to R$25m on the beachfront or R$5m to R$7m in the back lanes, the most important part is the land. New buyers often immediately demolish the existing structure and build their own dream beach house. After all, at this level, money is no obstacle.

Not surprisingly for Brazilian billionaires, several of whom have suffered kidnappings in the past, security is a prime concern with even the streets leading into the area monitored by privately operated closed-circuit cameras. Yet while investing in Baleia is a no-brainer, supply is the problem. “Along the whole of Baleia beach, there is only one vacant beachfront piece of land remaining,” says Oliveira.

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