The municipality of Cunha has some 25,000 inhabitants and an area of 1,410 square kilometres, almost as large as São Paulo. Most of the people live in rural areas, which include three mountain ranges: Serra do Quebra-Cangalha, Serra da Bocaina and part of Serra do Mar (see Location). The town is 950 metres above sea level. Its upland landscape affords many spectacular views of rolling hills, soaring peaks and the rugged coastline with bays and archipelagos sparkling far below in bright sunshine or shrouded in dark clouds.
In the past, Cunha played an important economic and military role in Brazilian history because of its strategic location midway between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The ancient Guayana Trail (see History) passed through the region, which in colonial times served as a gateway to the Paraíba Valley and a mountain pass through the steep escarpments of Serra do Mar and Serra da Mantiqueira that made it so hard for seafarers to strike inland or gold traders to reach the coast.
Today, however, the region’s economic engine is tourism. From Cunha, the visitor can easily reach other scenic areas such as the heritage town of Parati and the unrivalled island beaches of Angra dos Reis in Rio de Janeiro State. Other resorts and sightseeing attractions are available in nearby Ubatuba, São Luis do Paraitinga, Lagoinha, Guaratinguetá, Lorena, Silveiras, Areias and São José do Barreiro in São Paulo State.
Cunha has been a government-approved health resort (Estância Climática) since 1948 thanks to its relatively dry climate without extremes of temperature (see Location). It’s also a headwater protection area in recognition of the abundant forest cover and water sources, with mountain streams, waterfalls and rivers. The Paraibuna and Paraitinga rivers rise in the hills around Cunha, rushing down the mountainside in countless waterfalls and merging with other tributaries to form the mighty Paraíba do Sul, which is 1,120 kilometres long and flows into the sea near Campos in the north of Rio de Janeiro State. The source of the Paraibuna is near Pousada dos Anjos, in fact: its headwaters meander through the property, running on to form fine waterfalls, some of which are accessible, while others remain unexplored to this day.
The people of Cunha have preserved the muleteering tradition that forms such an important part of their rich cultural heritage. Trade with coastal settlements has been vital to the community throughout its history, joined more recently by subsistence farming and dairy production. The inhabitants’ outstanding hospitality and solidarity expresses a tradition of welcoming travellers who need a place to rest, eat and revictual. The community has been doing this in Cunha since the 16th century. Their religious practices are a blend of Catholicism with Amerindian, African and Sebastianist myths. They may seem reserved at first but soon open up, disclosing all the finery of their rural culture and ingenuous charm to the visitor who has sufficient patience to explore this unique and unspoiled microcosm, a time warp tucked away among mountains, mysteries and sagacity.
The various rural districts, including Aparição where Pousada dos Anjos is located, display a vibrant and surprisingly well-preserved popular culture. Depending on the time of year, the visitor can enjoy presentations of song and instrumental music by Folia de Reis players culminating at Epiphany (in January), traditional church processions, Afro-Brazilian dance and other festivities in honour of St Joseph (March) and St Benedict the Moor (April), Judas burning at Easter, Corpus Christi infiorata flower carpets and processions, the Holy Ghost Festival (July), rodeos at Festa do Peão Valente (August), and the festivities in honour of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, Cunha’s patron saint (December). Many Afro-Brazilian social and religious dances can be seen at these festivals, including congada, moçambique and jongo, as well as cavalcades, novenas and other prayer rituals, often accompanied by accordions, Brazilian ten-string guitars (violas), tambourines, snare drums and tap dancing. Men, women and children wear colourful costumes with ribbons and sleigh bells on their ankles, waving flags and beating sticks like Morris dancers.
Cunha also has a Winter Festival (Festival de Inverno) in July with presentations of Brazilian popular music and jazz, and booths selling local dishes in the church square; a ceremony is held in July to commemorate the 1932 Constitutionalist Revolution (see History); and Carnival animates the streets in February.