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The founder of Costa Brazil transforms the Amazon’s bounty into ethical skincare that benefits both recipient and source.
I SEE THE Amazon for the first time as dawn breaks on a cloudy winter morning, half an hour outside Belém, the capital of the Brazilian state of Pará. The Amazon — or rather the idea of it — has held great sway over me since I was small, seeded to me by the books I grew up buried in. The word itself has always had the power to set me alight, conjuring the vastness of the world. And last night, we arrived here. Stepping out the airport doors, I inhaled warm, sweet, densely perfumed air — rich with the smell of flowers and everything else alive out there in the dark.
Now it’s day, and we’re boarding a ferry that will take us four hours upriver to the Marajó Archipelago, known for its water buffalos, which outnumber its human residents. I am traveling with a small group on a sourcing trip for Costa Brazil, the eco-beneficial skincare brand launched by Francisco Costa after departing from his 13-year post as the creative director of Calvin Klein. The highly curated line currently comprises a few face and body products, a unisex fragrance, and a candle — all made with Amazonian ingredients, rare natural resources he encountered on these trips.
As far as second acts in fashion go, Costa’s is an unusual one, which is what drew me here: I want to know what provoked this new journey — that and the scent of the products, which smell like heaven must, voluptuous and as lush as the tropical night.
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The Amazon here is wide and muddy, different from what I expected. I pictured a remote location, but the ferry is loaded with cars, trucks, motorcycles, and walk-on passengers; this is a working river, the ports of Belém serving as a regional gateway for goods and people. But the landscape is just as big as I imagined. As we pull out into the soupy expanse, we take a seat in the back of the boat on stools bolted to the floor. Costa buys us grilled ham and cheese sandwiches and sweet coffee, and we eat breakfast watching birds coasting the currents behind the ship.
Landing in Marajó, we wrap our gear and suitcases in black garbage bags to protect them from the elements, throw them in the bed of a pickup truck and head off. Driving in and out of cloudbursts, trees and vines stretch above us, forming a canopy, and the jungle creeps in to reclaim the road wherever it can. When the paved highway eventually gives way to sticky, red mud, we pull into a landing to wait for another, smaller ferry. It eventually arrives, and we perch on wooden benches to chug across a small waterway to another island.
Costa has taken four or five of these trips over the past several years, and each one unfolds differently. Originally, they were voyages of discovery. Costa, who is Brazilian, visited the rainforest for the first time in 2016. A six-hour ride in a dugout canoe through the state of Acre brought him to a village inhabited by the Yawanawá people, where he first experienced the smoke of breu. A tree resin sacred to Indigenous peoples and local communities in the Amazon, breu has numerous medicinal and shamanic uses, including calming the mind and spirit. It also has an unmistakable, otherworldly smell.
After his first visit, he returned to the Amazon, this time to Belém, where he went to the open-air market Mercado Ver-o-Peso. Following our trip to Marajó, he takes us there, and I see what he encountered: a mind-boggling bounty of fruits, nuts, wood, and medicinal plants — all of them utterly, wonderfully unfamiliar.
As far as second acts in fashion go, Costa’s is an unusual one, which is what drew me here: I want to know what provoked this new journey.
These visits seeded the kernel of an idea for the brand that would become Costa Brazil. Initially working with a small local lab to refine the ingredients he was learning about, Costa created a series of cold-pressed oils that are now the core of his skincare line. He kept returning to the Amazon region, establishing relationships with Indigenous groups and local collectives to harvest the nuts used for these oils, creating a sustainable supply chain. Now he travels back from time to time to maintain those relationships, build new ones, and continue to explore what the Amazon has to offer.
But I also think he returns because he likes it. We disembark on foot from the second ferry, right next to a water buffalo chewing slowly on a wad of reeds. We are on another planet entirely from the world of fashion, far, far away from the bustle of New York City, where he has lived since 1985, and spent his career. Costa grabs a seat in the open pickup bed, across from the local who has jumped in to guide us around the island. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but I can see them chatting as we bump along the dirt roads. It begins to shower, and both men pull up their hoods. Costa tightens the drawstrings around his face, his smile unfaded as he’s soaked by the driving rain.
This is his first time visiting Marajó. We have come because Costa heard about a cooperative here that used to operate harvesting nuts. Although it has broken up, he made contact with one of the women, Dona Francisca, who was part of it and hopes to meet with her. But as anyone who has spent time this far removed from cities, he understands that things here move at their own pace. Our meeting is pushed a few hours, and then until the next day. It may or may not happen.
Costa is patently unbothered. Instead, we head to a beach area for lunch. In the summertime it must be bustling, but now it is just us, eating fried fish, rice, and beans on a lifted platform overlooking the water. A small pack of friendly dogs lies hopefully at our feet. Later we drive into the Amazon delta, to the Fazenda Bom Jesus water buffalo farm. The proprietor, Dona Eva, a fashionably dressed, elderly woman of Lebanese descent, pings between four languages as she tells us how she has created a 30,000-hectare nature preserve with the land she inherited from her father. She gives us a halting tour of the property, directing us to stop repeatedly so she can collect discarded trash and so we can admire the birds. Many breeds, including scarlet ibises and heron, have returned, she tells us, in the years since she created the preserve. We see flocks of them in the distance, slowly picking their way across the flooded plains between the wild horses and the grazing buffaloes.
The next afternoon we finally meet Dona Francisca. We walk across a footbridge and through the sand of a beach area, shuttered during the off-season, until we reach her family’s cafe. She greets us on the thatched patio, unstacking some green plastic chairs for us. A young boy plays near our feet, and two teenagers peek shyly from behind the counter. “My grandchildren,” she tells us proudly. “I have eight.”
The products smell like heaven must, voluptuous and as lush as the tropical night.
The beach in front of us is being pounded by waves, and each brings with it seeds. They fall from the trees that hang over the mighty river and are swept many hundreds of miles downstream to be washed ashore here. Dona Francisca’s family walks the shoreline to collect these nuts, which have provided them with a valuable source of income. But the collective they previously worked with disbanded after the man who was bringing their nuts to market died of Covid. Without the link he provided, the chain was broken. The family shows us plastic tubs overflowing with nuts, which they still collect, but without this one man, they have nowhere to sell them.
After he speaks with Dona Francisca, I walk along the beach with Costa. It is an idyllic setting, a wide cove with green jungle running to the water, but the sand is covered with a heartbreaking amount of plastic. We both lean down to pick up smooth, brown seeds nestled within the debris. In a place like this, where everything is so close to the bone, it doesn’t take much to sway life one way or the other. An everyday tragedy, like a single man dying of Covid, can break the fragile supply chain that allows products to be brought to market; without that, income that a family depends on disappears. But that also means that small actions can create measurable positive change too. Costa tells me that he will try to work with Dona Francisca to provide a means for her to bring her harvest to market. “I hope I can do some good here,” he says.
Skye Parrott is the editor-in-chief of Departures. A magazine editor, photographer, writer, and creative consultant, she was previously a founder of the arts and culture journal Dossier, and editor-in-chief for the relaunch of Playgirl as a modern, feminist publication.
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