Brazil. What do you think of when you hear that name? Samba? Beaches? Great food and beautiful people? You are right on all counts. But Brazil is so huge you have to take it by region. A one-size-fits-all approach definitely won’t do for this South American country.
First some basics; Brazil is the largest country in South America, with an area of 8,511,965 sq km. This is the only country in Latin America that speaks Portuguese instead of Spanish, but there is much more that distinguishes it from its neighbors. Brazil owes its culture to the contributions of Portugal, Africa and Asia.
O Nordeste Brasileiro is Portuguese for the Brazilian northeast but those words speak of much more than a geographical region where we are focusing our attention. Mistura fina refers to the ethnic mixture of the northeastern states of Bahia and Pernambuco. Salvador and Recife are the capitals of Bahia and Pernambuco respectively, each with a flavor that is uniquely its own. Let’s start with Recife.
A city of 1.3 million and the fourth largest in Brazil Recife epitomizes a tropical metropolis. Weather you are here on business or pleasure you will probably stay in Boa Viagem, an upscale neighborhood named for the sweeping beach that fronts it (see Images page). Here is where you’ll find the greatest concentration of hotels, restaurants and nightspots. The beach itself is a near endless span of white sand. The water, as warm as your bathwater, is translucent turquoise almost to the horizon. But there you see the coral reef that both protects the city and gives it the name Recife. Out there water is a good bit deeper and darker.
Inland from Boa Viagem lies downtown and the adjacent neighborhoods of Santo Antonio and Boa Vista. You definitely want to get familiar with Rio Branco. This is a bustling commercial district by day that is just as alive at night. Nightclubs, live music and fine restaurants bring people here long after the offices have closed. From here it’s easy to see why someone thought Recife should be called the Venice of Brazil; bridges span the inlets, canals and islands that make up this part of the city.
A tour of the old city should probably start at Praca da Republica, including Teatro Santa Isabel and Catedral de Sao Pedro dos Clerigos All of these are fine examples of beautiful 19th century architecture. You might get to Basilica de Nossa Senhora da Penha before you pass out.
On Recife’s weather I have one word; HOT! Just accept it and adapt. Walk at a slower more measured pace, make sure you always have something cold (and non-alcoholic) to sip and if you are not from a tropical country, don’t try to pretend you are! Watch your exposure to the direct sun.
Indoor pleasures include the Museu do Homen do Nordoeste (Museum of Northweastern Man), probably Recife’s best, and Shopping Center Recipe. This place is huge, Brazil’s second largest mall. The Casa de Cultura is a vast former prison that now houses enough craft shops to wreck your entire souvenir budget.
In this part of Brazil you’ll hear the syncopated rhythms of Forro, frevo, maracatu and xaxado, particularly northeastern music forms. These are different from, but no less motivating than, the Samba that is ubiquitous in Brazil. Pick up some CDs to take this unique music home with you. Recommended artists are Petrucio Amorim, one of the best loved forrozeiros (forro singer), Maciel Melo the incredible Sivuca.
One thing; some readers will wonder why I don’t mention Olinda, a small enclave near Recife and a site of World Heritage architec-ture. Olinda is not what it once was. It is now dirty, polluted and overrun with tourists. Enough said.
Recife itself is a jewel, especially the people. But this is also a poor city in a poor part of the country. You will see evidence of this physical poverty in the midst of cultural and human wealth. But don’t let it throw you. Pernambucanos, residents of the state of Pernambuco, know how to live. Just spend a few days in Recife. You’ll see. Then you’ll come back.
Salvador da Bahia is the place where, at least part of the time, I live in my dreams. This urban, third world city of 13,064,296 is situated on the end of a peninsula, one side of it bathed by the Atlantic Ocean and the other by the Bahia de Todos os Santos. Brazilians often refer to the city as Bahia instead of Salvador.
Brazil’s third largest city has somehow retained the feel of a much smaller town. This can only be because of the people. Bahianos, residents of Bahia, are slow, and not just because of the tropical heat. By the way the sea breezes make this a pleasant place to be all year long.
Back to the slowness. The Bahianos are laid back and their what’s the rush?’ approach will either charm you or drive you crazy. In the more frenetic south of Brazil the joke is Even fast food is slow in Bahia!’ That joke may come back to haunt you when you’re sitting in one of Salvador’s famous traffic jams!
Bahia is divided into Cidade Baixa (lower city) and Cidade Alta (upper city). The Cidade Baixa is at sea level and nestled on the shores of the bay. This is where the port, the Central Business District and the old Portuguese Cathedral are found. There is a marina and the Mercado Modelo, the best place to buy crafts and souvenirs in the city.
In the Cidade Alta, perched atop a dizzying cliff, there are residential neighborhoods, municipal buildings, churches (over 350), hotels, guest houses, etc, etc. The two parts of the city are connected, on the Bay side, by the Elevador Lacerda, 72 meters (191 feet) tall and offering unforgettable views of the city and bay.
Here, on the Bay side of the city, there is a wealth of baroque 17th century architecture. The Centro Historico represents a concen-tration of this style. In fact the Largo do Pelourinho district contains the world’s largest collection of Baroque buildings, churches, convents and residences. (see Images page).
Adjoining Pelourinho is Santo Antonio, where beautiful and comfortable guest houses and tourist homes are run out of these magnificent baroque buildings. If you stay in Santo Antonio you are in easy walking distance of Largo do Pelourinho, crammed with galleries featuring the distinctive Bahia Style painting (see Images page), the Oludum drumming School, the Casa Jorge Amado and the living theatre that is Bahia.
The Oceanside of Salvador is more modern and the site of most of the beaches. Among so many beautiful beaches how do you choose? Well relax, you can’t go wrong. Anyone you choose will have friendly people, food for sale and stunning scenery. Just drive or take a cab along the Orla Maritima (coast road) and stop where the view appeals to you.
A note of caution: these beaches face the open sea. There are strong undertows and even with lifeguards posted it only takes a moment for disaster to strike. Take your queue from the natives.
Still on the Ocean side the neighborhoods of Amarelina, Pituba, Rio Vermelho and Ondina spread inland and up along the coast. This is where most of the bookstores malls and bigger hotels are. At the tip of the peninsula is Barra, a neighborhood popular with locals and tourists alike. There are plenty of tourist hotels here, though on a smaller scale than along the Orla Maritima. Porto da Barra is a beach where a lot of the locals go after work or to meet friends on the weekend. Great snorkeling and cafes here, a great place to watch the sunset over the islands in Bahia de Todos os Santos.
One last thing, the food. Bahian cooking is distinctive from the rest of Brazil. Azeite Dende (red palm oil) is a staple and present in almost everything. Seafood abounds and The spices of Bahia are something to be reckoned with. Since you’re here, try the Acaraje, the Casquinha de Siri and (my favorite) Muqueca de Langosta.
Acaraje is a palm sized football of mashed beans fried in Azeite Dende. It is filled with A combination of Pimenta (hot pepper sauce), Camarao (shrimp) or Vatapa (a mixture of dried shrimp, peanuts, cashews, coconut milk and dende).
Casquinha de Siri is an appetizer, though I have frequently annoyed waiters by ordering several at once! This is a conch shell filled with a mixture of crab meat and a savory dressing. Finally Muqueca de Langosta. Lobster stew is the best way to describe this dish. It is usually cooked in a Panela de Barro (clay pot) and served in what looks like a thick stone bowl.
The feeling that suffuses you when you get to the bottom of your plate of Muqueca de Langosta over rice, well that embodies Bahia. You’ll love Salvador, and it’ll love you back.
Online Resources – Recife and Salvador da Bahia
Where to eat Recife: Xica Pitanga-Food by the Kilo (Located in Boa Viagem)
Where to stay Recife: Recife Tropical Imoveis Holiday rentals
Where to eat Salvador, Restaurante Yemanja http://www.restauranteyemanja.com.br/
Where to Stay Salvador Casa do Boquirao, http://www.pousadaboqueirao.com.br/ Pousada da Mangueira, http://www.pousadadamangueira.com.br/ Redfish Hotel, http://www.bahia-online.net/hotelredfish.htm
Salvador da Bahia http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~sergiok/brasil/recife.html