Dallying along the Coast to Salvador

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Trip End Ongoing


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Sunday, September 3, 2006

Brazil has 8,000 km of coastline with endless beaches. As we traveled north towards Ilhéus we were looking for that elusive spot that seems to be somewhat of a rarity in this country - a quiet beach! Brazilians are very gregarious and extroverted and love to party. Why else would you go to the beach but to party? And partying means loads of people with huge boom boxes and super-loud music, lots of booze, dancing, sunbathing in extremely skimpy outfits, soccer and beach sports, surfing and ...oh, did we mention blaring music that threatens to burst your eardrums!

But in the end we found it. Our perfect beach. We had retreated from Itacaré which we would have loved five years ago when it was a sleepy fishing village, but is now very hip, packed with lively restaurants and bars, and has become a trendy destination for the young surfing crowd in 4x4s. Later, stopping to admire the stunning panoramic views from a cliff-top lookout, we noticed that the palm-fringed, white sandy beach immediately below us and stretching for miles down the bay seemed to be deserted. We pulled into 'Edmundo's Cabanas' and enquired about camping. "Yes, we could pull in over there on the grass under the coconut palms, and washrooms and showers were right beside the small thatched restaurant on the beach." "Where was everybody else?" "Oh, probably at the surfing festival in Itacaré." Perfect!

We spent three days enjoying the peace and quiet of this tropical paradise. The white sand was squeaky clean and the pounding surf provided all the 'beat' that we needed. We watched the fishermen leave early in the morning in their precarious sailing rafts, and return with their haul late in the afternoon. Each evening we turned up at Edmundo's cabana to feast on the catch of the day - red snapper grilled in coconut oil the first night, next giant prawns sauteed in butter and garlic, and on our final visit oysters in a spicy seafood sauce. We walked the beach for literally miles, and played in the giant waves. At night we lay out watching the stars - the Southern Cross very low on the horizon these days and Orion not showing up until the wee hours of the morning. The sea breezes kept us cool at night and the palms shaded us by day. We enjoyed the company of other occasional travelers, sharing ice-cold beers and swapping yarns late into the evening. That was the extent of our partying. We wouldn't make very good Brazilians!

Our next stop was Salvador...what a contrast! The one-time capital of Brazil and pride of the Portugese Empire, Salvador is now a vibrant but rather run-down city that is home to a unique Afro-Brazilian culture. We spent a couple of days wandering the cobblestoned streets exploring the historic centre of the old city and enjoying the distinctly African food and music. A very strong and proud African tradition has been maintained in Salvador since many thousands of slaves were shipped over from Angola and other Gulf of Guinea countries from the 15th to the 19th centuries (slavery was not abolished until 1888). They laboured first on the sugar cane estates and later sweated it out harvesting the new miracle crop, cocoa. These economic mainstays collapsed, first with dramatic declines in world sugar prices and later with the spread of the dreaded 'Witches Broom' disease which devastated the cocoa plantations. The area is still very economically depressed and signs of the resulting social problems are clearly evident, only being slightly mitigated by the income generated from the recent boom in tourism.

The 'Cidade Alta' - the original settlement was a fort standing watch on a sheer bluff overlooking the Atlantic - has recently undergone a revitalization program, but even now tourists are warned not to flaunt their cameras. In the daytime the Pelourinho neighbourhood is bustling with touts, hassling to act as your guide around the maze of art galleries, fabric and craft boutiques, restaurants and bars, but it is probably not the place to wander around on your own after midnight. During the evening the restaurants line the streets with plastic tables and chairs and everyone sits drinking beer (the wine is so bad here that even the Brazilians don't drink it!) watching life go by. There is music from every corner, drumming bands roam the streets and if you're lucky you'll see a demonstration of Capoeira - the beautifully fluid martial arts-cum-acrobatic dance form which was originally developed to resist the slave traders. Impromptu parties break out on all sides. The city has long had a reputation for bawdiness and uninhibited, extravagant behavior, and it clearly continues to flourish. The four days and nights of Carnaval in March - when anything and everything goes - must be quite the party, even by Brazilian standards!
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