Cashew Country

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Trip End Ongoing


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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The historic old colonial town of Olinda provides a welcome contract to the bustling modern city of Recife. Although it was originally the centre of power for the prosperous sugar plantation owners in the 18th century it was eventually overshadowed by the rise of Recife as a modern port. Today, Olinda is the cultural counterpart to its neighbouring commercial centre and is a much more pleasant place to stay. It has a beautiful setting on a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, across the bay from the polluted huddle of skyscrapers that stretch into the distance.

We spent a couple of days exploring the steep, cobblestoned streets that meander between the red-tiled churches, convents, museums and art galleries, all eventually leading to the imposing cathedral that sits in a commanding position at the summit. The surrounding plaza is full of food stalls and a craft market with stands full of carvings, figurines, lace, jewellery and leather goods. Nearby are a couple of good restaurants with outdoor patios that fill in the evening as everyone comes to gossip, enjoy the fine views and watch the city light up as dusk falls.

The only thing that Olinda lacks is a decent beach. The seafront is very polluted and big signs warn of the danger of shark attacks. That was no problem as our next stop up the coast was Natal, which is quickly gaining a reputation as the beach capital of the northeast. It was a full day's drive and at lunchtime we stopped near Joáo Pessoa on the most easterly point of the continent to munch on our ham and cheese rolls. Gazing out at the distant horizon, we dreamed of Africa. Latitude 7 degrees South - next landfall Angola.

By mid-afternoon we had reached Pirangi do Norte, and couldn't resist stopping to check out its rather unusual claim to fame - the largest cashew tree in the world. Anything to grab a piece of the tourism pie! The circumference of this particular tree was over 500 m and we have to admit it was pretty impressive - albeit a tangle of weighty branches that have dipped to the ground and subsequently re-rooted, rather than one impressive trunk. Anyway, who's complaining? It obviously does its job of attracting lots of visitors and the surrounding stalls and kiosks were doing a brisk trade in tourist trinkets...and, of course, bags of cashew nuts.

Just north of Natal is the small beach resort of Genipabu. Surrounded by sand dunes, it is famous for its hair-raising beach-buggy rides. We were a little disappointed in the size and extent of the dunes, and remembering our exploits on the sandy precipices of Huacachina in northern Peru about two years ago we decided to give it a miss this time. However, our short visit was worth it just for our breakfast treat at the Pousada Palm Beach. Erik, a Swiss ex-pat resident of Genipabu for twelve years, proudly created two very tasty delicacies from his homeland - a 'bauern' farmer's omelette, followed by apel-küchlein (apple fritters). Every breakfast in Brazil provides a good start to the day, but this was especially hearty fare.

It is possible to hire a 'bugiero' for the adventurous drive along the beach from Natal to Fortaleza - a sand-blasting five day, 750 km trip. We opted to take the short cut, the 500 km drive due west along BR 304 through the interior of Rio Grande do Norte state. It is a very arid area and the vibrant green of the huge sugar cane estates to the south quickly gave way to a bleak and dusty landscape, dotted with cacti and cashew trees. After the oil town of Mossoró, we left the main highway and headed north to the smaller coastal road, eager to find the sea-breezes again to alleviate the stifling oven-like heat.

We were well aware that our long journey of endless beaches was quickly coming to an end. The next leg of the trip would be a 1500 km marathon across some of the hottest and driest terrain in Brazil, from Fortaleza to Belém. We therefore decided that we deserved one last chance for a day or two of sand, sun and surf. We headed down a side road to the erstwhile little fishing village of Canoa Quebrada to see what we could find. During the summer season this would obviously be a trendy hot spot, but we were happy to discover it still very much in its low-key, off-season mode.

Serendipitously we quickly located a well-appointed palm-thatched cabańa with hammock-bedecked balcony overlooking the ocean, cooled by the constant sea breezes. The village had a wide array of restaurants, a DVD store and a good Internet Café. The beach had miles and miles of silky-soft white sand, backed by burnt ochre sandstone cliffs, and the bay was dotted with 'jangadas' - the elegantly rigged local fishing craft. What more could we ask for? At breakfast the next morning we made another discovery - 'suco de cajú'. To our surprise, not only does the cashew tree produce delicious nuts, but the fruit is widely used here to make juice - tasty, but a little astringent. But hey, when you're living in paradise, why not make use of the fruit that falls off the nearest tree!
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