Tourists go to Rio de Janeiro for Carnival. Many Brazilians go to Salvador. It is a great carnival city in Brazil. It is also a beautiful photogenic, cultural city with plenty of things to keep a tourist busy.
Salvador, in the state of Bahia, north east Brazil (or Sao Salvador da Baía de Todos os Santos as it was named in the past) was the first colonial capital city of Brazil and, although power shifted to Rio de Janeiro in the late eighteenth century, then to Brasilia in 1960, it retains much of it’s past grandeur and colonial architecture. One of the main reasons to come here, however, is the wonderful mix of cultural influences that make the cuisine, music and lifestyle here so different even to other parts of Brazil. The population of over three million, consists mainly of people with African origins descended from slaves, although there have been many other strong influences through Salvador’s history. Salvador is also famous for it’s carnival and street parties.
Here is an article about my trip to Salvador and the Bahia region, travel tips, advice and hotel recommendations.
Getting There and Where to Stay:
The final stop on my extensive two-week tour of Brazil was to Salvador, Bahia and the surroundings. We flew from Brasilia to Salvador Airport, taking less than two hours and checked into our hotel, Pousada do Boqoeirao, which we had booked before departure. This is an attractive Pousada or guesthouse, which was originally two colonial houses, just ten minutes walk from historical quarter of Pelourinho. Our room had a fantastic large balcony/roof-terrace with stunning views of Salvador, perfect for an aperitif while watching the sunset.
Pelourinho (“Centro Historico”)
We foolishly booked a half day historical tour, which we could easily have done ourselves with the guidebook, on foot, or with an occasional taxi, but perhaps it was more relaxing having history force-fed to us. First we had a driving tour of the city then a walking tour, with a guide, of the historical centre, Pelourinho. This area was restored to its former glory in the 1990s mostly for tourism reasons and is perhaps not very real in terms of atmosphere, but certainly is beautiful and does show off the architecture very well, with houses and shops individually painted in bright colours. There are museums and plenty of tourist information to keep you busy and suitably informed about the history of the area. Lots of ladies in traditional dress stalk tourists and pose for photographs, for tips, but be careful; They hunt in packs and you could end up with twenty of them in your photograph and suddenly find yourself very short of cash. We certainly didn’t feel vulnerable in this area although we took the usual antitheft precautions and we were more cautious when walking down the quieter streets back to the hotel later in the evenings.
Despite being a tourist trap we did find some reasonable restaurants, selling good fresh seafood and other local dishes, in Pelourinho. The beautiful colonial buildings and relaxed atmosphere of the old historical centre make it a great place to sit outside for lunch or dinner. One night there was a street party, which passed very slowly through the street in which we were sitting, enjoying the view with an aperitif. It was extremely loud as the good-natured revelers and musicians shuffled past playing assorted musical instruments and banging on drums. Apparently, according to some locals that we met, real Brazilian’s come to Salvador for Carnival, whereas North American’s go to Rio. This was not however the full Carnival, just an impromptu street party.
If you don’t already have an SLR camera, it would be a good idea to get one, before a trip to South America, alternatively a compact camera, which will not get such good such results in some situations, although for street photography and carnival scenes a good compact will also be useful.
I imagine sight-seeing in Salvador could have kept us busy for a couple more days, but we wanted to see some of the neighbouring towns and took a prearranged private, two-day tour, with car, driver and guide to rural Reconcavo Baiano to see some farms and small villiages, in one of Brazil’s main areas of tobacco and sugar production, which had its heyday in the sixteenth century. We fitted in a lot of sightseeing en route, stopping in Candeias for the Reconcavo Museum, an old sugar-cane mill; then the historical town of Santo Amaro, a former sugar producing centre; a working cocoa plantation; the beach of Subauma; the village of Sao Francinsco do Condo for a look at a seventeenth Century church, convent and Latin America’s first agricultural school. It was all a bit of a blur, and none of the museums were particularly enlightening individually, but collectively gave us a better feeling for real Brazil, its history and economy. We also saw a lot of the countryside between the major cities, which otherwise we would not have experienced.
Cacuoeira and Sao Felix:
On arrival at Cacuoeira we checked into Pousada Covento do Carmo, a former seventeenth Century monastery now a simple hotel, before continuing our hectic itinerary. Pousada Covento do Carmo was an excellent place to stay, with clean simple rooms and it retained most of the character of the old buildings. It was also in an ideal location for exploring the towns. There was a restaurant providing very basic breakfast and lunch, but for dinner we took our chances with the other local establishments.
Cacuoeira is an interesting old town separated by a large rickety bridge from Sao Felix, a similar town on the opposite side of Paraguacu River. The main attraction here, apart from seeing these interesting slightly run-down old colonial towns, is the Danneman Museum, a cigar factory, where we were able to watch rows of women wearing what looked like traditional costumes, hand-rolling expensive cigars. It was probably the most informative museum on the tour, demonstrating the amount of work going into each individual cigar, but certainly not worth the trip on its own.
The following day of the tour consisted of a trip to visit tobacco plantations and subsistence farms, followed by the journey back to Salvador. Some of these plantations are small plots of land, not much more than a big allotment, run by one family or even just one person, which must make more from the occasional tourist visiting than from farming. They were not however particularly interesting, and perhaps could have been omitted from the tour.
Salvador is an interesting city with a beautifully restored “Centro Historico”, which is tourist friendly without seeming like a theme-park. The cuisine, music, history and relaxed atmosphere certainly make worth visiting if you are in Brazil. The surrounding countryside, towns, farms, plantations and old factory museum are also worth the effort.