Salvador, Bahia Brazil
Marc, a HomeAway staffer, gives us the lowdown on the northern Brazilian city of Salvador
Considered the cultural and religious center of Brazil, Salvador is an excellent place to start travels in Northeast Brazil. It has a number of significant sites which are all clustered in a relatively compact city making it easy to get around. Salvador is known as the place to experience Brazil’s World-famous Carnival – not Rio de Janeiro. Ask a Brazilian if you don’t believe us.
I visited there in the Spring of 2009 and arrived at the modern Salvador airport on a flight from São Paulo. But if you prefer there is a flight direct from Miami.
I stayed in Rio Vermelho, a bohemian neighborhood with many hotels, bars, and restaurants (great nightlife and place to be). The area itself is along the sea, which offers some nice views from some of the hilly areas overlooking the city. The people are very warm, welcoming and happy, making you feel relaxed.
Our first stop in Salvador was its most famous landmark, the Pelourinho. It’s an area of town with a large assortment of colonial architecture dating back to the 16th century. The pedestrian-friendly cobblestone streets, colorful buildings, and colonial era churches make it a signature of Northeast Brazil. Salvador has a real artistic spirit to it, one that’s evident in its architecture, design, art works and music. From the Pelourinho, you can walk to Elevador Lacerda, a landmark which overlooks the port from a cliff, and has an elevator that takes you down to the main market of Salvador. The main market is touristy for sure, but also a great place to pick up souvenirs, and unique works from local artists. It also has some small eateries and bars.
Two other significant religious sites which are some of the most famous in Bahia are São Francisco, and Nosso Senhor do Bom Fim churches.
São Francisco church and convent is located within the Pelourinho and is an easily reached landmark to explore to get a sense of the religious history of the area. When you enter the church, the main entrance leads you into a courtyard where you’ll find the original walls covered by blue-white tiles brought from Portugal which contain writings and other proverbs by its founders. I spent over a half hour just reading all the writings (they’re in Portuguese and English). Many are very profound and are reminders that material wealth is only on the surface, and how true wealth comes in many forms. Inside, the church represents the most important example of Portuguese-Brazilian Baroque fine art. Due to its impressive sculptured gilt woodwork, paintings and decoration, São Francisco is also called “the golden church”.
Nosso Senhor do Bom fim is a church perched up on a hill overlooking the city. The role of religion in Brazil is a significant part of its culture, and Bom Fim is the center of it. All around the church and hung on the gates outside, you’ll find thousands of colorful Nosso Senhor do Bom Fim ribbons which have been placed there by worshippers. The Nosso Senhor do Bom Fim ribbon is placed around the wrist and then you make your wish, and are supposed to leave it on until you receive the divine grace. You see people throughout Brazil wearing these ribbons. Even if you don’t make wishes or are in Salvador when they come true, they make for great souvenirs. The church is reached by taxi, and is approximately a 15 minute drive from the Pelourinho.
Salvador is an excellent place to try some very authentic Brazilian cuisine. Many of the restaurants serve moqueca (fish stew) which is a very typical dish of Northeast Brazil. Moqueca is a made with fish, coconut milk and vegetables, along with palm oil (called Dendê) which is used extensively in cooking. You will need to put that diet on hold, but it you’ll thank us later. Brazilians are also very proud of the “chopp” (ice cold draft beer) which can be found at most bars throughout the city and the country itself.
Salvador has many street vendors selling foods including “acarajé”, which are black eyed peas mashed and fried in Dendê served with shrimp (acarajé com camarão) and topped with spices. Acarajé paired with a Guaraná soda (Antarctica is my preferred) is another excellent way to sample some of the local flavors. Guaraná is made from a berry and thought to have excellent powers for energy and antioxidants. Fresh coconuts are available all over the city (and throughout the country) which are cut with a machete and served very cold with a straw. The coconut water (aguá de coco) is tasty and quenches your thirst. Do not miss the juices, which include unique flavors such as acerola & maracujá (passion fruit) are common –give them a try!
Salvador Excursions - Morro de São Paulo
Morro de Sao Paulo (Hill of Sao Paulo) is a small island near Salvador and is highly recommended as a multi-day diversion. We arrived in Morro by catamaran from Salvador (two hours). You can also get there by small plane (25 minutes from Salvador and highly recommended). The town is simple and charming, overlooking the sea and forbids car traffic. Many vendors sell freshly picked fruits and vegetables from their wheelbarrows. As you might guess, tourism is the primary industry on the island enabling locals to work at the hotels, shops, and restaurants, keeping the island growing and vibrant. There are no mega-resorts or chain hotels anywhere to be found on Morro de São Paulo which is a welcomed change from other island destinations.
The beach on Morro is a study in contrasts. The appearance of the beach varies according to the time of day. When we arrived, at low tide, the water line for the sea extended out approximately 1-2 miles from the shoreline. We could barely see the ocean on the horizon! This was during a full moon which impacts the tides as well as the island’s proximity to the equator. During the high tide, the sea reappears comes much closer to land.
There’s a number of excursions you can do in Morro. Among them are guided tours of the surrounding islands, horseback riding, and even fishing trips with local fisherman as guides. I highly recommend checking out some of the surrounding areas which provide opportunities to see some of the eco-diversity and enjoy some of the other towns. Along the way you support locally owned businesses, and get a glimpse of how the natives live on Morro de São Paulo.
A boat tour of the archipelago is a good choice so you can have a general idea of what the region has to offer, and then go back to spend more time at one of the stops on the tour. The boat tour itself is a full day trip which picks you up at the beach in Morro, and takes you to one of the natural pools (the coral reef at low tide where you can see the sea life up close), and the neighboring islands of Boipeba (be sure to try the lobsters available when you disembark on the beach) and Cairu (a small, charming town). You’ll also see the large numbers of waterways and mangroves which connect the islands of the archipelago.
Another interesting sight on the island is in Gamboa, on the south side of the island and also less crowded. This stretch of beach offers a very special red clay bath, which runs from the cliff above. You can climb part of the cliff easily and cover yourself in this pink clay and rinse off in the sea. It’s very relaxing and good for the skin as we were told!
If you’re the adventurous type, you can see an enormous zip line which extends from a cliff on the top of the island and extends across the sea. It’s the largest zip line I’ve ever seen, and judging by the screams we could hear from those “zipping” it looked like a thrilling thing to do. I consider myself somewhat adventurous (I’ve gone hang gliding in Rio de Janeiro) but this was a little too much for me so you’ll have to take my word on it as a spectator.
For nightlife, the main beach of the town (Second Beach) has a large number of restaurants, bars, and clubs, all set on the sand, and all overlooking the ocean. Vendors are also out in the sand, offering everything from handmade art to cocktails made from some of the fruits found on the island.
The best place to hang out is a fantastic outdoor bar/club which overlooks the sea from the high cliffs of the island called Toca do Morcego. Be sure to go at sunset and you will be treated to live music, DJ’s and unbeatable views (also people to watch and be watched). If you go around 5pm you can get yourself a prime spot facing the ocean and a gorgeous sunset while holding a caipirinha.
Amazing historical and cultural significance, combined with ease of access and a wonderful array of diversions makes Salvador an excellent choice when visiting Brazil. Salvador’s neighboring island, Morro de Sao Paulo is a relatively unspoiled destination which is beautiful and provides a lot of varied activities. As you may know, Brazil is hosting the 2014 World Cup and Salvador is one of the host cities, an amazing place to watch the beautiful game.