Preparations for the festival of São João were in full swing in Cachoeira. The market in the north-eastern Brazilian town had burst at the seams, spilling over into the surrounding streets with EU-mountain-sized piles of oranges, melons and knickers. Stalls were selling ready-made bonfires and evil-looking shots of murky cachaça, and men struggled to load overflowing panniers onto their bicycles and donkeys. Bunting and banners crowned the busy scene, and although the town had clearly seen better days, this one was looking pretty good.
As the slightly battered colonial façades suggest, those better days were during the 19th century when the town was an important river port for the sugar and tobacco grown in the surrounding area, the Recôncavo. The agricultural activity meant that as well as the colonial settlers, the region was home to a significant number of African slaves.
This concentration of Africans has left its mark on the state of Bahia – its capital, Salvador, is known as Black Rome, or the most African city outside Africa – but not just because of the colour of the faces along the streets. Despite oppression and enforced conversion to Catholicism, the slaves managed to preserve their culture, which endured and now characterises the region.
One of the main ways the black communities found strength was through its religion, Candomblé, with its pantheon of deities, animal sacrifice and spirit possession. Originally practised under the guise of Catholic worship, the orixás, or gods, were associated with Catholic saints, and a religious synthesis came about. As with many aspects of Bahian life, Portuguese and African influences have combined to make something uniquely Brazilian.
Cachoeira is home to a group that epitomises that fusion of customs: the Sisterhood of the Good Death. Greeted by exuberant song and a handshake firm enough to crack a Brazil nut, I was reassured to find that the ‘sisters’ (neither siblings nor nuns) showed nothing of the odd morbidity suggested by their order’s name.
Analia, a short, rotund woman dressed entirely in traditional Friday white, hoiked me by the hand into the sisterhood’s museum. Talking all the while, she showed me round the exhibits of costumes and photographs linked to the processions and ceremonies surrounding their annual highlight, the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte).
I was curious about the conditions for membership of this exclusive sisterhood. She explained that you have to be of African descent – “This started with the slaves, and there were no white slaves” – and a practising adherent of Candomblé. Although I knew a little about the religion I was still fumbling to understand its relationship to Catholicism, or why its followers should celebrate an apparently Christian festival.
“We only preserved our culture through the churches – the bars were too hard, the walls too solid,” she explained, glinting her gold tooth at me. “That’s why we still adhere to it. You can’t have one without the other.” A little enlightened, and uplifted by a parting burst of song in Yoruba (the African language of Candomblé), I set off to see the rest of town.
Apart from a couple of men being jogged home on their donkeys, I had the midday sunlit streets to myself. There was only time for the briefest of gawps at the baroque and rococo churches and richly decorated, if somewhat faded, buildings before my guide Ana came to hurry me off to lunch in the 16th century convent, but I saw plenty that justified the town’s UNESCO heritage status. Even the petrol station’s walls were decorated with Portuguese azulejo tiles.
Ana filled the van, and drove us clanking over the 19th century bridge to São Felix, the town facing Cachoeira across the Paraguaçu river. The town’s reputation for fine tobacco is continued by the Danneman factory, where cigars are still hand-crafted. Typical baiana women, dressed in white turban, blouse and flouncy skirt sat at neat rows of desks, wrapping, twisting or rolling cigars of varying chunkiness.
I wasn’t quite in the mood for a post-prandial cigar, but seeing them made was the next best thing.
Heading out of town and through the Recôncavo, we passed fields full of sugar cane, pampas and bamboo on our way to Salvador. Small farms and houses with washing strung out between palm trees lined the road. Huge white pipes like giant slow-worms started to appear, heralding our entry into petrochemical land (this industry has largely replaced local sugar and tobacco production), and soon we were onto the main road, the outskirts of Salvador sitting on the approaching hills like red brick flights of stairs.
Set around the magnificent natural bay of Todos os Santos (so-called because the Portuguese sailed into it on November 1st, All Saints’ Day), Salvador was founded in 1549 and remained the capital of Brazil for over 200 years. Of course the city now far exceeds its original bounds, and it has its fair share of chic and not-so-chic suburbs, out-of-town malls and deservedly popular beaches. But it is the Pelourinho, the historic centre rescued from its rather seedy reputation some years ago by government and UNESCO money, that really draws the visitors.
Colourful pastel-painted houses crowd the narrow cobbled streets and squares, people gossip in doorways or out of flower-lined windows, and flamboyant baianas pose in their hooped white skirts or sit behind snack stalls. Men and children skulk around selling the coloured ribbons that are a souvenir of the Senhor do Bonfim church and are said – by vendors and buyers, Catholics and Candomblistas alike – to bring good luck.
Salvador was also showing signs of preparation for the São João festival, and bunting fluttered everywhere overhead, lending an extra dash of colour to the city. Before I started the wandering that this sort of city demands, my first visit was to the Mestre Bimba Academy, the town’s foremost capoeira school. Capoeira is part martial art, part dance, and it was developed by the slaves in the senzalas, the slave quarters.
Ana, one of the new wave of white converts to the sport, said she did it not for fitness or self-defence, but because, “I am passionate about the African culture and it helps my understanding. It’s about physical and mental harmony.” She explained that while there’s no exact relationship between capoeira and Candomblé, “the same mentality is involved. It brought people together and gave them strength.”
The mixed group practising that morning warmed up to the sounds of drums and the berimbau, an instrument also used in Candomblé ceremonies that is made of a long stringed stick attached to a gourd. It was a sound I was to hear often, permeating the city.
Mestre Cafune, the white-haired pixie who was the group’s teacher, signalled that it was time for a real demonstration. The display was less showy than other, more tourist-oriented ones I saw elsewhere in the city, but had all the hallmarks of the sport: by turns playful and respectful, graceful, nimble and athletic, the pairs rose and fell, performed fantastic handstands, spins and splits, their movements speeding up in time to the music until all I could see was an impressive blur of legs whirling in sync like teeth on a cog.
The practice session ended, and feeling like an ungainly, clumsy lump by comparison, I made my way back to the streets to practise my forte: exploring and gazing.
Popular myth holds that Salvador has a church for every day of the year. In fact, it ‘only’ has about 170, but that’s plenty to go round, and it’s difficult to walk more than a few hundred yards without having your eyes lured up to admire another baroque, rococo or neoclassical façade.
It’s hard to know where to begin, but an obvious contender was São Francisco, with its legendary decoration. Had Midas been an interior designer, he’d probably have come up with something like this, a ridiculously ornate array of panels and shrines dripping in gold leaf. Much of the decorative work was carried out by slaves, who were ironically only allowed to worship there in a plain stone enclave at the back.
Former slaves did, however, build their own church, Nosso Senhor do Rosário dos Pretos, which dominates Pelourinho Square. This one was a much more sedate, tasteful affair, with a number of shrines to black saints, and a heady whiff of incense in the air. Strong voices filled the church in a pleasant change from the easy-listening-type tapes I heard played in other churches, and the singing continued as the congregation filed out.
Lunch was yet another moqueca – fish cooked in coconut milk and rich dendê oil – in a pretty restaurant overlooking the bay. It was tasty, but I had lost count of the number of dishes of moqueca I had been served since my arrival, by proud restaurateurs keen for me to sample the local delights. It was about time to work off some of the heavy palm oil with a night on the town.
The Pelourinho was transformed. Shutters that had been clamped tight in the day were flung open, and all the buildings that I’d taken to be people’s houses now revealed wall-to-wall bars and restaurants. The streets had been lively earlier on, but now they positively thronged with people chatting, cruising, and dancing to the serious rhythms coming from speakers and bands on every corner.
Salvador’s carnival is said to be second only to Rio’s, and if this was just a regular Saturday night, I could understand why. Christina, my guide, told me that when she was studying in London she’d been to the Notting Hill Carnival. She was having trouble keeping a straight face, but would only say she’d never forget it. Eventually I got her to admit she didn’t think it quite hit the mark. Graciously, but laughing outright now, she said, “They were trying, but it wasn’t good enough for me.” As the night wore on I had to concede that she, like her fellow citizens, knew a thing or two about partying.
My final few days were spent away from the city, a little way north up the coast. Set amongst environmentally protected areas, and at the start of the Linha Verde, the coastal road built to minimise its environmental impact, Praia do Forte is a quiet fishing village.
An afternoon stroll took me along the beach towards the village. Crabs scuttled out of my way into the path of oncoming fishermen pulling their boats in. Forgetting for the umpteenth time how close I was to the equator, twilight took me by surprise just after 5pm, so I headed for artificial light. A group of old baseball-capped men who’d clearly been better prepared for the speedy nightfall had installed themselves outside one of the many thatched bars with their dominoes.
I picked a seat at a café where card players sat around their beer coolers, and old ladies nursed Lucky Strikes and gin. One of the Lucky Strikers came over to join me, and it is a testament less to my linguistic abilities than to her propensity to talk that I managed two hours of ‘conversation’ with her.
She lived in São Paulo, but spent a couple of months here every year with her daughter, because it was warmer, more peaceful, and safer. She greeted everyone who passed by, underlining what she’d said about the friendliness of the place, and told me that she felt the people of Brazil were very open, especially considering the mix of races.
I eventually made my way back to my hotel past a sizeable lagoon, where toads and crickets were sending out an enormous howl of welcome to the cool dusk.
Praia do Forte’s resort takes full advantage of the area’s well-endowed ecology to educate and occupy its guests, particularly as the village is also home to the TAMAR project for turtle preservation. Started privately in 1980, and later taken over and developed by the government, the project operates all around the country to protect marine turtles and their eggs. Only two out of every 1,000 turtles hatched survive, but TAMAR works with former poachers – putting their nest-finding expertise to good use – to lengthen the odds.
I was there a couple of months after hatching season, and tanks bustled with scores of rescued baby turtles, while adults paddled lazily around others. Turtles can go days underwater, but these ones were clearly used to public appearances, and obliged by popping up every so often.
Dendê and mango trees lined the red-dirt track leading to the reserve, where the gap-toothed gatekeeper, dressed inexplicably in camouflage waved us in. I smiled conspiratorially at the boy I assumed was sneaking in on the back of the jeep until Maiumi, my biologist guide, told me that Pedro was going to lead our trek.
I had my reservations about the ethics – and use – of a 12-year-old guide, but she explained that the park authorities like to involve the local communities, and his job was conditional on school attendance. Besides which, it soon became clear that he knew an impressive amount about the Atlantic forest’s plants and their practical and medicinal uses.
He showed us Old Man’s Ankle, a plant good for stomach ache; evidence of monkeys having bitten trees to drink the resin; bromelia cacti with their abundant stores of water; and found us berries to nibble apprehensively along the way.
Stepping down the natural flights of stairs created by tree roots, I chatted with Maiumi, whose social conscience and love of nature had brought her here from São Paulo to teach illiterate adults. I asked what celebrations had taken place to mark the 500th anniversary of Portuguese discovery.
“What is there to celebrate?” she asked indignantly. “The Indians ‘discovered’ Brazil first. Do we celebrate killing the Indians? Cutting down all the forests? Bringing the slaves over?”
These were nothing to be proud of. Perhaps what should have been celebrated was the unique place it has become, despite and because of these things. Besides, who in Brazil needs an excuse for a party?
When to go: Such a huge country experiences different weather in different regions, but generally, June to August is winter. Summer is December to February, when temperatures can get into the 30s and crowds are swelled by holidaying Brazilians. The north-east is dry and generally temperate, with warm winters and bearable summers.
Festivals are also an important consideration. The procession leading to Salvador’s Senhor do Bonfim church, at the beginning of January, is a great example of religious fusion: Candomblistas associate Senhor do Bonfim (the crucified Jesus) with Oxala, one of the most important orixás. Carnival lasts for seven days up to Ash Wednesday, and although smaller than Rio’s, it’s said to be more crowd-friendly. June sees celebrations of three saints’ days in quick succession.
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