An off-the-map village, an endangered tribe and endless empty sands – travel to southern Bahia to discover Brazil's really wild side
There's an unwritten rule that when a full moon shines on the village of Caraíva, it’s lights out. Once a month, the 300 residents of this curious Brazilian beachside community synchronise their switch-off, so that their sandy streets are illuminated only by flickering candles and an ethereal lunar luminescence.
Squeezed between the Atlantic and the Rio Caraíva, and hemmed in by Monte Pascoal National Park, this sleepy spot occupies a spit of land on Brazil’s east coast. Essentially cut off from the mainland and the modern world – there are no roads, cars or bridges, and electricity only arrived in 2008 – Caraíva has retained a sense of yesteryear.
The hippies turned up in the 1970s as whispers spread of this secret, sundrenched idyll. Its location on southern Bahia’s undeveloped coast has helped it remain off the radar but I’d heard rumours, and was lured by the promise of miles of pristine, deserted shores, quiet little towns and endangered indigenous peoples.
The nearest city is Porto Seguro, 100km to the north. With guide Alex behind the wheel (driving a little too fast for comfort), we sped along unpaved roads passing infinite papaya plantations, fields of coffee and blink-and-miss-them villages with endearing names such as Vale Verde (Green Valley).
“I holidayed in Caraíva as a child. Back then it took us three days to get there along this road – we were forever getting stuck in the mud,” said Alex. “I want to retire there. It’s paradise. Many Brazilians know about it but it’s still hard to get to, so few bother visiting.” Caraíva (pronounced kara-ee-va) appeared on the other side of a cloudy river: small huts painted in almost fluorescent shades of pink, yellow, blue and green against a backdrop of tropical plants.
Breeza was waiting to meet us on the dock. She had big brown eyes and dark hair speckled with grey – and just like all the other ‘taxis’ waiting nearby, she was chomping on the long grass. “There are no cars here, so all the taxis in Caraíva are horse and carts,” explained Alex as Breeza set off , bound for our guesthouse.
The short journey took us along a narrow sandy street where geese waddled and men sat under shady palm trees sipping beer. A lady stood in the shallows, descaling a red snapper for that evening’s dinner. Alex sighed: “Man, I love this place.”
Welcome to paradise
Even on first impressions, Caraíva was clearly a place where even the most stressed of travellers would feel their shoulders drop. It was also plain to see that tourism has reached these parts. There were Japanese fusion restaurants, shops selling organic skincare products and several dozen guesthouses, the biggest of which has 12 rooms.
I was staying at Casa da Praia, run by husband-and-wife team Fabio and Claudia Freitas. “The south of Bahia is very different from the rest of the country and even the rest of the state,” said Fabio, who in a previous life worked in the cemetery business before relocating to live a life beside the sea. “Carnival season here lasts much longer because people don’t like to work,” he laughed, before offering to show me around.
The beach was a stone’s throw away. It was long, golden and deserted. I gazed out across the Atlantic, hopeful of a glimpse of the whales and dolphins that are often spotted. Further along the coast, around 30km to the north, was Trancoso, a glossy resort town well established as a haven for the rich and famous. Naomi Campbell has a house there. It was along here on 22 April 1500 that the Portuguese first set eyes on this mysterious new land. Spotting the rounded peak of Monte Pascoal, and in desperate need of freshwater, they negotiated the rocky reefs and entered the rivers. Some of the shipmates were left on land to make contact with the native Tupiniquin people and went on to establish one of the first settlements in the region.
The 1960s brought change of another kind. As Bahia started to develop and the road network expanded, isolated communities like Caraíva changed forever. Eighty-six-year-old Maria Dos Santos remembers the time well. I met her during my afternoon stroll around the village with Fabio as she and her daughter Edite were lazing on their porch. “Everything came by boat back then,” said Maria, adjusting her lime-green nightie. “That soon changed. Roads were built nearby and lots of people started to leave.”
Caraíva’s current population stands at 328 – barely 10% of the number before the roads came. Maria and Edite’s simple home overlooked Caraíva’s origins: its Catholic church. The white-and-blue building was hung with red bunting, and patches of the original stone and coral foundations were visible. Across the road was the cemetery. Graves sat under twisted cashew trees and clusters of nettles. The large padlock on the gate didn’t faze Fabio. “It’s only a small cemetery,” he said, picking the lock. “Nobody dies here.”
Fabio and I strolled back to the hotel. At the beachside bar, ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ played on the stereo over the sounds of birdsong and waves. A lone fisherman was slowly guiding his boat back to land. A couple from Hamburg were enjoying scoops of açaí
ice-cream; they told me they were on a self-drive trip along the BR-101 highway. “We’ve come all the way from southern Brazil,” the man said. “It’s much nicer up here, far less crowded and developed. Where else in the world is like this?”
“We’d never heard of this place but people told us,” added his wife. “The road maps are not so good – no mention of Caraíva. It’s off the map – literally.”
Going off piste
There was no need for a map the following morning as Alex and I set off to explore the surrounding area in an open-sided buggy. We sped past farms that sat in the shadow of Monte Pascoal, the forested peak that rises 586m above the valley. We skirted through the national park of the same name – a wilderness of rainforest and swamps stalked by jaguars, sloths and spider monkeys – before cruising along the beach. Up ahead, like dark specks of vanilla in a bowl of custard, were dozens of strange shapes on the yellow sand: a gathering of black vultures feasting on an all-you-can-eat-buffet of dead turtle.
Ditching the buggy, we hopped into a small boat to cross a stream so narrow and shallow I was convinced we could have waded over on foot. On the other side of the water was the village of Corumbau, a place even more laid-back than Caraíva. Native arrocha music and the smell of barbecuing oysters filled the warm air. Hunched over hot coals, the chef tendered to the large stash of oysters he had collected that morning. “Delicious with a splash of lemon,” he beamed, offering one to me.
We walked through the village and along the length of the deserted beach, spying vultures atop the concrete lighthouse. Ahead was a slither of a sandbank that jutted out into the cobalt water. “This place is packed every weekend,” said Alex. It seemed impossible. Today, it was just us, two buxom ladies with true Bahia booties and countless pale-grey seabirds.
The large flock suddenly took flight, soaring through the air in one impressive formation. Among them, darting around skittishly, was the source of their anxiety: a lone predator. The eagle selected its target and went in full pursuit, separating the bird from the rest of the flock. Swooping low, the raptor followed its prey relentlessly.
I watched the drama while dipping my toes into the warm water; it was still unfolding as I ventured in deeper, wallowing happily and watching the rain clouds out at sea. The silence was broken by Alex. “Man, I love this place,” he said, not for the first or last time that day.
Tribe on the edge
The beautiful beaches of Bahia have pulling power but there’s also a history and a soul here that’s every bit as alluring. After the local Tupiniquin were displaced by the Portuguese, the Gê tribe moved in and attacked the colonisers. They proved formidable opponents, but gradually declined due to disease; however, their descendents – the Pataxó – are still here, and still embattled.
The largest of the state’s seven indigenous groups, the Pataxó were handed land around Caraíva in 1926, which was designated a protected Indian reserve. It came under almost instant attack from cattle ranchers and farmers, with a nod from the government. Now, though, a different challenge faces them.
Arriving at the village of Aldeia – more Mediterranean villas than native tipis and mudhouses – I was granted an audience with the local chief, a friendly chap called Awrau. “It’s a stressful job but an important one. I’m proud to represent my people,” he said. Awrau invited us into his modern home. Hanging on the wall were framed photos of departed relatives wearing giant beads made from coconut shells and extravagant feathered headdresses. “The past is painful,” said Awrau, speaking of the centuries gone by since the Portuguese arrived. “We feel sad about that period but that’s over now. We must live with and learn from each other.”
The group suffered more bloodshed in 1951 when a wealthy farmer from Corumbau was kidnapped. Police forces from the north and south sprang into action sparking a bloody gun battle, with the Indian caught in the crossfire. “Many died and many more fled. Most didn’t return for 20 years. Slowly they came back and we began rebuilding the village.”
The mood in the room was sombre but outside children played, music blaring from their mobile phones. “We have modern homes, with TV and internet, but our traditions are intact,” insisted Awrau. “Our community spirit is still alive. We continue to use medicinal plants to heal the sick. We still fish for our food and we still build our own furniture.”
But like indigenous communities the world over, such traditions are increasingly under strain as younger generations seek a different path in the wider world. As you’d expect from a wise Indian chief, Awrau had the answer. “It’s a big worry but we cannot pretend the modern world doesn’t exist. We allow our young to leave and go to university in the big cities under the promise that they return with their newfound knowledge and skills to make the village better.”
The secret beach
On my final afternoon I pondered the future of the Pataxó while attempting to stand-up paddle-surf on the Rio Caraíva, a popular pastime in these parts, and – in theory – a much more relaxed way to take in the scenery. Fabio taught me the basics as we zig-zagged our way across the water, which was lined on both sides by impenetrable mangroves. The silence and solitude intensified with every bend of the river, the sounds of the village growing fainter with each stroke. I proved to be a natural, falling in only four times... My feet sank into the riverbed’s thick mud and knocked against large boulders, unseen in the murky depths. “Don’t worry,” laughed Fabio as I thrashed around, trying to get back on my board. “There’s no danger here – no crocodiles or snakes.”
The wind picked up, propelling us forwards and creating ripples that danced across the sepia surface. I stopped to gaze up at the green mountaintops; a row of palm trees stood on the highest ridge, like swaying scarecrows. Fabio paddled close to the mangroves and paused beside a gap so small I hadn’t even spotted it. He vanished into the darkness, leaving me alone on the river. I quickly followed him, crouching down to squeeze through the narrow channel.
On the other side was Caraíva’s parting gift: the smallest beach I have ever seen, barely ten paces long, backed by a steep slope. Fabio and I raced to the top, reaching the sandy summit just as the setting sun gently kissed the peaks, basking the river and mangroves below in the warmest of amber glows – a farewell glimpse of Bahia’s special little secret.
Make it happen...
The author travelled with Journey Latin America
. An 11-day trip to the Bahia region, visiting Salvador, Chapada Diamantina and Caraíva, includes flights from London, domestic flights, all transfers, B&B accommodation and some excursions. There are no direct flights to Salvador (for Bahia) from the UK. The author travelled with Tap Portugal
, which offers daily flights to Salvador with easy connections via Lisbon. Travel time is around 12 hours, depending on the stopover. Main image: Caraiva beach, in Bahia (Shutterstock)