THINK BRAZIL and the immediate places that come to mind are Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo. Of late though, Bahia, a region to the north of these two cities, has become increasingly popular – so much so that Lonely Planet voted to include it in its Best in Travel 2018 list.
Bahia occupies the northeast coast of the country and is fringed with white sandy beaches, clear blue waters and islands enclosed by coral reefs. Inland are plantations full of cocoa beans, and the awe-inspiring Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina, renowned for its dramatic waterfalls.
Nature’s gifts aside, it was also the facelift of the state’s capital Salvador that caused international visitors to take notice, undertaken when Salvador was announced as one of the host cities for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Formerly a Portuguese colony and the birthplace of Afro-Brazilian culture, it comes highly recommended by Lonely Planet spokesperson Chris Zeiher: “White sandy beaches, islands circled by colourful coral reefs and forests containing dramatic and wild waterfalls, Bahia is South America at its best. Nicknamed the ‘land of happiness’, this sun-drenched patch of the planet is paradise.”
In Pelourinho, expect an open-air museum of 17th and 18th century architecture, lined with cobblestones. Don’t miss the cathedral and convents of St. Francis, St. Dominic, Carmel and St. Anthony. There are also Baroque-style palaces such as the Archiepiscopal, Saldanha and Ferrão.
Don’t be surprised that as you walk the streets, you chance upon festivals and impromptu street parties. Follow the sounds of the drum corps and their insistent rhythms, and munch on African street food delights like acarajé, a fritter made from mashed black-eyed peas.
Make time for more rural exploits outside of Salvador. Go on a day-trip to Morro de Sao Paulo, which has been compared to a Mediterranean island village. The car-less destination is occupied by three hills and framed by the beach. A must-do is to enjoy a fresh-fruit caipirinha while dancing to the Brazilian beats on the powdery sand.
Then head west to the Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina in the heart of Bahia, previously known for its gem mines. Its relatively undeveloped infrastructure means tourists are few and far in between throughout the 1,500-sqkm area.
This means you get mountains, plateaus, valleys, rivers, swimming holes and waterfalls to yourself. Hikers should pick up a detailed guide from Lencois and know that camping in the park’s small caves is legal and free.
Keeping you company is an abundance of wildlife – everything from monkeys to macaws, deer, quati (a small and furry animal with a brown-and-yellow-ringed tail) and, if you’re lucky, a jaguar.
A dark past
For all this joy and euphoria, Bahia has a history that is chilling and sinister. From the 16th century, Brazil was the entry point to the Americas for ships from Africa laden with slaves – some four million of them.
Of those, 1.5 million went through Salvador and were immediately sent to the nearby sugar plantations to work. Their influence has had a significant impact on the region’s cultural traditions, woven into everything from martial arts to food, music and dance.
Start in Salvador
Capoeira is one of the most famous exports of Brazil but do you know that it has its roots in the slave quarters in Bahia’s sugar plantations? Created as a means of self-defence, the martial art melds acrobatics, dance and music with high kicks and punches.
Today, capoeira is practised on the streets and at the beach, but if you want to get serious, head to the UNESCO-listed historic centre of Salvador, Pelourinho, which houses the traditional academies. Of them, Associação de Capoeira Mestre Bimba is the oldest school in the world.
The feisty energy of the martial art adds to the vibrancy of the state capital. Also feeding it is its legacy as the capital of Portugal’s New World colony, mingled with streaks of Afro-Brazilian influence.