Street parties, sugar plantations, white sands and coral-snorkelling: if you want the Caribbean of old, you need Bahia, in Brazil, says Alex Robinson
Gentle bays where turtles swim in turquoise seas. Dancing feet on cobbled streets… The images filled my thoughts. Carnival drums and carved saints came to mind. Crimson sunsets and freshly cracked coconuts brimming over with juice. If I’d rung up a travel agent and uttered those words I know where they’d have recommended: the Caribbean for two weeks. But I knew precisely where my tropical daydreams could be brought to life — Brazil.
For a while in the Noughties, I lived in Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo. It was friends there — friends who I keep to this day — who’d opened my eyes to the allure of the northeastern state, Bahia. ‘You have to see it,’ I remember them swooning. ‘It’s just like Jamaica or Barbados, but better.’ Of course I went — and not just the once.
In Bahia, Africa was replanted in South America — under coconut palms and in sugarcane plantations cut from parrot-filled forests. Transported slaves were inevitably part of the story — and they held on fiercely to what traditions they could. The legacy for arrivals today? Spicy food, magical saints, street parties and irresistible music. I’ve holidayed in the Caribbean, and Bahia makes me think of what those islands might have been before the cruise ships and high-rise hotels arrived.
Its state capital, Salvador — wow! Never mind Havana, this is the liveliest, most sultry colonial city in the Americas. The food’s unforgettable, the nightlife pulsating, and the white-sand beaches just a half-hour ferry-ride away on Itaparica island. It’s so good that, basically, I’ve never been able to tear myself away.
So that’s where I’d be heading. But those friends again… Ringing me recently, they raved about Boipeba, a reef-fringed island south of Salvador, shrouded with forest, seemingly with more wild horses than people. ‘It puts Itaparica in the shade,’ they said. It stuck in my mind as I finalised my plans. Would Boipeba be the one to seduce me from Salvador’s embrace?
Watching the sun sinking golden over Salvador from the balcony of my hotel room on my first breeze-cooled afternoon, I was already falling back under its spell. The houses of the Pelourinho, the old colonial centre, rolled down a hill below me in tumbledown terracotta and stippled steeples to a Tiffany-blue sea. Itaparica island floated on the horizon. A hummingbird flitted over a bougainvillea tree next to my window and music wafted up from the streets. As the day was ending in buttery yellow light, Salvador was waking up. It was Saturday night and soon it would be dark — time to let the sensuous, spontaneous city carry me away.
Outside the hotel, Terreiro de Jesus Square was a swirl of movement. Afro-Brazilian women in huge bustle skirts and bright headscarves served steaming falafel-like acarajé snacks at lace-draped stalls. The air was sweet with the scent of chilli and shrimp, and danced with the melodious chatter of Brazilian Portuguese. I heard the rat-a-tat of a repinique samba drum echoing from one of the brightly painted houses set around the square, and in the distance, the Voodoo Chile wah-wah twang of a berimbau — the single-string guitar with a gourd for a sound board. I followed the notes along a narrow cobbled street into the thronging heart of the Pelourinho.
Music was everywhere: a normal Salvador weekend entle bays where feels like Trinidad in carnival time. Brazilian reggae oozed from streetside bars, samba skipped across little praças. And somewhere I could hear that most Salvadorean of sounds — an afoxê orchestra warming up. Paul Simon called afoxê the ‘rhythm of the saints’ — a pounding, visceral beat that hits you below the waistline.
It’s played by bands of drummers who parade through the streets with military precision and tribal swing. They energise the Pelourinho at weekends, calling the crowds with bass drums and clattering timbales, and pulling revellers behind them like Pied Pipers with percussion.
First, a drink or two. At my favourite Salvador bar, Uauá, above a narrow street leading into the Pelourinho, I had a ringside seat. As my first Caipirinha arrived, an afoxê band came round the corner. By the second, I was jiggling in my seat, ready to dance. I could already hear the next wave coming.
‘Salvador — wow! Never mind Havana, this is the liveliest, most sultry colonial city in the Americas’
Banda Didá, an all-female percussion band led by a woman with a huge pink Afro burst into the street below me, playing right below my table. A local couple at the next table looked across and smiled. ‘Vamos, amigo!’ they said. I had no choice. Salvador had taken me. So I joined them on the streets, to parade and dance behind Banda Didá, drink more Caipirinhas and finish the night goodness knows when.
Sunday morning woke me with church bells and more percussion. I’d only had a few hours’ sleep, but I couldn’t resist Salvador’s drums.
Later, as I cooled in the hotel pool with an açai-berry smoothie, I could feel myself coming dangerously close to giving in to Salvador’s seductive pull — there were all those markets to revisit, piquant food to sample, more glittering churches, more drum parades…
‘Stay,’ sang Salvador. Boipeba, I reminded myself. I needed to get there before Salvador sucked me in. So I skipped the overland route south via sugarcane fields and chocolate plantations and splashed out on an air taxi.
The flight was spectacular — over the terracotta and high-rise sprawl of Salvador, the glittering Bay of All Saints, specked with white yachts and tiny beach-fringed islands. Then rainforest: ribbons of brown river snaking through the green into swathes of spidery mangroves, white egrets floating above them like wind-drifting petals. An eagle… The mangroves became beaches and beaches and beaches. Then we dropped over a river-mouth harbour with a few wooden fishing boats, a tiny hamlet of cottages, a cocoa tree plantation, a gash of grass cut from the coconut palms… This was Boipeba.
I’d decided to stay in Boipeba village. There were options further south that looked wilder, but I wanted a bit of local life. The island, friends had told me, is cut with trails running through the rainforest, sweeping along the beaches. Don’t just flop on the beach, they said. Boipeba is a place to walk.
My hotel, Pousada Santa Clara, was a delight, shaded by tall branches and set in its own butterfly-filled tropical garden near the village beach. I allowed myself one afternoon to laze in the hammock outside my room, thumbing a paperback and watching as marmoset monkeys played in the trees, and little agoutis — like guinea pigs on stilts — rummaged underneath. In the evening I wandered along the beach into the village, a strip of sand lined with a few thatched bars, and watched the sun sink watermelon-red behind the palms. The moqueca I ordered — a fish stew similar to Jamaican rundown, but with twice the flavour — came in a huge terracotta pot, simmering in coconut and dendê oil, garnished with coriander.
But the locals at the adjacent table — three young men with dreadlocks and tiny Speedos and a woman in an equally tiny bikini — wouldn’t let me eat alone. ‘This is Bahia,’ they laughed. And I was pulled over to join them at their table. Glasses clinked in introduction — ‘Pedro, Chico, João e Andressa.’
‘Meet us on the beach tomorrow,’ they said after dinner. ‘We’ll play capoeira, then show you the way to Moreré. It’s the most beautiful beach on the island.’ Like Salvador, Boipeba had taken hold of me.
The next day I woke early, when the sun was still twinkling low over the sea, its first rays as gentle as the lapping water on Boipeba village’s white beach. Capoeira is tough — a whirligig martial-art dance with intricate steps. I’d never even managed the most basic of them.
But then my new friends appeared, all smiles and high-fives, and the capoeira began — João with the berimbau, me awkwardly bashing out rhythms on a hand drum. And Andressa and Chico began to dance — spinning and swirling at effortless speed. I was dragged in. And with all the rhythm and positive energy of the morning I somehow managed a capoeira ginga — the simplest three-way step that lies behind all capoeira moves. It was the first time I’d mastered it, and I sat down, sweaty, panting and grinning with boyish pleasure at my achievement.
After a cool beach-bar passionfruit juice we set off to Moreré, my toes sinking into the sand as I walked, sending ghost crabs scurrying into their burrows. The path left the sand and cut up into rainforest. An iridescent blue morpho butterfly as big as a handkerchief floated along before us like a spirit guide. Birds chirruped welcomes overhead and a cicada soundwave washed through the trees, hissing like water on a shingly shore. We passed beach after beach, all gorgeous enough to fill a whole day. There was palm-shaded Tassimirim, empty but for a couple of feral horses. (‘You can hire a horse for a beach ride,’ Andressa told me.) Then the long, broad crescent of white-pepper-fine sand at Cueira — which took half an hour to walk across. (‘This is where we come to body-surf,’ said João.) And then Moreré.
Moreré is that beach everyone dreams of — squeaky white sand, turquoise sea, towering coconut palms and a single bamboo kiosk, painted in bright colours, with wooden tables in the sand under a thatch roof. The Caribbean had nothing on this.
We ordered fresh fish straight from the reef and a chilled green coconut. The bartender — like a young Grace Jones — opened it with two swift hacks of a machete. Later we snorkelled over the turtle-filled reef and lazed in tidal pools as big as tennis courts. It was bliss.
And I had a week ahead of me to snorkel, to body-surf, to horse-ride and to wander the forest trails. Salvador had seduced me. But on Boipeba I had fallen in love.
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