Sunday, December 8, 2013

Visiting Salvador, Bahia – simply amazing

Trying to write briefly about Salvador, the city that is in many ways Brazil’s cultural beating heart, is a bit like trying to introduce someone to Paris, or Istanbul or New Orleans. There is no short story about this place. Or better, the real story is a long story. Everything else is a simple glimpse, a narrow impression. A beautiful amazing glimpse, but by its nature limited in scope. Still, it’s all good. Here are a few impressions from our most recent visit.

The amazing bamboo cathedral lining the road to and from the airport.

Salvador has some serious history. The place oozes with it. The indigenous folks had been living in the area for goddess knows how long when the Portuguese stumbled upon them in 1501. Those first few encounters didn’t go very well for the Portuguese colonialists resulting in a couple of the early ones being eaten by the locals. Over time the natives (wrongly, as it turned out) warmed to the newcomers and eventually tried coexistence.

As most all of these historical tales go, the demands of the Portuguese crown pushed for the establishment of its own territory, Brazil, and then its first colonial capital city, Salvador, established in 1549.  The Catholic Church was down with that whole taking of territory thing as long as the Portuguese converted the natives to Christianity (adding that it was OK by the Church to enslave those native peoples who refused to be converted, and later, those of the tribe that had eaten Brazil’s first Bishop). And so a nation was born. (To read a more complete, still brief, but well compiled historical account, from which I have drawn these observations, go here.)

It is the history of Brazil’s African slave trade that cast the die of Salvador and as a visitor today you see it and feel it (and smell it and taste it) every minute you are there. The vibe is in some ways both ultimately triumphal as well as suffocating in its heaviness.

Salvador served as Brazil’s main port of entry for human slave labor, receiving nearly 1.3 million people. This one city in Brazil trafficked in more enslaved Africans than all of the United States. According to noted historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., the United States incorporated approximately 450,000 African slaves over the course of the slave trade while Brazil brought in more than 10 times that number at 4.86 million. And again, Salvador was the main port of entry. I encourage you to Google for hours and gather a rich record of this dark period in Brazil’s history and its impact lasting through to the present.

Luiz and I had been to Salvador some 11 years earlier. During that first visit we took care to explore many museums, churches, historical monuments and various neighborhoods. There is so much to take in to truly get some perspective on where you are standing. A decent visit takes a good week or longer just to dig in a little.  This time around we were keen to divide our time between just two locations: the Barra district, specifically Porto da Barra, and the central historic Pelourinho district. Our plan was to sit on the beach and relax, with a little sightseeing thrown in.

The view from our bedroom - for just R$70 a night!

Our friends Carlinhos and Du lived in Barra for several years a while back and gave us a personal referral to a friend of theirs who rents efficiency suites right on Farol de Barra beach (well, across the street from the beach). Lucky us! We had the PERFECT location. Our bedroom (plus a kitchen and bath) was on the second floor of a 1920s building with a view of the water. We literally felt like we were on the beach when sitting up in our bed. And to make it all better than perfect the rate was 50% less than even the cheapest near comparable room in the neighborhood. Brazil – it’s all about the personal connections.

The tiny beach in Barra gets its name from the adjacent lighthouse (farol). As beaches in Brazil go this one is quite small. But for urban dwellers and tourists alike it is a welcome respite from the otherwise crowded and cacophonous surroundings. Located at the tip of the peninsula that is Salvador and as such at the mouth of the bay which defines the region, the beach has a long history. The Porto Farol neighborhood is rich in historic architecture and includes several museums, forts and churches of interest.

There is as well a terrific arts institute with a gallery and gift shop filled with typical local artworks of superior quality at damn good prices. Visiting Instituto de Artesanato Visconde de Mauá is a MUST, if you are into that sort of thing. Forget about the mass produced touristy stuff for sale at the typically pointed out Mercado Modelo in Centro. Check out the Instituto’s website for more details and photos of the artwork available.

For the most part while in our snug historic neighborhood we stuck to the beach. On any sunny day this popular beach is cheek to jowl with chairs and umbrellas. Local folks fiercely work this patch of sand. Any number of guys will rent you some chairs and an umbrella, then keep you in beverages. Itinerant food vendors wander through the crowd with everything from empadinhas to frozen fruit pops to charred cheese or shrimp on a stick to roasted nuts. We ate an amazing plate of the local  favorite: acarajé. It was served up fresh and for only R$5.  I got the non-fried alternative abará. Don’t get me wrong, I love the smell and taste of dendê oil, which is central to the preparation of acarajé, but this boy has got to watch his calories. Luiz shared a taste of his so I could avoid total blasphemy.


If you need more sunscreen, a hat, a new bikini, another conga,  a foot massage, or whatever else – there are folks to help you out with that. Have small kids? Need an inflatable splash pool for the babies? There was a guy renting those as well (inflated and filled to your satisfaction). And of course there was the colorful caipirinha bartender shaking them up bem gelada pra você.

Then periodically, just to remind you how nice he is and that he can get you a fresh cold beer or soda, the chair/umbrella guy comes by carrying a big garden watering can and cools down your feet with some sea water. Qualidade de vida, baby.

Over in the Pelorinho district things have changed since the last time we were in Salvador. In fact they have changed rather dramatically and for the better.

While I was blown away by how amazing Salvador is the first time I went there, I did pull back in the face of what seemed to be a constant barrage of pestering people on the streets seeking spare change or trying to get me to buy some whateveritwas item from their outstretched hand. As a tourist and additionally because I am a gringo I was targeted by locals to fork over some “extra” money in some way or another. It was annoying and exhausting and it extended beyond the boundaries of the Pelorinho tourist district. After dark when the streets were less populated it went so far as to feel unsafe. On this trip this situation was significantly different. We were practically never approached on the streets.

Structurally speaking the whole Pelorinho area has clearly been on the receiving end of development assistance to turn a slummed-out, abandoned, decaying district into a restored, revitalized and repopulated now-vibrant and safe(r) cultural district that serves both tourists and the local community. The change was like night and day. Pelourinho is back! Now there are museums, cultural centers, nonprofit organizations, restaurants and clubs, pousadas and hostels and shops, shops, shops. And a constant police presence to discourage petty crime on the street.

I have no clear idea how this happened aside from an obvious commitment from the city/state/federal governments to restore a cultural jewel (and designated UNESCO site). It is my hope that there has been some level of local input, shared opportunity and mutual reward for all stakeholders. But then, you know how that goes…  Whatever the case, the place is now a very desirable historic center that provides rich cultural experiences to both tourists and residents alike. There is a reason that every tourist should spend some time there while visiting Salvador.

Luiz and I wandered the narrow streets, enjoyed a couple delicious lunchtime meals, did some shopping for stylish summer wear and of course popped in to Mercado Modelo (mostly for a moqueca lunch with a view) at the base of the elevator that shuttles residents from lower to upper Salvador and vice versa.

So in summary (ha – even a simple glimpse of Salvador turns into a bit of a long story…), we loved visiting Salvador a second time and we look forward to our next visit. I, for one, cannot get enough of the rich African-Brazilian cultural vibe that permeates everything with pride and bravado.

There is so much to experience in Salvador it certainly takes multiple visits to take it all in. One (English language) website I found that offers a tremendously thorough look at Salvador, its neighborhoods, music, religions, architecture, history, activities – everything – is here. Don’t be put off by the smattering of self-promoting links to apartment rentals. A gringo’s got to make some money somehow.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Ecotourism in Chapada Diamantina National Park

There are 67 national parks in Brazil. Luiz and I have been to just 7 of them.

The smallest (and most visited) park at about 39 square kilometers (km²) is Tijuca National Park, located entirely within the city borders of Rio de Janeiro. Residents of and visitors to Rio: don’t listen to the scary stories about robberies people banter about to discourage you. It is a great place to hike and it is right in our back yard.

The largest (and currently not open to the public) is Tumucumaque National Park in the Amazon, coming in at nearly 40,000 km² (larger than Belgium). This park covers a huge area of interest to nature lovers. It is supposed to be a testing ground for how to allow the public to visit a sensitive natural area for tremendous enjoyment without tremendous destruction. Scientists and naturalists have been tasked with creating a model plan in this regard. So far I can find no info about a pending grand opening.

Chapada Diamantina National Park, where we just visited, is located in Bahia state in the northeast of Brazil and is among the somewhat larger parks at 1,500 km². The park, created in the 1980s in response to the ever-expanding demand for ecotourism, is named for the steep cliffs that fall off from elevated plateaus throughout the region as well as for the wealth of diamonds discovered in the area during the mid 1800s.

The place is gorgeous as well as diverse. There are rivers and waterfalls, mountains, canyons and plateaus, as well as numerous cave systems. The relatively mild temperatures as well as its long dry season make it a perfect place to go for a hike most of the year.

We traveled with our friends at RJ Adventura. Junior, Margarida and Christiane head up a passionate, friendly and professional ecotourism agency that we trust. On this occasion they were leading two versions of a visit to Capada Diamantina. Half of our group would be heading off into the mountains and onto the plateaus while the other half would stick to the more easily accessed rivers, waterfalls and caves. Luiz and I were eager to do some swimming in the waterfalls and caves.

Everyone met at the airport in Salvador where we boarded a large, comfortable passenger van pulling an equipment trailer. The drive to Lençóis, our jumping off point to adventures beyond, took a lengthy six hours, but we traveled during the evening and night so much of that time was spent sleeping. Once at our destination we settled into the pousada that would be home for the next several days, caught a few more hours of sleep, and then awoke to an early breakfast. Bellies full, our group broke into its two sub-groups and we set off.

At a rest stop on our way to Lençóis. You know the hot sauce is hot when it is called, essentially, "Burn the Butt Hole."

This is pretty much a photo-dense post. Why chat about the view when you can just see it?

The town of Lençóis is the most popular town in the park serving as a jumping off point. It is stocked with pousadas, guide agencies, restaurants and supplies stores. It is an old town established originally to serve diamond prospectors in the mid 1800s. The buildings are historic in nature and generally architecturally interesting and charming. Luiz was quick to point out upon our arrival that the beautiful stone paved streets, central plaza and arched stone bridges came into being by the hands/blood of slaves. It's an important reminder. Nearly all of the beautiful colonial towns you visit in Brazil were built with slave labor.

On our first full day in the park, heading out to Poço Azul (Blue Well), I commented to the driver that it was a good sign that the road was so whack. That way fewer people would be headed this way. He laughed and assured me that this was a recently improved road and that it was used daily by tour buses.

While the houses in the area were quite modest there was apparently a government program providing improved cisterns and water collection. Note the white drum on the left of the house above and the new rain gutters rimming the roof.

At one point along the road, thinking we had been traveling for just too long to be going in the right direction, the driver asked a boy walking along the side of the road if the cave was ahead. The boy said it was "a little long distance" up the road. After a good 15 more minutes we finally arrived at the cave.

Descending into the cave for a swim.
Using snorkels we could see amazing rock formations under the surface.
After a tasty lunch of local foods, including a green papaya salad and some kind of cactus side dish that tasted like crunchy green beans, we headed off to another cave famous for its blue water pool, Poço Encantado.

Between April and September the sun in the sky lines up just right with the entrance to the cave to shine directly into the deep pool within. The light, shining through the water rich with magnesium, sets the cave aglow from the brilliant blue water. As we would have it - we were visiting in November. We saw a really cool cave, but had to rely on photos to see the choice images.

The sign reminds us to take care to preserve things as they are for the benefit of all.
Our guides Christiane and Margo. The pool behind them is 40 meters deep.
After Poço Encantado we returned to town for a cup of coffee and then to visit the local cemetery famous for its Byzantine style and for being lit up at night. 

Photo credit:
The town where you can find this cemetery is Mucugê. I loved this town. I thought it was way cuter than Lençóis. But to be fair, Mucugê is smaller than Lençóis and thus less developed for the tourist crowd. Both towns are wonderfully preserved historic towns with stone paved streets and 100 year old buildings. But for the cuteness factor - I liked Mucugê.

We had coffee at a SUPER CUTE coffee shop. They took themselves VERY seriously on the coffee front. Each coffee drink was served with a tiny cup of mineral water to cleanse your tongue before tasting the coffee. The ambiance was over the moon cute with fresh flowers, art, photographs and everything else. If you visit Mucugê  be sure to stop by Piriquita Café.

On the wall of the café Luiz found proof of global warming.

The next day we set off for another cave and another swim. But first we stopped at a waterfall swimming hole, Poço do Diablo. It was a short hike from the roadway.

Luiz found a shortcut down the cliff to the swimming hole.
ZIP! Splash.
Luiz MUST enter all waterfalls.
On to Gruta Pratinha. There we broke into groups and were outfitted with a flotation vest, mask and snorkel, and an underwater flashlight. A guide took us into a cave where the water was quite deep below us, but the ceiling of the cave was only a couple feet or so above the surface of the water. It was pitch black, but as a group we could light up the walls of the cave and some features below the water.

After the dark area of the cave we shed our equipment and took some photos in the mouth of the cave where there was much more light. Overall it was an amazing experience.


Once back in Lençóis we showered, napped and then went to dinner to celebrate our guide Junior's 38th birthday. He knew we were going to dinner, but was surprised to see the decorating we did and the delicious passion fruit birthday cake.

The birthday boy is in the center.

Oh, I almost forgot. We also climbed to the top of a plateau to get a glimpse of a sunset.

After the sunset we turned around and saw a full moon rising!
Finally, the next day, after a good long sleep, we walked to a very fun swimming hole near Lençóis.

Halfway to the waterfall there was a snack bar made of locally sourced building materials. The proprietors were selling fruit, chips, nuts, sodas, coconut water, regular water and beer. The guys had the perfect location to catch all the traffic. It was a great example of Brazilian make-it-work ingenuity. 

This swimming hole was great because you could slide down the waterfall and splash into the pool below. It was a little bumpy on the butt, but you had to do it all the same. It was a great way to relax away most of our last day before setting off to Salvador much later that evening.

I need to give a shout out to some of the other folks in our group whose photos which we all shared on Face Book  found their way over into this post. For the most part, the really good shots are by either Adilson Rezende or Renato Oliveira. Thanks guys, for helping us capture how beautiful this trip was.

It is worth mentioning as well that this post references the waterfalls and caves group while there was another group that took to the longer, overnight trails with spectacular views. Some of those photos are at the top of this post.

Luiz and I really want to appreciate everyone at RJ Adventura for their passion for nature, commitment to safety, love of people as well as the outdoors, and their totally professional operation that never misses a beat. I have mentioned them before. We have gone with them on day trips in Rio, weekend trips around Rio and Luiz even walked through the clouds from Teresopolis to Petropolis in their company. They are great. We feel totally at home with Junior, Christiane and Margarida. We truly share their enthusiasm and values when it comes to ecotourism and our time under their leadership is never disappointing. Check them out at their Face Book page. (Margarita speaks English very well so English-only guests do not miss out on any information.) If you connect with them - tell them Luiz and Jim sent you.

Here's Luiz waking up above the clouds on the RJ Adventura trek from Teresopolis to Petropolis.

More to come. I'll save photos and tales of our time in Salvador right after this part of our trip for another post. Stay tuned.