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.