Destination Brasil

Olinda: The Bewitched Sister of Recife

Olinda, founded by Duarte Coelho around 1535, is the former capital of the state of Pernambuco and the setting for several battles fought by the Portuguese. It turned its defeat into treasure, flourishing with history, culture and tradition. Today Olinda enjoys an idyllic state of peace and quiet, except at carnival time.

Por Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Luis Eduardo Guillén


I must confess that I clearly felt that I was on a border. We left our hotel on Avenida Boa Viagem, moving through the traffic and bustle of the city of Recife in northeastern Brazil. When we got out of our minibus, I suddenly found myself in the middle of the languid tranquility of a village. In the Praça do Carmo, we could hear only the distant shouts of a radio announcer and the pleasant chatter of a group of students leaving a nearby school. Perhaps the nearby hill, crowned by the Igreja do Carmo, muffled the noise, turning this space into a type of anteroom to calm us down. Everyone who visits Olinda, the dreamy and bewitched sister city of Recife, feels this calm.

This wasn’t always the case. Olinda was built to govern the very rich Portuguese colony of Pernambuco. Although the exact date of its founding is unknown, it had to be before 1535, because by 1537, Olinda was already considered small town. In fact, the church that welcomes us was built in 1581 by an order of Carmelite monks; it claims to be the oldest in the city. This square is in a hollow, between the church hill and a more prominent elevation, bristling with hundreds of tiled roofs, façades in a thousand colors, and ornate bell towers adorned with the skill of a confectioner. This place is called the Cidade Alta (High City), a hill crowned by a thick, beautiful, forest called Horto D’el Rey (the King’s Garden).

Such a complex is a chorus of colors and a treat to the eye. We start with the first voice in the ensemble; in front of a beet red house, tinged with white plaster, opened umbrellas hang from balconies. The emerald green house next-door displays the same umbrellas on its porch. The umbrella, which comes in various sizes and colors, is called a frevo in Portuguese. It is used as the main prop in a traditional dance, also called the frevo, which has become a symbol of the city, Pernambuco, and Brazil itself. Although the frevo is danced all year long, it really takes over the streets of Olinda, Recife, and the rest of northeastern Brazil during Carnival.

The dance is a symbol of Olinda, but I suppose that the fact that we’re visiting the city shortly after the Bacchus and Momo celebrations explains why there are so many frevos in sight. The streets we climb are very calm. How could anyone imagine the havoc that these variegated, colorful façades have seen in their centuries-old existence? Dutch troops climbed these same cobblestone streets, lined with bullets and blood, under the command of Mauricio de Nassau; in 1630, they seized the colony from the Portuguese, expelling most of them for nearly twenty years. In 1631, the Dutch stripped Olinda’s homes, churches, and public buildings of any worthwhile building material, setting the city ablaze and moving the capital of Pernambuco to the nearby port of Recife.

Olinda was brought to its knees, overwhelmed by the wild, aggressive vegetation of the northeast until 1654, when the Portuguese reclaimed the colony and began the slow process of rebuilding it. Even then, the fate of the old colonial capital remained hindered by its upstart neighbor Recife, which continued to expand by virtue of its better port. It eventually eclipsed its predecessor, dominating the region’s commercial and government activities. So, Pernambuco’s first choice had to live with its memories, plunging into the wistfulness of a provincial city and summer retreat, living in the shadow of the ambitious Recife, which feasted on the royalties of the sugar trade.

Olinda’s churches, monasteries, and convents were the exception, rebuilt with enthusiastic diligence by the religious orders. One of the most important examples is the Igreja de São Salvador do Mundo, better known as the Igreja da Sé. Set on a hill that offers a sweeping view of the city, the original version of the church was built by the founder of Olinda, Duarte Coelho, out of taipa (adobe, thatch, or however you refer to the structures built of sugarcane or sticks covered with a mix of mud, straw, and in some areas, cow dung). As the years passed, the church was gradually expanded and embellished. During the Dutch occupation, Calvinists used it for worship and in 1676, when Olinda went from being a small town to a city, it was consecrated as a cathedral. Being accustomed to the sumptuous and colorful decoration of other Latin American colonial churches, I was taken aback by the sobriety of the interior of Sé —perhaps something of the Calvinist austerity still persists here.

The old Casa de Agua is also nearby. Built in 1934, it appears to challenge the surrounding buildings with the meridian rectitude of its modern lines. Restored in 2011, it has closed-off areas for exhibits and cultural events, as well as an elevator and terraces offering panoramic views of both Olinda and Recife, now united in the same urban area. In fact, Alto da Sé was completely restored in 2004 to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the Portuguese return to power in Pernambuco. There are several handicraft stands in the area ideal for admiring, browsing, and buying. Perhaps a couple of troubadours will approach you and, for a few Brazilian reais, improvise some ballads for you, as they did for us.

If you are really serious about shopping for handicrafts however, you should go to the Eufrásio Barbosa Market, where you can get the best wood, fabric, and leather crafts made by the artisans of Pernambuco. And your visit may coincide with an exhibit or folkloric show because the market has additional areas to accommodate such events. The Mercado da Ribeira also offers excellent handicrafts; in addition to enjoying the colorful products of Pernambuco, we admire an exhibit of bonecos, the gigantic doll figures that appear during carnival time, sticking out of the crowd. Carnival is the only season of the year when Olinda sacrifices its idyllic peace and tranquility. For several weeks, the city’s streets overflow with revelers, reaching a peak at the Quatro Cantos intersection. It’s hard to imagine how these narrow streets are able to handle the thousands of revelers.

With the noontime sun now upon us, our guide offers us a restorative surprise: Beijupira, a restaurant tucked away in the middle of a lush tropical garden. We recover from the sun’s glare and heat and enjoy some of the delicacies of the cuisine of northeastern Brazil. There are many dining options in Olinda, from upscale restaurants, like Beijupira, to small family inns. Later, as we descend the Alto da Sé, we notice handicrafts for sale in the entryways of many homes.

After enjoying our hearty lunch to the rhythm of a conversation in Portuñol (a mix of Portuguese and Spanish), accompanied by excellent Brazilian coffee, we resume our tour of the sites that await us in the afternoon. Our steps lead us to the Igreja de Nossa Senhora das Neves, built by the Franciscans in 1585. Despite the order’s vows of poverty, this monastery has been classified as one of Brazil’s richest. In addition to the church of the same name, there are also the San Roque and Santa Ana chapels, the latter of which is adorned by sixteen panels of Portuguese tiles, depicting the life and death of St. Francis. Looking at the tiles revives us; we arrived here in the middle of the afternoon, a time when no one dares peek out of the doorways of Olinda. The only living creatures interested in doing anything under the glare of the sun are the incessantly singing crickets.

We enter a small café close to Quatro Cantos to relax. In this prelude to the night, when the shadows become long and the lights brighten softly, we drink some tangerine caipirinhas with pleasure, sitting on a terrace, lulled by a guitarist who croons bossa nova classics as only a Brazilian can. It’s time to go; Olinda doesn’t have the madness that nightlife demands. It leaves such capers to its younger sister, Recife. The first capital of Pernambuco knew how to turn its defeat into treasure, flourishing with history, culture, and tradition, for the benefit of its children and all Brazilians, and for the entire world’s enjoyment.


This tour was made possible thanks to the support of the Ministry of Tourism of the State of Pernambuco.

You can find additional information about Olinda at









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