By Juan Abelardo Carles R.
Photos: Javier Pinzón Gómez
“For good or for ill, God gave all the magic to Bahía. God gave it the first carnival and the first pillory, too.” I mentally translate Bahía composer Gilberto Gil’s song as we fly over the vast expanse of Todos los Santos Bay. In 1510, this was where the first Europeans landed as shipwreck victims, with the only survivor being Diogo Álvares, who was taken in by the indigenous people and renamed Caramurú. This was the first capital of the colony, and then of the country, not to mention home to the first church, the first bishopric, etc. In other words, the history of Brazil begins here: this is where the first chords of its songs were heard, along with the first words of its language; this was where the first aromas of its cuisine rose from its fires and where the first psalms of its religions were murmured at its altars.
Since Gil sings of Pelourinho (meaning “pillory”), we start our tour of Salvador in the eponymous plaza that also marks the best preserved part of the city’s historic district. More than a plaza, this is where Calle de Brito and the Ladera de Pelourinho meet as they run downhill. The slave market, hub of that ghastly trade, was located at the highest point, on the slope’s southern side. Across from old mansions that now house the Jorge Amado Foundation and the City Museum, stood the pillory where male and female slaves alike were bound and beaten during the infamous period of slavery.
Only the magic of Salvador was able to transmute the age-old pain of so much suffering into pride in one of the most complex and richest cultural heritages of Brazil and the entire world. The bound women have been replaced by their strong and free daughters, Bahía women in hypnotically swaying skirts and necklaces. Symbols and preservers of much of the city’s cultural heritage, they stroll the streets or pose for tourists in front of mansions painted in vivid pastels.
As for the men, many practice capoeira. While the women congregated on the Ladera del Pelourinho, the men gathered on the Terreiro de Jesus. To the beat of percussion instruments like pandeiro, caxixi, and reco-reco and the strings of the berimbau, the dancers begin to whirl in a dialogue of bodies, slowly at first, and then picking up speed to become mirages. Modern capoeira can be mistaken for dance, while in reality it is a martial art imported from Angola by people brought to Brazil as slaves. This is a result of the Afro-descendants’ need to hide their cultural expressions from the European masters. They likewise hid their gods behind the images of Catholic saints, showing an impressive cultural resilience anchored in syncretism. Dances alluding to Candomblé —though not the ritual dances themselves, which are omitted out of respect— are performed in many Bahía restaurants and cultural centers.
Terreiro de Jesus, the plaza where we watched capoeira, is surrounded by Colonial buildings that exude some of the spirit of early Salvador. For starters, there is the Cathedral, built in 1933 on the site of an old and very palatial Jesuit church. Even more palatial is the San Francisco Church, located on an extension of the Terreiro that runs southward from the main plaza. It is said that, if you include the overlays on altars and reredos and votive offerings from grateful parishioners, this church proudly shows visitors nearly 2,000 pounds of gold. The sacristy is decorated with murals dedicated to the dreams of St. Francis combined with biblical scenes, and the cloister features splendid examples of Portuguese tiles.
The Terreiro de Jesus has yet another two churches: Santo Domingo and San Pedro de los Clérigos. Ladera del Pelourinho is home to a church dedicated to the Virgin of the Rosary, who has traditionally been worshipped by the black population. The Colonial aristocracy competed to build and embellish the city’s churches with an eye to later being buried inside them; they filled the city with enough churches to earn it the nickname of “Brazil’s Vatican City.”
Founded on a hill to facilitate defense, Salvador expanded downward to the lower elevations. The Lacerda elevator makes it easier to move between the higher and lower sections of the city. The current structure, built in the Art Deco style, can be part of your adventure if you combine the elevator with a visit to the Modelo Market, where you can browse a gamut of clothing, jewelry, food, and Bahía handicrafts.
A visit there combines easily with a trip to the Church of Nuestro Señor del Bonfim, which stands a bit off the normal historic circuit. Favored by local inhabitants (or soteropolitanos, as they are known), the church abounds with votive offerings made of wax and colored ribbons, representing petitions to the Saint. The Lord of Bonfim has been worshipped in Salvador since 1745 and Candomblé devotees see him as the equivalent of Oxalá, the father of all their gods. Every year, on the first Thursday after Twelfth Night (Epiphany), all the Saint’s priestesses in the city walk here from the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Playa, balancing containers of holy water on their heads, which they use to clean the church atrium.
Salvador’s urban core tells a thousand and one stories about its rich cultural and historic legacy, but the state of Bahía also has an extraordinary string of beaches along its coast with powdery sand, perennially warm waters, and coconut palms that provide shade and coolness for a late afternoon break. If we head north, for example, we come to Arembepe, a hippie community in Bahía; Jacuipe, or Río de los Pájaros, where you can take a boat to the delta and savor seafood and enjoy a secluded beach; or Praia do Forte, an old fishing village that has acquired hostels, bars, restaurants, and handicraft shops.
Praia de Forte is home to the TAMAR Project, a turtle protection and conservation program. TAMAR came into existence in the early 1980s and is now at the center of an initiative to monitor and research the chelonians; the project has expanded along the rest of the country’s coastline and beyond. Here visitors interact with rescued turtles that cannot be returned to the wild, thereby gaining awareness of the importance of these noble animals in the world’s marine ecosystems.
Toward the south, the tourist zone of Morro de São Paulo is well worth a visit. Located 37 miles south of Salvador, on the other side of the bay, it is not as accessible as the northern shore, but it merits a trip. The white-sand beaches and idyllic surroundings are ideal for water sports like diving, surfing, and wakeboarding. Morro de São Paulo also has its history, since it was here that the Tapirandú fortress was built to protect the southern shore of Todos los Santos Bay from enemies, mainly the Dutch.
Both the city and the northern and southern beaches offer another great Bahía experience: the cuisine. The bollo de frijol or acarajé (deep-fried balls of mashed beans) are a constant temptation, whether plain or filled with shrimp or other seafood. You won’t be able to resist moqueca, or cocido (fish or seafood stew), which tantalizes your taste buds with its aromas of spices and dendé (palm oil). Local restaurants offer endless buffets featuring an array of dishes, so you might start with small portions of everything, making your plate look like a painter’s palette in a useless attempt to absorb, in one sitting, a culinary tradition that encompasses more than five centuries, three continents, and two oceans.
Salvador de Bahía is like that: there is always more. It is an astonishing, never-ending story, with chapter after chapter unfolding to include ever more adventure. A blending of peoples five centuries ago, in what was not the best of circumstances, is now an embrace of fellowship and multi-culturalism that hopes to forge a future as dazzling as the waters that bathe the beaches and as alluring as the soul of Brazil’s first city.
How to Get There
Copa Airlines will offer two flights a week to Salvador de Bahía (Brazil) from North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean through its Hub of the Americas in Panama City. The outbound flight (474) will leave Tuesdays and Saturdays at 3:15 p.m. from Panama City, arriving in Salvador at 12:30 a.m. the following morning. The return flight (475) will leave Salvador at 1:30 a.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays, landing in Panama City at 6:50 a.m. Further information at www.copaair.com
Where to Stay
As a tourist destination, Salvador has a variety of hotels for all budgets. During their visit, the Panorama of the Americas team stayed at the Fera Palace Hotel (www.ferapalacehotel.com.br), a restored Art Deco building with deluxe service in the historic quarter of Salvador. If you would like to stay midway between the center of Salvador and the beaches, the Hotel Deville Prime Salvador is an excellent choice (www.deville.com.br). On the northern beaches, our team enjoyed the hospitality of the Tivoli Ecoresort in Praia do Forte (www.tivolihotels.com).
Further tourist information about Salvador and Bahía at www.setur.ba.gov.br/