Destination Brasil

The Sweet Sacrifice of Discovering Pelourinho

Panorama of the Americas suggests a stroll through streets lined with houses, churches, and aristocratic palaces in a celebration of the senses so intense it will make you want to stay here forever.

By: Gaspar Victoria
Photos: Javier Pinzón

It requires a certain amount of strength to stroll the neighborhood of Pelourinho in the Brazilian city of Salvador. The wind grabs hold of you, striving to embrace you when you pause in the shade of a façade or a tree; you’re brought to a standstill by the inhabitants’ speech, so like a song of fulsome compliments; the rhythm of the berimbau seizes you and persistently induces you to sensuously sway your hips; the color of the façades filters into your eyes and dazzles you; and aromas wafting from kitchens tug at your nostrils in an attempt to lead you to the food. Yes, it takes a certain amount of fortitude to stroll the streets of Pelourinho, but my work has inured me to precisely these kinds of challenges over the years, so I’m used to making this type of sacrifice.

My “ordeal” begins at my lodgings in the Hotel Fera Palace. Built in the 1930s and recently restored, it evokes the glamour of Art Deco, but with a modern twist. I wait for the rest of my group while sipping a cocktail and admiring the lobby. I’d like to blend into the scenery, put on a Panama hat and don a 3-piece suit of pale corduroy in case I should encounter the shades of Orson Welles, Pablo Neruda, Carmen Miranda, or any of the other illustrious former guests of this hotel.

Back outside, we head toward Calle Chile, once the city’s most elegant shopping avenue, which links the historic district to business districts closer to the port. Calle Chile makes a sharp turn into Praça de Sé and from there it’s a couple of blocks to Largo Terreiro de Jesús. Even before rounding the last corner and stepping into this enormous space, you can feel the hypnotic cadence of the berimbau that accompanies a group practicing capoeira. Gentle at first, the dance grows in intensity until bodies curve into a dialogue of blurred movements set to the rhythm of the pandeiro, the caxixi, and the reco-reco, among other percussion instruments.

Capoeira’s rapidly-shifting dynamics of torsos and legs holds your attention for a while, but eventually you look up, turn your head, and notice the government and religious buildings of what was once the town’s nerve center during a good part of the Colonial period’s glory days and beyond. To the northwest sits the Basilica of Salvador, built in 1933 atop the remains of a Jesuit church. Each one of its three doors is topped with one of the patron saints of the Jesuit order: St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, and St. Francis Borgia.

The church and convent of the Third Order of St. Francis on the plaza’s southern side are reached by crossing a vast expanse of cafés, small hotels, and handicraft shops, where tourists ramble about and local residents play dominoes or sit in doorways to chat and watch the world go by. The severity of St. Francis is misleading; I barely step through the sacristy doors before finding myself facing a chaotic wood and tempera saga that narrates the prophetic dreams of St. Francis, mixed with biblical scenes. Inside the church, my eyes follow the classic gold curlicues that snake along the walls and ceiling in a representation of the Portuguese baroque style. It is said that scraping all the gold leaf off the carvings would yield nearly 2,000 pounds of the precious metal.

Other important buildings in the Terreiro are the churches of São Pedro dos Clérigos and São Domingos de Gusmão, along with the former School of Medicine, which currently houses the Afro-Brazilian Museum, a rich trove of art, clothing, ritual masks, musical instruments, and ceramic objects. The influence of Afro-descendants is naturally a fundamental part of the history and cultural legacy of Salvador.

For decades, the Terreiro was less significant than another public space that symbolized contempt and terror for peoples brought from Africa, but it is now essentially an epicenter of culture in Salvador. We’re talking about the slopes of Pelourinho, some 1,000 feet to the northeast along Calle Alfredo Brito. The Portuguese word pelourinho means “pillory”: a stout pillar equipped with rings to which slaves were chained. I suspect that it was placed on the heights as a form of intimidation: men and women were tortured, many to death, in an elevated position visible to the public.

Fortunately, such a horror no longer exists. Instead, we look up to gaze upon the façades of the Jorge Amado Foundation and the City Museum, institutions committed to the uplift of humanity; the former preserves the legacy of the Bahía author and promotes literature in the state, while the latter conserves cultural treasures that epitomize the city, including its history, religion, cuisine, and art, among other cultural elements. But these are not the only cultural centers located in the splendid neighborhood of Pelourinho. The drumming and song emanating from the Bahía Folk Ballet’s rehearsal can always be heard close to the slope, and the nearby streets are home to the Eugenio Teixeira Leal, Tempostal, and Abelardo Rodrigues museums, along with the Museum of the Imaginary Object and the Museum of Bahía Cuisine. Wishing to learn a little about the ingredients that make Salvador a gastronomic destination, we head for this last museum.

Northeastern cuisine in general, and Bahía cuisine in particular, is so extensive, complex, sophisticated, and delicious that it has become a key element of Brazil’s culinary identity. The museum introduces us to foods like dendé (palm) oil and fariña (cassava flour), both essential to dishes like moqueca (fish or seafood stew), tapioca, and the essential acarajé (deep-fried balls of mashed beans). We wrap up our visit with lunch at the nearby Pelourinho Senac Restaurant School. During my brief visit here I want to collect as many taste experiences as I can without busting the buttons of my trousers, so I turn my plate into a painter’s palette of small portions of as many delights as possible.

After a splendid lunch and lovely postprandial conversation, complemented by the delicious and aromatic local coffee, we press on to the last part of our day: a walk to Largo do Santo Antônio Além do Carmo. Tourists generally make this trip by bus, but the sinful amount of calories we have consumed weighs on our consciences (and on our stomachs) and we walk the mile to our destination as a self-imposed penance.

We make our pilgrimage along Ladera do Carmo and Rua Direita de Santo Antônio at our own pace, enjoying the brightly-colored façades and pausing in front of the most important structures: the Church of the Santíssimo Sacramento, for example, and the Church of Carmo, which gives its name to this neighborhood.

Next to this latter stands the Carmo Convent, which has been converted into one of the most exclusive hotels in Bahia. The walk carries us away from the hustle and bustle of the heavily-touristed Pelourinho and Terreiro and gives us a glimpse of the residents’ daily lives behind the doors and shutters.

The food-induced stupor has dissipated by the time we reach Santo Antônio Além do Carmo (meaning “beyond Carmel”). Long isolated from the tourist boom in the center of Pelourinho, this neighborhood is the place to seek out the workshops of artists and artisans. In the plaza stands one of the city’s oldest churches, the parish church of Santo Antônio, the architecture of which evinces styles that run the gamut from baroque to neo-Classical. Next door, the Santo Antônio Fortress marks the northern border of the historic district.

A seat of resistance during the second Dutch invasion in 1638, the fortress is currently known as Fortaleza de Capoeira, since various schools of this martial-arts dance have been practiced here since the 1980s.

The afternoon shadows lengthen and we head for our last —actually next-to-last— stop: the Monument to Tomé de Souza, the city’s founder and Brazil’s first governor. A look around the plaza gives us a sense of the power of government and the march of history: the plaza is flanked by Salvador’s City Hall, constructed in 1549 shortly after the city was founded; the Rio Branco Palace, rebuilt in 1859 in the Republican style, and home to Bahía’s federal governor; and the modern Prefecture of Salvador (built in 1973), designed by architect João da Gama Filgueiras Lima, who cut his professional teeth during the building of Brasilia.

One other thing we should mention is the Lacerda Elevator, which links the upper city with the port. The current version of the Elevator dates to 1930.  Don’t be frightened if you feel like it’s descending very quickly: it is designed to do just that, given that every day it serves thousands of Soteropolitanos, as natives of Salvador are called. The Modelo Market awaits at the end of the ride, so you’ll quickly forget any discomfort. Although it is not actually part of the Colonial district, the Market is still historic. Built in 1912, it features handicrafts shops and restaurants on the second floor. It is here, sitting under the umbrellas on the terrace with good beers in hand as we wait for the sun to set, that Pelourinho imposes its last and most difficult test on me: making me leave when I don’t want to.


How to Get There

Copa Airlines offers 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) leaves Tuesdays and Saturdays at 3:15 p.m. from Panama City, arriving in Salvador at 12:30 a.m. the following morning. The inbound flight (475) leaves Salvador at 1:30 a.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays, landing in Panama City at 6:50 a.m. Further information at