Brazil’s history and culture is as diverse as the country’s landscape – from the lush, thick rainforests of the Amazon jungle to the majestic Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro to Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer’s man-made wonders in Brasilia to the sparkling white sandy beaches in Floripa. But it’s really the multiethnic people and the melting pot of cultures that set Brazil apart from other popular travel destinations.
And Salvador de Bahia, Brazil’s third largest city, is no exception to that rule. It’s palpable when you step off the airplane and enter the city limits… this metropolitan hub clearly celebrates its rich Afro-Brazilian history and culture. During Brazil’s slave trade from 1501 to 1866, Angolans became part of country’s history and multicultural tapestry by diversifying Brazil’s indigenous and Portuguese traditions. I had the privilege of visiting Brazil for three weeks and if you’re a culture hound, here’s why you need to add Salvador to your bucket list.
Dive into Bahian History: From Capoeira to Carnival
In 1549, Salvador became the first capital of Brazil, and since then, the city has unfortunately seen a decline in political and economic importance, but its reputation as the center of Afro-Brazilian culture is still alive and well. From the friendly Bahian women dressed in traditional dress to the children playing soccer on the city’s cobblestone streets to the scantily-clad bodies teeming Porto da Barra Beach, the people are really the heartbeat at the center of this vibrant city.
And you can see that instantly in Largo de Pelourinho (neighborhood located in Salvador’s Upper City), where men play drums as onlookers watch the hypnotizing movements of men giving a free capoeira demo, encouraging tourists to engage in an expressive faux battle with a capoeirista. In case you didn’t know, capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, acrobatics and music. It was developed by Angolan slaves in the 16th century to cleverly mask high kicks, spins and other fighting techniques with what appear to be friendly gestures to normal bystanders. In 2014, UNESCO granted a special protection status as “intangible cultural heritage.” It’s an unforgettable, mesmerizing experience you must see in person.
In addition to witnessing capoeiristas in motion, you cannot leave Pelourinho without catching an Olodum performance. In 1979, this samba-reggae group was founded as a bloco afro – a Bahian Carnival Association that showcases African heritage through music, dance, theater and art. And what you may not know is that samba-reggae music was an effort by black Brazilians to develop a type of Carnival parade music they could call their own. Apparently, groups like Olodum formed because, at one point in time, black Brazilians were not allowed to participate in Rio’s Carnival because their samba-reggae style was and is different from the Rio-samba style. But Olodum rose in popularity thanks to a few collaborations with famous musicians and singers such as Herbie Hancock, Paul Simon and Jimmy Cliff. Michael Jackson fans may remember that Olodum was featured in the alternate version of the King of Pop’s song and video, “They Don’t Care About Us.”
And even if you miss these guys perform, you can usually see and hear local Samba schools practice for Salvador’s Carnival, usually scheduled for a week in February. Just follow the sound of syncopated drums bouncing off Pelourinho’s colonial architecture and cobblestone streets.
Mix and Mingle with Friendly Locals
Salvador is not only rich in history and culture, but also the people make it a warm and friendly city to visit. It’s where people like artist Andre Gallo go beyond encouraging pedestrians to buy local artwork, including his own, at Arelive Art 3 Gallery on Rua Gregorio de Matos. Equipped with his skill for quick-witted banter, Andre takes the extra time to offer willing tourists travel tips on what to see and do. And maybe you’ll be lucky enough to make a quick jaunt down the street with him to get a quick introduction to the owner of Chocolates Marrom Marfim and to sample a couple sweet treats. It’s that warm, welcoming feeling that permeates this the Pelourinho neighborhood and the entire city. You feel right at home even though you’re really thousands of miles away.
What’s a visit to Salvador de Bahia without a trip to the beach?! It’s the place to go to mix and mingle with locals and pick up more travel tips about the city. Praia da Barra really draws the crowds on Sunday, especially beachgoers who want to hear local bands and singers performing live music on a large flatbed truck. This beach, with a bohemian feel, may not be the best stretch of sand for swimming, but it’s perfect if you want to rub elbows, chat and dance with local hipsters. And watching the sunset here is an experience not to be missed.
Praia Plata (family beach), Praia Corsario (nicest beach along Avenida Oceanica), Boa Viagem (“working class” beach) and Praia Itapua (located in an artist village) are all great beaches, too. Adventurous travelers can take a day trip to Praia do Forte to not only visit the fishing village turn resort town to catch some sun and surf, but visitors should also stop here to see the country’s largest endangered sea turtle preserve… if wildlife peaks your interest.
Traditional Brazilian Food… Get in My Belly!
You cannot visit Salvador without trying traditional Brazilian dishes. Almost any restaurant here serves the popular feijoada made with fresh pork, beef and black beans. Yes, this is Brazil’s national dish, and it is usually prepared over low heat in a thick clay pot. It’s a great meal for foodies who enjoy a good hearty stew.
Afro-Brazilian food and ingredients such as black beans, okra, rice, moqueca and coconut macaroons are used in traditional dishes in local restaurants. After you’re done picking up a few hand-crafted souvenirs in Mercado Modelo, which features more than 250 shops, recharge your energy to “shop ‘til you drop” at one of the restaurants inside the popular market.
Another option is to head to Pelourinho for a delicious lunch or dinner at Axego Restaurant and Bar on Joao de Deus. Just about everything on their menu is lip-smacking good, including the moqueca, usually made with seafood, fish, onions, garlic, tomatoes and cilantro. This homey, mom-and-pop restaurant serves five variations of the popular dish made with crab, oysters, or other seafood readily available in the kitchen. If Brazilians have been making this dish for 300 years, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be on point, right? By the way, try the moqueca de siri catado (made with crabmeat). It’s delish! And when you’re done, stop at Odoyá to sip on a glass of wine al fresco, while a guitarist serenades you as the night falls on this incredible city.
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