Recife, capital of the state of Pernambuco, shares with São Luis the distinction of not having been founded by the Portuguese: when they arrived in the 1530s, they settled just to the north, building the beautiful colonial town of Olinda and turning most of the surrounding land over to sugar. A century later, the Dutch, under Maurice of Nassau, burned Olinda down, choosing to build a new capital, Recife, on swampy land to the south, where there was the fine natural harbour that Olinda had lacked. The Dutch, playing to their strengths, drained and reclaimed the low-lying land, and the main evidence of the Dutch presence today is not so much their few surviving churches and forts dotted up and down the coast, as the very land on which the core of Recife is built. The Portuguese first developed the coastline as far north of Recife as the island of Itamaracá, growing sugar cane on every available inch. This erstwhile fishing village still retains its Dutch fort, built to protect the new colonial power’s acquisitions, but these days it’s a fairly blighted weekenders’ resort. Best is the coastal route south, where a succession of small towns and villages interrupts a glorious stretch of palm-fringed beach.
Head inland and the scenery changes quickly to the hot, dry and rocky landscape of the sertão. Caruaru is the obvious target, home of the largest market in the Northeast, and close by is Alto do Moura, centre of the highly rated Pernambucan pottery industry. If you plan to go any further inland than this, you’ll need to prepare well for any kind of extended sertão journey, though it’s straightforward enough to reach the twin river-towns of Petrolina and Juazeiro.Read More
South from Recife
South from Recife
The coast south of Recife has the best beaches in the state and is all too quickly realizing its tourist potential – the sleepy fishing villages are unlikely to remain so for much longer. Almost all buses take the BR-101 highway, which runs inland through fairly dull scenery, made worse by heavy traffic. The trick is to get a bus that goes along the much more scenic coastal road, the PE-60, or via litoral; they leave from either Avenida Dantas Barreto or the Recife Rodoviária for the string of towns down the coast from Cabo, through Ipojuca, Sirinhaém, Rio Formoso to São José da Coroa Grande. Before São José, where the road starts to run alongside the beach, you may need to catch another local bus to get to the beachside villages themselves. In theory, you could hop from village to village down the coast on local buses, but only with time to spare. Services are infrequent – early morning is the usual departure time – and you might have to sleep on a beach or find somewhere to sling a hammock, as not all the villages have places to stay. As you move south, bays and promontories disappear, and walking along the beaches to the next village is often quicker than waiting for a bus.
Fernando de Noronha
Fernando de Noronha
The beautiful and environmentally protected archipelago of FERNANDO DE NORONHA lies in the equatorial Atlantic some 545km from Pernambuco, though it’s actually nearer to Rio Grande do Norte. Access is mainly from Recife and Natal. Boasting more than sixteen very clean and stunning beaches, it’s hard to beat for scuba diving – its clear water stretches down to a depth of 40m in places, with a white sandy sea bottom, plenty of coral, crustaceans, turtles, dolphins and a wide range of fish species and shoal types. The islands are also breeding territory for a number of tropical Atlantic birds.
European explorers first came here in 1503, and after a struggle between various powers, with the Dutch running the show from 1700 to 1736, the islands ended up under the control of the Portuguese in 1737. Lisbon considered the archipelago strategically important enough to build the Forte dos Remédios, of which only some remains can now be seen.
In recent years, the archipelago has become well known as an ecotourist destination. Most of it has been protected as a marine national park, created in 1988 in order to maintain the ecological wonders that have been preserved by the islands’ isolation from the rest of Brazil. The vegetation is fairly typical northeastern agreste, but the wildlife is magnificent: birdwatchers will be amazed by the variety of exotic birds, including several types of pelican, and you’ll be moved by the remarkable sight of thousands of dolphins entering the bay every day between 5am and 6am, viewed from the harbour.
The main island, Ilha de Fernando de Noronha, shelters plenty of stunning beaches. The water can sometimes be turbulent and not perfectly clear, but it is a fairly constant and very comfortable 28°C. The best beaches are probably Praia da Atalaia and Cacimba do Padre, and at Mirante dos Golfinhos you can watch dolphins leaping over the waves. A number of ecological trails allow good birdwatching, and several companies specialize in scuba-diving courses and trips, including Aguas Claras (t 81/3619-1225, w www.aguasclaras-fn.com.br), Atlantis (t 81/3619-1371, w www.atlantisnoronha.com.br) and Noronha Divers (t 81/3619-1112, w www.noronhadivers.com.br). Various companies also offer boat trips around the archipelago, departing from the ports at the northeastern tip of the island and from the Bahia dos Golfinhos at the island’s southern end. Boat trips from the latter leave most days (R$45 per person including transport to the harbour; t 81/3619-1295).