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João Pessoa, capital of the state of Paraíba, is the most attractive of the smaller northeastern cities, with some of the finest town beaches in the area, a beautiful setting on the mouth of the Rio Sanhauá, and colonial remains, including one of Brazil’s most striking churches. Not enough foreign travellers make it to the city for the pessoenses to have become blasé about them, so you’re likely to be approached by smiling kids who are anxious to practise their hard-learned English.
Out of the city, there are even nicer beaches to the north and south, while the highway inland leads to Campina Grande, a market town strategically placed at the entrance to the sertão. The main target of the interior is the fascinating pilgrim town of Juazeiro do Norte; while it’s actually in neighbouring Ceará state, it’s covered here because it’s most easily accessible from Paraíba.
The rodoviária in João Pessoa is conveniently near the city centre. Any bus from the local bus station, opposite the rodoviária’s entrance, takes you to the city’s one unmistakeable, central landmark: the circular lake of the Parque Solon de Lucena, which everybody simply calls the Lagoa, spectacularly bordered by tall palms imported from Portugal. All bus routes converge on the circular Anel Viário skirting the lake, some en route to the beach districts, others heading further afield: to the northern beaches, the neighbouring town of Cabedelo and the village of Penha to the south of the city. Buses for the beach can also be caught directly from the rodoviária; look for the ones marked “Tambaú”.
The Presidente Castro Pinto airport lies just 11km west of the city centre and is connected to the rodoviária by regular buses; taxis into town cost around R$30.
João Pessoa’s centre is just to the west of the Lagoa. To the east, Avenida Getúlio Vargas leads out of town towards the skyscrapers and beachside bairros of Cabo Branco and Tambaú. At the city’s core is Praça João Pessoa, which contains the state governor’s palace and the local parliament; most of the central hotels are clustered around here. The oldest part of the city is just to the north of Praça João Pessoa, where Rua Duque de Caxias ends in the Baroque splendour of the Igreja de São Francisco. The steep Ladeira de São Francisco, leading down from here to the lower city and the bus and train stations, offers a marvellous tree-framed view of the rest of the city spread out on the banks of the Rio Sanhauá.
The two sweeping bays of Cabo Branco and Tambaú are separated by the futuristic, luxury Hotel Tambaú – more commonly known as the Tropical Tambaú Center Hotel – and the nearby Centro Turístico Tambaú shopping centre. This area is also where the highest concentration of bars and clubs can be found. The southern boundary of the city is the lighthouse on Ponta de Seixas, the cape at the far end of Cabo Branco. Locals claim it as the most easterly point of Brazil, a title disputed with the city of Natal to the north – though the pessoenses have geography on their side.
Official tourist information is available from the state tourist board, PB-Tur, at the rodoviária (daily 8am–6pm; t 83/3222-3537), the airport (daily 9am–4pm) and in the Centro de Turismo in Tambaú, opposite the Tropical Tambaú Center Hotel at Av. Almirante Tamandaré 100 (daily 8am–7pm; t 83/3247-0505). You can also find a post office and a posto telefônico here.
You can find good budget and medium-range hotels both in the centre and on the beaches, but five-star luxury is only available by the sea. Hotels in João Pessoa rarely seem to charge the full price displayed at the reception desk, and you can get some pretty hefty discounts if you ask.
João Pessoa’s beautiful campsite, on a promontory past the Ponta de Seixas, can be reached by taking the Penha bus from the Anel Viário or the local bus station: it passes near the campsite but only operates every couple of hours. Clean and well run, on a fine beach with a spectacular view of the city, the campsite is often full, especially from January to March, so it’s advisable to book beforehand in the centre at sala 18, Rua Almeida Barreto 159 (t 83/3221-4863).
As usual in a coastal capital, the centre tends to get deserted after dark, as people looking for a night out head for the beaches, particularly Tambaú. However, there are several restaurants and bars in the centre worth trying out. The more expensive restaurants (R$45–80 range) in the beach areas are in Cabo Branco. There are a few very good places on the seafront, some of which are listed below.
João Pessoa has a surprisingly rich but fluctuating music scene for a city of its size, concentrated at the beaches: the only nights it’s difficult to catch something are Monday and Sunday. Venues open and close with bewildering frequency, so it’s best to ask the tourist office for a current list, though they will direct you to the more expensive upmarket clubs unless you’re persistent. Alternatively, look in the entertainment guide of the local paper, O Norte.
The square in front of the Tropical Tambaú Center Hotel is a relaxed place for a drink and some live music. It’s surrounded by restaurants and bars, and on Friday and Saturday nights, tables and chairs are put out in the square, drink starts flowing and after about 9pm things start getting very lively. In the streets behind there are any number of small bars and clubs, which tend not to get going until 11pm at the earliest. There are a couple of fairly lively gay bars, too, in the streets behind Avenida Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes in Tambaú.
The BR-230, a good-quality asphalt road, bisects Paraíba and leads directly into the sertão. The green coastal strip is quickly left behind as the road climbs into the hills and the second city of Paraíba, CAMPINA GRANDE, linked to João Pessoa by hourly bus (2hr). It’s a large town, similar in many ways to Caruaru in Pernambuco: even the slogan you see at the city limits – “Welcome to the Gateway of the Sertão” – is the same. Like Caruaru, Campina Grande owes its existence to a strategic position between the agreste and the sertão proper. It’s a market town and centre of light industry, where the products of the sertão are stockpiled and sent down to the coast, and where the people of the sertão come to buy what they can’t make – at a large Wednesday and Saturday market, you can see this process unfolding before your eyes.
In June, Campina Grande hosts a month-long festival that uses the São João holiday – the festas juninas – as an excuse for a general knees-up. Streets are filled with stalls selling food and drinks, and various events are scheduled. This makes June one of the best times to visit, and the wonderfully named forrodrómo in the centre of town, an enormous cross between a concert hall and a dancetaria, is where much of the action happens.
But Campina Grande is equally well known for its out-of-season Carnaval, the Micarande, an event in late April that attracts some 300,000 people over a period of four days and is the largest of its kind in Brazil. The music, best described as frenetic electric, reaches fever pitch as the trios elétricos (Carnaval trucks), with live frevo bands playing on top, work their way through the crowds with their followers in train, the music lasting until dawn. Accommodation during this period is particularly scarce and expensive even for the humblest of abodes, so it’s best to get in touch with one of the leading organizers, the state tourist authority (t 83/3310-6100), before setting out. A word of warning, however: although the event itself is very well policed, take care when making your way to it as the streets and buses are very crowded.
In 1889, Juazeiro was no more than a tiny hamlet. There was nothing unusual about its young priest, Padre Cícero Romão Batista, until a woman in Juazeiro claimed the wine he gave them at Communion had turned to blood in their mouths. At first, it was only people from Crato who came, and they were convinced by the woman’s sanctity and the evidence of their own eyes that Padre Cícero had indeed worked a miracle. As his fame grew, the deeply religious inhabitants of the sertão came to hear his sermons and have him bless them. Padre Cícero came to be seen as a living saint: miraculous cures were attributed to him, things he had touched and worn were treated as relics. The Catholic Church began a formal investigation of the alleged “miracle”, sent him to Rome to testify to commissions of enquiry, rejected it, sent him back to Brazil and suspended him from the priesthood – but nothing could shake the conviction of the local people that he was a saint. Juazeiro mushroomed into a large town by sertão standards, as people flocked to make the pilgrimage, including legendary figures such as the bandit chief Lampião.
By the end of his long life, Padre Cícero had become one of the most powerful figures in the Northeast. In 1913, his heavily armed followers caught the train to the state capital, Fortaleza, and forcibly deposed the governor, replacing him with somebody more to Padre Cícero’s liking. But Padre Cícero was a deeply conservative man, who restrained his followers more often than not, deferred to the Church, and remained seemingly more preoccupied with the next world than with this. When his more revolutionary followers tried to set up a religious community nearby at Caldeirão, he didn’t deter the authorities from using the air force against them, in one of the first recorded uses of aerial bombs on civilians. When he finally died, in 1934, his body had to be displayed strapped to a door from the first floor of his house, before the thousands thronging the streets would believe he was dead. Ever since, pilgrims have come to Juazeiro to pay homage, especially on the anniversary of his death on July 20; an enormous white statue of the priest looks out from a hillside over the town he created.
When booking a ticket to Juazeiro, make sure you specify Juazeiro do Norte, or you run the risk of ending up in Juazeiro in Bahia, several hundred kilometres south. The rodoviária is a couple of kilometres out of the town, which is smaller than its fame suggests. There is one central square where you’ll find the best and most expensive hotel, the Panorama at Rua Santo Agostinho 84, but finding somewhere to stay is the least of your worries in a town geared to putting up pilgrims: there are small hotels and dormitórios everywhere. The best place to eat is the Restó Jardim, in Lagoa Seca at Av. Leão Sampaio 5460 (t 88/3571-7768; closed Tues), serving a wide variety of regional and international dishes.
Leaving town, seats fill up fast on the daily buses to João Pessoa, Recife and Fortaleza, so if you’re staying overnight book a ticket when you arrive. Alternatively, it is usually possible to get a seat on one of the pilgrim buses parked around town; their drivers sell seats for the same price as on the regular bus, and groups come from all the major cities, so just pick a bus going your way.