The Northeast’s second-largest city, Recife appears shabby and dull on first impressions, but it’s lent a colonial grace and elegance by Olinda, just 6km north. Recife itself has long since burst its original colonial boundaries, and much of the centre is now given over to uninspired office blocks. But there are still a few quiet squares where an inordinate number of impressive churches lie cheek by jowl with the uglier urban sprawl of the past thirty years. North of the centre are some pleasant leafy suburbs, dotted with museums and parks, and to the south is the modern beachside district of Boa Viagem. Other beaches lie within easy reach, and there’s also all the nightlife you’d expect from a city of nearly two million Brazilians.
Recife is probably the best big Brazilian city in which to find artesanato, and the area around Igreja São Pedro is the best place to look for it. Here, stalls coagulate into a bustling complex of winding streets, lined with beautiful but dilapidated early nineteenth-century tenements. The streets are choked with people and goods, all of which converge on the market proper, the Mercado de São José, an excellent place for artesanato (craft goods). If you can’t face the crowds, there’s a very good craft shop, Penha, on the corner of the Pátio de São Pedro, which is the main city outlet for some of Recife’s excellent woodcut artists. In the same shop, you’ll also find extremely inexpensive prints on both cloth and paper, known as cordel. Outside the shop, you can dig out cordel around the mercado or in Praça de Sebo, where the secondhand booksellers have stalls.
Carnaval in Recife is overshadowed by the one in Olinda, but the city affair is still worth sampling. The best place for Carnaval information is the tourist office, which publishes a free broadsheet with timetables and route details of all the Carnaval groups. You can also get a timetable in a free supplement to the Diário de Pernambuco newspaper on the Saturday of Carnaval, but it’s only a very approximate guide.
The blocos, or Carnaval groups, come in all shapes and sizes: the most famous is the Galo da Madrugada; the most common are the frevo groups (trucks called freviocas, with an electric frevo band aboard, circulate around the centre, whipping up already frantic crowds); but most visually arresting are caboclinhos, who wear modern Brazilian interpetations of a traditional Amazon Indian costume – feathers, animal-tooth necklaces – and carry bows and arrows, which they use to beat out the rhythm as they dance. It’s also worth trying to see a maracatu group, unique to Pernambuco: they’re mainly black, and wear bright costumes, the music an interesting (and danceable) hybrid of African percussion and Latin brass.
In Recife, the main events are concentrated in Santo Antônio and Boa Vista. There are also things going on in Boa Viagem, in the area around the Recife Palace Lucsim Hotel on Avenida Boa Viagem, but it’s too middle-class for its own good and is far inferior to what’s on offer elsewhere. Carnaval officially begins with a trumpet fanfare welcoming Rei Momo, the Carnaval king and queen, on Avenida Guararapes at midnight on Friday, the cue for wild celebrations. At night, activities centre on the grandstands on Avenida Dantas Barreto, where the blocos parade under the critical eyes of the judges; the other central area to head for is the Pátio de São Pedro. During the day, the blocos follow a route of sorts: beginning in Praça Manuel Pinheiro, and then via Rua do Hospício, Avenida Conde de Boa Vista, Avenida Guararapes, Praça da República and Avenida Dantas Barreto, to Pátio de São Pedro. Good places to hang around are near churches, especially Rosário dos Pretos, on Largo do Rosário, a special target for maracatu groups. The balconies of the Hotel do Parque are a good perch, too, if you can manage to get up there. Daylight hours is the best time to see the blocos – when the crowds are smaller and there are far more children around. At night, it’s far more intense and the usual safety warnings apply.
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.