With over 1000km of coconut-fringed beaches and the most agreeable climate in the region – hot and sunny, but not as blistering as elsewhere – Bahia has long been one of the country’s most popular destinations for foreign visitors. Constituting over a third of Northeast Brazil, it sits to the south of the area’s other states. At its heart are the Chapada Diamantina Mountains, offering breathtaking trekking and climbing opportunities, while just north of there, the massive São Francisco Lakes are popular for canoeing and watersports. The countryside changes to the south of the state capital, Salvador (site of the first Portuguese landings in 1500), with mangrove swamps and fast-developing island resorts around the town of Valença, before reverting to a spectacular coastline. A string of colonial towns, including Santo Amaro and Cachoeira, also lie within striking distance of Salvador. Further south, Ilhéus is a thriving beach resort, as is Porto Seguro, whose early settlement pre-dates even Salvador’s. Beyond the coastline, Bahia comprises a vast grain-producing western sector and semi-arid landscape. The Bahian sertão is massive, a desert-like land that supports some fascinating towns – the ex-mining bases of Jacobina and Lençóis and the river terminus of Ibotirama are just three.
The bay on which Salvador was built afforded its settlers a superb natural anchorage, while the surrounding lands of Bahia state were ideal country for sugar-cane and tobacco plantations. In the seventeeth century, Salvador became the centre of the Recôncavo, the richest plantation zone in Brazil before the arrival of coffee the following century. It was the national capital for over two centuries, before relinquishing the title to Rio in 1763.
Carnaval reaches a frenzied peak in Salvador every February, when the city heaves with two million people enjoying traditional tunes, from the popular and loud Barra seaside suburb to the more arty Pelhourinho.