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.
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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.
The Recôncavo and Valença
The Recôncavo, the early Portuguese plantation zone named after the concave shape of the bay, arcs out from Salvador along 150km of coastline, before petering out in the mangrove swamps around the town of Valença. It’s one of the most lush tropical coastlines in Brazil, with palm-covered hills breaking up the green and fertile coastal plains; it’s still one of the most important agricultural areas in Bahia, supplying the state with much of its fruit and spices. Only the sugar plantations around Recife could match the wealth of the Recôncavo, but, unlike that region, the Recôncavo survived the decline of the sugar trade by diversifying into tobacco and spices – especially peppers and cloves. It was the agricultural wealth of the Recôncavo that paid for most of the fine buildings of Salvador and, until the cocoa boom in southern Bahia in the 1920s, Cachoeira was considered the state’s second city. The beauty of the area and the richness of its colonial heritage make it one of the more rewarding parts of the region to explore.
The modern market town of CANDÉIAS is nowhere special, but 7km outside there’s a good introduction to the history of the area in the Museu do Recôncavo (Tues, Thurs & Sun 9am–5pm), situated in a restored plantation called the Engenho da Freguesia, where pictures and artefacts from three centuries illustrate the economic and social dimensions of plantation life. The owners’ mansion and the slave quarters have been impressively restored, juxtaposing the horrors of slave life – there’s a fearsome array of manacles, whips and iron collars – with the elegant period furniture and fittings of the mansion. The only problem is that no bus service passes the museum; if you don’t go by car you have to take a taxi from Candéias, around R$35.
Valença and around
After Cachoeira, the coast becomes swampy and by the time you get to VALENÇA you’re in mangrove country. Fortunately, though, instead of alligators, the swamps are dominated by shellfish of all kinds, most of them edible. Valença lies on the banks of the Rio Una, about 10km from the sea, at the point where the river widens into a delta made up of dozens of small islands, most of which support at least a couple of fishing villages. At one time the town was an industrial centre – the first cotton factory in Brazil was built here – but it has long since reverted to fishing and boat building. Today, it’s also an increasingly popular destination for tourists from Salvador – mainly as a stop-off point for the nearby island resort of Morro de São Paulo and the pristine beaches of Ilha de Boipeba – but the town is not yet over-commercialized.
Ilha de Boipeba
The beaches on the island of BOIPEBA, separated from the Ilha de Tinharé by the Rio do Inferno, are even more beautiful than those at Morro de São Paulo, but much less developed, still possessing the tranquillity that Morro hasn’t seen for over twenty years. The settlement here is small and scattered across the island, with few facilities – just a couple of restaurants and a handful of pousadas. The beaches are simply gorgeous, and there’s good scuba diving at the coral reefs near the Ponta da Castelhauos at the southernmost point of the island.
Inland: the Bahian sertão
The Bahian sertão is immense: an area considerably larger than any European country and constituting most of the land area of Bahia state. Much of it is semi-desert, with endless expanses of rock and cactus broiling in the sun. But it can be spectacular, with ranges of hills to the north and broken highlands to the west, rearing up into the tableland of the great Planalto Central, the plateau extending over most of the state of Goiás and parts of Minas Gerais. No part of the Bahian sertão is thickly populated, and most of it is positively hostile to human habitation; in some places, no rain falls for years at a stretch. Its inhabitants suffer more from drought than anywhere else in the region and in parts of the sertão there’s still desperate poverty.
Despite its reputation, not all the sertão is desert. Snaking through it is the Rio São Francisco, which spills out into the huge hydroelectric reservoir of Sobradinho. River and lake support a string of towns, notably Paulo Afonso and Juazeiro. Other possible destinations to the north are Jacobina, in the midst of spectacular hill country, where gold and emeralds have been mined for nearly three centuries, and Canudos, site of a mini–civil war a hundred years ago, and a good place to get a feel for sertão life. By far the most popular route into the sertão, though, is westwards along the BR-242, which eventually hits the Belém–Brasília highway in Goiás: en route you’ll pass the old mining town of Lençóis, gateway to the breathtaking natural wonders of the Chapada Diamantina – one of Brazil’s best and most accessible trekking areas.
Antônio Conselheiro’s rebellion
The Bahian sertão provided the backdrop for one of the most remarkable events in Brazilian history: the 1895 rebellion of the messianic religious leader Antônio Conselheiro. Conselheiro gathered thousands of followers, built a city called Canudos, and declared war on the young republic for imposing new taxes on an already starving population. The rebels – or sertanistas – proved to be great guerrilla fighters with an intimate knowledge of the harsh country, and twice mauled military forces sent confidently north from Salvador; the city troops found the sertão as intimidating as their human enemies. A third force of over one thousand, commanded by a national hero, a general in the Paraguayan war, was sent against the rebels. In the worst shock the young republic had suffered to that point, the force was completely annihilated; the next expedition discovered the bleached skulls of the general and his staff laid out in a neat row in front of a thorn tree. A fourth expedition was sent in 1897 and Canudos finally fell, with almost all of its defenders killed. Conselheiro himself had died of fever only a few weeks before the end. One member of the force, Euclides da Cunha, immortalized the war in his book Os Sertões, generally recognized as the greatest Portuguese prose ever written by a Brazilian. It was translated into English as “Rebellion in the Backlands” and is a good introduction to the sertão. A more entertaining read is The War of the End of the World by Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa (see “Books”), which gives a haunting, fictionalized account of the incredible events in Canudos.
Nestled on the slopes of several hills with panoramic views over the Serra da Jacobina, the old mining town of JACOBINA was one of the first parts of the sertão the Portuguese settled in strength. The clue to what attracted them is the name of one of the two fast-flowing rivers that bisect the town – the Rio de Ouro, or “Gold River”. Gold was first found here in the early seventeenth century, and several bandeirante (Brazilian conquistador) expeditions made the trip north from São Paulo to settle.
The town itself is notably friendly – they don’t see many tourists and people are curious – while the altitude takes the edge off the temperature most days, which makes it a good place to walk. It’s a typical example of an interior town, quiet at night save for the squares and the riverbanks, where the young congregate, especially around the Zululândia bar in the centre, while their parents pull chairs into the streets and gossip until the TV soaps start. Paths lead out of town into the surrounding hills – where there are spectacular views – in all directions, but it still gets hot during the day and some of the slopes are steep, so it’s best to take water along.
Although cattle and farming are now more important than the gold that originally brought the Portuguese, mining continues: there are emerald mines at nearby Pindobaçu, two large gold mines at Canavieiras and Itapicuru, and the diamonds that gave the Chapada Diamantina its name. The last big rush was in 1948, but miners still come down from the hills every now and then to sell gold and precious stones to traders in the town – you’ll notice many of them have precision scales on their counters. The Hotel Serra do Ouro runs trips (around R$50 per person) out to the mines of Pindobaçu, around 60km to the north, and to the mines of Canavieiras and Itapicuru. These trips can be a bit disappointing though – to the untrained eye uncut emeralds look like bits of gravel.
Five hours’ ride down the BR-242, LENÇÓIS is another ex-mining town and the main tourist centre in the Chapada Diamantina region. The name of the town, meaning “sheets”, derives from the camp that grew up around a diamond strike in 1844. The miners, too poor to afford tents, made do with sheets draped over branches. Lençóis is a pretty little town, set in the midst of the spectacular Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina. Most of its fine old buildings date back to the second half of the nineteenth century, when the town was a prosperous mining community, attracting diamond buyers from as far afield as Europe. The Mercado Municipal, next to the bridge over the Rio Lençóis that runs through the centre, is where most of the diamonds were sold – it has Italian- and French-style trimmings tacked on to make the buyers feel at home. The centre of the town, between two lovely squares, Praça Otaviano Alves and Praça Horácio de Matos, is made up of cobbled streets, lined with well-proportioned two-storey nineteenth-century houses with high, arched windows. On Praça Horácio, the Subconsulado Francês, once the French consulate, was built with the money of the European diamond-buyers, who wanted an office to take care of export certificates.
Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina and Capão
The Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina was established in 1985 after much local campaigning and covers over 38,000 square kilometres – an area larger than the Netherlands – in the mountainous regions to the south and west of Lençóis. Its dramatic landscape incorporates swampy valleys, barren peaks and scrubby forest, punctuated by beautiful waterfalls, rivers and streams. Wildlife lovers can stop in at the unique Orquidario Pai Inacio some 30km from Lençóis at Km 232 of the BR-242. This orchid nursery and garden has been run by a local family for decades, making it possible to see firsthand a wide range of otherwise very rare specimens.
Hiking in Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina and Capão
Some places in the park you could just about manage without a guide, like the Gruta do Lapão, a remarkable grotto over a kilometre long, with a cathedral-like entrance of layered rock and stalactites. It’s a short drive or a long walk (a full-day round trip) from the centre, but it’s probably better to have someone take you there. The only other place within easy reach is the Cascatas do Serrano, a fifteen-minute walk from town, where the river flows over a rock plate forming a series of small waterfalls and pools good for swimming – very popular with the local children.
Among the most popular destinations is Morro do Pai Inácio, a 300-metre-high mesa formation 27km from Lençóis (don’t be deceived by how near it looks). It is much more easily climbed than seems possible from a distance, and you’re rewarded with quite stunning views across the tablelands and the town once you get to the top, which is covered in highland cacti, trees and shrubs. Thirty kilometres away, but with much easier road access, is Rio Mucugezinho, another series of small waterfalls and pools that are fun to swim in; a closer river beach is the Praia do Rio São José, also called Zaidã. Finally, and most spectacular of all, is the highest waterfall in Brazil, the Cachoeira Glass, a small stream tumbling 400m down over a mesa, becoming little more than a fine mist by the time it reaches the bottom. It’s closer to town than most of the other places, and if you only feel up to one day’s walking it’s the best choice.
The Parque Nacional da Chapada Diamantina is one of Brazil’s major trekking destinations, but also offers plenty of opportunities for canoeing, climbing and even chilling out at the hippy rural community of Capão. In recent years the town has attracted young people from Salvador in search of a bohemian or New Age lifestyle. There are retreats and meditation spots here, and many of the pousadas offer luxuries such as hot tubs and saunas – though it’s hard to beat a dip in the river, as it gets very hot here in January and February. It takes three days to trek to Capão from Lençóis, or you can take a bus as far as the town of Palmeiras, which is about 15km from Capão; a taxi takes two hours to get to Capão.
South from Salvador
The BR-101 highway is the main route to the southern Bahian coast, a region immortalized in the much translated and filmed novels of Jorge Amado, a native of Ilhéus. From the bus window you’ll see the familiar fields of sugar replaced by huge plantations of cacau, cocoa. Southern Bahia produces two-thirds of Brazil’s cocoa, almost all of which goes for export, making this part of Bahia the richest agricultural area of the state. The zona de cacau seems quiet and respectable enough today, with its pleasant towns and prosperous countryside, but in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, it was one of the most turbulent parts of Brazil. Entrepreneurs and adventurers from all over the country carved out estates here, often violently – a process chronicled by Amado in his novel The Violent Lands.
Ilhéus and around
In literary terms ILHÉUS, 400km south of Salvador, is the best-known town in Brazil and the setting for Amado’s most famous novel, Gabriela, Cravo e Canela, translated into English as “Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon”. If you haven’t heard of it before visiting Ilhéus, you soon will; it seems like every other bar, hotel and restaurant is either named after the novel or one of its characters.
The coastline around Ilhéus is broken up by five rivers and a series of lagoons, bays and waterways. Much of the town is modern but it’s still an attractive place, its heart perched on a small hill overlooking one of the largest and finest-looking beaches in Bahia.
Most locals prefer the coastline to the south, particularly around the village of OLIVENÇA, served by local buses from the centre. Half an hour out of town is the beautiful beach at Cururupe, where there are a series of bars, some holiday homes and groves of palm trees. The main attraction is the Balneário, public swimming baths built around mineral water from the Rio Tororomba. The baths complex is pleasant, with an artificial waterfall, and bar and restaurant attached. The coast between Ilhéus and Olivença is very beautiful and you can camp virtually anywhere along the way.
The unspoiled beaches north of Ilhéus are among the best Bahia has to offer. Frequent buses run to the busiest beach town along this stretch, ITACARÉ, 70km from Ilhéus, and a fishing port in its own right. The town is a haven for water-based adventure sports, including rafting and canoeing, which you can arrange through Papaterra (t 73/3251-2252) and Hawaii Aqui, at Rua Pedro Longo 169 (t 73/3251-3050), which is also a pousada and internet café. There’s no shortage of cafés, restaurants and bars in town, especially at the southern end of the beach.
SANTO AMARO, a further 20km from Salvador, is a lovely colonial town straddling the banks of a small river. It was the birthplace and is still the home of Caetano Veloso, one of Bahia’s most famous singers and poets, who sings Santo Amaro’s praises on many of his records. There’s no tourist office, and the best thing to do is simply to wander around the quiet streets and squares, absorbing the atmosphere.
Top image: Old town of Salvador de Bahia © E. P. Adler/Shutterstock