The two main popular festivals of the year, besides Carnaval, take place either in or near the Igreja do Bonfim. On New Year’s Day the Procissão no Mar, the “Sea Procession”, sees statues of the seafarers’ protectors, Nosso Senhor dos Navegantes and Nossa Senhora da Conceição, carried in a decorated nineteenth-century boat across the bay from the old harbour to the church of Boa Viagem, on the shore down from Bonfim. The boat leaves at around 9am from Praça Cairú, next to the Mercado Modelo in Cidade Baixa, and hundreds of schooners and fishing boats wait to join the procession as the statues’ boat passes: you can buy a place on the phalanx of boats that leaves with the statues, but the crowds are thick and if you want to go by sea you should get there early. On the shores of Boa Viagem, thousands wait to greet the holy images, after which there’s a packed Mass in the church, and then Nossa Senhora da Conçeicão is taken back by land in another procession to her church near the foot of the Lacerda elevator. The celebrations around both churches go on for hours, with thousands drinking and dancing the night away. The spectacle, with the bay as an enormous backdrop, is impressive enough – participating in it is exhilarating.
Soon afterwards, on the second Thursday of January, comes the Lavagem do Bonfim, “the washing of Bonfim”, second only to Carnaval in scale. Hundreds of baianas, women in the traditional all-white costume of turban, lace blouse and a billowing long skirt, gather in front of the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Conceição, and a procession follows them the 12km along the seafront to the Igreja do Bonfim, with tens of thousands more lining the route; the pace is slow, and there is no shortage of beer and music while you wait. At the church, everyone sets to scrubbing the square spotless, cleaning the church and decorating the exterior with flowers and strings of coloured lights. That evening, and every evening until Sunday, raucous celebrations go on into the wee hours, and the square is crowded with people. If you have the stamina, the focus switches on Monday to Ribeira, the headland beyond Bonfim, for a completely secular preview of Carnaval; you can freshen up after dancing in the hot sun by swimming at the excellent beaches.