April, 2016: Between the mid 1500’s through to the late 1800’s Brazil was BIG on slave trading, consuming nearly 40% of all slaves sent to the new world. This horrendous blight on humanity inflicted untold misery on the approximately 3.5M poor souls who were shipped from Africa to the former Portuguese colony. If there is a modern day upside to all this it’s that Brazil has been left with a rich African cultural heritage especially in the north eastern state of Bahia and it’s capital of Salvador de Bahia. Exploring Salvador’s Pelourinho and the surrounding area were to be the start of the final leg of our Brazilian adventure and the gateway to the beautiful north east of the country.
Arguably the main attraction of Salvador is the UNESCO rated old part of town called the Pelourinho which takes its name from the whipping pole which the slaves were tied to in the main square. The Pelourinho is made up of brightly painted cottages, cobble stoned streets and a whole bunch of ornate and rather imposing Catholic churches and sits high a-top a ridge line looking west over the water below. We spent two lovely afternoons and evenings exploring Salvador’s Pelourinho; tripping over cobblestones, ducking our heads into the churches and watching the world go by while drinking caipirinhas in squares filled with music and capoeira demonstrations. One evening we poked our noses into a church service which blended Catholicism and the African based Candoble to produce a warm and welcoming atmosphere set against the deep and melodious tune of an African hymn. If it hadn’t been so sweaty and if we had some kind of clue of what was happening we might have stuck around but instead we retreated into the cool night air and headed for a drink instead.
Other than exploring Salvador’s Pelourinho another highlight was an evening spent moseying around the less developed areas of Ribeira and Bonfim. We took a taxi direct to the famous Sorveteria da Ribeiria (old school ice-creamery) and then took a long walk along the beach while slurping happily on an outstanding toasted coconut and chocolate icecream. While I know Fi didn’t massively rate the toasted coconut ice-cream I thought it was hands down one of the best ice creams I’ve ever had. Especially since we were bearing witness to one of the best sunsets of the trip while we ate it.
While we had been told that the area between Ribeira and Bonfirm was a little dangerous, all we found were friendly locals enjoying the evening just like we were, playing checkers in the sunset or doing an evening workout. After the exploring Salvador’s Pelourinho it was great to experience a more down to earth side of the area. We finished our evening at the revered Nosso Senhor do Bonfim (Bonfirm church) where worshippers and the superstitious alike come to make a wish and tie little strips of coloured ribbon to the church fence. While we had arrived too late to enter the church it was still lovely to sit on the steps with the cool sea breeze ruffling the wall of ribbons behind us and the lights of Salvador twinkling merrily below.
From Salvador we made a quick, one night detour to Morro de Sao Paulo island for a bit of beach time and delicious seafood Moqueca (spicy coconut milk based goodness). We had heard plenty about Moqueca and as we sat with our toes in the sand feasting on the steaming, slightly spicy bowl of deliciousness we weren’t disappointed. Made on coconut milk and enriched with tomato, onion, garlic, coriander and the crucial addition of palm oil it’s pretty amazing. I know that palm oil is a bit of a culinary pariah these days but for some reason it adds a special taste to the Moqueca which is actually quite unforgettable. The rest of our time on Morro de Sao Paulo was just spent lazing on the beach watching the world go by while ordering garlic prawns from a beach side BBQ cart. Not a bad spot for a 24 hour drop in at all.
Travel and feasting tips for exploring Salvador’s Pelourinho and beyond:
- We actually stayed in Barra instead of Salvador (20 minutes south of the Pelourinho on a bus) as we liked the idea of staying next to a nice beach. Hostel Barra (USD33/night/private double room with a/c including breakfast, 110 R. Dr. Artur Neiva, Barra) was a nice quiet place with big, clean, air-conditioned rooms and a tasty, free breakfast. The staff were also super helpful and friendly.
- Take a stroll through the pelorinho in the early evening and pull in for a caipirinha at any one of the little bars in the Largo Terreiro de Jesus. Great spot to people watch and enjoy a few tunes.
- Head to Sorveteria da Ribeira (87 R. da Penha, Ribeira, Salvador) for delicious icecream in a old school atmosphere. Don’t miss out on the toasted coconut flavour.