Recife to Salvador

Continuing with Ammon and Sasha:

So apparently my early trip planning wasn’t all that great. We rerouted once before and suddenly found ourselves needing to reroute again. This time it was to add places and try to kill time. With talk of meeting up with people along the way but no set plans things were always going to be fluid but with Bre committing to join us in Sao Paulo in early Dec we suddenly had a few extra weeks to kill. Fortunately Brazil is a big country. Unfortunately, Brazil is the country we are least prepared for. I can’t say I know all that much about it and the whole Portuguese language thing is throwing us off. I didn’t realize we would be so completely off the tourist circuit even still.
I can say that I’m quickly getting a feel for how big Brazil is. We have been moving a lot and the line on the map of Brazil isn’t growing very quickly.
There are a lot of domestic flights in Brazil. With the long distances and the price of bus travel, advanced tickets for domestic flights can be a cheaper and certainly more comfortable option. Somehow I managed to find a promo fare from Brasilia to Recife for $90US each (including checked bags, which is a thing here too) only 5 days before the flight. Considering that the bus would take close to 40 hours and cost only marginally less, the new and improved (read: married) Ammon opted for the flight. Is this the time to go off on tangential rant about traveling as a married man? Lets just say Sasha has far, far more power and influence than my former very opinionated and demanding 3 female traveling companions did combined. I understand. Happy wife = happy, well, everything.
So I convinced Sasha that flying to Recife and slowly working our way back to Sao Paulo over the course of the next 5 weeks was our best option (For all I know that might be true, I didn’t do much research on half of that route yet anyway. We’ll figure something out and let you know what we find.)
To start with we found Olinda. Olinda is basically a northern suburb of Recife now but was once the dominant capital and oldest settlement in the area. Its historic core was declared a Unesco site in 1982 and in some ways it feels like a lot of it hasn’t been maintained since shortly after. We stayed in Olinda and bypassed Recife altogether, preferring to spend our time in a smaller more “touristy” area. In some ways this was just common sense. Recife has a bad reputation and our first priority here in Brazil is safety. With that in mind we have been operating under some very conservative rules and strategy:
1. Just take Ubers everywhere within cities. (This actually opens up a ton of accommodation options as we can get all over the place quite easily and cheaply.)
2. Be done for the day at sunset. (We might be missing out on all that great local nightlife, but nah, not our thing anyway. The most amusing thing resulting from this is that we are having dinner at 4pm like a bunch of geriatrics because this far northeast the sunset is currently shortly after 5pm.)
Olinda is pretty, on a hilly section of coastline and the historic centre is quite small and walkable. We stayed in a little guesthouse run by an expat European. The small property had a great garden with mango trees dropping fresh fruit every morning for our breakfast which we could eat while watching marmosets in the branches overhead.  Olinda is touristy with lots of little cafes and artisan shops but over and over again I get the impression that conditions are either not good and a lot of places have closed up shop or, more likely, Sasha and I are existing in those weird hours of the day when nothing happens here.
Like I said before things are pretty run down and I’m also wracking my brain to come up with a country where I have seen more graffiti.  It is everywhere. No surface is sacred. I can’t believe how much there is. Not my thing and it certainly doesn’t enhance the old colonial heritage effect.
Armed only with our enthusiasm we carefully wandered the old streets, playing hide and seek with the multitude of churches popping up around every corner. We found good street food, something like a crepe made of tapioca and filled with various things savoury or sweet. I think Sasha liked cartola the best. It is simply fried banana, melted cheese and cinnamon/sugar but ours came in a tapioca wrap too. It sounds totally bizarre but it is delicious. It makes a great snack while admiring the views of Recife from the hilltop plazas of Olinda. After being introduced to it in Brasilia, Sasha has also become totally addicted to acai. There are little acai shops everywhere we’ve been so she hasn’t had any problem getting her fix for dessert.

Our guesthouse garden

Colourful buildings of Olinda
Convent of Sao Francisco
Se Cathedral
Church of Our Lady of Conception
Views of Recife

From there it was time to start the long journey south. Most of the landscape was sugarcane plantations or empty land. We went slowly, spending a night in Maceio and then two in Aracaju. Both are smaller provincial capitals, both right on the coast with long beaches. We only stayed in Maceio to break up the journey to Aracaju so we wouldn’t be arriving too late. It is roughly 5 hours between all these cities on an express bus. We looked at the beach in Maceio briefly. It was pretty and full of Brazilian holidaymakers during their long weekend. It has a nice curved to it with lots of facilities, a walking/biking path and lots of little sailboats on the beach offering rides.

Pajucara beach, Maceio

Aracaju has very soft powdery sand but the water didn’t look as clear, calm or inviting. Neither city will be popular with foreign tourists any time soon.  We were surprised that even in a place as well known as Olinda, there were many hostels, but no sight of any tourists. One time we got a little hassle from a guy that wanted to be our guide and he gave up almost instantly when he realized we only spoke English. When was the last time even the tourist touts didn’t know how to speak English? Not what I was expecting at all in Brazil.

Aracaju’s beach

Yummy street food snacks

Along with Recife and Salvador (and what honestly seems like most of the big cities in the northeast of Brazil), they made it into the top 25 cities with the highest murder rates in the world for 2017. Could you tell by just looking at them? No. But then these things are mostly localized to some pretty brutal slum areas and we weren’t going anywhere near there. But we definitely spent most of our time NOT wandering around and exploring.
What we did explore, (and the whole point of stopping in Aracaju), was Sao Cristovao, a small town just outside of Aracaju and the 4th oldest settlement in Brazil. It was not as exciting as it sounds, only one small square was actually historically preserved, with a few other little churches nearby. Certainly nothing like Olinda. I am starting to get a sense of the old Portuguese architectural style though. The churches are all starting to look very similar and a bit lopsided with only one bell tower. I think we were there for about an hour before heading back to Aracaju to walk along the beach instead.

Convent of Sao Francisco, Sao Cristovao
Sao Cristovao

And that brings us to Salvador, Brazil’s first capital, a large and much-loved city, known for its African heritage, carnival, capoeira, preserved old town and coastline. Conditions in Salvador have not been improving of late. Crime is on the rise and there is a long list of things not to do when visiting. If your intention, like ours, is to simply visit the old town, Pelourinho, then the nearby Santo Antonio neighbourhood, a short and safe walk away, makes a good base.
We took a much needed break in Salvador spending 4 nights and not pushing ourselves too much to see and do everything. We also had a bit of rain which forced us indoors to relax a bit more as well. When we finally got into the historic centre we found all the tourists and touts that we’d been avoiding thus far. Not that it was bad, we were mostly left alone as this is not a busy time for Brazil. Most of the tourists were local as well. The historic Pelourinho area is one of the oldest Portuguese settlements in Brazil and has some great colonial architecture. Nowadays the buildings on the main streets are in relatively good shape and it makes for an interesting stroll along cobblestone streets past churches, and the usual tourism-oriented souvenir shops, art gallerys, restaurants and little museums.
Tourism is a huge thing in Salvador so during the day Pelourinho is fine to visit and there is a large police presence to make sure everyone respects each other, however it is not advised to visit at night or even to wander off down the side streets very far. Unfortunate.  It is pretty but like South Africa, the reputation is such that you spend so much time being aware and cautious that you can’t really relax and enjoy it as much as you should. It looks like it could be an old town in Europe, but it definitely doesn’t feel like Europe. There is still too obviously a thin layer glossing over the dangers that lurk just out of reach or possibly around the next corner. It is the homeless guy sleeping on the sidewalk in front of a touristy restaurant, the youths loitering on the corner sizing you up, the multitude of cops patrolling or congregating wherever a group of tourists starts to build in anticipation of a street performance or simply in the guarded way visitors conduct themselves. It’s not just in Salvador, but here the wave of tourism washes over the gritty reality of life in Brazil, penetrating further, and hoping to not get too muddy. But as I said before, the hassle factor wasn’t bad for us. People left you alone after a single “no, thanks” and there were plenty of people wandering about doing what tourists usually do.


Acai junkie getting her next fix.

Salvador was built on a peninsula on the eastern side of a bay, and Pelourinho was part of the upper city built on an escarpment roughly 300 feet above the port and lower city below. The oldest elevator in Brazil (1873) connects the two and looking out over the bay are some beautiful views though there are also some very sketchy-looking areas immediately below.

Looking down on the lower city
The Lacerda elevator

We will continue south along the coast focusing on some quieter beach time for the next little bit.


Leave a Reply