When in Salvador, do as the Baianos do.
The third largest city in Brazil, Salvador, Bahia is a land of the drums, sunshine, and magic. I’ve made the journey to Salvador from its sister city Los Angeles three times in the past eight years to study its dances and take in its wonders.
Here are the top five things to do in Bahia:
1. Follow the drums.
You can’t escape the drums in Salvador, especially in old town Pelourinho (Pelô), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Day and night, the streets of Pelô are filled with the beating sound of the drums that make you want to move and dance. The most happening night in Pelô is “Blessed Tuesday” (Terça da Benção), when the city’s various Blocos Afros percussion groups perform samba-reggae on the streets and in the plazas. Just follow the crowd’s easy samba-reggae moves and dance the night away. The video below is of the all-female percussion band Didá, filmed in August ’08 outside Didá School of Music, a non-profit organization that teaches music and dance for free to poor women and children of Salvador.
2. The beach.
Bahia is blessed with miles and miles of white, sandy beaches. The most popular beach in town is Porto da Barra, which gets very lively on weekends. Rent a beach chair – soon you’ll have a choice of ice-cold cervezas, caipirinhas, fresh green coconuts and delicious homemade snacks like coxinhas and empadas offered in front of you from the many vendors roaming the beach.
Further away on the Coconut Coast, about 100km north of Salvador is Praia de Imbassaí, fringed by coconut trees and flanked by a river. Check out the shallow part where the river meets the ocean – the water is so warm and inviting! A little further away and much more deserted is Diogo Beach – ask a Baiano how to get to this secluded paradise.
3. Eat Bahian food.
Bahian food, heavily influenced by its African heritage and coastal location, is unlike other Brazilian food. Moqueca -fresh seafood stew made with coconut milk, spices and dendê (palm oil), and deep fried acarajés (black-eyed peas and shrimp fritters) are two of Bahia’s most popular specialties. A portion of moqueca accompanied by rice and beans offered in restaurants around Salvador is usually big enough to share with two or three people. Try it for dinner at Dona Mariquita in Rio Vermelho (Rua do Meio, 178). Rich in palm oil, Bahian food can feel pretty heavy on the tummy. You’ll probably only snack on one or two acarajés during your visit. Casa da Dinha is a popular acarajé stand in Rio Vermelho (Rua João Gomes, 25).
For light, healthy lunch options, Ramma in Pelô (Praca Do Cruzeiro de Sao Francisco, 07) and Manjericão in Rio Vermelho (Rua Fonte do Boi, 3B) are two cheerful self-service kilo places with vibrant, organic foods that will please vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike.
Of course, the most authentic Bahian food is home-cooked with love!
4. Energize with Brazilian superfruits.
Besides açai, there are so many other superfruits in Brazil such as acerola (red berries that taste sweet like guava but without the thickness when juiced), caju (the fruit of the cashew tree), and umbu. My favorite is cupuaçu, another fruit native to the Amazon that’s as energy-packed as açai and tastes like a cross between pineapples and pear with a hint of grass. Load up on these sucos de frutas whenever you need an energy boost. Thankfully, fresh fruit juice bars can be found on almost every street corner of Salvador.
5. Get blessed.
If you’re lucky enough to see a group of Baianas dressed in white, carrying buckets of popcorn in Pelô, approach them with a smile. They may bless you with a quick “popcorn bath”, a Candomblé ritual to clear negative energy. The Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé is a big part of the Bahian culture – you’ll see symbols of its deities (the Orixás) everywhere, from paintings, sarongs, and jewelry sold around the streets of Pelourinho to the impressive statues of eight Orixás in the middle of the Dique do Tororó lake in downtown Salvador. Festivals devoted to each Orixá are held throughout the year, the most well-known of which are Lavagem de Bonfim (honoring Oxalá, father of the Orixás) on the second Thursday in January at the Bonfim Church, and Festa de Yemanja (dedicated to Mother Ocean) on the Rio Vermelho beach on February 2nd. If you’re in Bahia in mid August, the Festa da Boa Morte in Cachoeira is a must-go.
To learn more about Candomblé, you can observe a ceremony at one of the terreiros de candomblé in Salvador like Casa de Oxumaré. Going with a guide is best – ceremonies are beautiful but there are rules and etiquette, and the intensity can be overwhelming. For something lighter, watch the amazing Balé Folclórico da Bahia perform the dances of the Orixàs at Teatro Miguel Santana in Pelô. The Galeria Pierre Verger in Pelô has books on the rituals and stories of Candomblé as well as black and white beautiful captures of Bahia by the late photographer.
Crime rate in Salvador has risen in the past few years due to drugs, poverty, and police strikes. In my last trip, I was advised by Baianos not to wear my gold necklaces or take my bulky DSLR camera out.
Brazilian police, in anticipation of World Cup 2014 tourism recently put out a brochure on staying safe, which includes advising tourists not to “react, scream or argue” in the event of robbery. I don’t really agree with the “no screaming” part, but use your own judgment and common sense to avoid being targeted by muggers in the first place: leave your valuables back at the hotel, only carry enough cash, avoid deserted streets, and always be aware of your surroundings. At night, being with a group of people is much safer than being alone.
*Note: this blog post has been republished by my friends at Trippy.com – check it out at the link below.