Up the Coast of Brazil: Salvador to Recife

Music is made everywhere in Salvador, Brazil.
Music is made everywhere in Salvador, Brazil.

By Kent E St John

The decay is enchanting and matches the heat, not subtle, nothing about Salvador, Brazil is. It is a long way from the now comparatively polished streets of Rio and I am grateful for it.

Just steps from my luxury hotel is a one time-convent. My eyes blink repeatedly; the bright morning unveils a city that is used.

It alternates between obscene and heavenly. The young boy passed out in the street is unnoticed by the traditionally dressed female drummers, the polar opposite.

This was also a feature of my trip up through the Pernambuco State: opposites making for one great trip. Busy building in Recife and slow paced beach life in Porto de Galinas; the colonial splendor of Olinda and the growing beach resorts up north.

One stand-out feature of my journey was smiles, just so many smiles, which in itself was worth everything.

Pelourinho Happiness

Perched on a cliff high above the Bay is Pelourinho, Salvador’s colonial center, its heart, with cobblestone streets flanked by colorful buildings seemingly unchanged for centuries.

Baianas — women dressed in the traditional hooped skirts, laced tops and turbans — sit in corners claimed for generations, serving up abara, a tamale-like wrap made with onions, bean paste and dried shrimp.

In the last ten years a lot of shoring up has been taking place, but thankfully some things don’t change.

It is in Pelourinho’s squares and streets that the Bahia way of life permeates. A troop of musicians pass by with huge drums slung on their shoulders. The mix of locals and visitors leans to the locals and while every tourist trinket is available, so to are goods needed for life.

Slaves were once a part of Salvador’s history and in front of the square Largo do Pelourinho is a marker where the pillory stood, where whippings produced unholy sounds. Today the sound of music unique to Bahia, Nordeste, invented by descendants of those slaves, makes a far more cheerful sound.

The colorful houses in Pelourinho
The colorful houses in Pelourinho

It is in Pelourinho that glimpses of the Afro-Bahian culture such as the Candomble religion and the dance of the Capoeira can be found, sometimes for a price and occasionally spontaneously. It doesn’t matter; it is unique and inspiring!

The Light of Barra

In the Farol de Barra neighborhood things are somewhat different, as it is directly on the water where the Atlantic meets the Bay.

At that point is the lighthouse that gives the area its name. Right nearby is the huge Forte Antonio de Barra a one-time fort, now the Naval Museum.

A little past that is the neighborhood of Ondina, an upscale place with oceanfront hotels and a music vibe, nighttime balances the beach with great dining.

RELATED  To the End of the Road: Driving to Tierra del Fuego

From there neighborhoods come fast and heavy, such as Vermelho, Costa Azul and Itapua, all with their own feel. Salvador is a city done best with a mix of walking and taxis, most of all done with a smile on your face, the city deserves it! I certainly received my share in return.

Baianas dressed in traditional hoop skirts
Baianas dressed in traditional hoop skirts

Racing to Recife, But First…

I planned quick flight to the nose of South America, Recife, but before tackling the city, I headed south along the coast to the village of Porto de Galinhas (Port of Chickens).

The name goes back to the days when slave trading was abolished but smugglers would deliver a load of slaves from Angola and news would reach plantation owners in Recife that the “chickens had arrived.”

Porto was after a small fishing village that while partly developed maintains its roots. The coast both north and south has every type of accommodation from camp style to luxury. Some beaches from rough and tumble; some are protected by reefs.

A short walk through the dunes and you will reach the main beach with its colorful flotilla of flat-bottom sail skiffs (jangadas) all with one purpose, to take you offshore to a hole in the reef.

Porto de Galinhas, heading to seahorse colony
Porto de Galinhas, heading to seahorse colony

At that spot all stop to allow passengers to get off and explore a fish-filled ocean swimming hole.

About a mile south is an inlet filled with mangroves and flat pole boats will take you to where seahorses breed, ideal to get away from it all.

The Venice of Brazil: Recife

It may be a stretch to call Recife, the Venice of Brazil, but guidebooks do. I would call it a city on the rise, Brazilian style.

The city was developed as a port for the rich sugar plantations that surrounded the nearby colonial city of Olinda. Today it is a sometimes confusing city of modern, colonial and everything in between.

Old is maintained in the Boa Vista district on the banks of the Rio Capibaribe. Also wonderful to explore is the Santo Antonio district.

Recife Antigo (ancient Recife) was the colonial center, and the area became run-down. It is now getting restored in a delightful way and is nighttime hotspot.

Amid the skyscrapers nearby is the Casa da Cultura, a one time colonial prison now a home to many craft shops.

The nearby Teatro Santa Isabel is a reminder of the days when rich Brazilians built temples to the arts and lived life in a grand style.


It is on the Boa Viagem beach area that most of the hotels sit, a pleasant setting. The ocean keeps the beat competing with the Brazilian music pumping from cafes and clubs. Recife can overwhelm; fortunately a great option can be found nearby.

RELATED  Santa Catarina: A Quiet Corner of Brazil

And the Winner is… Olinda

In 2006 the Brazilian Tourism Authority, in conjunction with UNESCO and Latin American Culture Center, promoted an election to decide the Brazilian Capital of Culture. Olinda was the hands-down winner.

Built on hills overlooking Recife and the Atlantic is one of the largest and best-preserved colonial cities, a bohemian treasure of funky restaurants, galleries and architecture.

Because of its natural defenses, the city was used by both the Portuguese and the Dutch during 200 years of warfare. From Olinda’s hills, with a bird’s-eye view of the skyscrapers of Recife, you get a real sense of the city’s long and stories history.

A street dance in Olinda
A street dance in Olinda

No wonder the city center has been designated a United Nations World Heritage Site.

Walking the cobblestone streets past colonial churches and markets is a sure way to unwind, and there are many, many places to enjoy the pleasures of dining and drinking.

In some ways Olinda is different from most places in Brazil: yellow-shirted young guides are available for free and there is no charge to attend Carnival here. It is open and on the streets, with no viewing stands or paid events, Brazilian, the way it should be.

Perhaps that is why Olinda took the prize during my short visit up the coast of the nose of Brazil.


American Airlines now has direct flights to Salvador and Recife from Miami and the trip is great.

Air travel to Brazil has been somewhat dicey in the last few years with Brazilian lines. Somehow AA managed to put a little SA in its step, on this route, anyway.

To be able to fly into one city and out of another was a big plus for Salvador and Recife.

School kids in Recife
School kids in Recife

Helpful Links:



Porto de Galinas:


Recife and Olinda:



Kent St John

Kent St. John was GoNOMAD’s Senior Travel Editor since the website was founded in 2000. During that time he circled the globe many times, visiting more than 80 countries. Sadly, he passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 2012. He had an appreciation of subtleties, always finding a way to capture the nuances and essences of a destination, whether he was whale-watching in Nova Scotia, riding the rails in Australia, bungee jumping in China or worshipping the sun on a beach in Brazil.