Colonial architecture, capoeira and Afro-Brazilian culture: these are the clichés that usually come to mind when you think of Brazil’s 3rd biggest city: Salvador da Bahia. And they are all there indeed! All concentrated in the small historic neighbourhood of the “Pelourinho“.
There is an undeniable energy emerging from the Pelourinho. It’s a rather small area of steep, cobble-stone streets that is easily discovered on foot and one of the best examples of colonial towns in Brazil. Spend the day hunting for souvenirs, visiting one of the many beautifully decorated churches or stopping at the Terreiro de Jesus for a “caipirinha” or “acarajé”. In the evening the area turns into a big open air bar and if lucky, you’ll bump into a performance of Olodum, a famous Afro-Brazilian percussion band, against the backdrop of Salvador’s colonial buildings. Throw in some capoeira circles and it’s easy to see why millions of visitors are drawn to Salvador every year!
But there’s more to Salvador da Bahia than just the Pelourinho! As lovely as it all sounds, I found the Pelourinho a tad too touristy and didn’t hesitate to venture a bit further. Here’s what I discovered:
1. Santo Antonio neighbourhood
Basically an extension of the Pelourinho, merely a 10-15 minute walk from the main square, but somehow ignored by most visitors. It’s a residential neighbourhood where teenagers play football on the Largo da Cruz do Pascoal, where capoeira is practised near the small Forte da Capoeira, that used to be a state prison, and where the colonial architecture is just as stunning, if not even more stunning, than in the Pelourinho!
2. Feira de São Joaquim
The main local market of Salvador. Unlike the touristy “Mercado Modelo” which is good for souvenir shopping, in this market you will find the locals going about their daily shopping in a vibrant, albeit chaotic, atmosphere. Inside the market you can buy anything from brushes to candomblé artefacts and there’s a few barracas if hunger strikes. The outside part is the most interesting one in my opinion, but the smell of rotten fruit or gory meat section makes it not a place for the faint-hearted. To get there, catch a bus direction “Bonfim” from Cidade Baixa or walk for about 3km along the big boulevard, inhaling car fumes as you go…
3. Ribeira neighbourhood
You’ll probably end up here visiting Salvador’s main church: the Igreja de Nosso Senhor do Bonfim. Don’t go straight back to the city centre after your visit, instead take the street downhill at the back of the church and you’ll end up at the beach of the Ribeira neighbourhood. It might not be the most beautiful beach around Salvador, but it certainly is one of the most authentic ones! It’s a place where on a sunny Sunday afternoon, families enjoy a barbecue and a few drinks together, a place where there is hardly a tourist in sight!
4. Candomblé in Rio Vermelho
I was lucky to be in Salvador during one of the most important religious festivals: the Festa de Iemanjá, celebrated every year on the 2nd of February. Iemanjá is an important goddess of candomblé (a religion of African descent) and is the mother of the sea. Every year, thousands of people descend on the Rio Vermelho beach to pay homage by offering flowers, perfumes or jewellery to the sea. On the beach, groups of devotees chant and dance to invoke the deities, some of them even entrancing.
If you’re not in Salvador during that period, you can still attend a candomblé ceremony at so called “terreiros”. Bear in mind that photography/video is not allowed!
5. Check out the Barra neighbourhood
The nearest and most popular beaches of Salvador are in Barra. Praia do Farol da Barra is the largest and busiest one. It’s home to Bahia’s oldest fort, built in 1698. Within the walls of the fort there is a lighthouse, which happens to be the oldest lighthouse in the whole of South America! If you are in the area for sunset, join the locals to catch the last rays of sun setting over the ocean and the Todos os Santos Bay.
Have you been to Salvador da Bahia? Which area did you prefer?