This week we spent time in Salvador, which is in the Bahia state, in the eastern part of Brazil. We didn't know much about Salvador or Bahia before planning this trip, but have learned a lot and it's a very interesting region.
Salvador is considered the first capital of Brazil. The city was established by Portuguese settlers in the 1549, and the major tourism surrounds the colonial history. The Bahia region is also the epicenter of Afro-Brazilian culture, music and art, making it a distinctly different experience than other parts of Brazil. The reason for this is that Salvador was the port city for the African slave trade in South America. However dark this historic fact is, the modern outcome is a region infused with two incredible cultures. A melting pot with distinct flavors, and it serves up a very unique cool experience for travelers.
Before I get into any more details – there was one very confusing thing about our arrival in Salvador, which was the time change. In Rio, we were 3 hours ahead of NYC. So when it was breakfast time back home, it was lunch time for us. Rio is significantly further east than NYC, so okay, that follows my normal understanding of time zones. When we flew to Salvador, which is NORTHEAST of Rio, the time then dropped to only 2 hours ahead of NYC. When has going east ever equated to gaining and hour's time?? I don't understand this, so if anyone can explain how this works, I'd be very grateful. The map here shows the position of the three cities. Salvador is east. EAST! Whatever is going on with the time zone, it means the sun here sets quite early for springtime (5:45pm) and the run rises at a crazy early 4:45am. Good morning.
We flew to Salvador on Monday, and upon arrival were immediately surprised by the huge scale of the city. All of the blogs and guidebooks show this cute, little historic city. But that is just one small neighborhood of a massive, pulsating modern city that feels a lot like Rio on the surface – colorful, coastal, gritty and cultural. The main difference is Salvador is far less cosmopolitan and polished.
Unfortunately, Salvador is not known as the safest city for tourists. Nothing major, but just the threat of pickpockets and muggings is pretty high, so they have “guarded” areas which are safer and have a huge military/police presence. That limited where we could stay to two neighborhoods – Pelourinho (the Old City) and Barra (a beach enclave). We opted for Barra because it's a residential neighborhood whereas the Old City is strictly touristy—and very much feels that way. Barra, on the other hand, feels like Tribeca, or even Santa Monica: An urban area with shops and restaurants, a young population, and lots of outdoor activity along the seaside.
One of the coolest things about our time in Salvador was getting to know the owners of the hotel we stayed at, Casa Petunia. Marco and Petunia, husband and wife owners in their 60's, we guess, were two of the coolest people we've met thus far on the trip. They greeted us with kisses and fresh OJ, and made us feel like guests in their home. Which really, we were, because the hotel used to be their family home. They bought it 20 years ago (for a steal) when Salvador was in MUCH worse shape, and waited and waited for the city to turn a corner. Finally with the World Cup, the city invested in the Barra area, and they became empty nesters-turned-innkeepers.
Marco told us stories about his days as a photographer and hippie-man-about-town. He lived in the Chelsea Hotel in NYC with artists, he went to Paris with musicians, he made a “famous” film about a young Brazilian's disenchantment in the late 60's, and most importantly, he did LSD for days on end, and watched many friends get institutionalized from acid-brain. He finally stopped when his mom found his stash, and flushed all his acid down the toilet. Which is surprising because Brazilian toilets don't flush very well. Seriously.
These colorful characters really enhanced our time here. We had breakfast with Marco in the morning, over tropical fruits and traditional Afro-Brazilian dishes like cassava, fried tapioca, cinnamon plantains, polenta, and a coconutty mush thing that I never successfully identified despite asking the cook like four times. Didn't matter anyway, it was awesome.
The Old City is really magical and feels like you stepped back in time. I had really been looking forward to this part of the trip... in my research the photos just intrigued me. We arrived and saw the first corner of the historic section... BAM, this cerulean blue building appears before us and I stopped dead in my tracks. The buildings are beautifully restored and kept up. And the colors are bewitching. From azure to pistachio to salmon to lemon creme... we joked that the Easter bunny painted the town. Or threw up on it.
The final highlight worth mentioning is this AMAZING church called São Francisco. This church was built in 1755 (after like 45 years of construction), and is still a working church today. There is an outdoor courtyard with a stark white colonnade surrounded by a series of 20+ blue & white tile pastoral panels. Each one had a moralistic message soaked in Christian values. However, it's the interior of the church that's most famous. It's gilded top to bottom (and it's like a 75ft ceiling so that's a lot of gold!) Yes, stepping into this church is like stepping inside a treasure chest. It's is covered in intricate wood carvings, which were then gilded with gold leaf. The entire complex was quite a sight to behold. Fun fact: the church was built mostly by slaves, so they snuck a number of grimacing faces into the carvings of happy Christian life as a little “eff you” to the Catholic church. Ha.
That night there was a special mass and celebration in Pelourinho, so we waited around. Afterward, there was a huge drumming party that we got to see and it was very cool! We also had “street food dinner” that night, and tried the famous Bahian street food Acarajé, which is black eyed pea fritters fried in palm oil, stuffed with shrimp, fish paste, and veggies. It's like a falafel but way different flavors. Chris liked it, but sadly I did not. I just couldn't get down with one of the flavors – not sure which one since the dish has so many components. I gave it the ol' college try, but it wasn't for me, so I opted for college dinner instead – Doritos and a granola bar.
Overall we liked Salvador, but didn't love it. The city felt crowded and a little rough, and the infrastructure just isn't caught up to the population at all. But the high points are really worthy and the city is perched on crystal blue waters which is a cool juxtaposition of urban and natural. Now we're onto the Coco Coast of Bahia!
Travel Tip: If you are ever inclined to do Brazil for Carnival, and you think "Rio!", think again: Salvador is home to the largest Carnival street party in the world. It's apparently off the chain.