Going Deep into Brazil's Beach Towns
Brazil is famous for having the sexiest people on the planet. What you may not know is that they're also the friendliest--nowhere more so than in three small, rustic beach towns in the state of Bahia.
What you'll find in this story: Brazil travel, Brazil beaches, Brazil culture, Coastal towns, beach vacations, Morro de São Paulo attractions, Brazil lodging
I knew things had changed in Morro de São Paulo, a village on Ilha de Tinharé, the minute I saw the MasterCard awning. It stretched for 200 feet over the wooden pier where my catamaran docked--the same pier where I'd pulled up nine years ago, but back then there was no awning, just a line of torches arcing up a steep, sandy path.
Morro's main street had changed, too. Where there once had been a handful of candlelit restaurants serving fried fish, there were now two dozen, huddled together, stacked on top of each other--creperies and pizzerias with high ceilings and flaming-orange walls; Internet cafés selling art and art galleries offering Internet service; boutiques stocked with crocheted bikinis, diaphanous skirts, and T-shirts that commanded no stress, and beneath, in small letters, morro de são paulo.
That first night, sipping espresso in an Italian restaurant, I lamented the town's transformation with Pedro, an Uruguayan artist sitting beside me. Pedro had more reason to be distraught: He had moved to Morro 23 years ago, when travelers camped on the beach or slung a hammock. Now three dozen pousadas and a couple of eco-resorts vie for their business.
But Pedro insisted that beyond the village center Morro was as lovely as ever: There were still uncrowded, reggae-free beaches; and there were other villages to explore on Ilha de Tinharé as well, villages where tourism had left virtually no footprint at all.
The next day, he took me to a boulder-strewn beach called Praia do Porto de Cima. We were trailed by his saffron-colored dog, Dendê, named for the rich, saffron-colored palm-nut oil used in traditional Bahian cooking. There wasn't a tourist in sight, only a circle of local boys practicing capoeira, an African-Brazilian martial art, accompanied by the rhythmic twang of a one-string bowed instrument called a berimbau. Capoeira is the cunning invention of 15th-century slaves, who disguised its ferocity from their masters by choreographing the moves to look like an innocuous hybrid of dance and gymnastics: fan kicks and spins and headstands that melt into somersaults.
After 40 minutes, we rounded a curve, and the coastline opened up into a wide expanse of sand backed by raw pink-sandstone cliffs. At the foot of the cliffs, a trickle of water had turned the sandstone into a thick pool of clay. Milling around were a half-dozen people slathered in the stuff, looking vaguely undercooked. "It's an exfoliant," Pedro said, seeing my mystified expression. Ten minutes later, we were covered in pink clay, basking in the sun.
Our skin smooth and glowing, we stopped for juice at a beach hut on the next beach north, Praia da Gamboa--except that there was no juice that day, just beer and water, so that's what we had. After the crepes and sushi of Morro's main drag, I found the limitations oddly comforting.
Once I let go of my sentimental memories of a torch-lit, car-free island, I was able to appreciate the charms of Morro's vibrant village center as well: the impromptu jam sessions, the off-key sing-alongs on the steps of Pousada do Joe, the street exhibits of handmade lamps and Art Brut sculptures made of dried coconut husks, driftwood, and wilted flamboyants. Weaving in and out of the crowd were boys pushing wheelbarrows, some piled with bricks, cilantro, or firewood, others painted with the words super taxi, their teenage "drivers" trawling for tourists fatigued by Morro's steep hills.
By day, Morro's most animated beach, Segunda Praia, is a sun-drenched catwalk where young Brazilians proudly display their assets. At night, enterprising villagers set up portable bars: 20 identical spreads of mango, papaya, passion fruit, and avocado, photogenically arranged around bottles of liquor. A fast-talking huckster with a goatee grabbed my hand and led me to a table. "Come," he said.
"I will make you a drink for all-night energy." He prescribed avocado and gin, but I opted for passion fruit and vodka--prissier, but more appetizing.
The crowd began to arrive at 11 p.m.--lustrous-skinned women in halters, hot pants, and earrings like chandeliers, and couples who quickly laid claim to the chaise lounges near the ocean, where they could lie entwined and gaze at the stars. By midnight, the speakers were pumped up. By 1 a.m., there were 100 people dancing in the sand--not to samba, though. Not to bossa nova. Not to the African-Brazilian percussion that hits you right in the pelvis, either. They were dancing to Moby. I might as well have been in a Manhattan nightclub, circa 2000.